Basho’s Spring

It’s been spring for about a week now, which means it’s high time for some poetry.

By the way, next month is National Poetry Month, so expect some more poetry in the coming weeks.  But for today, poems on the subject of spring by the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694). I discussed Basho in a previous post. He was a student of classical Chinese poetry, Taoism, Zen, and became the most famous poet in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867).

He is often thought of as a haiku master, but as Dr. David Landis Barnhill, University of Wisconsin, in his book Basho’s Haiku, points out “it is most accurate to speak of Basho as a master of ‘haikai’ poetry.” Basho worked with the tradition of “linked verses” (renku or renga) in which two or more poets contributed alternating parts of a poem. Dr. Barnhill further explains,

In linked-verse, whether classical renga or its haikai form, the first stanza (hokku) sets the stage for the entire poem and is considered particularly important. One feature that distinguishes hokku from other stanzas is that is must contain a a season word (kigo), which designates which season the poem was written in: hokku are by definition poems about the current season. A hokku must also be a complete statement, not dependent on the succeeding stanza. Because of its importance to linked verses and it completeness, haikai poets began to write them as semi-independent verses, which could be used not only as a starting stanza for a linked verse, but also could be appreciated by themselves. So the individual poems Basho created are, properly speaking, ‘hokku.’”*

Now on to the poems. These are my own interpretations, not that they differ greatly from any other translations.

spring awakened
only nine days and look –
these fields and mountains!

slowly spring
is coming back
moon and plum

spring of this year
how enthralling
the sky of wayfaring

spring rain
dripping from the leaking roof
down the wasp’s nest

spring unseen –
back of the mirror
plum blossoms

spring –
a hill without a name
veiled in morning fog

Kannon’s temple –
gazing at its tiled roof
through clouds of blossoms

Note: Kannon is the Japanese translation of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion

– – – – – – – – – –

* David Landis Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press, 2004, 4


Basho’s Journey

Basho's drawing while on the road.

I’m an unabashed Basho fan. As some of you may know, Basho (1644-1694) is the most famous of all Japanese poets. On this date in 1689, he set off on a 150 day journey around Honshu. His travels during this time were the basis for his travel dairy Oku no Hosomichi, or “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, considered one of the major works of Japanese literature.

You can read about the book and Basho’s journey here at Wikipedia.

Basho, a Zen Buddhist, journeyed often during his life. He approached both his poetry and his wayfaring (always dressed in Zen robes) as spiritual pursuits.

One of his best known haiku, and one of my favorites, reads:

Old pond,
frog jumps in
– splash!

D.T. Suzuki, another famous Zen Buddhist, said of the haiku:

This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the whole universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.”

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is written in a form called haibum, a combination of prose and haiku which Basho was the first to develop. The link between the haiku and the prose section is not always clear. Often it is left up to the reader to discover. However, in this selection, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, the connection is rather obvious. Yamagata is a prefecture of Japan located in the Tohoku region on Honshu island.

from Oku no Hosomichi:


There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. After arranging to stay with the priests at the foot of the mountain, I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was no sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.