Basho's Haiku

Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho

Author : Basho, Matsuo and Barnhill, David Landis

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Basho's Haiku

Book Details

  • Publisher : State Univ New York
  • Published : 2004
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 332
  • Size : 216 x 140mm
  • Category :
    Poetry: Haiku
  • Catalogue No : 13616
  • ISBN 13 : 9780791461662
  • ISBN 10 : 0791461661
Wisdom Price : £20.00
Publishers Price : £25.00 (Save 20%)
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A wonderful new translation of the poetry of Basho - Zen monk, poet of nature, and master of the haiku form. This is the most comprehensive translation yet of the poetry of Basho (1644-1694), who is credited with popularizing the haiku form of poetry. One of the most widely read Japanese writers, Basho is especially beloved by those who appreciate nature and those who practice Zen Buddhism.

Born into the samurai class, Basho rejected that world after the death of his master and became a wandering poet and teacher. During his travels across Japan he became a lay Zen monk and studied history and classical poetry. His poems contained a mystical quality and expressed universal themes through simple images from the natural world.

" This is a very well researched translation of Basho's poetry that does an outstanding job of presenting this valuable material. It is a first-rate work that clearly reflects the author's long and intense devotion and commitment to the topic. It will stand out as unique because of the range of poetry that it covers." Steven Heine.

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stormy sea-
stretching out over Sado,
Heaven's River
araumi ya I sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

Basho was standing on the western shores of Japan looking out upon the night sea. He was pausing on his long journey to the "deep north" of Japan, and he could hear the crashing of the waves. Miles beyond lay Sado Island. Sado was known as a place of riches, where gold was being mined. But even more it was known as a place where numerous people, including the Emperor Juntoku, the Buddhist leader Nichiren, and the great medieval No dramatist Zeami, had endured the enforced solitude of exile. The poem begins with an exclamation of the violence and vastness of the water, the cutting word ya functioning somewhat like an exclamation point. Then our consciousness is brought to a focus on the melancholy island, small in the cold sweep of ocean. The island lies in contrast to the ocean that surrounds it, yet it harbors centuries of the emotional storm of exile. Then our consciousness is pulled up and out across the sky, as Heaven's River (the Milky Way) reaches from horizon to horizon. As a metaphorical river, it flows in eternal tranquillity above the storms of the sea and of human life, sparkling with a scattered brightness more pure than gold. BashO, the island, and everything on earth seem to be alone yet together under the stream of stars. Over the storm is silence; above the movement is a stillness that somehow suggests the flow of a river and of time; and piercing the darkness is the shimmering but faint light of stars.

The modern novelist Kawabata Yasunari was so moved by this verse that in the climax of his masterpiece, Snow Country, Basho's River of Heaven becomes a principal actor. The protagonist Shimaniura looks up into the night sky and feels himself floating into the Milky Way and wonders: "Was this the bright vastness the poet Basho saw when he wrote of Heaven's River arched over a stormy sea?" A fire rages nearby, with sparks rising to the stars. "And the River of Heaven, like a great aurora, flowed through his body to stand at the edges of the earth. There was a quiet, chilly loneliness in it, and a sort of voluptuous astonishment." The novel concludes with this sentence: "As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and Heaven's River flowed down inside him with a roar" (Kawabata, 134, 137, 142).1 The River of Heaven continues to flow today not only in the night sky, but also through sensitive readers of Basho's poetry.

Bashö had come a long way by the time he wrote this poem, not only on his journey to the back country of Japan hut in his life. Born in 1644, he grew up in a small town as a member of a low-ranking samurai family. While the still new Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) was characterized by feudal stability compared to the war-ravaged medieval period, the burgeoning affluence of the time opened up aesthetic transformation and social mobility. Literacy spread through many classes, and the merchant class in particular began to take up interest in the arts. The relatively new form of poetry of haikai no renga2 (comic linked-verse) appealed both to the merchant class and to samurai. As a young man, Bashö began to participate in poetry gatherings with his friend Tödö Yoshitada, the son of his family's Lord. In 1666, Yoshitada suddenly died, shaking BashO into considering a departure from traditional feudal society. Because the arts were expanding, it was possible for some gifted writers to opt out of the strict class distinctions of farmer, samurai, artisan, and merchant and establish a livelihood as a master poet. BashO did just that, heading first to the capital of Kyoto and then to the growing metropolis of Edo (now Tokyo). By 1680,he had established himself as a successful poetry master, but dissatisfied with the superficial poetics of the time, he developed his own aesthetics that reflected spiritual depth and aesthetic subtlety, exemplified in the Sado Island poem. In the last ten years of his life, he travelled often and wrote five travel journals. In 1694, after starting out on yet another journey, he died in Osaka. Shortly before his death he wrote:

ill on a journey:
my dreams roam round
over withered fields
tabi iii yande / yume wa kareno o / kakerneguru

The remarkable power of Basho's poetry and prose continues today, expanding into cultures he could not have dreamed of. His works, and the life he lived, have been influencing Western literature since Ezra Pound popularized imagistic haiku a hundred years ago. Over the past fifty years, his impact on poetry has increased as distinguished poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, Cid Corman, Sam Hamill, and Robert Hass have translated his verse.3 His influence is also increasing among nature writers, such as John Elder and Gretel Ehrlich.4 He continues as a master poet to the growing number of haiku and haibun writers in English.5 And recently the scholarly study of Basho in the West has reached a new level of insight.6 My hope is that this translation will help to extend his impact on Western culture.

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