LYRIC COMPANION Buson “The autumn chill”

The autumn chill becomes part of me / in my bedroom I step on a comb / that belonged to my dead wife

translated by W. S. Merwin SELECTED TRANSLATIONS (Copper Canyon Press)

FRAME OF REFERENCE We love being in our own being, and indeed in all being when we love. This is not neutral being—it is being itself as an intimate universal. Not being this or not being that can make the porosity seem like a void, a nothing; but given the upsurge of idiotic affirmation in it, given the robust aesthetic thereness of happening, given the festivity of desire that even in lack is beyond lack, we are made to think of this “nothing” as a FERTILE VOID.
WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 401.

This morning we wake to the news that President Trump, a self-professed billionaire, paid only $750 in taxes. Forgive me if I cite one of Basho’s key principles late in life: “awaken to the lofty and return to the common” (see Pipei Qiu, BASHO AND THE DAO).

I am pretending today that readers of this column don’t mind juggling a few ideas to learn about the art of haiku. It is an art in great need of an intervention, but the onus is on the individual poet to do some work making this form of poetry natural to their way of writing poetry.

Buson was a follower of Basho. He was born 22 years after Basho died and studied with an artist who had studied with Basho. I put it this way to emphasize what we mean when we say “a follower of Basho.” In time Buson would become famous both as a haiku poet and as a painter.

Today our poets learn from each other but it’s sometimes hard to know what they learn. Our ideals of individualism and autonomy undermine the process of learning. In Buson’s case, we have learned what Basho taught his students at home and on his travels. We know from Qiu’s carefully documented pages that Basho drew on the Chinese Daoist classic the ZHUANGZI and applied principles like starting with the high and returning to the low.

Buson’s famous comb haiku illustrates this principle. Yes, of course it invites an autobiographical interpretation, as we say. You can say, this just happened and he wrote about it. Go ahead and try it. The words won’t compose a haiku; they will just sit there pleading to be read with interest.

Haiku is a literary form that arose in the transition between old and new ways. It’s sometimes compared to the civil war period of English history. Basho expected to follow the old order when his feudal prince died. He became an independent teacher and poet. And he was popular in our sense.

Buson learned from Basho’s followers how to awake to the high and return to the low. You may not feel comfortable with dialectics but Basho’s way is dialectical. To get an idea of this ethos see the FRAME OF REFERENCE. You’ll have to practice it. It has the dialectical wit of the ZHUANGZI. But it will set you up to see why Buson’s comb poem is considered a great haiku in the Basho tradition.

Or just a great poem. Some people today don’t like it when I say “great.” This poem has been translated probably thousands of times in many languages. It’s easy to dismiss it as trivial. Life is full of trivial events like this. They don’t mean anything.

But: Given the festivity of desire that even in lack is beyond lack? Whazzat? Sudden erotic pain from tripping over your dead wife’s comb in the dark? EROTIC? The autumn cold becomes part of me? But only part? What’s the other part? Oh, that part that jolts me when I step on the comb of my dead wife. THAT PART. OUR VOID. FERTILE. Festive. I hate it when that happens.

GREAT poem!

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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