Thursday, August 28, 2008

Basho's Journey Continues & Dancing with Mr. B.

A couple of quick notes and then it's onto the continuing saga of Basho's journey. I was really happy to find out that the Voices and Visions series is currently available via the Annenberg Media site. The good news is that all 13 programs are streamable on line for free with a free signup. The bad news is the series and individual titles are pricey: $39.95 each, $389 for the series. That being said, however, they are available on DVD for the first time and this series is about as good as it gets in its treatment of classic American poets. I have used excerpts from these programs in a poetry appreciation class (the Robert Frost video is particularly fine) I've conducted in the past and plan to use them in the future. If I can come up with the dough, I'll definitely be investing.

I ran across another posting of a Brautigan poem on a Live Journal site that was too good not to share:

Star Holes
I sit here
on the perfect end
of a star,

watching light
pour itself into

The light pours
itself through
a small hole
in the sky.

I'm not very happy,
but I can see
how things are
Richard Brautigan

I may be doing a blog only haiku challenge in the future, with print publication of the winner in a future issue of Lilliput Review and also a neat prize for the winner. More on that in a future post but, for now, I will say that all of this is Basho-related.

Over the past week I've been immersing myself in a variety of Basho translations. At work I'm reading Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho translated by David Landis Barnhill, which I'll be getting to in a future post. At home I've just finished up On Love and Barley translated by Lucien Styrk and have been dipping into a number of volumes by the classic haiku commentator, R. H. Blyth, concerning Basho. Blyth is amazing, his knowledge of haiku all-encompassing, and he always manages to off-handedly put in a word about Wordsworth or Lawrence or Whitman, so much so that I have to admit I actually like a critic. Hmn, I've been a bit faint of late, perhaps I need to take my temperature.

It took me quite sometime to get with the flow of Stryk's Basho but once I did there was much to appreciate there. Of the 250 plus poems here, I marked off 15 as being particularly noteworthy. The virtue of Stryk's translation also exhibits its flaw: brevity. These are stripped down to the barest bones. Most are under 10 words, some less than five. When the translations work, they are like the Eastern style of brushwork art; a stroke here, a bird, a few there, an entire mountain range. The brevity suggests boundless possibility and the reader fills in the details. When they fall flat, there is simply nothing, in a most unzen-like way. The ultimate success of the work, I believe, is that some of those that fall flat for me may work for someone else and vice versa. Ultimately, it is Basho who shines through and I suspect the less-is-more approach might have appealed to his monk-like sensibility. He certainly knew how to pack a rucksack with the minimal amount of things!

Here's a few highlights that grabbed me:


If I'd the knack
I'd sing like
cherry flakes falling.

Skylark on moor -
sweet song
of non-attachment.

Cormorant fishing
how stirring
how saddening.

Come see real
of this painful world.

Morning-glory -
it, too,
turns from me.

Man's end -
a bamboo shoot,
or less.

Year-end sprucing,
hanging his own shelf.

Summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams.

June rain,
hollyhocks turning
where sun should be.


The "summer grasses" haiku is one that I featured in another translation in a previous post. Stryk does it with more economy and equal effect, I believe. It is all, perhaps, a matter of taste, but the more translations I read, the fuller the picture of the original poet, Basho, I seem to get. The verse about the cormorant fishing perhaps needs a gloss. Fisherman commonly used the cormorant to fish by tying a string around its neck so when the bird snared a fish it couldn't swallow and the "fisherman" would simply remove the fish and put the bird back in the water. Not quite fishing with hand grenades, but certainly in the same mode. What really captures the true Basho spirit here is that he is both stirred and saddened, he still sees the miracle of nature despite the appalling behavior of nature's "highest creation", man.

Cover Art by Guy Beining

This week's featured back issue is #160, from November 2007. Enjoy. Beginning next week, we'll going into the way back machine to sample issues from places long ago and faraway.


bark's cleft

a lichen
John Martone


Only a wisp
Of cloud above,
But like a
Sacred Song
It pointed the way.
Yosano Akiko
translated by Dennis Maloney


Crows sitting on naked trees. Expecting snow.
Alan Catlin


No appetite
I have no appetite for verse,
but for the velvet vesture
of lamb's ear savored.
between my lips, tonight,
your lobes and limbs
wooly sward and bole,
succulent mullein, growing
virgate among your leaves.
Jeanne Lesinski


two wings per pigeon
and this is where they gather
on a wire
in the city
Ah, what do I know
Shawn Bowman


dishes first
then shaving
John Martone


Till next time,



Ed Baker said...

tacked on my wall (among other 'things':

"The secret of life consists in being always
always and never serious."

-Reginald Blyth

and: "The essence of haikai is to use ordinary words and yet to become seperate from
the ordinary." Buson

in 1995 to mark the 300 th year of the death of Matso Basho (1694) The Hokuseido Press put out

The Genius of Haiko ...
readings from R.H.Blyth

the WCW and the Pound docs are terrific as are all the others...

Charles Gramlich said...

That "morning glory" one is very very sad. Geeze.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, thanks for the great words and the note about "The Genius of Haiku" - I have a 4 volume and 2 volume set of Blyth volumes on haiku that are seminal and simply amazing.

Charles, yeah, that one's a killer and the morning glory is my favorite flower. I believe I'm warming up to Basho very much ...


Anonymous said...

Dear Don:

Thanks for the link to the interview! It is very, very good and the Poet Hound did an excellent job of both putting it together and positing questions. Quite informative & most interesting. Congratulations!

Where to begin again? "The Narrow Road To The Deep North" I suppose!



Ed Baker said...

just go to (if you can locate a copy)

Back Roads To Far Towns Corman/Susumu

I'd post an image of the cover (here) but don't know how..

full moon
who-ever said:
"poets are smart?"

Lisa said...

Here's Sam Hamill's translation of Basho's cormorant haiku:

Delight, then sorrow
afterward - aboard the
cormorant fishing boat

Comes from his and J.P. Seaton's collection "The Poetry of Zen." I'm fond of their collaborations. Enjoyed immeasurably Hamill's translation of "Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings" by Matsuo Basho, and also Hamill's translation of Issa's "The Spring of My Life."

I enjoyed the poems in this post. Thanks!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

J. L. S.: Thanks for the kind words, folks left some nice comments at the Poet Hound site and it made it worthwhile. Looking back on the last 19 years was instructive.

Ed, thanks as always for pointing the way. I can't wait to get to Cid and Susumu's translation, which is sitting on my shelf.

Lisa, the Hamill translation puts the Styrk in stark relief. I keep getting more and more of a sense of who this Basho might have been. Unlike Issa, he does not give up the personal easily and in that he is a model of the Eastern approach. Yet and yet, when looking at some of these touching poems from a variety of views, an intimate portrait begins to coalesce. Very happy you enjoyed the posted poems.


Greg Schwartz said...

"On Love and Barley" is one of the first Basho translations I read, and the only translations by Stryk I've come across so far, but I like his brevity. Like you said, I'm sure it works for some and not for others.

His version of that summer grasses poem is the best I've seen, keeping it brief but without sacrificing the meaning. I also like his version of the title poem.

Enjoyed the Lilliput poems, too, especially the one by Shawn Bowman and the last one by John Martone. Thanks for sharing them!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Very glad you enjoyed the Lillie poems also. The Bowman and Martone are excellent.

I'm thinking the "summer grasses" haiku may be the one of Basho's that grabs me the most. It seems to shine through no matter the translator, though one I ran across seemed way off the mark, can't remember which.

Styrk did a number of things, including a translation of Issa entitled The Dumpling Field and the classic Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. I've just found an interesting site on him and will do a mini-post to let folks know.


Ed Baker said...

not to forget Yosa Buson

HAIKU MASTER BUSON pub'd 1978 Hein trans/eds Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffert
(some of)his poems, art, prose pieces..
from his New Flower Picking (written in 1777):

"What you want to acquire, you should dare to acquire by any means. What you want to see, even though it is with difficulty, you should see. You should not let it pass, thinking there will be another chance to see it or to acquire it. It is quite unusual to have a second chance to materialize your desire."

AND, Ecco Press in 1994 put out a neat book:

The Essential HAIKU -versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa

includes Basho's "The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling" (1690) and his "The Saga Diary" (1691)

pee est: I included (embraced) that Buson quote in SHRIKE (tel-let, 2000)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, yes, Buson is just over the horizon ... I've the Essential Haiku on hand and will investigate after the Basho immersion ...

the sound of water -
Don going
under ...

Neat Buson quote, would love to see your use of it in SHRIKE (tel-net).


Ed Baker said...


a scan of the book is on my site

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Have just finished reading Shrike and it is very wonder full. Many thanks.

Quite amazing, just a beautiful beautiful piece of extended work. Again, it is at: