Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Matsuo Bashō and the Art of Haiku

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Of all the forms of traditional Japanese literature that have gained sustained appreciation in the West, the shortest of the various traditional Japanese verse forms, the haiku, written in seventeen syllables (broken down into patterns of 5-7-5), has become the most widely appreciated. American school children study and write them in their literature classes. The famous "frog poem" of Matsuo Bashō has been quoted again and again as a superior example of how much a short poem can suggest.

Furu ike ya
The ancient pond-

kawazu tobikomu
A frog leaps in.

mizu no oto
The sound of the water.

(Translation by Donald Keene)

Bashō (he usually goes by his "artistic name," rather then by his family name, Matsuo) was born in 1644 and died in 1694. He took the haiku form, which as yet showed little in the way of high literary accomplishment when he was a young man, and turned it into a surprising vehicle for a touching, often profound means of high artistic expression. For most readers and writers of haiku in Japan, he remains the greatest, and most daring, poet of all.

Writing haiku in English has by now become a tradition in itself, with its own rules and possibilities, many of them based on the possibilities of our language. In the traditional Japanese form, however, there were established a number of set regulations that were almost always followed by haiku practitioners. Here, by way of example, is a simple example of the rules that Bashō himself adopted and which are, on the whole, still followed today in Japan. Each poem is to include four elements, chosen for their congruence with the larger subject of the poem.

  1. season
  2. location (in a general sense)
  3. time of day
  4. the "atmosphere" which the poem is to suggest or elucidate.

Take this striking poem from the beginning of one of Bashō's celebrated travel diaries, The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton (Nozarashi kikō), composed sometime after his trip of 1684-5.

Nozarashi o
Determined to fall

kokoro ni kaze no
A weather-exposed skeleton

Shimu mi ka na
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart.

(Translation by Yuasa Nobuyuki)

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