An old verse — not really a hokku in spirit, but more just an admonition — by Bashō is sometimes cited by modern haiku enthusiasts. They generally understand it to mean that one should not write using the same aesthetics as old Japanese hokku — but must be rebellious and iconoclastic and avant-garde in writing verses — forgetting about Nature as subject matter, forgetting about a connection with the season, forgetting about what is appropriate and what is not for a hokku to be a hokku.
Well, in my view that is not at all what Bashō meant.
The circumstances of this verse were that a young merchant of medicines — in short a businessman — had come from Ōsaka to request admission to Bashō’s school of hokku. One of the characteristics of Japan in Bashō’s day was the rise of the merchant class, and their desire to “get some culture” by learning how to write haikai — the linked verse form in which the hokku was the opening verse.
In accepting him, Bashō gave him this admonitory verse, which as you can see has none of the characteristics of good hokku. It was to serve a different purpose — the advice of a teacher to a new student:
Here it is in transliterated Japanese:
ware ni niru na
futatsu ni ware shi
Very literally, it says:
Me resemble not;
Two into cut
The Korean or Chinese or “Oriental” melon (Cucumis melo) is a kind of muskmelon with light greenish flesh, very watery and not nearly as sweet as the muskmelons common in the United States. But is not the kind of melon that is important here, just the fact that when cut in half, the two sides look just the same, like twins.
Now what Bashō meant by this — in my view — was certainly not that one should stop using the standard hokku form, or that one should disconnect hokku from Nature and the seasons. We can see that historically he never advocated that, which is why these were common characteristics of hokku even into the time of Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century. Instead, Bāsho meant that one should not slavishly copy his writing “style,” or even imitate his particular life — because his new student was a “city businessman” and Bashō was an itinerant teacher of haikai, dependent on income from his students and well-wishers for his livelihood. If one were to just be an imitation of Bashō, it would be difficult to write verses that were fresh and new. And keep in mind that Bashō is talking here about the whole practice of writing linked verse — not just about the independent hokku.
In fact just what Bashō advised against in this verse actually happened over the years. People began to regurgitate and copy and repeat the same kinds of linked verse and hokku over and over again, without fresh inspiration. They became somewhat like those in our time who learn some simplistic landscape painting techniques on television, and then go on to paint new imaginary landscapes in the same simplistic manner, remaining in their houses and never actually going out into Nature to learn from it. That repetitive imitation led to a severe decline in quality of hokku that became very evident in the 19th century, a decline that was a major factor in Shiki’s attempt to renew hokku (and simultaneously eliminate haikai) — though as we can see, his re-packaging of hokku as “haiku” and his addition of some unwise notions led ultimately to its further destruction.
In any case, Bashō was not telling his new student to wildly go off on his own course by drastically changing hokku (what, then, would have been the purpose of studying under Bashō?), but rather he was telling him not to just imitate the style and phrasing of his teacher — but to let his own style develop naturally, through living his own life and absorbing his own inspiration — something that could not happen through imitation only.
Now it is often normal both in writing and in the arts of painting, architecture, pottery, music etc. that a student will begin by imitating the style of an admired teacher, but one can generally easily see when someone is merely being imitative. However, as one grows in ability and understanding, one will naturally begin to exhibit what one has learned, by assimilating it and expressing it through one’s own nature and inspiration. That was what Bashō was aiming for.
There is, by the way, an odd translation of Basho’s admonitory verse that is spread all over the Internet lately: it is by Robert Hass, presented this way:
Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.
But what Bashō actually said was more like this (and yes, it is just a teaching maxim and has no value as a hokku):
Don’t resemble me;
A melon cut
Into two halves.
Well, as you can see from the literal translation given earlier, the Hass version is not a translation so much as an interpretation. Bashō says nothing about being “as boring” as the two halves of a melon. Instead he just implies by saying “Don’t resemble me,” and adding “A melon cut into two halves,” that as a student learns, his writing and that of the teacher should not be just the same — which of course is the only way a student can really progress beyond the stage of imitation.
So in short, what Bashō was telling his student was this: As you learn, don’t try to be just the same as me in your writing or in your life. I will be me. You be you.