Active in the 13th century, poet Matsuo Basho has been a cornerstone of literature globally since the late 19th century when the word haiku was used to cover traditional “haikai” and “hokku” (more about which further down). Largely due to 19th-century Realism, Western onlookers and practitioners have made much of direct personal experience in haiku; DT Suzuki, Alan Watts and the Beat poets in turn exaggerated the influence of Zen on haiku, lauding their depth of truth and presence. Haiku has since become the world’s most prevalent poetic form, with Basho the standard bearer.
This collection’s timeline reveals in the first two entries that the poet, born in 1644, was of samurai descent, and that his father died when Basho was only twelve years old. Basho was named for the inedible banana tree whose fabric was used to make paper and quench thirst, gifted to him by a disciple.
Following his first publication at the age of 28, Basho started gathering students. Despite being an outsider, a countryman in the city, he bridged many gaps with the social life of a wandering poet of the times, holding and attending gatherings and composing collaboratively. Basho’s influences were eclectic, if exclusively Japanese. They included the waka poetic form of Saigyo from five hundred years earlier, the renga poetic form of Sogo, the latterly popular painting of Sesshu, and the Tea ceremony of Sen no Rikyu.
Basho taught many poetic principles of his own devising, such as ‘Karumi’ which was the main teaching of his late period. Its plain themes and light-heartedness have emerged strongly in the western haiku sensibility.
What we know as haiku started out as hokku, the customary traveller-poets’ praise for the host. This was the first in a set sequence of poems (renga). The hokku, or opening verse, required a word denoting the season and the “cutting word”, after which the subject might change suddenly to consciously juxtapose with its predecessor. In the example further below, the capitalised “A dog”—“A” is the cutting word—which is also the case grammatically; a new sentence. Haiku is a non-punctuated form.
While Basho’s work was intensely focused, equally crucial to him was honoring the so-called ‘vertical axis’: the deceased ancestors plus key cultural historical references. This requirement was met by naming objects as metaphors for his venue hosts in each sequence opener, or hokku. Under Basho and his contemporaries, a poem’s depth depended on references to Chinese or Japanese poetry. Their allusiveness was a conscious effort to elevate what had come to be seen as a form made lowly by this lack of vertical axis.
Modern, western haiku still avoids metaphor and allegory, keeping it shallow in Fitzsimons’ view. In his foreword, Fitzsimons states that this volume highlights a more inclusive range of experience in Basho’s work than do existing publications: not simply the nature philosopher, Zen mystic or agent of Japanese sensibility, Basho was an active contender with weather and erotic male love as well as honest moods and polarities such as loneliness and longed-for solitude.
Uniquely, this collection provides the poet’s notes to introduce many of the poems. Unusually, Fitzsimons’s translations also remain faithful to Basho’s syllable count.
While previous publications have lauded Basho for his restraint—as in brevity and Zen austerity—they have left aside the subtlety and range of his language, his ear for popular speech ranging from refined registers to demotic ones. In poem 85 for example, Basho uses bari, colloquial Japanese for urine:
The scudding of clouds
A dog running and pissing
a passing shower
Basho’s Japanese is even more distant chronologically than is Shakespeare’s English. For translation, Fitzsimons draws on the authoritative 1982 collected edition by Kon Eizo.
The translations here are no doubt helped by Fitzsimons being the author of three poetry collections as well as an academic. However, very few people effectively manage to combine the skills of a translator with a poet’s sensibility. Fitzsimons’s versions or translations can read less lyrically than they might in both Western poetry and haikai poetry diction. Compare Fitzsimons’s:
The sea has darkened
A mallard calling
a whiteness I barely hear
with UK haiku poet Alan Summers’ translation:
a darker sea
becomes white and faint
the wild duck’s voice
This may be due in part to Fitzsimons’s loyalty to the syllable count of the original, which inevitably curtails either the shape or scope of the version.
At other points Fitzsimons has endeavored to be faithful in English to Basho’s original puns and sound values. Poem 540 runs along on its ‘R’-sounds:
The turbulent sea
Unfurling over Sado
the River of Stars
As poet Bernard O’Donoghue says, quoted on the back cover, this volume “makes the poet’s work in the context of his life understandable as it never has been before in English.” Fitzsimons’s inclusion of Basho’s head notes helps enormously to that end, plus his own introduction and poem notes together with timeline, glossary and indexes.
This collection will be definitive for most readers, working poets included. For haiku aficionados and academics it will be a useful adjunct to existing complete volumes such as those by Jane Reichhold and Makedo Ueda.