It was with awe
That I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sun
"The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches,"
translated and with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Page 100
Every time I read this perfect haiku by master poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), my mind’s eye returns to Kyoto, to the incredible acid neon green of spring maple leaves backlit by the low afternoon sun along the beautiful Tsuten-kyo (Bridge to Heaven) over the main gorge at Tofuku-ji, the Eastern Good Luck Temple.
That is the power of poetry.
For all of you out there who scoff at poetry and at the sentimentality of what I just wrote, well, all I can say is, grow up and realize what it means to be human. Or just tune in to MTV and listen to the latest syrupy love song – the lyrics and music, they too, are poetry.
Poetry is all about surgically cutting to the essence of reality and life. It can be complex, as in Western poetry (cf. Irish master poet William Butler Yeats), or marvelously, elegantly simple, as in Eastern poetry (cf. Chinese master poet Du Fu). But surely, no poetic form is as spare and concise as the Japanese 17 syllable haiku form. And its greatest master was Matsuo Basho.
Some may also know that Basho, who was an inveterate wanderer for most of his life, also wrote a series of travelogues, which interspersed haiku with prose observations of his travels. To me, these travelogues, of which the magnum opus is “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, are hauntingly profound and transcendently radiant inspirations to my own humble creative efforts. In fact, some scholars think that in his travelogues, Basho managed eventually to seamlessly combine prose and poetry in a way that has not been bettered since.
As a wonderful Japanese lady and artist of my acquaintance said recently, the Japanese way of art is to put a simple work out there, and let it shine. My own copy of Basho’s travelogues is the standard Penguin 1965 edition, translated and introduced by Nobuyuki Yuasa of Hiroshima University. But it doesn’t matter which edition you pick up – Donald Keene’s 1997 version, “The Narrow Road to Oku” is arguably as good, if not better – just pick one up and let Basho shine and illuminate your life.
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