WHR August 2011‎ > ‎

A Study of Basho

WHR August 2011    




Part One


        Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought. Basho (Hass 233)

As I write this passage, I am on a plane from Boston to London. Surrounded by azure ocean, Newfoundland passes beneath me. I can see it out the window; each passing moment sees a new section of the coast come into view and the old section disappear.  Knowing I will lose five hours, I set my watch ahead five hours.

         Suddenly aware of the relativity of the frames imposed by space and time, I settle down, open my laptop,  and get out my Basho books: Barnhill’s Basho’s Journey and Sato’s Narrow Road.

           The months and the days are wayfarers . . .” Our journeys are taken within a larger journey: Cosmic journeys are repetitions or returns with difference. For humans, the journey takes place within the context of these transcending journeys. Basho: Those who float all their lives on a boat . . . inhabit travel.” Barnhill renders: “each day is a journey, the journey is itself home.”

          My journey – THE journey – is paradoxical. I am not just “going” to London: I am returning to it. After all, I am living in, or should more accurately say, am resident in, England.  I have not always lived in England, while paradoxically having always thought England my home. My sense of identity, of origin, is inseparable from these interlinking, entwining journeys and returns.

          Thanks to Basho, Flight BA238 has taken on the double nature of journey, linear and abstract: this flight has become an exploration into the idea of journey, with associative layers of meaning and spreading depth. I understand Basho’s text about journey by understanding my own journey. Both our journeys are real, both depend for their significance on cultural understandings. Basho drew on earlier Chinese and Japanese poets and philosophers; I draw on Basho and interpret Basho according to contemporary thought. Above all, there is a millennial language of journey.    



        The immanence of passing time can be viewed in the light of a complex of journeys/returns and the tensions between them, be they personal, historical, cosmic. The philosopher Eric Voegelin names this aspect of existence as “metaxy” (he reinvented Plato’s word for the area “in-between” the immanent and the transcendent), and I shall refer to the haibun journey as metaxic.

          Basho understood his journeys through a genre he developed from old travel genres.  He refurbished it through his understanding of haiku. The study of haibun helps us understand Basho’s innovations in haiku. For example, just what is the haiku “moment” in the context of the haibun journey?

          According to much Western haibun discourse, the form is still in its infancy. Despite its 400 year history in Japan, the form is referred to as new.  In our role as inventors, we may – as many do– experience such a sense of discovery as ‘liberating; we can determine the rules; we can even say there are no rules.

          The acknowledged initiator of haibun in English is David Cobb, whose “Spring Voyage”, which was two decades in the making, appeared in 1997. Inspired by Basho’s “Narrow Road,” this work drew on the prose of Edward Thomas and R. L. Stevenson, among others. Lately his inspirations have included G. W. Sebald and Iain Sinclair. In a recent interview, he said that “the essential thing, surely, is that neither prose nor poetry should upstage each other.” Indeed, he feels that there’s so little difference between the prose and poem of a haibun that, theoretically, the haiku could be “written out” as part of the prose.

          In this case, Cobb may be thought to reflect widely held views about Basho’s practice.  In his study of Basho, Makoto Ueda notes the artistic quality of Basho’s prose and concludes: “Haibun can be said to be haiku prose, or prose written in the spirit of haiku.” (112) Barnhill, noting its “terse, imagistic style,”  calls Basho’s haibun “prose poems” (10).  And yet as we shall see, the complex structure of haiku should keep the poem from being dissolved in the haiku prose.

          Cobb’s views confirm our concept of “metaxic” haibun – our contemporary reference to Basho’s complex concept of cosmic/personal journey – when he refers to the writing act as ‘setting out on an adventure’, as ‘roaming between actuality and fiction,’ and when he says that the ‘reader can travel through [the poet’s] memory, experience and universal human experience.’ Such lexical choices as setting out, adventure, roaming and travel, echo the idea of journey.

          If the “haiku prose” of haibun is about journey, what of the haiku? In our English language presentations, Basho’s haiku often appear without original prose contexts, apparently without suffering (Basho himself considered his haiku and haibun separately as well as together). For contemporary haibun writers, the relationship between the haiku proper and the haiku prose needs attention.



        “To be a wayfarer is to manifest the transience of life, to expose oneself to uncertainties and difficulties, and to be a living symbol of the itinerant quality of life itself,” writes Barnhill in his introduction to Basho’s Journey (6).  Contemporary haiku, on the other hand, is most often conceived as a “snap shot” of reality, even a timeless insight into the essence of a thing. InBasho: The Complete Haiku, Jane Reichhold writes (9),

‘One of the goals of poetry is to penetrate this essence, to grab hold of it in words and pass it on to the reader, so purely that the writer as author disappears. Only by stepping aside, by relinquishing the importance of being the author, can one capture and transmit the essence – the very is-ness – of a thing.’

         The tension between transience and essence is basic to the contemporary haiku arts.

          In one of his most famous theoretical statements, Basho says, “Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.” (Hass 233). Each pine exhibits pineness but is not pineness itself: each pine alludes to, or is symbolic of, the essence of pine.

          Contemporary writers may find Basho’s statement confusing. To use the Western terminology of essence we see in Reichhold and many modern Western haiku commentators, even the essence of pine is not the same as the essence of being. The essence of things is not located within the thing itself. The is-ness of a thing is not to be gained through attention to the thing alone. Indeed, is-ness is not the same as the “thingness” of a thing.

          Barnhill says that in his travels Basho pursued “the wayfaring life in order to embody physically and metaphorically the fundamental character of the universe.”  (6). He visits places “loaded” with cultural and spiritual significance and his sense of “nature” is bound up with these traditions of place. This intertwining of place and significance, the local and the transcendental, is basic to Basho’s experience. The centrality of “place names” or utamakura is basic to Basho’s outlook. Barnhill says, “Basho tended to write of places in nature handed down through literature, giving cultural depth to his experience of nature.”

          Finally, we note that the vast majority of Western haibun end with the haiku – the contemporary desire for selflessness, for abandonment of the ego, has been structurally arrived at within a given context. The textual journey is over. But such an act of closure may deny haibun a sense of resonance and layers of depth. The “haiku prose” demanded by haibun is deeply metaxic and the only difference between it and the haiku itself is the architecture of the haiku, which formalizes the tension between the particular and the universal, as we shall see.



        In his introduction to Narrow Road (18),  Hiroaki Sato translates a passage from     Basho’sKnapsack Notebook, the Oi no Kobumi:

Heels torn, I am the same as Saigyo, and I think of him at the Tenryu ferry. Renting a horse, I conjure up in my mind the sage who became furious. In the beautiful spectacles of the mountains, field, ocean and coast, I see the achievement of the creation. Or I follow the trails left by those who, completely unattached, pursued the Way, or I try to fathom the truth expressed by those with poetic sensibility.

        From the very first phrase-- ‘heels torn’-- Basho places himself upon the physical journey, the immanent journey, which in Genroku Japan (and even well past the Meiji Restoration Period) was truly arduous. However, the line then takes on a transcendental nature through the intertextual return to Saigyo (i.e. “I am the same as Saigyo, and I think of him at the Tenryu ferry”). The journey which Basho is “undertaking” (or so the reader believes through the literary suspension of disbelief), engages the metaxical journey-return, for it is both particularly immanent and particularly intertextual. Basho is at once setting out upon his journey and is continuing Saigyo’s journey, thus partaking in his own imaginative projective-return to the readings of his past. And as we shall see, the intertextual references expand the range of reference from his torn heels to zoka and the Way.


        On the surface, the Tenryu ferry is a symbol of transience, of journey. Each side of the river is at once a beginning and an end. Does the journey hang suspended between shores? Yes and no: The ferry is its own journey, held within the greater journey of Saigyo’s pilgrimage, which itself is held within the aesthetic of pilgrimage that Saigyo’s poetry has come to signify and evoke through Japanese literature (and now Western literature, too, thanks to translators like Sato).

           This heuristic sense of place is then intensified and given greater credence by its naming. It now becomes a geographically and literarily locatable ‘place,’  which Basho has returned to, a place the knowledgeable reader can return to and a novice can journey to, or seek out and hence ironically, even paradoxically, return to upon reading Saigyo’s work.  The associative nature ofutamakura, places of literary and cultural association, must also embody, symbolically, an “experience of a place” (that of literary work) and the infinite returns embodied within its readership.

          Even for the poet himself, on writing about the place, it becomes part of his experience and hence can never be truly experienced in the same way again. Ferries and mountains, fields, oceans, coasts: all points that lead the poet-reader’s perception to, and illustrate, the journey-return complex. They are both horizons and limits.  

          In the beautiful spectacles of the mountains, field, ocean and coast, I see the achievement of the creation.

          This passage pays homage to nature and its symbols, but the structure of the line is also illuminative. The choice of the collective noun ‘spectacles’ conveys a celebration of these wondrous sights, but also draws attention to the fact that they are sights, objects of nature which have been perceived and appreciated by the poet’s sensibilities.

          Basho does not loose himself in nature: he paradoxically finds himself through a desire to lose himself in nature, knowing that he cannot dissolve his ego completely. He can, though, direct his ego towards things beyond his body. Here this reflective-perception is mirrored, or pointed to, through the structuring of the symbols in dichotomies: mountain/ field, ocean / coast. The first noun within each of these two pairs is a realm essentially separated from man, where the second is inherently a location inhabited by man.

          According to ancient Japanese beliefs, which are pre-Buddhist in nature, mountains were the dwelling places of dangerous spirits not the haunt of man. The ocean is just as much, if not more, of a physical obstacle to man’s habitation: mysterious regions beyond the knowledge of man. Yet they can be ventured into spiritually, intertextually, imaginatively.  On the other hand, fields and coasts are places of habitation, agriculture and fishing. They can be known and are vernacular – areas of common experience.

           Basho does not shun common experience because to do so would be to cause imbalance in the metaxical journey; such an imbalance would cut out a rich source of experiences, cultural experiences and lowly experiences, which also make up the world’s overlapping journeys and therefore deny the universal nature of journey-return. As well as being places for a traveller-poet to travel through, the fields, for example, are richly steeped in the seasonal work of agriculture which reflects the continuing journeying through life, but within the return and progressions of the seasons that ultimately float in the transcendent order of temporal existence.

          . . . I see the achievement of the creation. Or I follow the trails left by those who, completely unattached, pursued the Way, or I try to fathom the truth expressed by those with poetic sensibility.

          Basho is not only a witness to creation, but partakes in it—“participates” in this universal through his bodily awareness and his cultural understandings.  Here the way is ambiguous, but can be taken as the Way alluded to and taught by the ancient Chinese text, the Zhuangzi. In an essay on Basho and Zoka, Peipei Qiu writes (Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces 67):

          A term widely used in traditional Chinese texts, it designates in the Zhuangzi both the working of the Dao—the natural way in which all phenomena come into being and transform—and the accomplishments of the Dao (the existence of all things and beings). The notion is used in Chinese literary theory to imply the natural and spontaneous creative process or the unsullied outcome of such a process. This usage is also found in Basho’s travel journals.


        Already aware of the multiplicity of beginnings, ends and continuances, which form the poles of the metaxical journey and its tension, Basho still has to start his literary journey somewhere.  He rejects tradition at this point, by not opening his poetic text with the first season of the Japanese calendar year (as it would have been in Basho’s time), i.e. spring. He does not even start the first poem at the point of departure upon the road.

          Instead, Basho opens his text with the line: The months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, and the years that come and go are also travellers.

          Basho has immediately floated his poem within the transcendental spheres of the infinite (passing time which is the reflective symbol of Eternity) and language (via the metaphor that passing time is diurnal; that lunar and celestially quantified time frames are foot-born travellers).

          The cosmological language of the sage recognizes that the physical journey, which comprises a great deal, even the majority, of the text’s content, is not the only journey that took place nor is it the only journey that will take place, as the reader moves through the symbolised space and time of the text’s articulation.

          Such an opening draws the reader immediately away from the notion that the text, the journey that has “started,” will not be a purely intentionalist investigation of “objects,” but will be (in Voegelin’s words) a ‘process of meditative wandering through the paradoxical manifold of tensions.’ This “wandering” is the quest for truth. The quest has a direction, towards truth; we have the opening to a journey.

          Additionally, these opening lines make us aware of another tension within the unfolding journey: the tension of language. Indeed, years that come and go are named as travellers, a personified (metaphorical) evocation of the multiple-nature of journeys against the universal journey. Day, month, year, generation: each particular is given particular attention and recognition through labelling, naming. Such units – day, month, year – are creatures of an imaginative order.



     In a key passage, Voegelin writes (In Search of Order 117):

Imagination, as a structure in the process of a reality that moves toward its truth, belongs both to human consciousness in its bodily location and to the reality that comprehends bodily located man as a partner in the community of being. There is no truth symbolised without man’s imaginative power to find the symbols that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolised without the comprehending It-reality in which such structures as man with his participatory consciousness, experiences of appeal and response, language, and imagination occur. Through the imaginative power of man the It-reality moves imaginatively toward its truth…


The It-reality encompasses the Metaxy yet it is dependent on the imagination for illumination. Such is the paradox of human consciousness.  This is a contemporary version of the artist’s role in Zoka, the Creative. 

          As part of the greater literary work, which heightens the tension of man as the co-partner to the creation of reality (as mirrored in the creative-imaginative act of writing, awareness of and creation of symbols, which Basho is performing), the opening of Narrow Road is also the beginning of his own quest, a seeking of the Way, but commences before his physical life had even started.

          In his essay in Basho’s Poetic Spaces (33), Barnhill quotes the Knapsack Notebook:

Saigyo’s waka, Sogi’s renga, Sesshu’s painting, Rikyu’s tea ceremony – one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this artistic spirit is to follow zoka, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined is not a flower, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow zoka, return to zoka.


The passage starts with a list of admired artists, where art is represented as a differentiated-multifaceted and paradoxically single medium of the Zoka spirit, the spirit to seek and journey-voyage into the tension of reality.

          The heuristic dimension of reality, that of the body as sensorium, is not to be lost to or absorbed by the imaginative dimension. A flower is a flower. It has its own objectivity. Yet, it is seen. There is an entwining of perception and objectivity. The moon, likewise, is the moon, but now it is imagined. The immanent flower is a flower; the transcendental-imagined moon is a dimension of the moon within the psyche of man: man is co-partner in reality. He cannot escape either dimension; he exists in the tension of the In-between.

          If we deny either tension in the search for man’s truth, either immanence or transcendence, we can have no appreciation of reality and no true concept of ourselves. Instead, Basho journey-voyages into these tensions; he “inhabits” travel; he follows their becoming as he exists; he physically journeys across time-space while he simultaneously journeys into his existence and the nature of these journey-voyages. He follows and returns to zoka, the creative heart of the real.  


                                                                    (To be continued)