Haikus are pure, magical and so often characterised in the west as like snapshots of life. They are almost impossible to exactly translate, because the nuances of each selected word in such a small form are unique to the particular language. To celebrate World Poetry Day, I have chosen one of Japan’s most famous haiku poets, Basho.
ill on a journey
dreams in a withered field
wander around (Basho 231)
There is a sense of nostalgia in this haiku, so often connected with elegy; a nostalgia for past journeys in full health, for the un-withered fields and a direction, unachievable now as only his dreams aimlessly ‘wander’. It is often noted that more than other forms the context of haikus is particularly important, especially biographical context of the author. But the sense of elegy is not imposed upon this poem by the knowledge that Basho was to die three days later. The sadness comes from the lack of direction and certainty; the fields that instead of being ripe with crops have withered, at the end of their productive season. We know that Basho had been on a literal journey, but this limits the readings of the haiku, for journeys are nearly always symbolic in poetry. Where may the the journey be to? The promise associated with a journey that there is a destination is denied by the word ‘ill’, for there is no mention of where the journey is to; it seems directionless, but perhaps it is towards death, a reason for it to be left unmentioned. This haiku is a self-elegy for life, where illness limits life’s journey to a dream of wandering, over barren land. After composing it, Basho announced, ‘this is the last of my obsession’, concerned he was composing poetry even in this critical time of illness (394). He told one of his pupils, who recommended he write a last haiku as is traditional for Japanese poets, that all of his last poems were his death poem (190). He was a poet wholly committed to writing haikus that captured an essence of his experience of life.
Matsuo, Bashō and Jane Reichhold. Basho: The Complete Haiku. Trans. Jane Reichhold. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008. Print.