Basho, The Narrow Road, and Haibun

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.

Mountain Path
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

And,

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
walking path
Photo by Sean Valentine on Pexels.com

The Haibun

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)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North Cover

Resources:

  1. Matsuo Basho; Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Narrow Road To The Deep North: Penguin Press. (1966)
  2. Master Class; How to Write Haibun Poetry
  3. Haibun Today; Definitions of Haibun

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28 thoughts on “Basho, The Narrow Road, and Haibun

Add yours

  1. An interesting comparison of the haiku by themselves, then paired with text. For me, the lone haiku had more of an impact as I read them — especially the cicada’s voice piercing the rock. Wonderful. But I’ll also say that the prose adds place surrounding the haiku. As if some of the mist has cleared, and we see more of the landscape around where the haiku sits.

    1. Hi Dave, I really like your comment about how with the prose “Some of the mist has cleared” and we get to see the landscape around the haiku. That is a beautiful description of what is happening! Thank you for adding that!

  2. I love this post, Mark, because I have read Basho’s Narrow Road (Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation) and because I just love poems and haiku that are illustrated, either visually with drawings or prints, but also with words as in haibun (as Dave says, the prose adds ‘place’).

    1. Hi Ashley, I totally agree with Dave’s comment. It is the perfect description of how the prose and poetry fit together. I didn’t even mention the little illustrations that are found in this book. But they are also great. Thanks for the reminder of that! I hope all is well and talk soon,

  3. These haiku really do take on deeper meaning when paired with accompanying prose. I’m familiar with Basho’s summer grasses haiku, but after reading the full haibun, it really hit so much harder, his grief, the memories of not only lost lives but also lost hopes and dreams. Same with his cicadas haibun. Just a few lines of prose can take a haiku in a completely different or more profound direction. As a counterpoint, however, a haibun seems to provide a much narrower viewpoint for the haiku, sort of like a music video does with a song: sans the video portion, a listener uses his imagination to paint mental images of song lyrics, but with the video, those images are forced upon the listener and forever imprints those images on the lyrics. I suppose the prose portion of a haibun could have the same effect–a sort of limiting of the abstract, ephemeral quality of a haiku, and could possibly dampen the intensity in the imagination of the reader if not handled with proper care. One thing’s for certain, however–I’ve got to get a copy of Basho’s book. Also, as always, your writing is superb, Mark, and I appreciate your in-depth research on these topics. I learn something new every time I read your posts. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, thank you for the thoughtful addition to this post. It does seem that the prose can add clarity to the intent of the author, but it can also limit the possibilities for the reader. I think drawing the parallel to music and music videos.
      Thanks again for all the thoughtful comments. I definitely appreciate it! Be well and talk soon,

  4. Pingback: Haibun #1
  5. Thank you for your post about Haibun…I’d never heard of it before. I love the knowledge I learn from WordPress poets. I will have a try myself.

    1. Hi Amanda, I am glad that you enjoyed the post! It is my hope that I can make my post useful and entertaining. Thanks for visiting and the comment! It is appreciated.

  6. rich material, again and as ever well researched and compiled. Thank you Mark. As I am settling into a winter of travel, I am ashamed but relieved to be reminded of the depth that is there to be entered.

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks for the kind words. I really enjoy diving into this kind of stuff. I’m glad that you found this useful and I hope you have safe travels!

    1. Hi Jean, Thank you for your kind words and I am glad that you enjoyed this. I truly enjoyed doing the research on this one. I find the haibun format really enjoyable to read and write. Thanks again for the comment.

  7. Such a succinct summation of Basho’s work, giving the reader a tasty taster, with some choice haikus to enjoy. Love the first one especially. It really paints a picture of the ghosts of the past.

    1. Hi Sunra, I definitely enjoyed writing this post. Exploring Basho’s work is so fascinating. The whole evolution of haiku and the early haiku masters has become my new favorite research topic. Thanks for your continued support!

    1. Hi Sandra, Thanks so much for the comment and adding to the conversation. I agree that art, poetry, and writing are a collaborative sport! Thanks again and keep making art!

    1. Basho definitely experienced some loss and hardship. He was also very influenced by the poetic sages that came before him and Zen practices. In the next few days I will have a book review post about Basho life and evolution of his poetry. Fascinating book called The Heart of Haiku. Thanks again for the comment and support! I hope all is well.

  8. Wow, I’ve just read your post and can see that I’ve been instinctively using a similar format in my own work, without ever having heard about Haibun. (What a happy coincidence!)
    I find that setting the scene with an opening text (I have been using journal extracts) and then further expanding on the scene by way of a poem (and images) really invites the reader into the moment. But I suppose the trick is to be able to leave enough space for the reader to imagine and interpret the moment for themselves.
    Thank you so much for researching and posting about this. I think I need to get myself a Basho book as an early Christmas present!

    1. Hi Rachael, thanks for the comment. I totally agree that your work follows this format. I think, much like the haiku, it is seems like an easy way to write something but becomes challenging when you actually try to write in this way and provide the space for the reader, as you mentioned. With that said, I think you accomplished that in your work.
      Thanks for the comment! Talk soon,

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