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BASHO’S HAIKU: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, translated and with an Introduction by David Landis Barnhill. Albany: State University of New York Press, 232 pp., $23.95 (paper).

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) raised the haiku from a transient pastime to an enduring literary genre. He was among the first to make the haiku a vehicle for feeling, an expression of comprehension.

But just what is a haiku? This new collection of translations gives some definitions, although the best, I find, is still that of the literary critic and teacher, Makoto Ueda: “What is haiku? Basic to all seems to be an internal comparison, a comparison between the finite and the infinite which are brought together in one experience, which is the poem.”

Basho, depending upon which complete edition you refer to, wrote about 980 haiku, most of them seeming to successfully compare finite with infinite. In this new collection by Landis Barnhill 724 plus some variants are included, making it the largest selection now in print. These are arranged chronologically when possible rather than seasonally, as is more usual, so that a maturing of the poet’s style may be inferred.

They are also presented in such a manner that the reader can refer back to the original impulse, something rewarding in haiku study. In the main body of the text, each poem is given in romaji and in Barnhill’s translation — usually more spare than most. In the notes the original is literal, transcribed into English word by word, and any notes the poet himself gave are listed, as well as bibliographical items.

The interested reader may thus make a return to the scene of the conception and try to capture something of the original impetus, even making new translations of his or her own.

The haiku, here listed as number 388, is given with its original appended note explaining that when crossing the Shitomae-no-Seki (Shitomae barrier or checkpoint to Dewa Province), Basho and his companion were detained for three days in “a thoroughly cheerless place.” The resulting haiku is “nomi shirami/ uma no shitosuru / makura moto,” which Barnhill translates as: “flees, lice, / a horse peeing / by my pillow.” In the notes the translator informs that Shitomae literally means “before the urine,” and gives a word-for-word rendition of the haiku: “fleas lice / horse’s pee do / pillow side.”

This lyric seems to contain all that a haiku ought: a salient shaft of observance, cause and effect; a seasonal sensibility; a taste of the common humors of humanity. The situation itself is in no great need of explication. It is obviously summer, obviously the inn is humble, obviously one has trouble sleeping. This is reported and the result is apprehended as humorous. There is also a subtext.

Shitomae-no-Seki, a place-name also rendered as “Passwater Barrier” offers a pleasing parallel not insisted upon in the lyric itself, but perhaps a kind of historical commentary: The reason for the place-name is that when the great samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune, his wife and new born baby, stopped at the barrier on their flight north, the infant first peed.

We are thus given everything known about this particularly lyric (from the “Narrow Road to the Deep North” collection) and may essay our own attempts at translation if so inclined. It is a popular haiku and below I include some earlier translations so the reader may discover how it has been handled and, in some cases, man-handled.

Nobuyuki Yuasa translates as: “Bitten by fleas and lice, / I slept in a bed, / A horse urinating all the time / Close by my pillow.” Dorothy Britten gives it as: “Fleas and lice did bite; / and I’d hear the horse pass water / Near my bed at night.” Donald Keene has versified it as: “Plagued by fleas and lice I hear the horses staling — / What a place to sleep!” And Toshiharu Oseki, who says he offers us a literal translation, gives it as : “Plagued by flees and lice, / Still worse, hearing the horse urinating / Close by my pillow!

Parenthetically one might mention the problem of word usage in translation. Am I wrong in believing that peeing is mainly of infantile or juvenile or jokey connotation? And that animals may piss, as may adult humans, but that they are more properly stale? And that, in any case, “pass water” is a euphemism and “urinate” a medical term?

Such variance makes one inclined to join those critics who maintain that the translation of Japanese traditional poetry into other languages is an impossibility. It is, however, possible to indicate a kind of English parallel lying alongside the original Japanese. This is what Barnhill has sensibly done in this version, which allows us to see differences and court variances.

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