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On the Road Again

On the Road Again



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Published by: fcrocco on Feb 10, 2009
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On the Road AgainMatsuo Basho
Matsuo Basho (1644-94) is considered one of Japan’s greatest poets. The son of a low-ranking samurai, Basho abandoned histrade in 1666 to pursue a different lifestyle. After sometraveling, he settled in Edo (Tokyo) in 1672. It was there thathe began studying
and making a life for himself not as a monk, but as a poet of the Japanese style known as
. Basho took on students and called his profession the“way of elegance.” His
aestheticized the sense of 
or nothingness that is a central feature of Zen philosophy. After his hut burned to the ground in 1682, Basho entered a period of  pilgrimage that generated much of his great writing, including
 Narrow Road through the Backcountry
. Prone to wanderlust, hedied of illness in 1694 en route to Osaka. The photographdepicts a monument of Basho as he is remembered today, garbed in the simple robes and staff of the traveler, his face inscribed with the timeless expression of deep contemplation evoked by hiswriting.
Narrow Road through the Backcountry
In 1689, Basho began his third pilgrimage in five years. The trip lasted more than two years andis recorded in his travel diary titled
, which translates roughly as the
 Narrow Road through the Backcountry
or the
 Narrow Road to the Interior 
. Like his other trips, Basho is profoundly interested in sites that resonate with sacred, historical, or personal meaning. He isalso deeply affected by the raw experience of natural phenomena. While Basho’s journey doesnot broach the themes of global travel, exploration, and contact like Shakespeare’s
, whatit does offer is a more subtle and profound illustration of the personal, philosophical, andaesthetic dimensions of life on the road.A map of Bahso’s journey is included on p.127 of the Bedford Anthology. The circuitous triptook place entirely in the north-central part of Japan’s Honshu province. In addition to the mapin our textbook, I encourage you to peruse the personal website of Dennis Kawaharada.The website documents his trip in 2006 in which he copied Basho’s footsteps. Like Basho, herecords his experience using a combination of prose descriptions and poetry. But he also takesadvantage of modern visual media to illustrate places that Basho visited with photographs.Basho wrote his travel diary in a traditional Japanese form called
, which combines short prose passages with
, short poems of three lines that generally have a 5-7-5 meter (syllables per line). This style of writing strikes a balance between objective prose narration and poetic pauses that add an emotional and psychological dimension to the narrative.The highly impressionistic quality of the diary communicates an understanding of temporalityand the mutability of life. We are immediately faced with this motif in the first line where the passing of time is allegorically described by the motion of the traveler on the road.
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. (from the Sam Hamill translation, p.3)The travel diary also communicates the power of memory and the sublimity of nature.Reflecting on memory, Basho recalls how even though “the past remains hidden in clouds of memory. Still it [an ancient monument] returned us to memories from a thousand years before”(Hamill, p.15). In another place, he notes “the breathtaking views of rivers and mountains”(Hamill, p.26). Natural imagery permeates the many haikai (plural of haiku) that litter his travel diary. For instance, at the beginning of his trip he writesSpring passesand the birds cry out—tearsin the eyes of fishesThe passing of spring, together with the cry of birds and tears of fish, convey the feeling of sadness that overwhelms his heart as he describes a fond farewell. It also evokes the sense of impermanence that colors the journey.
The Haiku
In the twentieth century, western literary critics appreciated Basho’s haiku as examples of Japanese Romanticism. His use of simple verse and natural imagery to record deeply subjectiveexperiences resembled the aesthetics of William Wordsworth and EuropeanRomanticismingeneral. Basho’s work has also been compared to mid-nineteenth-century French 
 of twentieth-century modernists like Ezra Pound.Basho began as a practitioner of the
haikai no renku
form. This was a type of cooperative poetryin which one poet would compose a three-line poem with 5-7-5 meter (syllables per line) knownas a
, and another poet would complete the poem by adding two lines of 7-7 meter.However, Basho and later poets began adapting the form, dropping the last two lines andchanging the name of the remaining three-line stanza from
.Since 1892, the writing of haiku has followed two simple rules:1.The haiku has 17 syllables spread out over three lines with a 5/7/5 meter.2.The haiku includes a
or seasonal word in the first or third line that indicates the seasonin which the haiku is set. For example, cherry blossoms indicate spring, snow indicateswinter, and mosquitoes indicate summer. But the seasonal word isn't always that obvious.The haiku does not use Western literary devices like similes, metaphors, and personification.Instead, it uses imagery to express its main idea or theme. In a poem, imagery is the use of thefive senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste) to create a picture in your head. Sometimesimagery operates synaesthetically, which means that one type of sense is used to describe another type of sense (as in “the smell of victory”).2

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