Artist's Statements, Musings, writing life

Finding Inspiration in the Artist’s Statement: Matsuo Bashō

I love a good artist’s statement. Hearing from others about why they pursue their craft is inspirational and thought-provoking. It also helps me clarify and understand my own motivation. I feel a connection with the artist in question, and usually hit the keyboard with a great deal more energy.

I’m currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, which is a collection of Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō’s travel journals. In them, Bashō writes in haibun style, which means prose reflections and poetry stand side by side. At the beginning of “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel,” Bashō includes what seems to be his own artist’s statement.

In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or less blindly.

Matsuo Bashō, from The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

I love Bashō’s romantic, and perhaps somewhat humorous, description of his own soul, and his view of it as something with its own agency. In another poem, he writes:

On to a bridge
Suspended over a precipice
Clings an ivy vine,
Body and soul together.

Matsuo Bashō, from A Visit to Sarashina Village (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

His description of his own journey as an artist dedicating himself to his craft is very valuable. The fact that one of Japan’s most accomplished haiku poets struggled with the same push and pull I and many other artists describe is encouraging: there is nothing wrong with me/us; we simply need to forge ahead.

These words of Matsuo Bashō are fascinating in themselves, but also totally fascinating is the fact that they were written down in 1687, almost four hundred years ago. Yet the connection I feel when reading Bashō is immediate. There is no time lag, no misunderstanding. Words written down and preserved are extremely powerful.

Bashō’s soul clings to the letters of a language he never spoke, never heard, and now, to this screen, to this technology he would never have imagined, like ivy to a bridge.

6 thoughts on “Finding Inspiration in the Artist’s Statement: Matsuo Bashō”

  1. I would never know about Bashō had you not written about it, and I would never be able to break it down so eloquently as well. Totally loved this post, the website design, and your voice. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you so much Stuart! I’m so glad you found your way here. Thanks for reading and for sharing your reactions. Bashō is one of my all-time favorites (when I’m not reading fiction) and I’m thrilled to introduce a new reader to his work!

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      1. Oooh, absolutely! All time favorites include Station Eleven, Never Let Me Go, The Road, the MaddAddam Trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Fifth Season (sort of fantasy apocalyptic, but SO GREAT). Phillip K. Dick has a lot of great SF dystopia (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Flow My Tears, the Policeman Cried). Jeff VanderMeer is great (Annihilation, Borne). Sea of Rust (robot post-apocalyptic, super cool), A Canticle for Leibowitz. China Mieville is one of my favorite living writers; he does some REAL weird stuff that probably hits most of those categories at some point. I’ll stop there, but I could go on! haha..

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      2. I’ve also inevitably read a lot of the same stuff but I haven’t read the first two and I think I should get on it. Have you read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments? I’m gonna check that out soon too. Thanks Allison, and really looking forward to read more of your work.

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      3. The first two are definitely more situated in literary fiction land–but with huge speculative elements. I have read The Testaments! I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good way to return to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. I also watch the Hulu show, and it dovetails with both pretty nicely without being too spoiler-y. Oh, Severance is also a pretty great apocalyptic book: also leans literary. Glad to have connected, and looking forward to keeping in touch. 😀

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