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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Book Review ~ Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho,
by David Landis Barnhill

Reviewed by Robert Wilson

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 the 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:

stormy sea---
stretching out over Sado,
Heaven's River

"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 life, sparkling with a scattered brightness, more pure than gold. Basho, the island, and everything 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 the flow 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 poetry and poetics. There is a lot of confusion regarding the rules of writing haiku. Is 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.

Basho 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, he was open to growth. If he were alive today he would not post the haiku on online forums 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 tone.

on a withered branch
a crow has settle—
autumn evening

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, stages, and development in Basho's poetry. As an added bonus, Dr. Barnhill includes notes 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 Basho's haiku in Japanese.

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 an in-depth look 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 art—
in the deep north
a rice planting song

departing spring—
birds cry, in the fishes'
eyes are tears

seeming to be
blossoms of the harvest moon:
cotton field

this autumn:
why do I feel so old?
into the clouds, a bird

and the white paper screen,
reflecting each other

Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
David Landis Barnhill
State University of New York Press

Robert Wilson's interview with David Barnhill and biographical information can be viewed in this issue of Simply Haiku at .

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku