This poem comes from a discussion in a class I was in where we had read and then were discussing Robert Hass’ wonderful book “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa ” and we were talking about the poetics of Bashō, who Hass calls “one of the world’s greatest lyric poets”. One of the key concepts Bashō, who was a master poet and teacher in 17th century Japan, developed in his lifetime was the idea of the “poetics of scent”.
Traditionally in the linked poems of the time the mode that was used for linking verses were either “lexical”, words with classical or cultural association, or “content”, where the linked verse expanded or extended the material of the previous verse explicitly. But Bashō proposed that instead the linkage should be less direct, the linkage should be more of overtone or aesthetic. He called this linking by “scent”.
In this essay “Matsuo Bashō and The Poetics of Scent” Haruo Shirane discusses this in depth with plenty of examples to explain the intricacies. He compares the idea of poetics of scent in poetry to the way that montage works in film in “which a succession of seemingly unrelated shots are closely linked by connotation or overtone.”
Within the concept of linking by scent there are a number of sub modes: a gentle “scent”, the more dynamic “reverberation”, “reflection” and “social connotation”. The essays gives great examples of what is meant by each term using poetry of the time.
I found the idea of linkage of the sections of poems using these ideas quite exciting. I also had been very struck by a poem by Bashō that used an image of cormorant fishing which up until then I knew nothing about. It is an ancient form of fishing, that is still practiced today mostly for tourists, where cormorants are used to gather the fish. That haiku stuck with me.
So I took a poem I had started that hadn’t really found its form and some other material that came up through my thinking on poetics of scent and created the poem you hear in the video. It is structured into a series of linked sections, which don’t have an obvious direct connection between succeeding stanzas. There are some lexical linkages but overall I’m hoping for a move towards the poetics of scent.
It is not a haiku sequence or renga in the traditional sense though there are haiku like structures embedded in some of the sections as well. There’s plenty of the natural world. There’s a direct address to Bashō. There’s a prose section that ends the poem and also that turns the camera from the Basho haiku observing cormorants to the speaker identifying very explicitly with the cormorants, I think Bashõ’s poem also does this albeit much more subtly.
The video also attempts to link the video images through the poetics of scent, to give a similar overtone, this is also done through the “sting” from the music which is used as a bridge to each section. The videos also have a constant dark exposure and blue tone. So despite the sections being about different things explicitly the video attemps to enhance the overtone connecting them.
Finally a comment on the building that is shown in the last verse of the poem. This is 111 St Clair Ave West in Toronto. It was built in 1957 atop an escarpment which at the time gave a clear view to Lake Ontario and apparently Niagara Falls could be seen on a clear day way off in the distance. There was an observation deck that was open to the public on the weekend. And much thought went into it and detail which can read about hereincluding its possible use as a hospital in the case of nuclear attack.
So why this building? It was the headquarters for Imperial Oil who I worked for over three decades. I pulled up there as a student for a job interview in 1980. It’s now a condo building and those offices are now out in Alberta in something I think of as a Costco warehouse. The iconic Lawren Harris painting they had on the executive floor has been sold off along with other Canadian art work.
So there is much about that building that fits “Exciting at first, then sad”. The building’s life as a mid century art piece and now high end condos, the Canadian fossil fuel industry, the company itself which transformed from a Canadian icon to an American satellite operation, my time there, our fossil fueled way of life. So I was surprised when I came to that image when making the video but realize for me how personally it resonates with the poem and the poetry collection overall.
Hope you enjoy the poem and video. Here’s where you can see thebook.