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Haiku of Basho

Haiku depend rather much on what each person is attuned to in them. One is to open up and remain receptive to enjoy haiku poetry.

The old pond

A frog leaps in.


Jumping over the brook

for water

not needed.

Artwork The shorthand-looking poem to the left is by the Japanese Zen poet Matsuo Basho (Matsuo Munefusa) (1644-94). To the right a Scandinavian proverb is broken up and shortened to fill three lines, to compare with.

Many of Basho's haiku poems were actually the hokku (initial verse) of a renga (linked verse).

Basho abandoned for poetry the samurai (warrior) status he had earned, and gradually got a reputation as a skilled poet and able critic. As a poet he is credited with elevating haiku to a highly refined "telegram art" that is marked by love of the unobtrusive, as in the poem:

Scent of chrysanthemums ...

And in Nara

All the ancient Buddhas.

There are deep meanings in the poem. You are supposed to attune to it all right so as to derive benefit, by knitting associations from your own dear experiences to it. Do it to your ability and see what happens after some weeks or two-three months. This poem is not as brittle as it looks like in English translation either. Such poetry has earned Basho a reputation as the greatest haiku poet of Japan - he is also known for many travels through books he wrote about what he noted and took part in on them.

Following Zen lines of thinking he tried to compress the meaning of the world he got aware of, into "the simple pattern", at the same time trying to hint at interdependence of all objects. He often strove for that. His very first verse in the "new style" or new-found style may serve as an example:

On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.

As a reader in the Zen way, a hasty look will hardly do. One is supposed to think about what is expressed, how it is done, and first and foremost tune in somewhat to what the poem genuinely intends to put forth. It could lie in the deeper Stimmung, the atmosphere or feeling it evokes. A good way is called Einfühlung, or empathy. Also, elegant poetry can be simple to look at, yet much descriptive, it can rest on comparison and contrast of phenomena - just as in the poem above. Background knowledge is a further help.

What about the poet? Basho (1644–1694) is the poet who crystallised the telegram-like or stenography-like haiku style - a shorthand way of writing that should fit academic note-taking as well. In his later years he was a student of Zen. His later poems are his best. They express mystical sensing or awareness. Basho immersed himself into sensing things and developed haiku craftsmanship. He was loved by his followers and by later poets. He is known for imbuing his scenarios with a "spirit or program of Zen", actually. His Zen understanding has thus been perpetuated in later haiku. It is said to be a key to appreciation of most haiku.

Basho's best work can very well be The Narrow Road Through the Deep North (1694). It is considered outstanding through certain glimpses it yields to receptive individuals.

A sensitive poet may need to rest aloof of odious common living, at least from time to time. Living a life that was in true accord with the gentle spirit of his poetry, Basho maintained an austere, simple hermitage - a simple hut - where he withdrew from society altogether on occasion.

About Fifty Haiku by Basho

None is travelling

Here along this way but I,

This autumn evening.

The first day of the year:

thoughts come - and there is loneliness;

the autumn dusk is here.

An old pond

A frog jumps in -


Old dark sleepy pool . . .

quick unexpected


Goes plop! Watersplash!

Lightening -

Heron's cry

Stabs the darkness

Clouds come from time to time -

and bring to men a chance to rest

from looking at the moon.

In the cicada's cry

There's no sign that can foretell

How soon it must die.

Poverty's child -

he starts to grind the rice,

and gazes at the moon.

Won't you come and see

loneliness? Just one leaf

from the kiri tree.

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!

Ballet in the air ...

twin butterflies

until, twice white

They meet, they mate

Black cloudbank broken

scatters in the

night ... Now see

Moon-lighted mountains!

Seek on high bare trails



Mountain-top jewels

For a lovely bowl

let us arrange these


Since there is no rice

Now that eyes of hawks

in dusky night

are darkened . . .

Chirping of the quails

April's air stirs in

willow-leaves . . .

a butterfly

Floats and balances

In the sea-surf edge

mingling with

bright small shells ..

Bush-clover petals

The river

Gathering may rains

from cold streamlets

for the sea . . .

Murmuring Mogami

White cloud of mist

above white

cherry-blossoms . . .

Dawn-shining mountains

Twilight whippoorwill . . .

whistle on,

sweet deepener

Of dark loneliness

Mountain-rose petals

falling, falling,

falling now . . .

Waterfall music

Ah me! I am one

who spends his little


Morning-glory gazing

Seas are wild tonight . . .

stretching over

Sado Island

Silent clouds of stars

Why so scrawny, cat?

starving for fat fish

or mice . . .

Or backyard love?

Dewdrop, let me cleanse

in your brief

sweet waters . . .

These dark hands of life

Glorious the moon . . .

therefore our thanks

dark clouds

Come to rest our necks

Under cherry-trees

soup, the salad,

fish and all . . .

Seasoned with petals

Too curious flower

watching us pass,

met death . . .

Our hungry donkey

Cloud of cherry-bloom . . .

tolling twilight

bell . . . Temple

Ueno? Asakura?

Must springtime fade?

then cry all birds . . .

and fishes

Cold pale eyes pour tears

Such utter silence!

even the crickets'

singing . . .

Muffled by hot rocks

Swallow in the dusk . . .

spare my little

buzzing friends

Among the flowers


Bright red pepper-pod . . .

it needs but shiny

wings and look . . .

Darting dragon-fly!

Wake! The sky is light!

let us to the road

again . . .

Companion butterfly!

Silent the old town . . .

the scent of flowers

floating . . .

And evening bell


fell in silent dawn . . .


A water-jewel

In the twilight rain

these brilliant-hued

hibiscus . . .

A lovely sunset

Lady butterfly

perfumes her wings

by floating

Over the orchid

Now the swinging bridge

is quieted

with creepers . . .

Like our tendrilled life

The sea darkening . . .

oh voices of the

wild ducks

Crying, whirling, white

Nine times arising

to see the moon . . .

whose solemn pace

Marks only midnight yet

Here, where a thousand

captains swore grand

conquest . . . Tall

Grass their monument

Now in sad autumn

as I take my

darkening path . . .

A solitary bird

Will we meet again

here at your

flowering grave . . .

Two white butterflies?

Dry cheerful cricket

chirping, keeps

the autumn gay . . .

Contemptuous of frost

First white snow of fall

just enough to bend

the leaves

Of faded daffodils

Carven gods long gone . . .

dead leaves alone


On the temple porch

Cold first winter rain . . .

poor monkey,

you too could use

A little woven cape

No oil to read by . . .

I am off to bed

but ah! . . .

My moonlit pillow

This snowy morning

that black crow

I hate so much . . .

But he's beautiful!

If there were fragrance

these heavy snow-

flakes settling . . .

Lilies on the rocks

See: surviving suns

visit the ancestral

grave . . .

Bearded, with bent canes


Fever-felled half-way,

my dreams arose

To march again . . .

Into a hollow land


Haiku, Basho, Japanese poetry, Literature  

Basho. Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho. Tr. David Landis Barnhill. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Beilenson, Peter, tr. Japanese Haiku. New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1955.

Bownas, Geoffrey and Thwaite, Anthony. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Dørumsgaard, Arne: Fra duggens verden. Basho i norsk gjendiktning (1644-1694). (From the World of Dew: Basho Rendered into Norwegian) Oslo: Dreyer, 1985.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2014 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013.

Haugen, Paal-Helge: Blad frå ein austleg hage: Hundre Haiku-dikt (Leaves from an Eastern Garden: A Hundred Haiku). Oslo: Det norske Samlaget, 1965.

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