The literary works of Matsuo Bash (mah-tsew-oh bah-shoh) are difficult to classify, even for those acquainted with Japanese literary history. Bash is popularly known as the greatest of allhaiku poets, although the literary form was not defined and named until two hundred years after his death. Modern collections labeled “Bash’s haiku” are generally bits and pieces taken from his travel journals and renku (linked poems). In a sense, all Bash’s literary works are broader and more complex than the seventeen-syllable haiku for which he is remembered. The seven major anthologies of his school, listed above, contain hokku (opening verses) and renku composed by Bash and his disciples, as well as an occasional prose piece. Besides hokku and renku, Bash is known for his haibun, a combination of terse prose and seventeen-syllable hokku generally describing his pilgrimages to famous sites in Japan. His best-known travel journals include Nozarashi kik (1687; The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, 1966), Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1933), Oi no kobumi (1709; The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, 1966), and Sarashina kik (1704; A Visit to Sarashina Village, 1957). Bash’s conversations on poetry were preserved by disciples, and his surviving letters, numbering more than a hundred, are treasured today.
Matsuo Bash is the favorite poet of Japan and one of the only poets of Asia whose verses are known popularly in the West. It is paradoxical that this complex poet whose profundity continues to tease the minds of Japan’s greatest literary critics is read and recited by schoolchildren in many lands. Although technically he never wrote a haiku, Bash serves as a model for many children, East and West, writing their first verses as haiku. The wedding of simplicity and profundity that characterizes Bash’s work provides a true measure of his stature as a poet.
The continuing popularity of Bash in his homeland, a country where laymen pride themselves on being aesthetic critics, is itself an extraordinary tribute to his work. Japanese still make pilgrimages to the stone monuments marking the stopping places on his journeys. Many recite his verses when they hear a frog splash, smell plum blossoms on a mountain trail, or hear a cicada’s shrill voice. Thanks in no small part to his work, many average citizens of Japan still write poetry, hang scrolls containing verse, and read the poetry column in Japan’s daily newspapers.
In an age when aristocrats were the arbiters of taste, setting the complex rules for the writing of waka and renga, the chief poetic forms of Japan, Bash devoted himself to haikai, an informal style of poetry celebrating the seasons of nature and the round of ordinary life among peasants and merchants....
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave: Bash’s Haiku and Zen. New York: Weatherhill, 1978. One of the few studies of Bash by a Western roshi, or master teacher of Zen. This overview evaluates the poet’s work in the context of Zen philosophy, offering the claim that Bash’s haiku transcend mere nature poetry and instead serve as a way of presenting fundamental religious truths about mind, nature, and cosmos.
Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986. Earl Miner’s chapter on Bash has as its main thesis that Bash has not been known in the West as he would have wished to be known. The focus of his discussion is the fact that the Western concept of mimesis, what is real and what is fiction, differs from its Eastern counterpart, opening the way to misunderstanding.
Hamill, Sam, trans. The Essential Bash. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. The introduction to this work represents Bash as a consummate writer. In this work, religious issues are significantly downplayed. Instead Hamill presents his subject as a poetic and philosophical wanderer: someone engaged in a lifelong process of literary experimentation and discovery. Particularly fascinating is the overview of Bash’s transformation from a highly derivative stylist to a powerfully original poet.
Qiu, Peipei. Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. Examines the relationship between Daoism and Bash’s poetry. Contains considerable discussion of themes and influences.
Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bash. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. This work puts the poet in the position of cultural conservationist, arguing that Bash’s poems drew on deeply held concepts of nature.
Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bash. New York: Twayne, 1970. This study offers a brief biography as well as general perspectives on the author’s major works. In addition to the expected focus on haiku, it treats Bash’s renku (long, collaboratively written poems) and prose works.
_______, ed. Bash and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. This work is a chronologically organized anthology of Bash’s poems, each accompanied by the original Japanese text (transliterated into Western characters) and literal translations. Although this anthology offers little new insight into Bash’s life or interpretations of his work, this volume does demonstrate the tremendous influence of translation on the written word.