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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Poetry III -- Matsuo Basho, A Casual Artist and Adventurer

On the Poet's Trail:

Bashos Trail
by Michael Yamashita
Nearly three years ago, back before my most cherished of subscriptions sadly expired, I read one of my all-time favorite articles in the good periodical, National Geographic.  While I have sung NG's praises repeatedly since my childhood, this particular article came together in a rarely exquisite nexus of photography, essay, and art.  Being the bugger English snob that I am (and hypocrite to boot), I've often snubbed my nose at the "poor" writing of the photographers and scientists that generally pen for the magazine (I've since humbled myself and been humbled), though I've always praised the photography.  Also, I've always been a fan of the chosen subject matter in general, being a general subscriber to Life on Earth and the weirdness it pulls out of itself.  This article, however, I'd have never anticipated of the magazine, which I've received via grandparents, parents, and, though with less consistency, my own small investments.  It's LITERATURE, after all!  Yet, somehow and if not immediately, it made perfect sense.

I'd heard of Matsuo Basho, Japanese poet and reputed father of the haiku, but I'd never read more of his stuff than a few of those three-liners in my various literature text books.  The NG article piqued my interest, however, with its scattered Basho quotations, some minor biography, and, most of all, that combination of pictures and narrative from the lucky man who got to go mirror that--well, I want to say PILGRIMAGE, but that's not what it was.  The guy just went for a walk!

The best part of the article for me was the great word "hyohakusha," which according to NG translates to "one who moves without direction," which is a travelling descriptor I've wished for myself my entire life (just imagine: me and my steel drum, one-way ticket to Italy...), but that's another entry.  I snapped out of it and thought instead of a perfect, big-assignment writing prompt for my creative writing students.

That, too, is another entry.

I found dug up a text for Narrow Road to a Far Province and was entranced.  (There's a little bit a wikipedia, HERE, but I really recommend reading the whole thing--it's THAT worth it.)  I'd quote from that very file now, however and unfortunately, somewhere along the line I lost my file for the book and since then all the good translations have been ripped from the web.  Even Google Books has only got an excerpt of an introduction!

But I did find a translation HERE, which, while being a somewhat--or apparently--clumsy translation, yet offers a decent, free glimpse into the experience of Basho's wandering (despite my gripes with the words, the website is nicely interactive and offers notes throughout the text--always nice).  Here are a few excerpted poems:

It looks as if
Iris flowers had bloomed
On my feet --
Sandals laced in blue.


Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow.

(I laughed out loud when I first read this one; the other translation I read was not quite so demur.)


I felt quite at home,
As if it were mine,
Sleeping lazily
In this house of fresh air.

Crawl out bravely
And show me your face,
The solitary voice of a toad
Beneath the silkworm nursery.

With a powder-brush
Before my eyes,
I strolled among

In the silkworm nursery,
Men and women
Are dressed
Like gods in ancient times.

This one was written by Basho's travel companion, Sora.  He tends to be a bit wordier than his practically terse master, though at times Sora's words tend to be less frivolous--maybe he's compensating for some literary insecurity.


In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.


The night looks different
Already on July the sixth,
For tomorrow, once a year
The weaver meets her lover.

The great Milky Way
Spans in a single arch
The billow-crested sea,
Falling on Sado beyond.


Move, if you can hear,
Silent mound of my friend,
My wails and the answering
Roar of autumn wind.


On a cool autumn day,
Let us peel with our hands
Cucumbers and mad-apples
For our simple dinner.


This is the final poem of the journey:

As firmly cemented clam shells
Fall apart in autumn,
So I must take to the road again,
Farewell, my friends.


Additional note:

I've always been interested in the complexities of translation.  Translating from a language so dissimilar to our own as Japanese lends particular challenges.  Check out THESE nine translations of a single passage from Basho's work.


  1. The last three are my favorites: the combination of "mad apples," the "mound of my friend," and--exquisite--the metaphor of clam shells, which could support a world of interpretation and imagery as abundant as anything of Hulme's, Pound's, or Williams'.

  2. I enjoyed the one about, "A cicada's voice," possibly because it reminds me of a quiet and stifling hot/humid night in Washington, DC.

    The translation thing is amazing. I think even more than a difference in language, it reveals how differently people read. Imagine that you and I read a single paragraph that was written in English, and we had to summarize it in short form. Our summaries would probably be vaguely similar, but at the same time, they'd actually look nothing alike.

  3. The one with the cicada is interesting to me because it seems to communicate heat, dryness, and barrenness, and without saying anything about those qualities. While by context, I believe he intended this, it could just as easily be my own impressions reading onto Basho's words, much like the translation.

    Translations within similar alphabets and grammars leads to narrower disparateness, but I expect that each of those interpreters is working at avoiding interpretation and focusing on translating--a difficult thing to do. Eco, of course, has built his career on this issue, and says that without growing within the culture that produces a text, you will never read actually read it.

  4. Yes, I've always felt that that understanding, while perhaps true, is depressing because it implies there's really no way you can understand what an author from another culture is saying. I guess I agree that you can never completely know, but I think you can get close.

  5. I agree. Eh -- Eco's high-end intelligentsia; it's all about minutia and splitting hairs up there. We're just the common man, right?

  6. Hahaha, yes. Although I would say that the very fact that we're debating this issue make us, "high-end common man."

  7. There you go thinking we're smarter than we are again....

  8. Sorry, it's a bad habit of mine. But come on, how many people do you know that would talk about whether you can ever truly to learn a language without living in the culture? Academia, maybe. Crap, that proves your point.

  9. Ironic, then, how I really want to be a part of that little clan.

  10. Haha, I kid professors because I love them, right? But seriously, it would be a pretty great job, reading and analyzing great books and then teaching them. At least until it came time to read the papers.

  11. Ugh, grading papers! You know, there's a batch of short stories sitting in a box in my basement that I never graded. I flipped through them yesterday and thought finally get it done. I could facebook the authors their grades. I could get the proverbial monkey off my back! Freedom! Timshel!

    Nope. They're still there. They will never leave. Maybe someday my kids will read them. I can tell them the assignment that led my former students to write them was inspired by the man of this post, Matsuo Basho, and that they can be my TAs.

  12. I bet you could find one person in the class who still does remember that this assignment wasn't graded if you tried hard enough. Have I got anything in there?

  13. No, it was concentration. And I think there might even be some bitterness there....

  14. My favorite is the clamshells. While all of them are simple and beautiful, there is just something a bit more elegant about this one. The way it flows is absolutely superb. Perhaps because it is the most personal -- Basho has revealed (or perhaps realized) a great part of his innermost nature: to travel -- explore.

    The clamshell similie is twofold. First (and most obviously), it states that it is his nature to leave: as the clamshells fall apart in autumn, so must he take to the road. Second, the desire and need to travel are so deeply ingrained in him, that no matter how firmly cemented to a particular place he may be, he must leave. Clamshells would not open if God himself tried to pry them, that is until Autumn, when they (by nature) simply fall apart. Similarly, Basho will settle somewhere, and plant his roots. Until his natural need to move is triggered, then he simply bids his friends farewell and leaves.

  15. Ben, that's an awesome interpretation. I didn't get nearly so far with that one.

    By the way, are you calling me bitter? I would not have remembered had an assignment gone ungraded. I just don't care. I only have one thing in my life about which I'm bitter, and I'm not going to share it in a public blog. lol

  16. Nope. Not you. I was talking about some of the kids from concentration whose work went ungraded. They spent weeks on the assignment, and those I've read are really great.

    And please, James, do indeed keep your bitterness to yourself.

    Ben, I agree most wholly with James that your analysis is spot on.

  17. Ahahaha, I try to! I think I generally have a pretty sunny if occasionally curmudgeonly disposition. Glad to know it wasn't about me.


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