In the 17th century, the poet Basho wrote a sort of travelogue called ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’ In his day, travel in Japan was dangerous and the outcome uncertain. Basho’s journey was a profoundly contemplative pilgrimage. The premier haiku poet of his day, Basho related deceptively simple scenes to an audience already familiar with a rich history of short form poetry. This poetry included tanka, a five lined poem that predated haiku. On his journey, Basho experienced hunger and cold while feasting on beauty and the sublime. The first to combine prose with tanka, Basho wrote from the deep presence of Stillness. This Stillness is the Emptiness of the mystic. A lay Buddhist, poetry writing was Basho’s spiritual practice as well as his craft.
We are familiar with haiku, perhaps having written our first in grade school using the familiar syllable count of 5-7-5. Basho’s most famous haiku is
The old pond;
A frog jumps in:
Sound of water.
In this poem, the jump of the frog and the sound of the water are simultaneous. Since it is the frog jumping into the water that creates the sound, why does Basho say it is the sound of the water? Because frog and water and the mind of the listener are not separate. In these few, simple lines, Basho deftly indicates a mystical level of awareness and invites the reader to experience the same.
Seemingly as far from the modern day as a contemplative poet can be, Basho is one of my mentors. First by writing tanka, and then tanka prose, I found my voice with this ancient, Spartan form. In particular, I am drawn to minimalist tanka, painting a picture with my palette of five lines. Here I speak of nature and the voice it arouses in me:
the soul soars
Or, with five lines, revealing the essence of relationships many years long:
adopted the doll
will we argue when it’s time
to take care of mom?
call me flash
my brother said
zooming past me at 5
on the phone he tells me
that his wife left him
As a teacher, I find the brevity of the form valuable as a challenge to my students. They are pressed to relate the truths they discover as succinctly as possible. I encourage them to write a journey to their own interior, juxtaposing prose with short tanka. The tanka hits the point home in a staccato of sharp images-sometimes contrasting, sometimes amplifying the prose.
The modern English language haiku writer usually doesn’t count syllables, nor does the tanka writer. It is also customary to leave out punctuations and capitalization. While haiku only gives the writer three lines, tanka allows for five. If you were to count syllables, the tanka poem would be 5-7-5-7-7. Two additional lines allow for more personal remarks than the haiku. Tanka predates haiku by hundreds of years, evolving from short songs. Communicative forms of tanka writing evolved in the form of notes passed back and forth between members of the court. They were obscure enough to fool the messengers while sharp enough to communicate the vicissitudes of love affairs. Later tanka parties developed. I have held some of my own with my poetry writing students. A 5 lined poem begins the conversation, and, passing a notebook, we write responsive tanka, circulating the notebook between us. Sometimes for fun and ceremony we don antique kimonos and sip sake.
Basho’s genius was his clarity, brevity and piercing insight into what in the plethora of experience was the jewel to pluck. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we are as haunted as he is by the briefness of his remaining time on earth. We share with him his pleasure at the beauty of nature and his comradeship with contemporaneous poets as well as with those who left their traces with brief verses. Coming upon a scene a poet spoke of years before, Basho adds his own as if continuing a conversation. In his hands, verse, like art, seems an ample foil against the imminent darkness of death. How that darkness pales in the face of such brilliant words! His prose alludes to friendships that span centuries, like mine with him. Admiringly, I share his contemplations and imagine misty Japanese mountains. My mind, too, seeks truth as my weary body resists sleep.
There is one description in particular that leaves the modern reader in anguish and points, perhaps, to a failing in the sublimity of Basho’s love of nature and beauty. In an earlier travel journal, ‘The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton,’ Basho describes coming upon an abandoned child. Here his words describe the scene:
As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents. They must have thought this child was unable to ride through the stormy waters of life which run as wild as the rapid river itself, and that he was destined to have a life even shorter than that of the morning dew. The child looked to me as fragile as the flowers of bush-clover that scatter at the slightest stir of the autumn wind, and it was so pitiful that I gave him what little food I had with me.
The ancient poet
Who pitied monkeys for their cries,
What would he say, if he saw
This child crying in the autumn wind?
How is it indeed that this child has been reduced to this state of utter misery? Is it because of his mother who ignored him, or because of his father who abandoned him? Alas, it seems to me that this child’s undeserved suffering has been caused by something far greater and more massive-by what one might call the irresistible will of heaven. If it is so, child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind.
This child’s cries now haunt us more than three hundred years after Basho met him. It is hard not to rage against the poet whose observations seem merely aesthetic and indicative of a moral fault. Could this poet be the man who fathomed the Oneness of all things in the sound of water? What is the ‘irresistible will of heaven’ such that Basho, a man, can’t swoop up this child and bring him to shelter with some peasant family? Why must he pass on, advising the child to raise his voice to heaven against his undeserved suffering?
My favorite poem by Basho is the following:
At the journey’s end:
A late autumn eve.
In this haiku I find a sense of mystery, wonder and gratitude. There is no feeling of entitlement; only wonder. The poet greets his journey, and finally, the late days of his life, with awe. How does his sense of awe cast light on his attitude toward the lost child? What is Basho’s fault? It is hard to understand him correctly as we gaze back through the centuries. His was a time of frequent violence. Tragedy was commonplace. Reading his surprise, still alive at the journey’s end, we sense that he found his life to be an unexpected, and perhaps unearned jewel. He seems to suggest that we don’t suffer because we deserve to suffer nor experience joy because we earn it. Is it the stillness from which we emerge, in joy or sorrow, that arouses Basho’s awe? If so, it is also the Stillness that we are.
Inspired by Basho, my own poem references my teacher:
to the stick you offer
I see now
it is attached