Thursday, August 21, 2008

Basho and the Lightness of Death

This past week, I've completed reading The Essential Basho, translated by Sam Hamill. The four travel journals were interesting, as mentioned in the section quoted in last week's post. I was happy to move on to the selection of haiku, which takes up approximately half the book, three haiku per page.

I've begun to warm up to Basho's poems which focus on a poetic principle he called "lightness." Here is David Landis Barnhill, whose Basho's Haiku I'm currently reading, on the concept of "lightness":

The concept of sabi can be intertwined with many aspects of the Japanese, Buddhism, and poetry. There is a principle of lightness that can be found within these aspects. Lightness can be described as the beauty of things plain and ordinary against the bright and glorified beauty. It is seeing the beauty in the simplicity of things, rather than the elaborate. Ueda describes the principle of lightness as, “a dialectic transcendence of sabi” (Matsuo Basho 34), then goes on to relate lightness to sabi by saying, “Sabi urges man to detach himself from worldly involvements; “lightness” makes it possible for him, after attaining that detachment, to return to the mundane world” (Matsuo Basho 34). He makes a great point in showing how the two ideas work off of each other. It is sabi that the person is trying to sense, what they are clearing there mind for. It takes mental concentration to detach oneself from the everyday reality of the layperson. Once that detachment is achieved, there must be a point when it is allowed to dissipate so that one can return to the ordinary world. And it is this principle of lightness that brings the person back, by having them focus on the plain, simple, and ordinary for all of its beauty.

Here are a selection of the 28 haiku I marked for further review:


Like the buck's antler's,
we point in slightly different
directions, my friend

You weren't home when I came-
even the plum blossoms were
in another yard

In windblown spring rain,
budding, like a straw raincoat,
a river willow

Grass for a pillow,
the traveler knows best
to see cherry blossoms

Father and mother,
long gone, suddenly return
in the pheasant's cry.

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggest they
are about to die

Wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger,

she tidies her hair.

The morning glories
ignore our drinking party
and burst into bloom


I'm not sure that the poems that appeal to me are the ones for which Basho is most appreciated, though his most famous haiku ("At the ancient pond") is included in this selection, primarily because I thought it was one of the best versions I've read. One of the comments at the first Basho post noted that Hamill wasn't a favorite translator and he does seem to have taken some liberties, ironically ones that I feel make Basho more accessible to someone like me who is certainly no expert. In the "buck's antler's" haiku I particularly like that, though pointed in slightly different directions, these friends ultimately will always end up in the same place. "plum blossoms" somehow seems to be ironic, funny and heartbreaking all at once: try doing that with 14 words sometime! "strawcoat" is quite literal because Basho was always on the road and, one would imagine, frequently taking advantage of all available "strawcoats." There also seems to be a joy here at the return of his "strawcoat" in spring which he no doubt sorely missed in winter. Of course the traveler "knows best" how to see cherry blossoms: lying under the tree. Beside the principle of lightness, Basho seems to leave much room in each haiku for the individual reader to participate in its writing, in a sense. "Father and mother" is a pure Proustian moment and I love it because it has the emotion so characteristic of Issa and not often on such overt display with Basho. "cicadas" may seem obvious, though the point can never be emphasized enough. Still, it called to mind for me a review I was reading this week of a book about human psychology and how our species is the only one which understands its coming death. Perhaps that review tainted my reading but one can't help feeling that he is not only saying that cicadas don't know death and he is commenting on the human condition. How simply beautiful is "Wrapping dumplings ...", pure essence. If one of the Imagist school had written this, they would be immortal. Finally, morning glories are my favorite flower and I've been known to quaff a pint or two, so I personally can attest to the truism of this little gem.

Cover art by Wayne Hogan

This week's featured back issue of Lilliput Review is #159, from November 2007. Enjoy.


You are dreaming
of the bush warbler
I said to him defiantly
But just in case I lifted
The green curtain and peeked out.
Yosano Akiko
translated by Dennis Maloney

Wearing down like a rock
in the years of a river
a poem
Donny Smith

Poet, sing of this night
Alive with lights and
The wine we served.
Our beauty pales
Compared with the peony.
Yosano Akiko
translated by Dennis Maloney

Mown Hay
Just to the southwest they're
cutting hay in the closing light.
I wonder how my life could come to this.
Jeffrey Skeate

It was like stardust in an old hand undertook me
coming through from where my soul began.
Janet Baker


There are now over 60 issues in the Back Issue Archive and 138 suggestions in the Near Perfect Books of Poetry list.

I've got to stop all this friggin' counting.

till next time,


Charles Gramlich said...

The one that struck me the hardest was the memory poem, about the "Cry of the pheasant." My mom is still alive but my father has been gone a long time and this brought him home to me.

grh said...

Truly appreciate your musings on Basho. Certainly aids me in understanding his unique spirit in poetry. By synchronicity, I am reading "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri. An artist/art teacher's reflections and exhortations that carry a sensibility not far from Basho. Passionate devotion to the art that reveals the ordinary in transcendence. Complete dedication to the practice of craft, imagination and inspiration to achieve the high art of the ordinary.
Basho is chronologically old, artistically timeless, and psychologically modern---all at the same time.

Ed Baker said...

good "stuff" Don

try Soetsu Yanagi's "The Unknown Craftsman"

so many frogs
in one pond

Greg Schwartz said...

great selection of Basho. I've only seen about half of those before. They are pretty good translations, though. I especially like that antler one.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the most interesting commentary on Basho. Also appreciated "grh"s comment . . . much better said than I can muster. Of the "Big Three" Japanese poets you've periodically mentioned, I have always had the slightest preference for Basho. I have no idea why this is; I often find him rather startling, and perhaps that is what draws and intrigues me. Your selections were indicative of that for me.

Have you ever considered adding a link to "Issa's Untidy Hut" with a selection of your own published short poems? There are many wonderful ways in which this could be done, and you could add poems to it as they appear here & there. Please think about it! I believe your readership would appreciate such a link.



Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, yes, "Cry of the pheasant" is the one for me also.

G, thanks for the kind words. The Henri sounds very interesting: I love the idea of highlighting "the ordinary in the transcendent" instead of the reverse.

Ed, thanks for the thumbs up, appreciate the push "further."

Greg, the antler one didn't grab me at first, then I had that "ah" moment ...

Jeffrey, I believe I've lots to learn about Basho. Received an email from W across the pond mentioning Jane Reichhold's new "Complete Haiku" translation. I believe, after the Styrk I may be heading that way.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


PS - thanks for the thoughts about a link to my own work. Honestly, I don't publish that much (3 acceptances in the last 2 years) that it would be a fairly paltry display.