Poetry Friday: Matsuo Basho

For today, a brief look at perhaps the briefest verse form (certainly the most famous brief verse form) in the hands of its master—Matsuo Basho is widely acclaimed the greatest of the haiku poets. Nearly everyone “learned to write” a haiku in elementary school, counting out syllables like some sort of magic incantation, enchanted with the idea that 5-7-5 was a poem no matter what you said. Like a key to the universe. Only then we read our haiku again and we wonder if they’re all that profound. I always had students read haiku and we’d talk about whether they thought it “counted” as a poem, not because I think there’s any doubt personally, but because I wanted them to wrestle the idea a little. How short can a poem get? If something’s worth saying, won’t it take more than a few words to say, especially if it’s profound? I think they’re good and tough questions. Here’s an R. H. Blyth translation of one of Basho’s famous haiku:

The temple bell dies away
The scent of flowers in the evening
Is still tolling the bell.

What does that do for you? For once I won’t say anything about my interpretation…there’s something about a haiku that’s easy to crush if you’re not careful. You can make them sound pretty simplistic—“Oh, I get it, he’s saying that the autumn leaves feel like sadness. Cool.”—without really meaning to, and it’s hard to backtrack from there. So, is there enough meat on these bones (apologies to Vegans) for this poem to pack any punch? Have you personally read haiku that resonate with you? And if so, why and how? I wonder if (I suspect that) we have to read them differently than a sonnet or an epic…that Westerners culturally maybe aren’t attuned to the speed, the pace, the tone of a haiku, and can’t find the rhythm of it. I’m curious to hear what you think.

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One comment on “Poetry Friday: Matsuo Basho

  1. mbfitzmahan says:

    This is one of my favorite haiku of Bashō. The Japanese is 鐘消えて 花の香は撞く 夕かな. The Romaji is: kane kiete hana no ka wa tsuku yuube kana. Beautiful images in Chinese characters!

    A literal translation is “bell (heavy bronze temple bell) disappears. incense of flowers strikes. evening!”

    The great translation from Blyth (also my favorite) tries to convey a Zen realization of temporariness, yet endlessness. It is traditional in Japanese haiku to mix senses, somewhat like Dickinson does with synesthesia.

    So…tho it seems that the gonging of the bell has stopped, has it? The bell strikes on through the flowers that we are now more aware of and now they continue the reverberation of the sound through the scent that now strike us. Ah, evening!

    The never ending reverberation of the bell then the incense then the flower – reminds us that change is normal. And, yet, nothing ends.

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