Thursday, October 30, 2008

Basho: The Complete Haiku

The unofficial two month Basho push came to end this week when I finished Basho: The Complete Haiku, translated with intro, bio and notes by Jane Reichhold. All this began some time back when I was contacted by Tomoe Sumi of Kodansha America in response to postings I'd been doing about various editions of Basho I'd been reading (in preparation for a future Modest Proposal Chapbook). At the time, she offered me a reading copy of Basho: The Complete Haiku. Because I already had it, I declined but Tomoe suggested she could send a copy along in any case and I could give it away to a reader.

And the Basho Haiku Challenge was born. The to-be-published anthology from challenge submissions would never have happened without her generosity and I want to thank her again.

I'm happy to say that Basho: The Complete Haiku is everything one would anticipate and more. For the dedicated reader and fan of Basho, it's all here: 1011 haiku, the complete output of a relatively taciturn haiku master (in comparison, Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku), all with accompanying notes, from a few words to paragraph length explications. The presentation method is chronological, as it should be, and divided up into 7 phases (as opposed to the standard 5 phases: see Makoto Ueda's Matsuo Basho) and each section is preceded by biographical info important to the given period. I found this method extremely helpful. To have presented the entire biography in the forward matter would have removed an immediacy that deepens understanding and necessitated much flipping back and forth. The appendices and back matter are a real bonus, including sections on haiku techniques, a chronology of Basho's life, a glossary of literary terms and a selected, succinct bibliography. For biographical detail, Reichhold seems to lean heavily on Makoto Ueda's seminal biography (which I'm reading now - ok, so the push isn't entirely over) but that's to be expected.

Down to the crux, however: the poems themselves. These translations veer away from the often disasterous academic all-inclusive approach. The translations are unique, lyrical, and eminently readable without dumbing down for the English reader. In general, there is a stripped down, less is more approach, somewhat reminiscent of the translation work of Lucien Styrk and Robert Hass. One thing this collection solidified for me, the non-academic reader as opposed to Japanese literary scholar, is how much I don't know and never really will about the original intent of what I feel to be a majority of these poems (and by extension, any translations from any of the haiku masters, including beloved Issa). The notes of both this Reichhold edition and of the Landis Barnhill edition I reviewed previously are what really brought this important point home and made me think long and hard about myself as reader.

The conclusion I've drawn from all this "thunking" is simply that the poems that connect, the ones that get through to a novice like myself, are those that have a universal appeal that transcends translation, technique, and cultural idiosyncrasies. I'm talking the spirit of haiku here and perhaps the universal impetus to write haiku in the first place. A speaking to the human condition, who we are, and what we do (oh, Gauguin, bless you for your question mark). But wait, aren't haiku supposed to be objective not subjective, speaking to nature and leaving out the personal? Well, yes, this transcendent spirit I'm speaking of includes that and more. This concentration on nature is the where of the who and what we do: our place in the world, who we are being defined by what we are.

Ah, but enough of my personal revelation. On to the poems or, to paraphrase the incandescently beautiful Joe Strummer, how about some music now, eh?

Of the 1000 plus haiku, I marked 45 or so that grabbed me, held me down, and said, ok, what (or, more precisely, how) do you think now? Previously, I'd selected 35 for further review from the 700 plus Barnhill Landis edition, so the proportion is consistent, realizing that he was being selective (i.e. picking the best). The Reichhold edition confirms for me that the later work was the finest, Basho getting better and better with time. Here are a few of those 45. When possible, I've tried to select haiku not highlighted in previous postings from other editions in order to give a fuller portrait of the poet.


autumn night
dashed into bits
in conversation

pine and cedar
to admire the wind
smell the sound

pine wind
needles falling on the water's
cool sound

already bent
the bamboo waits for snow
what a sight

glistening dew
not spilling from bush clover
still it sways

a morning glory
this also is not
my friend

a traveler's heart
it also should look like
chinquapin flowers

leave aside
literary talents
tree peony

year after year
the cherry tree nourished by
fallen blossoms

path of the sun
the hollyhock leans into
early summer rain


A couple of other things of note this week, via the always informative, encyclopedic Ron Silliman blog: first, Bill Knott's take on a lesser known Wordsworth sonnet (a distinctly un-haiku like experience, actually very different for Wordsworth, who sometimes has a very Eastern flavor and remains my favorite of Romantic poets) and, second, the fact that a huge chunk of the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is available via google books (don't tell anybody, pass it on). If you wish your wherewithal tested or your game raised to another level (without the pain of academia), I highly recommend Bill Knott's not poetry blog. Bill also offers almost all of his poetry for free pdf download, an amazingly generous and prescient idea.

Cover by Peter Magliocco

Today's Lilliput issue from the back archives is #69 from June, 1995. The further back we go in time, the, er, odder the experience for me. Perhaps more on this later. For now, enjoy.


After rum and cola

While walking inconspicuously
through this shabby cliché,
I am brushed back
by a long
that splashed mud
onto my haptic shoes
and chases me back to Technicolor.
Thomas Brand


Now, at break of day,
A cliché coldly peers out
From behind mountains.
Travis Gray


Midnight Footnote to Lovemaking

The snail's path across
our bedroom windowpane wakes
us with its shrieking.
Michael Newell



Sleep happens outside
this window where
white groping fingers
of a dream grasp
and are as still as
frozen beaks of birds
pinned to earth,
tugging at words
beneath the worms
Alan Catlin


in the mortar
of the city's
flute & whips
sing their song
Norman Schiffman


Crucifixion Revision

Father, forgive them
even though they know exactly
what they damn well do.
David Denny


¶no matter how many prayer flags
-they go out and hang upon the face of it
-it still be the beast.


¶a friend hands me a book
-more shit to carry when we go into exile.


Finally, contributor copies of the new issues, #'s 165 and 166, went out the beginning of this week. Subscriber copies will begin to go out in two weeks and will take about 6 weeks all in all to get to everyone. There is a new Modest Proposal Chapbook to talk about also, so, no fear, I have yet to run out of things to blab about.

till next time,


Unknown said...

thanks for your generous referrals / /

your readers might (i hope) be amused by

my various visits to Basho's frogpond:

will google-up the page

Jim H. said...


Thanks for this review and especially for the back issue poems. The "more shit to carry" line is haunting and hilarious.

Jim Haas

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely need to pick this up. I'll have to check to see if david Lanoue has it.

Anonymous said...

Crucifixion Revision? Aw hell yeah.

Awed, as ever,


Ed Baker said...

I just wanted to
say something
and, i frequently do

this is some solid plinth you and a few others are standing on / to leap-out from

thanks. thanks.

L. Espenmiller said...

Ok, after getting sidetracked by "Free Rice" for more than 15 minutes (nice site, by the way), I'm back to say I can't wait to crack open my copy of "Basho: The Complete Haiku."

"flute and whips
sing their songs" will haunt. And as someone who constantly wrestles with liking her stuff and wanting to give it all away, Scarecrow's shit/exile poem is priceless. Thanks, Don.


womanimal said...

"This concentration on nature is the where of the who and what we do: our place in the world, who we are being defined by what we are."

That's beautiful and something to ponder for sure.

And the cherry tree haiku reminds me of Cummings' "grass is flesh" line.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


thanks for the kind words, general guidance in your blog, great poetry, and link to your variations on Basho's frogpond work. Ed Baker also has done some wonderful variations on this most famous haiku.

Jim, glad you liked 'em ...

Charles, the edition is definitely one for the ages, probably best dipped into occasionally like rare whiskey or wine, not guzzled as I did. It will definitely hold up its end of the shelf!

LAV, ha! we know how to revise and so do those Lillie poets ...


Many thanks ... your support, thoughts, poems, art, rants and general just being there has lifted this operation up immensely. When not a single echo returns, I still know you're listening ...

Lisa, yes scarecrow/Charlie Mehrhoff definitely knows how to nail it down ... as I said to Charles above, probably best to savor the Basho, my gulping so not a role model!

WTS, you grabbed the one line in that long post I worked on the hardest, thunking and writing-wise, philosophically speaking. And the cherry blossom line is exactly the cummings/Isiah allusion we were jawing about the other day ...


Greg said...

i agree with Lisa and Jim... Scarecrow's exile poem is hilarious and memorable.

thanks for the Basho review... will have to pick up a copy of that soon.

Anonymous said...

Haiku is a wonderful form of poetry. Infact, prose followed by poem is a nice way to bring out your content in a way that the reader is never bored
haiku poems