This article is one of several Dead Poet's Emporium editions, a series of articles by CarrieAnn Thunell. This particular article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of the SP Quill Quarterly Magazine.
In this edition we turn our eyes to the Far East to consider the poet Basho, born in 1644,
some 30 miles southeast of Kyoto. Basho is revered as the greatest of Japan’s haiku poets. He was born
Matsuo Kinsaku, but later changed his name to Basho, which means, “Banana Tree”. He did this because he
was deeply touched when a disciple gifted him with a living banana tree. Throughout his short life,
(he died in 1694), Basho was drawn to the solitary path of a wanderer.
let that be my name—
the first winter rain.1
At the time when Basho appeared on the Japanese literary landscape, the haiku form was already well
established, but was dying off as a vital literary genre due to the many dry rules governing its expression.
Basho believed that an accurate communication of the experience of oneness with nature was far more
important than the rules of form. “Learn of the pine from the pine; learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.”
Basho made his living by teaching haikai-no-renga, a form of collaborative linked verse that predates haiku.
He also wrote haibun, which took the form of short travel journal prose entries sprinkled lightly with haiku.
His most famous travel journal haibun collection is called, “Narrow Road To The Interior.” In 1998, Sam Hamill
translated this travel journal, several others, and a selection of Basho’s haiku, under the title, Narrow Road
To The Interior And Other Writings. Mr. Hamill states that, “Basho completely redefined haiku and transformed
haibun. These accomplishments grew out of arduous studies in poetry, Buddhism, history, Taoism, Confucianism,
Shintoism, and some very important Zen training.”3
Basho was a dedicated scholar of the Japanese and Chinese literary classics. He also studied the writings
of Saigyo, a Buddhist monk-poet who believed in co-dependent origination, the Buddhist philosophy that
all of nature is fully interdependent. For Basho, to be in perpetual communion with the natural world, and
to live from the center of that sense of interconnectedness, was vital. “The first task for each artist is
to overcome the barbarian … heart and mind, to become one with nature.”4
Through invoking powerfully juxtaposed images of nature, Basho strove to achieve amari-no-kokoro, the
state a poem reaches when the heart and soul of a poem leaps at us from a place beyond the words
themselves to leave an ‘aftertaste’ in the center of the reader that is haunting. There is an element of pathos,
and sabishi (spiritual loneliness) in Basho’s poems:
if I took it in hand,
it would melt in my hot tears—
heavy autumn frost5
Towards the end of his life, Basho reached a maturity in his haiku style. His mature style, or shofu, is
characterized by: karumi, or lightness, an expression of nonattachment born of the acceptance of life
on life’s terms; sabi, a poignant sense of life’s brevity and beauty coupled with nostalgia; and wabi,
the elegance of austere simplicity and solitude.
come, see real
of this painful world6
Of Basho, Lucien Stryke says, “whether his foot brushed flower or mud, he was intensely alive to the
preciousness of all that shared the world with him.”7
It is tradition for a haiku poet, towards the end of his life, to write a final death poem; a sort of closing
statement, or final farewell. I leave you with Basho’s last poem:
sick on a journey—
over parched fields
dreams wander on8
1. Basho, quoted in Hamill, Sam, Narrow Road To The Interior And Other Writings of Matsuo Basho,
(Boston: Shambhala Classics, 1998), 56.
2. Basho, quoted in Higginson, Williams, The Haiku Handbook, (New York: Kodansha International 1985), 10.
3. Hamill, x.
4. Basho, quoted in Hamill, 56.
5. Basho, quoted in Hamill, xxvii.
6. Basho, quoted in Stryk, Lucien, translator, Basho: On Love and Barley, Haiku Of Basho, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1985), 54.
7. Stryke, Lucien, 19.
8. Basho, quoted in Lucien, 19.