Basho, Haiku Warrior

My favorite historical Japanese haiku writer is commonly known by a single name. Basho. Most students are introduced to haiku when they first learn about poetry. Here is one Basho haiku.

None is travelling

Here along this way but I,

This autumn evening.

Very nice poem, but who was Matsuo Basho? Recently, the kids and I have been listening to a history CD in the van. The narrator talked of ancient Japan and the order of the samurai. Like me, you instantly think of those fierce warriors with swords and ceremony, but apparently samurai was an entire discipline of mind and body, that included, among other things, haiku. One of the most famous samurai was Basho. What an interesting balance between the sword and the poem. It has been surmised that he left poetry in favor of warrior status, but can you really take the poetry out of the poet?

Haiku has many definitions and as most language, it is ever-evolving. Loosely, Haiku can be defined as 5, 7, 5, meaning it has five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the next, and five syllables in the last. Haiku has three lines and traditionally includes an image (usually from nature) and an emotion. A haiku usually creates a unique relationship between these two elements. Wikipedia calls it a “verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.” In simpler words, haiku “winks” at you.

In the preface to One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, it states that “the Japanese language is almost as rich in homonyms and ordinary double meanings as is Chinese.” In other words, we lose something in translation. The preface also states that “some Japanese poems have so many puns that they may have two or more quite dissimilar meanings.” This means true Japanese haiku may “wink” twice. Still, we enjoy these translated poems, and English poets have loved haiku for centuries.

But let’s not forget our history lesson and the wonderful Japanese origin of this form and the great poet, Basho. I think Basho was a haiku. On one hand, a fierce samarai warrior and on the other, a poet who noticed the sound of water in a garden. Two seemingly juxtaposed elements coming together in one person. Perhaps it is ironic that it is Basho who is remembered most for haiku.

Basho, warrior guide

To haiku the heart of the man

With ink, not the blade


One Hundred Poems of the Japanese

The History of the World, Volume 2, The Middle Ages (CD)