It Burns [Haiku]

a cottage burns;
its owner watches ash swirl
in the air

Note: Influenced by an exchange between Bashō and his student Hokushi, the latter’s cabin burning down being the topic of discussion. As told in Yoné Noguchi’s The Spirit of Japanese Poetry.

BOOK REVIEW: Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Matsuo Bashō

Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other WritingsNarrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Bashō was a traveler, and much of his poetry came from what he witnessed and experienced on the road. This volume contains four travelogues (each containing interspersed haiku); the most famous of these being the title piece, but also including: “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” and “Sarashima Travelogue.” In addition to the travel writings, there is a section of select Bashō poems. The word “travelogue” may create a misapprehension. These weren’t diaries of the minutiae of his travels. They offer a poet’s eye view of highlights and insights, and—of course—interspersed poems. [There is a term for this genre of prose mixed with poetry, haibun.]

Matsuo Bashō was born in Iga-Ueno (famously a center of ninja warriors during the Warring States Period), and traveled extensively within Japan. He lived from 1644 to 1694, during the time between the end of the Warring States Period and the Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into modernity. It was a period of relative peace ruled by a military dictatorship, lying in the long shadow of war. Zen touches are prevalent throughout Bashō’s writings, but so are references to Chinese philosophy and history, Shinto, not to mention the Japanese poets who preceded him.

In addition to the aforementioned content, the book includes some nice ancillary features. First, there is a Translator’s Introduction that helps provide necessary context about Bashō’s life and times, as well as offering insight into what was valued in Japanese poetry of this time–including influences of systems like Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism. There is an Afterword describing the last years of Bashō’s life, as well as end-notes and a bibliography. Notes are useful for this type of book because most readers face both cultural and historical barriers to understanding (myself included.) As for graphics, there is a map to help readers grasp the extent of the poet’s travels. There is also a chronology to help keep the events of Bashō’s life—most notably the timeline of his travels—straight.

I’m not sure how the translator’s (Sam Hamill) version compares to an ideal, but I enjoyed it. For example, Bashō refers to an innkeeper called Hotoke Gozaemon, which Hamill translates as “Joe Buddha.” I suspect that is an example of veering away from literal translation to communicate an essence in a way that is readily grasped by the English-language reader. Some of the haiku translations seem clunky, but it’s extremely hard to put haiku into English, so I can’t say it could be avoided. English syllables and words can be chunky and our grammar doesn’t lend itself to being sparse. I will say that a nice feature of the “Selected Haiku” section is that it includes the Romanized Japanese poem under the translation. This isn’t done throughout the haibun “travelogues,” but it’s done in that last section. The main benefit of this is allowing the reader to hear the sound of the poem, but it can also allow one to compare different translations of the same poem.

There are several translations of these same writings available (often gathered together into a single volume like this because it makes for an acceptable length book–rather than the pamphlets that the individual haibun would be.) This is the only version that I’ve read to date, and so I can’t compare it to others. However, I was quite pleased with this version and found it to be both readable and evocative.

I’d recommend this book for haiku lovers, travelers, and those who want to see what awesome travel writing can look like.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Love and Barley by Matsuo Bashō

On Love and Barley: Haiku of BashoOn Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a short collection of English translations of the haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō. Bashō is one of the seminal figures in Japanese literature, and was a fascinating person. Living in 17th century Japan, his hometown was Iga-Ueno (a city whose other claim to fame was being one of two centers of medieval black-ops warriors known as ninja,) but he was also an ardent traveler and Zen Buddhist. One will note that many of his poems are about traveling.

The name of the collection is drawn from one of the poems (labeled “152” in this collection) that reads: “girl cat, so thin on love and barley”

Translating poetry is one of the hardest language tasks imaginable—and translating haiku to English is the hardest of the hard. This is because Japanese is grammatically sparse and the number of beats per syllable is limited, while English… not so much. Therefore, if one literally translates, not only would one likely get circa-2000 Babel Fish gibberish, the Zen simplicity vanishes. One has to appreciate any haiku to English translation that gets some of the feel of haiku right while still conveying meaning. This collection does a nice job in many cases, and maybe does it as well as can be expected.

The original poems [i.e. the Japanese] aren’t included. This may not seem like an issue to a reader who doesn’t know Japanese, but it can be nice to read the original poem phonetically (Japanese is a very phonetic language—unlike English.) The sound of a poem can be as evocative as its meaning. Some haiku translations offer three versions of the poem (i.e. the Japanese characters [useful only for Japanese readers], a Romanized spelling of the Japanese poem, and the translated poem), but—except for some of the poems referenced in the introduction—this one only gives the translation.

There is a substantial introduction that both gives one insight into Bashō as a person and poet, and puts his haiku into a broader context. There are also some end-notes for many of the poems to make sense of words and phrases that may not make sense to a contemporary English reader. There are some drawings that aren’t necessary, but they don’t hurt either, making a nice way to break up the collection. The book consists of about 50 pages of poems (with 5 haiku / page, or 250+ poems), and is less than 100 pages in total.

I would recommend this collection for poetry lovers. While poetry translations can be perilous, they can also offer new insight–even if one has read multiple translations of the same poem in the past.

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