This is a book I will refer to over and over again. The introduction
alone is worth the price of the book. Dr. Barnhill gives us a glimpse into
haiku master's mindset. Basho's haiku becomes more than poetry to be read
and appreciated. We are exposed to the poet's genius, breadth of knowledge,
and understanding of nature. It is easy to read one of Basho's haiku and
to appreciate it as a good haiku. But to understand what Basho was saying
is another thing altogether. There are those who argue that it is not important
to understand a haiku poet's mindset in order to understand his poetry.
Dr. Barnhill disagrees. Basho, like a lot of poets in Japan, wrote poetry
influenced by his cultural memory, the natural environment, and social context.
One cannot fully fathom the intellectual depth and beauty of Matsuo Basho's
haiku without insight into his mindset.
Take, for example, Basho's haiku:
stretching out over Sado,
"Basho was standing
on the western shores of Japan looking out upon the night sea . . . Miles
away, lay Sado Island . . . a place where numerous people endured
the enforced solitude of exile. Stretching out across the sky was the Milky
Way (Heaven's River). Says Dr. Barnhill, "As a metaphorical river,
it flows in internal tranquility above the storms of the sea and of human
with a scattered brightness, more pure than gold. Basho, the island, and
on earth seem to be alone yet together under the stream of stars. Over the
storm is silence; above the movement is a stillness that somehow suggests
of the river and of time; and piercing the darkness is the shimmering but
faint light of stars."
Further into the book, Dr. Barnhill explores the structure of haiku, the
nature of Basho's hokku, nature in haiku poetry, and the stages of Basho's
and poetics. There is a lot of confusion regarding the rules of writing
a kigo (seasonal word) necessary? Do plants, animals, and even scenes have
a true nature? Should nature and culture be kept separate? Are metaphors
allowable? These and other questions are answered by the author in his
study of Basho's haiku.
was not a poet to rest on his laurels, sticking with a style that worked
and guaranteed him
acclaim. He took chances. A lay Buddhist monk,
open to growth. If he were alive today he would not post the haiku on online
that had won awards and/or had been published. Take, for instance, juxtaposition.
Says Dr. Barnhill, "In the late 1670s, Basho began to use more frequently
a technique of striking juxtaposition, in which two images were brought
together but kept separate enough to suggest (rather than explain) a comparison."
Later down the line,
Basho switched gears, adopting a sometimes darker
on a withered branch
a crow has settle—
Says Barnhill, "He
clearly was being influenced by the seriousness and depth of the Chinese
verse as well as the spiritual aesthetics of Zen." . . .
Later in the 1690s, Basho took an altogether different turn, opting for
a lighter, more uplifting tone. "This aesthetic reflected his
renewed sense of the significance of the mundane dimension of life
and art. It also helped him deal
with an increasingly troubled spirit, something that became apparent .
. ." near
the end of his life.
The translations of Basho's haiku that accompany the introduction are
presented in chronological order. This allows a reader to examine the growth,
and development in Basho's poetry. As an added bonus, Dr. Barnhill includes
to aid in the understanding of the poet's terminology, cultural context,
and mindset. Also in the book are a glossary of terms and an index to
Dr. Barnhill doesn't just offer the reader a short synopsis of Basho's
life followed by a selection of his poetry. Instead, he gives his readers
at the poet and his poetry.
A treasure trove of Basho's poetry, the haiku included in this book
are skillfully and delicately translated, his preference that of
letting the reader come
to the poem as it is in the original. Here are a few examples:
the beginning of all
in the deep north
a rice planting song
birds cry, in the fishes'
eyes are tears
seeming to be
blossoms of the harvest moon:
why do I feel so old?
into the clouds, a bird
and the white paper screen,
reflecting each other
Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
State University of New York Press
Robert Wilson's interview
with David Barnhill and biographical information can be viewed in this
issue of Simply
2005: Simply Haiku