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Likely Stories: Bashō: The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Bashō

The complete collection of the greatest master of the Haiku

I’m Jim McKeown.  Welcome to Likely Stories a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I have admired Haiku poetry from many writers foreign and domestic, ancient and modern.  While visiting Union Books, a wonderful independent bookstore in Knoxville, I came across Bashō: The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Bashō, who wrote well over a thousand haikus.

The legendary Japanese poet, known as Matsuo Bashō, was born on September 15, 1644.  He was a lower-class member of a samurai sect.  “The Shell Game, published in 1672, was the only book of which copies exist that Bashō wrote and bound himself.  On February 23rd he dedicated the book to the Shinto shrine in Ueno” (23).  This poem led to his introduction to poetic circles.

According to the introduction, “Bashō is the most famous Japanese writer of all time.  At the time of his death in 1694, he had more than seventy disciples and about two thousand associates who had accepted and aligned themselves with his teachings.  On the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, the Shinto religious headquarters honored him by canonizing him as a deity.  Thirteen years later the imperial court gave him similar status.  He alone is known as a haisei, the saint of haiku.  Today he is  a recognized genius” (7).  Bashō “revised his work so obsessively and [this is] why, in spite of his thirty years of writing, we only have slightly more than one thousand of his poems” (11).  Because of his influence, “No longer is poetry what someone tells us.  It is the mental and emotional journey the author gives the reader” (16).  This little piece of information is something I have been seeking for many years.

The thousand and eleven poems in this collection are divided into seven chapters.  In addition there are more than 200 pages of notes. Through my first read-through, I marked hundreds that struck me as particularly beautiful and/or profound.  Later, I hope to revisit this collection to exam some of the more difficult poems.  In the meantime, here are some of these first ones I loved, admired, and struck me as profound.

#3 – “the old woman / a cherry tree blooming in old age / is something to remember”#9 – “in summer rain / would you be happy with / the mon’s face”  #12 – “how long / to wait for the cuckoo / about a thousand years”  #21 – “a winter shower / the pine tree is unhappy and / waiting for snow”  #46 – “ah such a life / sweet potatoes again the source / of the harvest moon”  #78 – “from a treetop / emptiness dropped down / in a cicada shell”  #84 – “a stain / falling onto tofu / a bit of autumn leaf” #96 – “first blossoms / seeing them extend my life / seventy-five more years”  #118 – “in a humble cottage / tea leaves raked up / after the storm”  #137 – “folly in darkness / grasping a thorn / instead of a firefly”  #152 – “old pond / a frog jumps into / the sound of water”  #162 – “bush warbler / is it putting to sleep the spirit / of the lovely willow?”  #184 – “is it for me / the crane leaves rice with parsley / for me to eat”  #191 – “weather beaten / wind pierces my body / to my heart?”  #211 – “buried in moss / the absent-minded iv / a Buddhist prayer”  #218 – “even a horse / is something to see / on a snowy morning”  #246 – “two lives / between them have lived / cherry blossoms”  #272 – full moon / walking around the pond / all night”  #280 – “if you start a fire / I’ll show you something good / a huge snowball”  #297 – “how curious / on grass without fragrance / lands a butterfly”  #312 – “a morning glory / even drawn badly / is charming”  #333 – “though it’s cold / two sleeping together at night / feels comfortable”

Bashō: The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Bashō is a marvelous collection of the greatest haiku poetry master of all time.  These thousand-plus poems will delight, intrigue, and have you seeking more.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories and happy reading.

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.