“Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” ~Salvatore Quasimodo
Basho’s travel journals, purportedly the earliest examples of haibun, a mix of prose and haiku, are often cited important reading for serious students of the form. They showed readers his Japan in a way that was both personal and that allowed us to share his journey, as if we too were present at the events.
I’ve selected the passage “Hiraizumi” from the Narrow Road to the Deep North about the demise of the Fujiwara family. It brought to mind the ruins that I had recently come upon while hiking in the remote sandstone canyons of southern Utah and helped me to recognize feelings that I had when visiting them. After hiking several hours, I had found a way down into Utah’s Slickhorn Canyon and there came unexpectedly upon the ruins of ancients who have been given the name “Anasazi” by the Navajos who now occupy the lands. Some of the ruins looked as if they had been abandoned only yesterday; others were reduced to little more than piles of rubble. One had the impression of a baby’s foot in the mud mortar holding the stones together. The Anasazi disappeared sometime around 1100 AD.
In “Hiraizumi” Basho doesn’t tell us what led to the demise of the Fujiwara clan, but from the omnipresent wars of our last century, we can infer the causes and, of course, we have the records of Japanese historians. While there is no written record of the Anasazi, research from the natural record, the ring thickness of sections of 1000 year old trees and the carbon dating of sites, tell us that the Anasazi faced a 100 year drought. We can guess that minor skirmishes developed between those whose farms had failed and had thus become nomadic raiders and those who had managed to carry on.
A key to understanding Basho’s success with the form he invented is...