Matsuo Bashō, "Don't imitate me..."

The problem lies in giving an audience more of the same. Imagine being presented with melon and more melon as choices for dessert.

Matsuo Bashō, "Don't imitate me..."

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Below, I’ve spent time with a haiku of Bashō’s, wondering aloud about how he talks to his students and if there’s a lesson or two to be had from that.

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Bashō, "Don't imitate me..."

Bashō’s first line almost snaps: “Don’t imitate me.” How do you not feel sorry for the student/fanboy hearing this? He’s spent plenty of time pouring over Bashō, believing “this is me” each time he visits a page.

Photo by Yannick Pulver / Unsplash

Now he’s told “Don’t imitate.” Experience has taught me to treat a similar sort of situation delicately. I don’t have fanboys. But when coaching writing, I’ve encountered many who want to imitate models to the point of plagiarism. They’re not hostile or lazy. They’re frustrated others seem so eloquent, saying things better than they imagine they themselves would. Moreover, following directions literally can be a cynical but solid strategy: if you follow them word-for-word but something mediocre results, it can be blamed on the directions or the instructor. If something good results, then a reward can be reasonably expected. This is a defense mechanism, and I can’t say I’m immune to this sort of calculation.

A teacher may confront a parallel complication. No one wants to believe they’re teaching another “how to think.” I mean, we say that when talking about, for example, the purpose of higher education, because if one spends four years and a hundred thousand dollars, then one should at least have a cybernetic skeleton and appendages which fire lasers. But we show others “how to think” all the time, in ways of varying invasiveness.

How to show that models and methods are mere scaffolding? That a unique product is the goal? I know a few who believe themselves excellent teachers even as they would shoot “don’t imitate me,” with no context or support, at those in their charge.

"Don't imitate me..." (from Hass' The Essential Haiku)
Matsuo Bashō (translation: Robert Hass)

To a prospective student:

           Don’t imitate me;
     it’s as boring
           as the two halves of a melon.


“Don’t imitate me,” in this case, gently admonishes. “It’s as boring / as the two halves of a melon.” Bashō worries about his student. “Boring” can be very dangerous for an artist who needs patronage in order to eat.

“The two halves of a melon” serve as an incredible image for the problem imitation poses. Nothing’s technically wrong with two halves of a melon! They're probably both sweet, bright, and enjoyable. Bashō slyly avoids slandering his own work in encouraging his student to do differently. The problem lies in giving an audience more of the same. Imagine being presented with melon and more melon as choices for dessert. There’s no way to build a serious reputation for oneself in being a duplicate.

Photo by Otherness TV / Unsplash

I should say that one can build fame of a sort by doing the same thing as everyone else. Rebecca Jennings recently spoke of “the blandness of TikTok’s biggest stars.” A number of those who’ve achieved fame on TikTok are strikingly similar; her explanation is as follows:

“…pop culture is being increasingly determined by algorithms (not a new thing, but no platform’s algorithm is more powerful at surfacing tailored content than TikTok’s). This also tends to mean that what we’re seeing is the lowest common denominator of what human beings want to look at, appealing to our most base impulses and exploiting existing biases toward thinness, whiteness, and wealth.”

Given that Bashō achieved considerable stature, a poem by a student imitating him could go far. That student might write something similar to his which gets fans and patrons. And still, Bashō strongly hints that this is not an optimal move. Second-rate artists producing second-rate art happens. It’s good if they can make a living. They need to be encouraged, funded, and appreciated. But you came here to learn.


In the end, it seems to me that no less than Bashō is saying “find your voice.” Which is, quite frankly, amazing. There are a lot of established artists nowadays who say “find your voice” has gone too far and isn’t even necessary. Who would also say that “boring” is fine if formal standards are met. To put this in perspective, Bashō is a titan compared to them. Hearing him declaim on poetry is like hearing Plato on philosophy or da Vinci on painting.

His own poem goes a bit further than that, even. The stress on imitation resulting in “boring” pushes us to ask what link might be between “interesting” and “independent.” Again, we’re used to people calling out what they see as gimmicks in media and art. Fake or shocking uniqueness for attention’s sake. I’m not sure how much Bashō himself encourages daring. It’s something any serious teacher would struggle with. But he does profess openness to things beyond his work; how one gets started, I suspect, is in kinship with daring.