Wabi Sabi for Writers, by Richard Powell (Avon, Mass.: Adams Publishing, 2006). 200 pages. 7 x 5.25. Paper covers; perfectbound. ISBN 1-59337-596-4. $12.95 from bookstores and online booksellers.
I would love to spend time conversing with Bashô. That is what Richard Powell does, reporting eight interviews with the long-dead poet, most of them introducing chapters in his book Wabi Sabi for Writers. This device alone is enough to infuriate or intrigue any reader—the reactions probably range from “How dare he invent words for the Master!” to “Hmm, Bashô. He’s talking with Bashô....” Certainly, if I had lived while Bashô was alive, I would have had an excellent chance to hear him. During his lifetime he visited hundreds of sites in Japan and interacted with thousands, or even tens of thousands of fellow poets, scholars, and art lovers. How ironic, then, that so prolific a speaker would leave such a limited written legacy: several reflective prose pieces (mostly travelogues) and a few thousand hokku (which we call “haiku” today) and tsukeku (links in a linked verse). He left no enormous body of work or any treatises on writing or aesthetics as did so many before and after him, but that has not kept him from being interpreted again and again. So what Powell has done is actually not that unusual.
Many of Bashô’s disciples wrote works based on their remembrances and notes, the most famous and possibly most reliable being Conversations with Kyorai. The disciples’ reports differ widely, contradict each other, and apparently are spurious in places. Buson, who lived not long after Bashô and had met with some of the disciples, was a strong supporter of the Way of Bashô, often reporting authoritatively what Bashô said, felt, and believed, but we must remember that his references are still based on his interpretations.
After Buson, the most famous Bashô theory, “Code of Bashô,” appeared, dominating haiku for hundreds of years, but that piece was written well after Bashô’s death and includes some strictures that cannot be found in anything that Bashô actually wrote, such as the belief that women cannot write good haiku and the prohibition against women writing haiku in the company of men. Powell is thus one of the most recent in a long line of writers who have spoken in the poet’s name, and he is, unlike some past writers, forthright in claiming that the dialogues “contain a mixture of the actual teachings of Bashô, [his] own paraphrases of Bashô’s ideas, and some creative license.” For Bashô aficionados, part of the fun in reading Wabi Sabi for Writers is identifying what they have read elsewhere.
Powell’s Bashô ranges from enigmatic in the best tradition of Zen—“When you see clearly into a fleeting moment, you glimpse eternity”—to famous pronouncements like “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine or go to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo”—to straight-forward, gender-sensitive advice as this: “Finding fellow writers with your taste or style will take time. When a person has followed the Way of Elegance [fûryû] for a while, she reaches a state where all she wants is to attend to quality moments with focused acceptance” (note in the last quote the unusual but interesting use of “she”; not many Japanese critics would allow that Bashô could have used female references when talking about the poet or the person of sensitivity). Powell’s Bashô, in his aesthetic outlook, is imbued with Zen Buddhism, a very popular view in the English-speaking world but a minority view among Japanese scholars. He, as well as Powell, is an enthusiastic proponent of the values wabi and sabi as a way of living and a key to writing well and prolifically.
Powell defines wabi historically as the hermit’s appreciation of a solitary existence, particularly of seeing the beauty of simple, unadorned, and aging things. Sabi is historically a kindred value, a positive aloneness that allows one to be receptive to the natural world. Powell writes that Bashô transformed the phrase wabi sabi to mean “all the lovely lonely moments of his life, not just the lovely lonely places. He noticed the poignant passings, the fragile wonders like snowflakes and the sound snow makes when it slumps, and the irrational happiness after he gave away something he loved.” For Powell, the term represents a way of being that embraces aging, the nature of things, imperfection, and impermanence. People who can embrace wabi sabi open a locked door, revealing riches only previously glimpsed on rare occasions. For writers, this way of being turns them into founts of creativity, writing beautifully but not worrying about perfection or the permanence of their writing. By inference, haiku becomes the best or most effective way to express the wabi sabi view.
Does the wabi sabi view lead to writing? I wish it would work that way for me. I think I have inherited a wabi view that more often than not freezes the writer, caught in an appreciation of a wondrous moment that renders him or her wordless. Outside Japanese literature, the picture of the overly sensitive writer who becomes paralyzed by his sensitivity is also common, such as Thomas Mann’s artists in Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice. Bashô himself often describes how difficult it was for him to write and how often he was dissatisfied with the results. Powell does discuss the apparent paradox in Zen of the wordlessness of true perception and the difficulty of conveying such perception, concluding that “our efforts to share wabi sabi with our readers must be tempered with a genuine respect for silence and the careful and judicious use of language.” For some, wabi sabi sensibility may open the floodgates; for others, though, I’m afraid it will release only a trickle. Powell, I think, leans more toward the former.
Powell also subsumes many of the major Japanese aesthetic principles, what Bashô called nioi (literally, smell; more poetically, fragrance or patina), under wabi sabi, which are themselves nioi: mono no aware (consciousness of the beauty of things), yûgen (otherwordliness), shibui (appreciation of astringency), and karumi (a taste for lightness or light-heartedness). He also seems to equate the Way of Elegance with the wabi sabi way. Normally, I would say that the Way of Elegance incorporates sensitivity to the above aesthetic values, including wabi and sabi, and that, historically at least, mono no aware and yûgen predate wabi and sabi, but Powell makes a powerful argument for his point of view. In his chapter on craft, he also identifies the elements of wabi sabi as the elements of haiku and even lists some haiku rules that form the support for wabi sabi perception (though, nitpicking again, I completely disagree with the last rule: try to end with a noun. That is the rule for the second link of two lines in a kasen, a linked verse of thirty-six ku, while the rules for the first and third links, both three-line ku, are, respectively, to end in a kireji, cutting word like ya or kana—functioning a little like punctuation in English—and to end in a verb).
Wabi Sabi for Writers is an interesting, engaging, free-ranging discussion of a way of viewing the world that also leads to creating art. It accommodates skeptical readers like me; a reader doesn’t need to agree with all of what he says to appreciate the power and happiness in responding to moments for their mix of impermanence and beauty. It identifies that quality in numerous writers and artists outside of the Japanese tradition. It includes many haiku as examples, unfortunately all capitalized, though the font is light enough not to be too distracting. There are Powell’s own haiku, often used in discussing a principle of wabi sabi (without caps: “touching the gardener’s arm / new camellia buds / hard as snails”), and haiku by others (Richard Wright: “A dead green beetle / bobbing on a flowing creek, / beaten by spring rain.”). Powell includes numerous English re-renderings of haiku by Bashô, based on other translations and word-for-word explanations (two famous ones, for example: “this road: / no one to go with / autumn dusk” and “sea darkens / calls of the wild ducks / go faintly white”). I think the effect overall of the book is to make the reader more appreciative of insight and more willing to write about the insights.