Exploring Basho’s Moon

Several weeks ago I posted a collection of poems about the moon.  The poems in that essay ranged from Louisa May Alcott, to Li Bai, to Kobayashi Issa. However, the poem that stood out for me the most was Basho’s haiku about the moon.

The moon glows the same:
It is the drifting cloud forms
Make it seem to change
 --Matsuo Basho

As I copied down this poem, I began to think about its meaning.  My first thought was that Basho seemed to be highlighting how our perceptions of reality can be altered by our internal thoughts. 

There is a Mahayana Buddhist concept called the Two Truths that seems to capture this idea. The Two Truths talks about the relationship “between absolute reality-whatever that may be-and the relative world we inhabit.”  Lion’s Roar explains that relative truth “includes all the dualistic phenomena- ourselves, other beings, material objects, thoughts, emotions, concepts-that make up our lives in this world”(1). Whereas the absolute reality is described as “truth is the reality beyond dualism of any kind. It’s also the true nature of relative phenomena.”(1)  In this haiku, I thought of the moon as a representation of absolute reality and the clouds being the material objects of relative truth. In other words, the moon is that reality that is beyond our day-to-day reality, and then the clouds are all of our thoughts and perceptions that “cloud” our ability to see that truth.

I did like my interpretation of this haiku, but I also wanted to know what others thought. So I reached out to a couple of other writers to get their reactions. 

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Ashley’s Response

Ashley writes for the blog A Different View.  In this blog, Ashley publishes reflections on the natural world and haiku.  I thought it would be interesting to hear what he thought about this haiku.  Ashley commented:

“You made a remark in your last post that “the moon is everywhere” and in a way, Basho’s verse is really stating the obvious.  Of course, the “obvious” isn’t always recognized by everyone and so here in 3 short lines is a simple, clear and pointed observation.  That is also a good foundation for haiku!  However, I think that sticking to the 5-7-5 syllable count (I don’t know who translated the verse, and I hope I’m not upsetting some world-renowned expert!) makes the verse feel a little awkward, especially in the last line.”

Ashley’s comment made me wonder about the process of translating a haiku. Although I wasn’t able to find another translation of this specific haiku, I was able to find some commentary on the challenges of translating Japanese Haiku to English. 

Person looking at moon: Photo by Alexandro David on Pexels
Photo by Alexandro David on Pexels.com
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John Carley talked about the challenges of translating poetry in an article written for the New Zealand Poetry Society,  He started by saying, 

“The difficulty isn’t so much in understanding what the source text says, as in conveying it in the language of destination.  Compromise is inevitable, even between co-sanguineous tongues such as Dutch and German, or Spanish and Italian.  In the case of wholly unrelated languages – Japanese and English come to mind –  the sticking plasters are bound to show.”(2)

Carley continues by stating that, “haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters or groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text.  There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjenctions which are considered as words in their own right” 

Ashley expands on this: “The Japanese language does not have punctuation but it does have “cutting” words, which are sounds really, and these are used to separate phrases.  In haiku, we count these “commas” and “semi-colons” as western “syllables”. Ashley then continues by explaining the challenge is to “keep as close as possible to the spirit of the original [and] keeping with our own understanding of the verse.”

What this all means is that there is a lot of space for interpretation in the translation of a haiku.  Below is an example of how this all can play out using another one of Basho’s famous haiku.

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“Summer Grasses” By Basho

summer grass
all that remains
of a Samurai’s dream.
--Matsuo Basho

This is a fairly famous Basho haiku.  However, the translation from the original text varies.  For example, Yuasa (1966) translated Basho’s work as directly as possible and came up with:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions 
Of ancient warrior

Carley comments that Yuasa received some criticism for putting the haiku into a quatrain format. However, Carley also wonders if the criticism is fully reasonable given the source material.  He wonders if Yuasa was trying to give the English reader a similar experience of “harmony and dignity of the source text”.

In 1992, Ueda translated this same text and came up with:

summer grasses
where stalwart soldiers
once a dreamed a dream

Carley comments that this translation falls more in line with what we know of the haiku format.  It has the 3 line format, the seasonal reference, and no excessive language. 

Carley translated the same verse in 2010 and came up with:

a trace of the dreams
of warriors past
Ah, the summer grass

In his article, Carley continues discussing the similarities and differences of each translation. He talks about word choice and how each translator is trying to capture the essence of the poem.  He also mentions how some words and phrases don’t directly translate. This can be a challenge in any form of translation.  Carley’s article supports Ashley’s question about how translation and word choice can impact the reader’s experience. It also brings up the question about the need to translate haiku into the 5-7-5 format, which Carley states, “is questionable at best”.(2)

Finally, Ashley provides us with this very grounding perspective on this process, “Think about it, how can we who drive cars, have two weeks holiday “in the sun”, put men on the moon and waste the earth’s resources, really understand how Basho understood the world?”

That is a truly good question!

Grasses by Pierre Sudre Pexels
Grasses by Pierre Sudre on Pexels.com

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Mike’s Response

Next, I reached out to Mike U at Silent Pariah to get his perspective.  At Silent Pariah, Mike publishes his own haiku and short fiction.  Below is part of his response.

“As a kid, the biggest mystery regarding the moon wasn’t that it “always glowed the same” but rather that it always followed us.  I recall long car trips at night, staring at the moon through the foggy window as it kept pace with us as the foreground landscape blurred by.  It’s only in that context that I always viewed the moon as being consistent. 

 “In terms of Basho’s “always glows the same,” while I understand the intent some folks attribute to the poem (as explained in the study guide and references in this thread to relative truth versus actual truth or any perceived permanence of glow or character), I tend to see the moon as constantly changing (phases).  To me, an apt (and silly) analogy would be how the difference between the moon and sun is similar to the difference between cats and dogs.  With a dog, you always know what you’re getting: an open, boisterous, friendly, loving companion that is always by your side and would give its life for you, a dependable friend you can count on regardless of circumstances.  With a cat, not so much.  Cats are moody, aloof, they’ll disappear for days at a time with no explanation (and try to make it up to you with the gift of a dead bird or rat), they’re fickle and finicky, they deliberately antagonize you to get your attention and then pretend you don’t exist, and they’ve got claws and they aren’t afraid to use them.  

The sun, in my opinion, is the one who “always glows the same,” even given the clouds that sometimes obscure its visage.  It never alters its shape–it’s always up front and looking you straight in the eye, and you know what to expect from it (warmth, light, life).  The moon, on the other hand, is constantly shifting, hiding its face, giving side-long looks during its phases, provides varying amounts of light (but not of its own), provides no warmth, can generally be regarded as cold and mysterious and distant and even malevolent, and sometimes disappears altogether (just like that darned cat). 

I’ve read other haiku about how the moon we see is the same one people halfway around the world see, but that also applies to the sun, so that’s not an attribute exclusive to the moon.  In a way, this haiku could be retitled “The Clouds Always Change” to describe the transient nature of clouds as opposed to the more permanent (regular? reliable? predictable?) background of the moon. . . . There’s a Japanese proverb I read once that says, “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”  Perhaps Basho’s poem demonstrates that, although changes (clouds) will always come, we can remain strong (like the moon in its permanence).  But hey, what do I know?  I’m  just a guy who writes silly haiku.”

The bamboo that bends is stronger that the oak that resists

Mike brings up some interesting points here as he contemplates the ever-present nature of the moon. His perspective really made me think about my thoughts regarding the moon and clouds as symbols for the absolute and relative truth. Maybe the intention should not be to focus on the moon (absolute truth) with the clouds (relative truth) as interference but focus on the clouds with the moon as the backdrop. Maybe this haiku is asking us to embrace change.


This discussion brings me back to the idea that reading and understanding poetry is very much an individual sport.  Carley says, “Even if we accept without question the less-than-certain premise that the poet always knows his own mind . . . we can agree that the reader will always bring their own experience into play”.(2)  Similarly, Margarita Engel wrote, “Poetry is interactive. The open spaces between lines and stanzas are filled with echoes like the resonance after ringing a bell. Those spaces hold the poet’s emotions, as well as the reader’s.”(3)  Both of these statements are very true and evident in my discussion with Mike and Ashley.  Our individual experiences bring lenses of interpretation to these poems. So perhaps the question really becomes, not what does this poem mean.  But, to borrow from Engel’s work again, “How does the poem make you feel?”

The moon glows the same/It is the drifting cloud forms/Make it seem to change

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Resources:

Special thanks to Ashley (A Different View) and Mike (Silent Pariah) for joining me in this discussion! This was a great experiment and a pleasure to work with both of you.

  1. Lion’s Roar Staff; “What are the Two Truths?
  2. John Carley, “Basho and His Translators”: New Zealand Poetry Society
  3. Margarita Engel; “The Care and Feeding of Poetry”: Poetry Magazine

Engel’s article is also featured in my post “Some Prose About Poetry“.

Want to support our work? Visit the Naturalist Weekly bookstore and browse our curated lists of books of poetry and haiku. Or pick up a gift card that can be used throughout the store.   

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com
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15 thoughts on “Exploring Basho’s Moon

Add yours

  1. A thoughtful post. I really like how you included responses from others. The first sentence of the last paragraph hit it on the mark for me. The reader/viewer/listener is part of the artwork. Their interpretation is like another side of the conversation. The conversation that was started by haiku or an abstract painting or story. What that artwork meant to you. As you concluded, how it made you feel. How it could shape and resonate with you. The impactful artworks will resonate for a long time: lines from a poem that come into your thoughts as you look at the moon or listen to music or drive on a highway in the countryside. For me, that’s the power of art. It becomes part of us.

    1. Hi Dave, Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more and definitely like “that’s the power of art. It becomes part of us”. So well said. Talk soon,

    1. Hi Ashley, I totally agree with your comment about Dave’s response. He definitely summarized this well. Thank you for contributing to this post and sharing your expertise. Have a great weekend! talk soon,

  2. Hey, Mark. Thanks so much for inviting me to participate in this project. It was a lot of fun going on a deep dive into a piece written by one of haiku’s greatest masters. I enjoyed the insights you and Ashley provided on what is one of Basho’s most important works. I agree with Carley’s assessment that “the reader will always bring their own experience into play,” as well as Engel’s “How does the poem make you feel?” That is part of the joy of poetry–our own experiences always add a unique hue to the palette the poet has given us. Also, I think any promotion of Basho’s work is both noble and necessary. Japanese short-form poetry is a treasure trove of profound beauty, and I appreciate your efforts here at Naturalist Weekly to expose your readers to masters such as Basho. We can all benefit from these little gems of beauty.

    1. Hi Mike, Thanks so much for this comment and adding to this conversation. It was a pleasure to be able to work with both you and Ashley on this little project. I also greatly appreciate your kind words about the blog! Let’s keep writing haiku and exploring our relationship with the natural world. We may have to think about a haiku workshop sometime. Maybe that is the next project!

  3. Excellent comments on translation. I am translating Ruben Dario’s first book of poems, Abrojos, into English, and it is a challenge! A translation at best is a fair interpretation, with a flair for the language you are translating to, in my opinion.

    1. Hi Phil, thank you so much for this comment and sharing your accomplishment! I have never tried to translate anything and can only imagine that dance that needs to happen. I was just listening to an audiobook about Taoism and the author uses a phrase like, “to give the text voice” to explain her process of translation. Seems very aligned with you experience. Thanks again for the comment! Hope all is well.

  4. Another great post, Mark. All your links provided such good extra reading but it was so deep, I couldn’t take it all in in one go. I loved all the moon poems. And Margarita Engels’ article, so inspiring. I will revisit this post later and finish reading all the others too. 🙂

    1. Hi Sunra, I am so glad that you found this useful. I often go down these research paths that uncover so much interesting information it is sometime hard to narrow it down. Thanks again and I am glad that you enjoyed it. Talk soon,

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