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Commentary: Bashō’s “Hiraizumi”
A passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Ono no Hosomichi)


Ray Rasmussen

"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


Part I: Commentary

Bashō's travel journals, purportedly the earliest examples of haibun, are accounts of his late-in-life walking journeys through Japan. They are often cited as important reading for serious students of the form and for anyone who writes in a haiku-genre. More generally, they are held up as good reading for anyone who likes poetic prose and who wants a glimpse of the spirit of a man who lived several centuries ago.

For this commentary, I've selected the passage "Hiraizumi" from The Narrow Road to the Deep North about the demise of the Fujiwara clan. I chose it because as Quasimodo suggests, Bashō expressed a feeling in this piece that I recognized as my own in my recent travels in the Southwest United States. You may wish to read "Hiraizumi" prior to reading this commentary. If so, go here to open a second window.

There are several keys to understanding Bashō's success in establishing haibun as a serious form of Japanese literature. The first is amount and level of descriptive detail – what might be called 'reportage' – that provides a context for the poetry that accompanies it. Examples include:

"The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I came upon Lord Hidehira's mansion, which had been utterly reduced to rice-paddies..."

"The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier-gate of Koromogaseki, thus blocking the entrance from the Nambu area and forming a protection against barbarous intruders from the north."

Of course, descriptive detail without some measure of lyrical phrasing would be monotonous. Lyrical passages that touched me included:

"It was here that the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream,"

"When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive."

And haibun prose allows a third key element ― some telling as well as showing:

"I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time."

A fourth element is Bashō's closing haiku which can be viewed both as a succinct summary of his feelings, but also as a more general poetic expression about that most serious human foible called 'war.' As with many of the haiku in Narrow Road his haiku step out to a new level of insight and lyricism:

summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams

~ Bashō (trans. L. Stryk)

Putting it all together, what is haibun according to Bashō?

• Rich descriptive detail that sets the stage
• Poetic phrasings that stir the reader
• A modest amount of showing as opposed to telling
• A haiku that steps out from the prose and takes us to a new level of feeling and insight
• An overall succinctness that allows us to enter and leave a scene in a short reading

While these are the nuts and bolts of haibun, they don't explain the whole. Haibun is a form of storytelling and these nuts and bolts have to be put together in a way that captivates the reader. As such, haibun prose goes well beyond a typical account of an outing which as Cobb has put it "is often as disorganized and unrooted in thematic content as a set of holiday snaps."1 Haibun also goes far deeper in its storyline theme than the "go here, see this, eat that, pay this much" type of travel writing that one finds in newspapers and magazines. Of course, good travel writing can also be literary. Nor is haibun mere journalism. As Cobb has put it, "I view the haibun writer as a literary artist, someone who has high regard for authenticity, but not afraid to bend facts when it suits, setting poetic truth above a factual narrative, and free to rearrange chronology." Cobb further reports that according to Yuasa, Bashō, did indeed "take such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events."

With his long term perspective on the English-language haibun scene, Ken Jones states that "The haibun has come a long way in recent years. Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku ("diamonds in mud banks") are now mercifully few—though still occasionally published."2

Summing up, "Hiraizumi" is a good story with the key compositional elements of haibun to support it. Bashō's piece takes the reader into the Japan of several centuries ago, into the cultural-historical sensibilities of its people, and into the poetic style of expression that he made famous and that instructs us today, as writers. It is an eloquent statement about the transient nature of our lives and the futility, yet omnipresence, of war.

Part II: A Personal Recognition

"Hiraizumi" brought to mind the ruins that I had recently come upon in one of southern Utah's sandstone canyons. After hiking several hours, I had found a way down into a remote, seldom-visited place named "Slickhorn Canyon." There I came unexpectedly on the ruins of ancients who have been given the name "Anasazi" by the Navajos who now occupy the nearby lands.

Some of the ruins looked as if they had been abandoned only yesterday; others were reduced to little more than piles of rubble. Still visible were the finger impressions made when the builders pressed mud as mortar in between the building stones. One spot of mud-mortar had an impression of a baby's foot.

Bashō doesn't tell us what led to the demise of the Fujiwara clan, but from the omnipresent wars of our last century and from the records of Japanese historians, we can readily infer the causes. And what about the Anasazi? They disappeared around 1100 AD. While there is neither a written nor an oral remembering of the Anasazi, research from the natural record, the ring thickness of sections of 1000 year old trees and the carbon dating of debris from the sites, tell us that they faced a 100 year drought. We can guess that skirmishes developed between those whose farms had failed and had thus become nomadic raiders and those who had managed to carry on.

I sat in the shade near one ruin that had handprints painted above the dwelling's doorway. I could imagine men gathered after a fruitless hunt, women preparing the evening meal from the sparse pickings dictated by a prolonged drought and the children, hungry, perhaps dying of starvation. All about me were pot shards, the broken remains of generations.

Like Bashō, I felt tears coming to my eyes.

Part III: A Conversation of Sorts with Bashō

After reading Bashō haibun, I decided to pen a haibun modeled on "Hiraizumi." I wanted to explore the structure of his style while utilizing my own experiences in Slickhorn Canyon as context. Whether my piece succeeds or fails is of little importance. Writing it helped me to identify with Bashō's journey through his Japan. And it reminded me that the plight of the Anasazi is one that has been repeated throughout our disaster- and war-inclined human history, that these ruins were not just interesting artifacts, but places where families and entire clans once lived and then disappeared.

After writing it, I felt as if I had had a deep conversation with a travelling monk who loved to write poetry.


Notes:

1. David Cobb, "A Few Timely Heresies about English Haibun," Blithe Spirit 10:3 September 2000 and reprinted in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.

2. Ken Jones, "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," Contemporary Haibun Oonline 3:3, Sept 2007.

3. Ray Rasmussen's haibun, "Slickhorn Canyon," which was modeled on Bashō's "Hiraizumi" is published in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.

4. Salvatore Quasimodo, poet and literary critic, was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1959.


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