The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches

(Matsuo Basho)

Picked this up on the off-chance, I was buying some Mishima (which I still haven’t read) and was on a Japanese theme. It’s 17th century poetry from one of the all time masters of the art.

And you know what? It’s not that bad. There’s an extensive introduction which goes into some of the history of haibun – which is the particular mixture of prose and haiku that Basho used in his travel sketches, as well as touching on the 3 centuries or so of history of linked verse before Basho’s time, and how he came to develop a blend between the over-wrought court style and the slightly crude (by the standards of 17th century Japan – there’s no obvious knob jokes) poetry that had sprung up alongside (or below) it. Playful, is how it’s described. I wasn’t convinced by the examples in the introduction, but after reading through the book, I can see it.

As explained in the introduction, the several chapters are separate sketches of journeys that Basho made, with breaks of a few years in between each – it is evident how much his style of poetry changes from the earlier works to the more zen-influenced, ultra-objective poetry of The Narrow Road.

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain
Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton

Blessed indeed
Is this South Valley
Where the gentle wind breathes
The faint aroma of snow
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

If I did have one problem with the book, it’s with the translation of the haiku which I’ve always read in the 5-7-5 format, even in translation. It must take infin/ite patience of a mani/ac to compose those. I learned to accept it though, and the four line stanzas adopted by Nobuyuki Yuasa work very well. I even started / To hear my inner voice / In broken phrases / My mind ached a little.

I haven’t come across anything like this before, as far as I can tell. It’s much more accessible than any English poetry I’ve read from a similar era, it describes a different time, and a different place, but it describes a world full of wonder at nature and the pleasures of human company – no matter how fleeting – that still speaks clearly to me now.

See also:
I don’t know… maybe I’ll find it one day

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