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Following the great haiku poet on the road

by David Burleigh

BASHO’S JOURNEY: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, translated with an introduction by David Landis Barnhill. State University of New York Press, 2005, 191 pp., $19.95 (paper).

The great haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was first represented to the West just over a century ago. This was in W.G. Aston’s “A History of Japanese Literature” (1899), a pioneering study. Unfortunately the author, a British scholar from the north of Ireland, got the poet’s name wrong, and was somewhat baffled by his work. Since then, however, there have been numerous studies and selections to explain it better and more fully. So what makes it necessary to have another one?

This is the second part of a new two-volume edition of the poet’s work by David Landis Barnhill. The first book, “Basho’s Haiku,” was reviewed here previously (by Donald Richie, Sept. 26, 2004). It contains a thoroughly annotated selection of the haiku, as we now call them, though Aston used the older term haikai for the verses. Like many early explicators, Aston also made no mention of the poet’s prose, which indeed was not translated properly until Nobuyuki Yuasa’s important selection, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches” (1966), came out in Penguin.

That the prose journals set the poems in specific contexts was critically important for our understanding of them, and arguably Yuasa’s volume has been the most influential representation in English of the poet’s life and work so far. Barnhill mentions in his helpful introduction the names of several American writers who felt the influence directly, just as I have observed it on British and Irish writers. There is plenty of continuing interest in Basho, particularly among writers on the natural environment, for whom the idea of things “following their nature” is of key importance.

If, as it has been sometimes said, the classics should be translated anew for each generation, then this new edition of Basho’s prose is very timely. There are now almost a dozen versions of the longest travel journal, the “Oku no hosomichi,” from which Yuasa took the memorable title for his selection. Barnhill restores that title to the journal, though there have been variations on it at the hands of others in the meantime.

But what gives this new volume significance is the wealth of other material it includes. No edition of the poet’s work since Yuasa (including Sam Hamill’s substantial one-volume “Essential Basho” in 1998) has contained all five of Basho’s travel journals, in addition to the shorter “Saga Diary.” Here it is the context of the poems that makes a difference to our reading and appreciation of them. Sometimes the circumstances are apparent from the journal entry, while at others the full meaning needs more elucidation.

The immediate appeal of Basho’s journals is the keen sense they give of being on the road. He is very good, as many have observed, on the discomforts and anxieties of travel, the stale accommodations, the lice and fleas, the dangers and the cold. He is also very good on the miraculous rewards, the people and scenery encountered. The seascape on the cover of this volume, an unusual scene for Basho, suggests one of his most famous verses, about looking across a stormy sea toward Sado Island.

The poet’s most commonly used image was the moon. One of the most vivid episodes in “The Narrow Road” describes the other guests at an inn, and is followed by this verse: “in the same house / prostitutes, too, slept: / bush clover and the moon.” Next day, the two young women appeal to the poet and his companion for protection on their journey, but the poet, having cast his spiritual light on them, cannot undertake this task, so they are left to their fate, as beautiful and frail as petals.

We now know, from the diary kept by Basho’s traveling companion, that none of this actually happened. Afterward, the poet reworked and refined the accounts of his journeys, to make them more resonant and balanced. They are not simply rough jottings put down as he went along, but artistically designed creations, yet artful enough not to seem imaginary, but real. Barnhill gives us most of what is known about their background in his detailed annotations.

Although Aston did not mention the prose-works in his “History,” he did describe another type of writing that is represented here. Immediately after his introduction to the poet, Aston mentions haibun, or poetic prose. During the last century this form of short prose composition, often ending with a poem, has been almost entirely abandoned in Japan. At the same time, it has been taken up with enthusiasm overseas.

Today, haiku magazines overseas often contain a section for haibun, and anthologies of such writing have been published. Yet in the land of its birth, visiting enthusiasts have nowadays to explain what they mean when they inquire about it. Significantly, Barnhill’s selection of Basho’s prose carries a section devoted to this form: prefaces to collected work, small reflective evocations, variants of portions of the journals.

Barnhill’s approach to translation is straightforward and unfussy, aiming to be as accurate as possible, making his two volumes a highly serviceable compilation. They will be of great value to readers.

Of the two, perhaps the one of prose is the more important, as there are already many versions of the poems. The prose helps to give us a sharper sense of the wandering poet, and of the poetry being experienced, with “the journey itself home.”