“Haiku”, it is said in Japan, “began and ended with Basho.”
Translator’s Introduction to The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Other Poets by Sam Hamill
Two weeks ago, in the conclusion of The Four Seasons in Japan, I promised that I would revisit haikus, with a specific focus on Matsuo Basho (you know: the first, the last and the only… in other words, the greatest writer of haikus), so:
- first a little introduction to Matsuo Basho’s life and poetry
- followed by part II of The Four Seasons in Japan
Matsuo Basho’s Life…
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the son of a low-ranking samurai, was interested in literature from his childhood; his first poem was published in 1662, at the age of only 18. At the time he was in the service of Todo Yoshitada, a local feudal lord, general and minor poet. Because of the sudden death of his lord, however, in 1666 Basho found himself at a loose end.
After his attempts to better himself by conventional means failed, he chose to reject the world and dedicated himself to the study of Chinese poetry, Zen and history, travelling around Japan. He continued to publish poetry, and as his fame grew, he was able to secure sufficient patronage and students from whose donations he could support himself (although he never became rich).
Delight, then sorrow
aboard the cormorant
To appreciate Basho of course you have to appreciate the verse form he excelled at: the haiku. It’s a deceptively simple non-rhyming verse form, with seventeen syllables distributed in three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively, and it can be utterly mundane. The reason I love Basho is that he inevitably rose above the mundane and he combined a vivid natural image with universal, enduring philosophical thought or insight into the human condition. In paltry seventeen syllables.
Whore and monk, we sleep
under one roof together,
moon in a field of clover
all that remains of great soldiers’
And he made it look so easy.
Ultimately, the greatest charm of Basho’s poetry resides in the scope and depth with which it represents human experience. He contains multitudes, so that his readers can see in him whatever they want to see.
…a Basho poem refuses to simplify the experience it represents. Because of its brevity, a hokku tends to be ambiguous, but even more so when the author is Basho, for he tried to present life with all its complexities, pointing his finger at its mystery and depth but avoiding the attempt to force an analytical intellect on it. While that may or may not be a sign of greatness, it has proved to be a steady source of attraction to readers for the last three hundred years.
Makoto Ueda: Introduction to Basho and His Interpreters (Selected Hokku with Commentary)
Half a year ago, when I first mentioned haikus on this blog, I wrote that I love haikus because I like my poems evocative, ephemeral and emotive, and I gave you an example of each. I think Makoto Ueda captured perfectly the characteristics of Basho’s poetry above. Shall we add enigmatic to the other Es to describe haikus?
Four Seasons in Japan with Matsuo Basho
Travelling this high
mountain trail, delighted
the bee emerges from deep
in the fine company of
The farmer’s roadside
hedge provided lunch for
my tired horse
Seen in plain daylight
the firefly’s nothing but
crow on a bare branch —
This dark autumn
old age settles down on me
like heavy clouds of birds
This first fallen snow
is barely enough to bend
the jonquil leaves
Through frozen rice fields
moving slowly on horseback,
my shadow creeps by
Along my journey
through this transitory world —
new year’s housecleaning
All haikus by Matsuo Basho as translated by Sam Hamill.
Notes: ¹As is the case with every form of art, being familiar with the cultural or historical background helps at times. When it comes to cormorant fishing, Wikipedia is your friend: "Cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in rivers. Historically, cormorant fishing has taken place in Japan and China since about 960 AD. ... To control the birds, the fishermen tie a snare near the base of the bird's throat. This prevents the birds from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throat, but the birds can swallow smaller fish. When a cormorant has caught a fish in its throat, the fisherman brings the bird back to the boat and has the bird spit the fish up." You might also like: ⇒ An Evening with Matsuo Basho ⇒ The Four Seasons in Japan ⇒ 10 Most Famous Japanese Painting Masterpieces ⇒ Haiku: A Whole Lot More than 5-7-5