Matsuo Bashō

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What are the central images in each of Bashō's haiku and to which senses do they appeal? How do these exemplify the idea that art begins with "The depths of the country / and a rice-planting song?" Does their conciseness affect the impact of their images?

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As your question suggests, classical Japanese haiku, such as Basho's "Four Haiku," are designed to invoke one image and dominant impression that is often startling in both its simplicity and effect. Unlike modern haiku, which can explore a wide spectrum of subjects—from nature to commuting in New York City—classical Japanese haiku of Basho's time (late-seventeenth century) focus on nature and, often, nature's relationship to man.

For example, in Basho's first of four haiku, he places the scene in spring:

A hill without a name
Veiled in morning mist.

The immediate image springs (no pun intended) to the eye because any reader, either now or in the seventeenth century, would be able to recreate this image in his or her mind. What is not so obviously perceivable is Basho's skill in linking this scene to human experience: the hill is "without a name," a reminder to the reader or listener that nature is not mankind's construct. We give names, but nature does not.

The second haiku links nature and mankind even more directly:

The beginning of autumn:
Sea and emerald paddy
Both the same green.

Again, the image is readily accessible to readers and listeners because both the sea and paddies are common sights to anyone living in Japan, and in an agricultural-based society, many Japanese of the seventeenth century would envision the color invoked by the poem. More important is that, in placing this scene in autumn, Basho reminds the reader that the green of the paddy—the rice paddy—indicates that the rice, a important agricultural crop, is ready to harvest. The poem, in very compressed poetic diction, expresses the fundamental relationship between nature and mankind.

As with the second haiku, the third poem depicts another tie between nature and the people who depend upon nature:

The winds of autumn
Blow: yet still green
The chestnut husks.

On an island, especially one as isolated as Japan in the seventeenth century, the dependence of the society on nature is profound: most of what is required for the society to survive and flourish is a product of nature. Basho, in setting this image in autumn, as he does in the second haiku, reminds the reader that chestnuts are nearing harvest time—with the caveat that, while the chestnut spikes are still green, the chestnuts are not quite ripened for harvest.

The last haiku in this series invokes both the sight and sound of nature:

A flash of lightning:
Into the gloom
Goes the heron's cry.

This haiku and also links the scene with human experience by using "into the gloom" to bring human agency into the poem: someone can see the flash, perceive the "gloom," and hear the cry.

Your last quotation from Basho illuminates the attributes of human experience that he instills in the four haiku. Basho's poems are both products of the "depths of country," that is, nature, and "a rice-planting song" of the people who live within nature to produce the sustenance for the society. These two elements create a kind of dependence.

Because haiku are designed to be "word pictures," appealing to both sight and intellect in one stroke and instantaneously, the compression of diction is paramount. Each of Basho's haiku creates an image that leads quickly to an intellectual response; the image of nature is complete in itself, but that image also leads to an immediate and broader understanding of the ties between nature and mankind.

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Poetry is often difficult to appreciate after it has been translated, and this is true of Basho’s “Four Haiku.” Nonetheless, it is still a beautiful work by one of the true masters of the haiku craft. It is also difficult to pick out the central image of each haiku, since “A hill without a name / Veiled in morning mist” is the first haiku and is in and of itself a complete single image. That is only one example. Another way of thinking about “Four Haiku,” other than through the imagery, is considering the sense of movement through them. It begins with a hill: stationary, settled, veiled in mist. Then it moves into water, the sea, and emerald green paddies, which are more malleable. Then, the focus moves to the flowing winds of autumn. Finally, it focuses on the flash of lightning and the unhatched feeling of the heron’s cry. The four haiku crescendo to the end and also touch separately on earth, water, wind, and fire, in that order.

As a Westerner reading these poems in translation, their conciseness does not seem to drastically increase their impact—but in their original language, where syllabic meter and structure can be better understood, there is little doubt that the length of the poems makes a difference.

Finally, by saying that art begins in the country, Basho seems to be taking a naturalistic look at the artistic process. Art, through Basho’s perspective, is a conduit to reconnect with the most primal, natural, simplistic version of the human soul.

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It can be difficult to fully appreciate Basho's poetry in translation. But the economy of form haiku exemplify suggests a kind of incompleteness. That is to say, the "meaning" of these images lies not in the words themselves, but in the way readers combine and understand them. In this sense, the poems are indeterminate—what they "mean" is the feeling they create in the reader. Sometimes the punctuation is as important as the words.

The first haiku is a case in point. How are we meant to understand the use of the colon in the opening line "Spring:"? The common way would be to think of it as a kind of "equals" sign. Spring "equals" "a hill without a name / Veiled in morning mist." But the nature of the connection is not that precise. The "hill without a name" is not even an image, but it suggests a kind of lonely anonymity. The third line, "veiled in morning mist," is a potent visual image (there is also a tactile quality to it as well—one can almost feel the mist) and suggests another kind of anonymity, in that the hill is hard to see because of the fog. The tone seems a bit melancholy. Can this really "equal" spring? Or is it the poem referring to a specific moment of existence, a spring morning spent on a hill? Or does the poem suggest a kind of cause and effect: because it is spring, therefore a hill in the mist?

While Basho invites these kinds of questions, his poetry provides no answers, and indeed, providing answers is not the point. Even the quote you mention, about the nature of art, does not really explain anything: it merely suggests that the "depths of the country" are somehow contained within the "rice planting song." This is a similar construction to the third haiku, in which the "winds of autumn / Blow: yet still green / The chestnut husks." The word "yet" suggests an opposition between the wind and the husks, but the poem is really about the juxtaposition of these two intense images. The "art" lies in the poet's arrangement of them and the reader's ability to emotionally respond to them.

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I believe that Basho is referring to the idea that the best literature depends upon a cultural idea. Rooted cultures have history. It is this history which defines a person, a region, and a populace. As for the reference to "song," many poems and literary texts come from deep-rooted customs. Song in culture is about a deep-rooted as one can get. (Think slavery songs and poetry/literature from the African-American literary movement.)

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Haiku are short and sweet, and have strong images of nature.  The senses are usually visual, but they can appeal to hearing and touch as well.  The reader gets a picture when reading them.

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