Yosa Buson, “Yearning for the Past”

Lengthening days accumulate: this surprised me a bit. I haven’t given much attention to the days getting longer except for the obligatory “hey, we’ve got an extra hour or two of sunlight.” Then again, I don’t live in a pre-industrial world of constant walking. Where paths lie from village to city to farm to temple to forest, not miles of concrete road, skyscrapers dominating the horizon, and a few scattered trees to remind of what was. I think, upon further reflection, that this haiku might contain a greater surprise yet. Buson’s “Yearning for the Past” asks us not just to imagine a lost world, but an entirely different sentiment than one we normally indulge:

Yearning for the Past
Yosa Buson

Yearning for the Past

Lengthening days
accumulate -- farther off
the days of long ago!

I suspect most of you share my feeling that we are soaked to the bone in nostalgia. Part of Buson’s depiction feels to me completely alien. Farther off the days of long ago! — I wish. On a trivial level, Nintendo is more than willing to cash in on our desire to play games 20-30 years old. On a more somber level, the “mystic chords of memory” to which Lincoln once appealed to stop war are fraying because of the not so mystic replacement of people’s brains with 20-30 years of bad television. It’s memory, alright, just like a flash drive full of pornography is technically memory.

In my reading, the poem presents this scenario: as one notices the lengthening days accumulate, one becomes enamored of the present. The days of long ago — one’s own days, the days of one’s ancestors — feel that much more remote. The title, “Yearning for the Past,” is crucial to the action. The reverie of an endless present becomes haunted by the prospect of the past slipping away. The poet begins yearning for the past even though the present has additional weight. I read “lengthening days” as days with more daylight, more to see and do. Yes, one is getting older — one could even be old — but it’s like that much more can be done with the time given. I realize this is not everyone’s experience, and it is possible to try to read “lengthening days accumulate” as simply “days accumulate,” as if there’s just getting older while life plods on.

Will the past slip away if it is not made an object of intense yearning? Funny enough, this is not the concern of the citizen or the philosopher as much as the artist or politician. Artists see themselves in dialogue with those who have done like work and engaged the same themes, and serious lawmakers depend on a sense of history, precedent, and value to make laws last. It is a profound individual concern, but not because there was some magic time in life when everything was better. That’s the naive sentiment which finds itself manipulated more often than not. It’s profound when it wonders how the past reconciles with a growing present. It’s profound when it sees the past not as an answer, but a question remaining to be answered.

References

Sawa, Yuki and Edith Shiffert. Haiku Master Buson. Union City, California: Heian, 1978.

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