Friday, July 23, 2010

The Road North

When Basho and Sora set off in 1689 on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, they were traveling into the past, to re-visit landscapes with long held poetic associations.  As Haruo Shirane says in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho, these places (utamakura) had traditionally served as 'cultural nodes in the poetic tradition', where travelers could hope to compose poems that would match the famous examples of their predecessors.  Shirakawa Barrier for example, features in a tenth century poem by Taira Kanemori and is then treated by Priest Noin in 1025, by Minamoto Yorimosa in 1170, and by later poets like Saigyo and Sogi (whose account of his journey to the Shirakawa Barrier in 1468 is a precursor of The Narrow Road to the Deep North).  Interestingly Basho seems to have been more easily inspired to compose haikai where an utamakura disappoints his expectations - at Shinobu Mottling Rock, for example, where he and Sora find the renowned rock lying face down, half buried in the grass.  And as he made his way north Basho established new haimakura, haikai places that do not appear in the work of earlier poets like Saigyo and Sogi.  As Basho's follower Kyoriku wrote, "travel is the flower of haikai. Haikai is the spirit of the traveler.  Everything that Saigyo and Sogi have overlooked is haikai.'

A new sequence of hamaikura is now being established in Scotland by artist-poets Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn, who are making their own journey inspired by Basho and Sora.  As their blog The Road North explains, they are creating a word-map 'as they travel through their homeland, guided by the Japanese poet Basho, whose Oku-no-Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) is one of the masterpieces of travel literature. Ken and Alec left Edo (Edinburgh) on May 16, 2010 – the very same date that Basho and his companion Sora departed in 1689 – and when they return, on May 16, 2011, they will publish 53 collaborative audio and visual poems describing the landscapes they have seen and people they have met.'  So far they have reached seven of the stations on Basho's journey - Scotland's equivalent of the rock at Shinobu and Shirakawa Barrier lie ahead (see map).  Nor have they yet got to a version of Nikko where, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I once made my own literary pilgrimage to see a station on Basho's journey north.  A few days ago they were at their Cascade of Silver Threads (Shiraito-no-taki) - the Falls of Bruar - and there, like Japanese poets, they were conscious of their own poetic predecessors, in this case Robert Burns, who wrote about the Falls in 1787:

Here, foaming down the skelvy rocks,
In twisting strength I rin;
There, high my boiling torrent smokes,
Wild-roaring o'er a linn:
Enjoying each large spring and well,
As Nature gave them me,
I am, altho' I say't mysel',
Worth gaun a mile to see.

from 'The Humble Petition of Bruar Water'


Mike C. said...

This blog is good stuff, Plinius, and you've recently become a regular stopover for me -- we appear to share a number of tastes in music and books, and I admire the work you're putting into (and the polish you're putting onto) your material.

Thanks for the pointer to Finlay and Cockburn's project -- on first look I have to say it looks a little familiar (in both concept and execution) to anyone who grew up with Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and the conceptual wing of land art, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it's time for that Japanese-influenced 70s blend of austerity and good taste to come round again.


Plinius said...

Thanks for your comments Mike. There are certainly affinities with the work of Fulton and Long, who have both worked with Alec Finlay in the past. And looking back I see that my earlier post on Basho starts with a reference to the Hamish Fulton print we have in our bedroom.

Mike C. said...

The sensibilities are intimately connected -- though (I read) the modern Japanese have a conflicted relationship with that exquisite past that attracts Western eyes. There's very little of "wabi sabi" in the manga comics my daughter likes to read!

Many years ago I decided to collect Hamish Fulton's admirable books, until I realised it was one of those exponential tasks -- the quantity of new books (and, increasingly, their value) would always exceed my grasp.

I then repeated the experience with Roni Horn -- I managed to get a few of those wonderful "To Place" volumes before everyone started to notice how good they are and they became scarce and valuable. There's something quite Japanese-influenced about her take on Iceland, too, I find.


Papierflieger said...

Great post, thanks for the link to Scotland. I would like to point out to an interesting text by Robert Wittkamp on early japanese travel literature(link:

Plinius said...

Thanks - looks like a good book.
I see Basho and Sora have just updated the blog with three more Road North stations - they have now passed through the Shirakawa Barrier (Sma' Glen).

tristan said...

NOT commenting, just asking ... if anyone knows a translation of the inscription on the little battered obelisk that stands over Basho's grave ? ... i've spent an hour searching