This photo shows me at the threshold of the room where the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho wrote his first book of poetry.
There’s practically nothing in it, beyond the tatami mats covering the floor, a low writing table and a lantern. It would have been similarly empty in Basho’s day.
Basho was the son of a low-ranking samurai, who worked as a servant for a few years before deciding to commit to working as a full-time poet. Then as now, this wasn’t seen as a particularly respectable or lucrative career path.
He earned his living as a poetry teacher and although several of the collections and anthologies he published were commercially successful, he had a pretty frugal lifestyle. He lived in a simple hut built by his students, who planted the banana tree (basho) in his garden that gave him his pen name.
His work was popular in urban literary circles, but Basho renounced their sophisticated society in favour of wandering like a hermit across the Japanese countryside, composing poems on a series of long journeys by foot.
Visiting Basho’s birthplace, I couldn’t help comparing it to the house in Stratford-upon-Avon where William Shakespeare was born, eighty years before Basho.
The two wooden buildings date from approximately the same period, and to me anyway, there’s a distinctive similarity about their atmosphere. They look pretty spartan to modern eyes, although for the time they would have been considered comfortable.
Shakespeare’s birthplace is a typically narrow, slightly cramped, Elizabethan town house. in Basho’s house the walkways and sliding doors opening onto the gardens give it a more expansive feel. But there’s a timeless, meditative quality to both buildings – at least to poetically-inclined 21st-century tourists.
Shakespeare took a very different path to Basho. While his Japanese counterpart forsook the city for solitude and wilderness, Shakespeare headed for London to seek his fortune. He became an entrepreneur and purveyor of popular entertainment in the theatres of Southwark, one of the dodgiest neighbourhoods in London.
The explosion of Elizabethan theatre meant late 16th-century London was like Hollywood in the 20th century or Silicon Valley in the 21st – a Mecca for ambitious people who wanted to make money from their creative talent.
As a share-holder in one of the most successful companies of the drama boom, Shakespeare became a rich man and bought the biggest house in his hometown for his retirement. He also had a reputation as a bit of a tightwad.
Although I struggle to read Basho in the original Japanese, he’s up there with Shakespeare as one of my all-time favourite poets. They are both acknowledged giants of literature, and it would be very hard to separate them on artistic merit.
Two great poets: one chose a frugal life in the country; the other made a fortune in the big city.
When it comes to creativity the only thing that matters is the quality of your work. You can be rich or poor, and it won’t make any difference – as long as you don’t let riches or poverty become a distraction from doing your real work.
About the author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and a creative coach.