The Essential Basho translated by Sam Hamill

On my desk for some time now has been a yellow filing card with the following written on it with a marking pen:

“I do not seek to follow
in the footsteps of those of
old. I seek only what they

These words are a translation of the words of the Japanese poet, Basho, who was born in 1644 in Ueno, Iga Province, 30 miles south of Kyoto, Japan. He was the son of Matsuo Yozaemon, a low-ranking samurai.  Basho had a samurai name also: it was Matsuo Munefusa.

The Essential Basho was brought to my attention by a fellow reader who posted about it on Good Reads and I immediately borrowed a copy from the local library.

The Essential Basho was translated by Sam Hamill and begins with Basho’s travelogue,Essential Basho Narrow Road to the Interior. A map of Basho’s journeys and a Chronology are included as well as a very informative and helpful Translator’s Introduction. Basho had “long dreamed of crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into northern Honshu, the country called Oku which was immediately north of the city of Sendai. He started his journey in May of 1689. It was interesting to read that he “carried extra nightwear in his pack along with his cotton robe or yukata, a raincoat, calligraphy supplies, and, of course, hanamuke, departure gifts from well-wishers, gifts he found impossible to leave behind.”

Sam Hamill says the diary is much more than a travel journal. “It’s form, haibun, combines short prose passages with haiku…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.”

Basho was a student of Saigyo, a Buddhist monk-poet who lived from 1118 – 1190 and was the most prominent poet in an imperial anthology titles Shinkokinshu. It was from Saigyo that Basho learned the importance of “being at one with nature”.

Basho says Hamill “is not looking outside himself”, rather “he is seeking that which is most clearly meaningful within, and locating the “meaning” within the context of juxtaposed images that are interpenetrating and interdependent.”

“The poet strives for the quality called amari – no – kokoro, meaning that the heart/soul of the poem must reach far beyond the words themselves, leaving an indelible aftertaste.”

Basho is among the most literate poets of his time and his ork contains literary Chinese and Buddhist allusions and literary echoes called honkadori (borrowed or quoted lines and paraphrases). Hamill’s footnotes explain many of the latter. Basho also felt a deep connection to history. Many of his journeys included ancient temples where he paid homage to historical and literary and Buddhist personages.

Here are a few samples of Basho’s haiku:

The bush warbler
in a grove of bamboo sprouts
sings of growing old.

The old cherry tree’s
final blossoms are her last
cherished memory,

With a warbler for
a soul, it sleeps peacefully,
this mountain willow.

And from the travel diaries:

“Autumn winds filled my heart with a longing to see the full moon rising over Mount Obasute, a ragged peak where, in ancient times, Sarashina villagers abandoned their aging mothers to die among the stones.”

“To my left, a sheer cliff fell thousands of feet into a rushing river, leaving my stomach churning with every step of my horse.”

On a lighter note, I was impressed by the fact that this man and his helpers wore simple sandals to walk in and relied on people he met on the way to replace them when they were worn out.

He wrote: “With no real home of my own, I wasn’t interested in accumulating treasures. And since I travelled empty-handed, I didn’t worry much about robbers.”

To read this book is to travel to another dimension almost and you might find your pace slowing as you walk along with Basho. My thanks to Cynthia for the recommendation.


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