The works of Bash represent a high point in the history of Japanese poetics. He is chiefly known as a writer of the haiku, a tiny poem that, unless irregular, contains seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables each. Actually, in Bash’s lifetime, the term haiku had not yet come into use. Haiku comes from the blending of haikai, or linked verse, and hokku, the starting verse of a haikai. Over time, the hai-of haikai was combined with the-ku of hokku to form haiku. Thus, the opening verse of a group of linked verses came to stand independently as a poem.

In addition to his mastery of the haiku and of travel diaries, Bash was also an excellent teacher of verse writing. His poetic ideas were never recorded as a poetic theory, and some of them are very difficult to comprehend. Some of the most important of these ideas were those of the poetic spirit, sabi, shiori, slenderness, inspiration, fragrance, reverberation, reflection, plainness, and highness. Actually, the concept of the poetic spirit is central, and the rest could almost be considered various aspects of the poetic spirit. This poetic spirit can be categorized into a style that has both qualities transcending time and place and a quality that is rooted in the taste of the times.

Bash’s poetic spirit is the source of all art and goes back to the source of the universe. It is something of a return to a beautiful nature whose creation and appreciation differentiate the civilized and the uncivilized. The two major aspects of Bash’s poetic spirit are a high spiritual attainment, on one hand, and a mundane enjoyment of pleasure in the modern world, on the other. The goal of enlightenment is at the center of spiritual attainment, while enjoyment of the world includes such ideas as plainness and lightness.

Some of the values that contribute to attaining enlightenment include sabi, shiori, and slenderness. Sabi connotes a kind of objective, nonemotional loneliness, not grief or sorrow, which are emotional traits. Bash’s kind of loneliness is enjoyable and is associated with impersonal nature, not human life. It has been said that Bash found sabi in this haiku:

Under the blossomsTwo aged watchmen,With their white heads together.

Shiori, unlike sabi, which manifests the poet’s attitude toward life, derives loneliness from the structure of the poem itself. Shiori can mean “to be flexible” or “to drop” or “wither.” Both meanings seem to apply in Bash’s usage. Thus, a poem with shiori may have several layers of meaning open to several interpretations while at the same time creating an atmosphere of loneliness. Bash found shiori in the following haiku:

The Ten DumplingsHave become smaller, too—The autumn wind.

Also important to an analysis of the haiku are the concepts of the “cutting word,” kireji, and the “season-word,” kigo. The cutting word often follows the subject, but a verb is missing, forcing the reader to supply one; this omission results in a kind of ambiguity that is vague and impersonal. Kigo, the season-word, is a part of the traditional rule that a haiku must contain a word associated with a particular season, for according to Bash, each poem must present an atmosphere of nature, which, of course, is seasonal. Fall is the season mentioned in this translation of one of Bash’s poems:

On the Stone MountainIt is whiter than the stones:Autumnal wind.

Slenderness can perhaps be explained best by imagining the mind as being so slender that it is able to pierce and enter any kind of object and reach and touch its innermost life. Bash used as an example of a poem with slenderness one of his own:

The salted sea bream’sGums are chilly, too,At the fish shop.

With this mental slenderness, not actual physical touch, the poet feels the chilliness in this objective, impersonal poem.

Another term necessary to an understanding of some of Bash’s haiku is synesthesia, the...

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