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Basho's Journey
The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho
Translated by David Landis Barnhill

State University of NewYork Press
ISBN: 0-7914-6414-8

A Book Review by Robert D. Wilson


Matsuo Basho is Japan's most famous poet. He is touted as the father of haiku (called hokku during his lifetime), his name synonymous with the genre worldwide. Little, however, is known about him outside of Japan, the genre not taken seriously by the world's mainstream literary world, except for brief descriptions of haiku in middle school, high school, and introduction to world literature university textbooks. 

Basho was more than a composer of waka, renga, and hokku. He was also a world-class writer of prose, a leading innovator and pioneer who helped sculpt the literary landscape of pre-late 19th century Japanese literature. 

Who is Matsuo Basho? What can serious students of Japanese literature learn from him? Are his writings worthy of study and consideration apart from their historical value? 

Japan for centuries was isolated from the Western world by decree of the Japanese Imperial Court and by the racist belief of its people, primarily its leaders, that the Japanese, as a race, were superior to other cultures. When U.S. Admiral Byrd, by order of American President McKinley, forced Japan militarily to open up its borders to the West, a floodgate was opened, introducing the West to Japan, and Japan to the West.  Unfortunately, the information meted out between the two worlds was filtered through the German-based university system, adopted by both worlds, defining everything via Western definitions and conceptualizations of what is and isn't, in the fields of literature, science, philosophy, social science, etc. 

Hokku became haiku, waka became tanka, the other Japanese short form poetic genres followed suit, turning mimetic and transferal-centric summersaults, Japan's literary world jettisoning its cultural memory and identity in order to gain acceptance with a global community it wanted to be a part of until the time came when it could rise up on its own feet, and wax superior to its counterparts. 

Ironically, once Japanese literature was thrown into the western blender, it (literature) has wallowed and continues to do so in a culturally polluted pond of obscurity, the haiku and tanka composed today in and outside of Japan, a potpourri of this and that, with little linkage to the past that pioneers like Matsuo Basho helped to forge.

David Landis Barnhill's book, Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, is an important text, introducing readers to the Basho they never learned about in school; the Matsuo Basho whose poetry and prose is barely, often poorly, understood by global haiku organizations and literary journals; the itinerant pioneer who played a vital, major role in making poetry accessible to those outside of elite Japanese Imperial Court circles, an access obscured today by flawed teaching, deep seeded covert racism from both the West and Japan, and a devaluation of the genre by those who see Japanese poetry as freeways of the mind, without roadmaps, history and pre-nineteenth century Japanese cognitive beliefs and cultural perceptions be damned.

Matsuo Basho's contribution to Japanese literature must not be undervalued or underestimated. His thinking, scholarship, poetry, prose, and theories regarding what he conceptualized as The Way of Poetry are integral to the world-view of Japanese literature and the direction the aforementioned genres will take in the future, either lapsing further into an homogenized obscurity or to be rediscovered and understood for what they truly represent and encapsulate as part of the Japanese cultural memory and as serious literature.


"In the West, we have become accustomed to thinking of Basho as a 'nature poet,' but he was also a great prose stylist, and much of his literary prose is inextricably related to his itinerant life."

David Landis Barnhill

"I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon. It was the first year of Jokyo, autumn of the eighth moon. As I left my ramshackle hut by the river, the sound of the wind was strangely cold"


bleached bones
      on my mind, the wind pierces
             my body to the heart

nozarashi o / kokoro ni kaze no / shimu mi kana

--- Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field
Matsuo Basho
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill

Basho's extemporaneous stream of consciousness prose style is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's fluid writing in On the Road, published in the 1950's, a book studied in English-language university classrooms that set fire to an era hungry for change, a fire whoseembers still burn. Interestingly, it was during this time that Kerouac was introduced to Japanese religion, Basho, and haiku by his friend, the poet/Buddhist lay monk, Gary Snyder via impromptu drunken, marijuana clouded readings, and books penned by Blyth, Yasuda, Henderson, and Suzuki.

Did Matsuo Basho have an influence on modern North American literature?

"Months and days are the wayfarers of a hundred generations, the years too, going and coming, are wanderers. For those who drift life away on a boat, for those who meet age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey, the journey itself home. Among ancients, too, many have died on a journey. And so I too --- for how many years --- drawn by a cloud wisp wind, have been unable to stop thoughts of rambling."

--- The Narrow road to the Deep North
Matsuo Basho
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill

Like Kerouac, Basho was a wanderer, an itinerant poet/writer who followed in the footsteps of the Japanese waka poet Saigyo into the deepest recesses of nature, the back alleys of then, searching for answers, exploring religion, communing with commoners, unafraid to drink tea with Alice in a Wonderland of the mind.


" . . . the scenes of so many places linger in the heart, and the aching sorrow of a mountain shelter or a hut in a moor become seeds for words and a way to become intimate with wind and clouds. So I've thrown together jottings of places forgotten. Think of them as the delirium of a drunk or the rambling of one asleep, and listen recklessly."

--- Knapsack Notebook
Matsuo Basho
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill

Shades of William Blake, Ken Kesey, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Basho saw and experienced a world few of us can fathom, and shared what he saw, felt, lived, envisioned, feared, and exulted in awe, via a landscape of words that rival anything penned in world literature.

"Saigyo's waka, Sogi's renga, Sesshu's painting, Rikyu's tea ceremony --- one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this aesthetic spirit is to follow the Creative, to be a companion, to the turning of the four seasons.  Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon."

Matsuo was a free thinker, a wild man of literature similar to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. He wasn't a clone of the literary expectations of his day. His writing flowed like a fast flowing river into the consciousness of those who read his work. His was a breath of fresh air in a society that exemplified conformity.

"Of places made famous in the poetry since long ago, many are still handed down to us in verse. But mountains crumble, rivers change course, roadways are altered, stones are buried in the earth, trees grow old and are replaced by saplings: time goes by and the world shifts, and the traces of the past are unstable. Yet now before this monument, which certainly has stood a thousand years, I could see into the hearts of the ancients. Here is one virtue of the pilgrimage, one joy of being alive. I forgot the aches of the journey, and was left with only tears."

--- The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Matsuo Basho
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill

Reading Barnhill's translations is a "Wild Toad Ride" into the cerebral cortex of a Japan hungry for change. Basho's writings and poetry are life changing, stimulating, and as relevant now as when they were written.

In Barnhill's translation, he carefully avoids reading too much into Basho's prose. States Barnhill:

"Whenever possible I have avoided adding words to explain what Basho makes implicit or ambiguous. We are at a point culturally that the reader can be expected to be receptive to his style and nuance and that a highly explanatory translation is neither necessary nor desirable. But, of course, this is a relative ideal, and my success, I am well aware, is quite relative indeed."

As readers, we are introduced to Basho's prose and subsequent poetry. It is our responsibility to interpret what we read. Barnhill is our guide, our translator, introducing us to one of the world's greatest progenitors of literature; a poet/writer/philosopher/hobo addicted to writing and sharing what he wrote before Jack Kerouac hit the road.

Interpretation from one language to another is extremely difficult, even more so when the two languages differ philosophically and oftentimes lack words to define and describe a term that has no definition in one language, as is the case with the English language and the Japanese language used prior to the late 19th century. The word, aesthetics, for instance, has no counterpart in the Japanese language save for that ascribed to it after Japan adopted the German-based university system. Some words, especially those having to do with philosophical, metaphysical, psychological, and aesthetic content, were assumed in the Japanese linguistic canon, and not felt necessary to define, their meanings deeply embedded in Japan's cultural memory.

Few interpreters today have the linguistic skills, historical knowledge, and hermeneutical understanding to accurately interpret Basho's poetry, let alone prose. To accurately interpret Basho's prose and poetry, the interpreter must be able to literally enter Basho's mind. Using a Japanese/English language dictionary is a joke, the antithesis of the interpretative art/science. David Landis Barnhill is a skilled interpreter, one of the best, with the academic and experiential credentials necessary to accurately translate Basho's poetry and prose. Barnhill's translations stand out for me because of the ease of reading, the naturalness of expression his translations exude. Reading his translations, the reader feels he or she is listening to Bashō in the flesh without an interpreter.

To this we owe David Landis Barnhill a debt of gratitude.