Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Basho’s third book documenting his travels in Japan. The book recounts his travels from Edo to Ogaki during the years 1689-1691 and is considered one of the major Japanese texts from the Edo period. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has this title partly because Basho traveled north during this journey rather than staying in the southern/central part of Japan as he did in his previous travel writings. However, to say that this title is just referring to the physical path he traveled would be short sighted.
In an introduction to Penguin Classics version of this book, Nobuyuki Yuasa writes:
“In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Basho all the mystery there was in the universe. In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Basho, and he traveled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here – seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish. In short, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Basho’s study in eternity, and in so far as he has succeeded in this attempt, it is also a monument that he has set up against the flow of time.”(1)
So this book is so much more than just a travel journey, but an exploration into self and the world.
From monasteries to horse stalls, Basho documented all his travel experiences in prose and poetry. Emerging from this journey come some of Basho’s most famous haikus including:
A thicket of summer grass Is all that remains Of the dreams and ambitions Of ancient warriors -translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa
In the utter silence Of a temple, A cicada’s voice alone Penetrates the rocks -translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa
(As you may notice, Yuasa translated Basho’s haikus into a four line stanza instead of three. Yuasa explains this decision by stating he believes that the four line stanza provides a better representation of the natural conversational rhythm intended in the haiku; and that when translating such a high number of poems, it was impossible to consistently fit them into the three line structure.(1) )
While these haiku are wonderful in their own right, when you pair them with the text that Basho wrote they seem to take on a more elegant form.
When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time. A thicket of summer grass Is all that remains Of the dreams and ambitions Of ancient warriors
Similarly, we have the prose and haiku of the cicada.
The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being. In the utter silence Of a temple, A cicada’s voice alone Penetrates the rocks
This form of writing that pairs prose with haiku is called a haibun. It is said that Basho popularized this form of writing in his travel journals, and then perfected it in The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
The haibun has several basic characteristics. It contains a piece of poetic prose and it contains a haiku. The prose portion captures a “unfolding scene, a slice of life, a character sketch or a special moment.”(2) The haiku “is meant to be in conversation with the prose section, serving as a thematic accompaniment, juxtaposition, or grace note that deepens the meaning of the piece as a whole.”(2) Yuasa further explains that although Basho failed to maintain an “adequate balance between prose and haiku” in his first two travel journals, in this book he “has mastered the art of writing haibun so completely that prose and haiku illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other.”(1)
While this description of haibun provide us with a good understanding of this art form, I would be remiss to not provide you with some other definitions.
Stanley Pelter wrote in the introduction to past imperfect that a haibun is:
“A combination of a small (or smallish) prose composition and relevant haiku (or equivalent) that, possibly using autobiographical bits and pieces as base content for the journey, unifies (including a unification of opposites, or close partners) and provides an opportunity for something small with the attributes of something big to try and get out to the exterior from the interior.”(3)
Paul Conneally describes the haibun as:
“Prose that has many of the characteristics associated with haiku — present tense …, imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, . . . a sense of ‘being there’, descriptions of places people met and above all ‘brevity’. The haiku . . .should link to the prose but is not a direct carry on from the prose telling some of what has already been said ― no ― it should lead us on ― let our mind want for more, start traveling.”(3)
Although these definitions differ a bit in wording, they are consistent in a few key items. The prose of the haibun should be written in the spirit of the haiku, and the haiku should enhance the reader’s experience of the piece. The prose and haiku are thus complementary.
What I find interesting about the haibun is that it can provide the perfect form to capture moments in the natural world. The haibun enables the writer to embrace the spirit of the haiku and yet allows for a little more expansion on the moment. I know when I read Basho’s haiku about summer grasses within the accompaniment of this prose, my understanding of what he was saying expanded. I can also say that the same thing happened with the haiku about the cicadas.
Finally, to close this short investigation into Basho and the haibun, I would like to quote Basho’s own words about writing poetry. He said:
“Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – then you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”(1)
- Matsuo Basho; Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Narrow Road To The Deep North: Penguin Press. (1966)
- Master Class; How to Write Haibun Poetry
- Haibun Today; Definitions of Haibun
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