When Basho Rhymes
Basho is the most famous of all Japanese poets. His reputation has become international. Basho remains a constant source of inspiration for Haiku poets and more than a few Haijin, both in Japan and the West, consider Basho’s Haiku to be the ideal exemplars that we should model our own efforts on.
Over the years my appreciation for Basho has steadily grown. As readers here know, my favorite form of poetry is Renga. Basho was primarily a Renga poet and it is out of his lifelong involvement with Renga that his Haiku emerged. Some of the Haiku we so appreciate were, in fact, the opening verse, the hokku, of an actual Renga that Basho led and participated in. It is my feeling that Renga was never far from Basho’s mind; for one thing it was as a Renga teacher, guide, and mentor that Basho earned his living. My sense is that nearly all of Basho’s Haiku are written to the standards of the opening verse of a Renga; whether they were actually used that way or not.
After Basho’s dedication to Renga, his primarily literary output is his travel journals. Some of these are very brief; little more than short haibun. Some of them are more extensive. The most famous is his “Narrow Road to the Interior”, “Oku no Hosomichi”. It has been translated into English at least six times, probably more. That makes sense: it is short and its language is, for the most part, accessible and direct. The work is a wonder; beautiful in the way a landscape can be beautiful. And just as we can return to landscape over and over, so this brief work rewards repeated reading.
The varying translations give us a chance to look at how translation philosophies effect the presentation of a work. In this regard, keep in mind that Basho was a formal poet. Renga is a highly rule-bound, disciplined poetic form. In fact, I’m not aware of any other form that is so constrained. And Basho immersed himself in Renga for his entire life. In other words, Basho’s view of poetry was rooted in a highly formal poetic form. It is only natural that this would be reflected in his other poetic and literary efforts.
Yet most of the translations of the ‘Narrow Road’ lean towards using a free verse approach to the Haiku that are scattered like jewels throughout the journal. This masks the formal nature of the poems. Further, such an approach masks the relationship between the Haiku within the journal. What do I mean by this? I mean that a free verse rendering of the Haiku leads the reader to think that each Haiku emerged free of a pre-existing formal shape, that there was no formal discipline, in the sense of counted lineation, involved in Basho’s Haiku composition. In the original, they all have the same syllabic contours; they share a shape, a count, and a rhythm. This aspect was clearly significant to Basho; after all Basho could have written Tanka poems instead of Haiku for his journal. There is a lot of literary precedent for that. Or Basho could have written Quatrains using a Chinese syllabic model. Again, there is much precedent for that in Japanese culture. I am suggesting that Basho’s choice to illuminate the ‘Narrow Road’ with Haiku was significant for him and that the reason it was significant had to do with the specific form that Haiku embodies. All of this is masked by using a free verse approach to the translation of the Haiku.
There is one exception to this free verse approach that I know of. It is the translation by Dorothy Britton which is published under the title “A Haiku Journey: Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province”. Britton translates the Haiku retaining the basic Haiku shape of short-long-short. In many instances Britton retains the actual 5-7-5 count; but even when she needs to amend the count for the purposes of conveying the meaning in English, she still manages to retain the basic contours of Haiku. The great advantage for English readers is that they can immediately see that all of the Haiku in the ‘Narrow Road’ are formally related; that Basho was using a specific formal poetic structure. This adds a significant dimension of meaning that the other translations simply do not offer.
The other element that Britton uses to communicate the formal nature of the Haiku is rhyme. Not all of the Haiku in Britton’s translation rhyme, but a significant number do. Britton uses rhyme broadly; sometimes she uses slant rhyme, such as ‘bloomed/moons’ (Page 74). Sometimes she uses perfect rhyme, such as ‘fain/rain’. She also uses rhyme in the poems which are quoted in the ‘Narrow Road’, such as Tanka and Chinese Quatrains. For example, on Page 57 Basho quotes a classic Quatrain by Tu Fu, which Britton translates as follows:
Even though a country is defeated,
Its mountains and rivers remain.
And o’er the castle ruins, when it is spring,
The grass will be green again.
Surprisingly, Britton is able to retain the rhyme-scheme of Tu Fu’s original: A-B-C-B. She is even able to mimic the caesura structure in several of the lines. The line count is longer than the original. But given the original form, Britton manages to incorporate a surprising number of the original poem’s poetic contours, including the rhyme.
Let’s take a look at one of the Haiku from the ‘Narrow Road’. I’m going to take the last Haiku in the journal. I have personally found it to be one of Basho’s most moving Haiku, one that I am personally fond of. In Britton’s translation it reads:
Sadly, I part from you;
Like a clam torn from its shell,
I go, and autumn too.
The count is 6-7-6; well within the range that Basho himself would, a few times, use. Notice the rhyme between lines 1 and 3: ‘you/too’. The theme is parting, but in this short verse parting is depicted on three levels: parting from a companion in Line 1, forced parting in Line 2, and the autumn season falling away into winter in Line 3. All of these images reflect and reinforce each other.
Also note the rhythmic parallelism in the translation between line 1 and 3: they are both in 2 + 4 scheme, which gives the translation a further sense of unity.
There is one other aspect of Britton’s translation that I’d like to highlight: the rhyme in the translation reflects the rhyme in the original. Here is the original Japanese:
futami ni wakare
yuku aki zo
Notice the perfect end-rhyme in Basho’s original, ‘no/zo’. It is often stated that Japanese poetry does not use rhyme; but I think that this is an exaggeration. What is true is that rhyme is not a part of the ‘recipe’ for Japanese forms. That is to say neither Tanka nor Haiku are defined by a rhyme scheme in the way that a rhyme scheme defines a Sonnet, or in the way that a rhyme scheme defines a Chinese Quatrain. In other words, poets are not required to rhyme; but that does not mean that they do not use rhyme.
Jane Reichhold in her translation of the complete Haiku of Basho has a closing section on ‘Haiku Techniques’. One of the techniques she notes is rhyme. Reichhold writes, “ . . . if the reader takes the time to read the romaji [roman alphabet transliteration] version of Basho’s poems, one can see how often the old master employed the linkage of sound in his work. The rhyme occurs here with hagoshi (“through leaves”), hoshi (“star”), and seven “oh” sounds:
nebu no ki no
hagoshi mo itoe
hoshi no kage
a silk tree
even through the leaves weary
(Page 399, Basho: The Complete Haiku, Reichhold translation)
Seven ‘oh’ sounds in 17 syllables! That emerges from conscious poetic craft. To my mind, this kind of sound-crafting by Basho legitimizes the use of end-rhyme in translating his Haiku into English, especially when the end-rhyme is in the original.
What I want to suggest here is that we should be inspired by Basho’s example of conscious poetic craft to use similar tools available in English language poetry. Such tools include assonance (the kind of rhyme that Reichhold was referring to in her example), alliteration, and rhyme, especially end-rhyme. Why should we deny ourselves these tools of poetic craft when our Japanese sources used them?
Britton’s translation of Basho’s Haiku inhabits the same poetic world as Basho; a world where the shaping of words into significant forms was the norm, a world where the sensual surface of a poem was carefully crafted for the readers’ pleasure. This carefully crafted sensual surface signals to the reader that here there is something significant, here the reader should pay attention, here, if we follow the beauty, we can access the source.