Matsuo Basho Essay

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It is often difficult for Westerners to fully appreciate the technical sophistication of Japanese Haiku, either from a technical or thematic point of view. The obvious obstacles in translating Haiku into English combined with cultural differences and linguistic eccentricities such as slang or puns, make the translation of haiku even more formidable than it would otherwise be. Settling on a single English translation of any particular haiku can prove troublesome; however, the brevity of the form, combined with its visceral impact -- when executed with skill -- allows for an impact of poetic vision which, while based in the same elements as Western poetry: metaphor, assonance, dissonance, rhyme, theme, and imagery -- demonstrates an intense compression of poetic language and a refinement of prosody which is slightly more calculated and reserved than much of Western poetry.

A good case in point is the poetry of Basho Matsuo whose work is often considered by Western critics and observers as the highest representation of Japanese haiku. By and large, the intricacies of Basho's writings in the haiku form are only understood with effort by Western readers. By examining one of his famous haiku, it is possible to take note of those aspects of Basho's writings which are intrinsic to the aesthetic power of his work and also which may be slightly beyond easy appraisal for many readers.

The following example of haiku reveals many techniques in diction, imagery, and prosody (or meter); although in translation, the specific notable qualities may be different than in the original work, the translated work retains the "spirit" of the original and allows for at least a cursory examination of how poetic techniques thrive under the haiku form. The poem:

The first soft snow!
Enough to bend the leaves
Of the jonquil low.
The most readily apparent quality of the poem is its imagery. No-one could miss the grand images of falling snow upon a gracefully bending flower. This...
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