Basho: The Complete Haiku and Giveaway

It seems hard to believe that a little less than one year ago, I had never heard of Basho. The Basho, touted as the most famous Japanese writer of all time.

In November of 2007 I went on a walk while the colors in Illinois were changing, took photographs of them, and then searched for poetry to express their beauty. I found haiku by Basho, and the post ended up looking like this.

Again this summer, I posed a few beautiful photographs with Basho’s haiku accompanying them, and then I received a delightful surprise.

I was contacted by Kodansha America, Inc. to review an anthology of Basho which was released this July.

The minute I opened the book I was entranced. It is a beautiful hard cover book of approximately 400 pages of the creamiest paper you ever saw. They are illustrated with original sumi-e ink drawings by Shiro Ysujimura; each poem suspended on the page as an entity of itself.
Basho: The Complete Haiku is the first ever complete collection of the poet’s work in English. It was translated with an introduction, biography and notes by renowned American haiku poet and translator Jane Reichhold, and includes Basho’s 1,012 haiku as well as a detailed study of his methods.

I found this paragraph in the introduction particularly infomative: “Long before Gertrude Stein was espousing the importance of using the exact word in poetry or any writing, the Japanese had based their writing on creating images of actual things. Instead of telling the reader what to think or feel, words describing images were used as signposts. The placement of these signposts moved from one image to another, with one word and then another, the reader created the journey to the unspoken conclusion of the poem. This process of making the reader see or imagine parts of the poem has, on one hand, made it harder for people to learn to read haiku. Still this miracle of involving the reader in the creation of the poem has expanded our own definition and concept of poetry. No longer is poetry what someone tells us. It is the mental and emotional journey the author gives the reader.

This technique of juxtaposing images so the reader’s mind must find a way from one image to another has greatly influenced how we perceive simile and metaphor. Metaphors were and are one of the cornerstones of poetry, and for years scholars told us that Japanese poets did not use them. They did. They simply made their metaphor in a different way. Instead of saying “autumn dusk settles around us like a crow landing on a bare branch,” Basho would write:

on a bare branch
a crow settled down
autumn evening

The simplicity and economy of the words demand that the reader goes into his mind and experiences to explore the darkness of bird and night, autumn and bareness, and even how a branch could move as the dark weight of a crow pressed it down. The reader is writing the rest of the verse and making it poetry.”

Understanding poetry does not come naturally to me. I must read these haiku, ponder them, and not be tricked by their simplicity into missing an important concept the poet is trying to convey. I like their brevity. I like the mental imagery. I like reading the works from a masterful poet who lived three hundred years before I was born.

I leave you with a few of my favorites for Fall…
as autumn draws near
our hearts feel closer
to this small tearoom
how pleasurable
sleeping late in autumn
as if master of the house
already autumn
even sprinkles of rain
in the moon’s shape
and this promise of a prize:

Write a haiku for us (five syllables, seven syllables, five again) in the comments, and your name will be entered to win a copy of this book for your own shelf. Or, if you’d prefer, email me with your entry.

Contest ends September 30, 2008.

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5 thoughts on “Basho: The Complete Haiku and Giveaway”

  1. I love Basho's haiku..I first discovered them when I took my Asian Lit. class in college and they're just beautiful. I'll need some time to think of a haiku of my own though 😉

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  2. I can't wait to read what you think up, Chris. I took more Russian Literature courses than anything else; now I think if I had the time I'd go back for a lit degree. The question is, in what area? 😉

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  3. Oh Bellezza – that is such a great question! If you go back, look for a program that offers a lot of flexiblity! The master's program at Texas Tech (admittably not the best in the nation) was really rigid in terms of how many american and british courses we had to take. Not a lot of room for World Lit. :(Anyway, those haikus are beautiful–I'm still trying to come up with something for the contest.

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  4. Chris, Asian lit AND Russian lit AND English lit. So many degrees, so little time. Trish, I can't wait to here what you come up with! I have a Masters in Elementary Ed with an emphasis in Language Arts; I'll probably stick with that since I can't imagine teaching school all day and then going to more school all night. Especially if I'm not in charge. 😉

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