Matsuo Bashō (c.1644–1694) of Edo (modern Tokyo) was the master of the haiku, a short Japanese verse form. The haiku traditionally consists of 17 morae (loosely translated as “syllables”), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 morae, respectively. The aim of the haiku can be described as capturing a fleeting moment, often with poignancy as well as sharp observation.
During Bashō’s lifetime in the 17th century, the haiku as we know it did not exist. Instead it was known as the hokku, the first verse of a longer, collaborative poem called renku. The hokku was the most important verse of the renku, as its position as the opening verse made it a tone-setter for the whole composition. Bashō was one of few poets of his time to promote standalone hokku’s, including them in his anthologies. After his death, these poems influenced many other poets to write standalone hokku’s, which gave birth to the new verse form we now call haiku.
Bashō’s most famous haiku is the Frog Poem, here in translation by Harry Behn beside the original:
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
This translation keeps the 5-7-5 syllable form of the haiku but adds a few words to the poem that are not in Bashō’s original. Another translation more faithful to the original in regards to word usage would be this translation by Jane Reichhold:
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
This translation captures the minimalistic nature of the haiku. The haiku tend not to use adjectives, instead aims to let the picture of the poem speak for itself. Thus haiku eschews metaphor, simile, or personification. Nothing is like something else in most well-realized haiku. As Bashō has said: “Learn of the pine from a pine.” Learn, that is, what a pine tree is, not what it is like. This avoidance of metaphor or simile arises from the poet’s need to render directly and concretely the vision he has had, and only that vision. Almost he seems to aim at the paring down of his medium to the absolute minimum so that the least words stand between the reader and the experience. Metaphor is always an interference for the haiku poet. His aim is to without reference to something other than itself—which is where vision ends and intellection begins—and so that it can never be mistaken for any other object than itself. Bashō has also said: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent we never tire of.” With this in mind, perhaps this translation by James Kirkup is the truest to the essence of the haiku:
Bashō tried his utmost to master the hidden aspects of nature and to reveal its secrets. What he tried to find was not the outward appearance of nature, but to touch its very heart. Bashō said: “In the sound of the frog leaping from the bank overgrown with wild grass, a haikai is heard. There is the seen; there is the heard. Where there is hokku as the poet has felt it, there is poetic truth.” The truth which Bashō sought in haiku was not simple moralistic teachings. It may have contained such teachings, but was not limited to them. Truth, which could include such “moral lessons”, was for Bashō the need to cultivate a soul that could, for example, equate the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond with the quietude of an enlightened soul. For this, Bashō insisted upon the need for the heart in poetry, as he understood the term: “Verses composed by some are overcomposed and lose the naturalness that comes from the heart. What comes from the heart is good. It is more important to write haiku from one’s heart than to be a facile expert. There are many who write verses, but few who keep to the heart’s rules.”
This is what in Japanese Zen philosophy is called kenshō: a glimpse of enlightenment—a brief awakening into truth. This is the quality Bashō sought to achieve through his haiku. Kenshō is described as appearing suddenly, upon an interaction with someone else, at hearing or reading some significant phrase, or at the perceiving of an unexpected sound or sight—such as a frog leaping into a pond. The haiku of Bashō is his experience of kenshō. It is an insight, an understanding of reality as-it-is.
Bashō is truly the master of haiku. He continues to be revered as a saint of poetry in Japan and is the one name from classical Japanese literature that is familiar throughout the world.