Bashō, extracting genius & mediocrity

“Haiku after Bashō became increasingly popular, and with the growing stability of the tightly regulated feudal regime under the Tokugawa shogunate—a phenomenon unprecedented in world history—it was perhaps only to be expected that haiku poets would become decadent. It would not be correct to say that this was because later poets neglected the spirit of Bashō, or that they stopped seeking out the same things he did. We should instead recognize that this decadence followed directly from the continued adulation of Bashō. It was not simply that Bashō’s words underwent a process of mystification at the hands of his followers and later commentators. The cause lies rather in the failure to abandon Bashō. Art does not permit both artistic genius and artistic form to be studied at the same time. When the attempt is made, the spirit of genius is taken to be conveyed through form, leading inescapably to the formalization of the spirit itself. The result is called academicism or mannerism. Bashō studied Saigyō and Du Fu through the very different forms of waka and Chinese verse, so he had no choice but to extract and absorb only their genius. This would seem to account for Bashō’s ability to escape mannerism while still absorbing the spirit of the past. But since later haikai poets studied only haiku and called constantly for a “return to Bashō,” mediocrity was the unavoidable result.”

Kuwabara Takeo / “Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art” (1946) [Tr. by Mark Jewel]

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