On the Narrow Road

by John Hertz: National Poetry Month in the United States.

Between the clouds, shining;
It’s vegetable springtime,
Flowering cheerfully.

For a thousand years the highest form of Japanese literature was a 31-syllable poem, in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.  Originally it was called waka, “Japanese poem”; in those days Chinese poems – by Japanese – were regarded even more highly, like the use of Greek in the Roman Empire, or the use of Latin in England until at least the 18th Century.  Eventually this form was called tanka, “short poem”.

That wasn’t short enough, so the Japanese dropped two lines, leaving the form we know as haiku (from a word meaning “unorthodox”) – even harder to write.

Anyone can string together 5-7-5 syllables.  But haiku is to be a poem.

It should present a moment.  It should show the meeting of the inner or subjective world, and the outer or objective world, to appear at the end of the first or second lines.  Oh, and it should say or point to what season the moment is in.

Richard Wright (1908-1960) toward the end of his life wrote haiku.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

R. Wright, Haiku no. 31 (Y. Hakutani & R. Tener eds., rev. 2011)

One of the greatest haiku masters was Buson (1716-1784).

The evening breezes –
The water splashes against
A blue heron’s shins

(in Japanese yûkaze ya / mizu aosagi no / hagi o utsu; the notation û is for a long vowel, which some would write uu; tr. by the great Donald Keene 1922-2019, who called this haiku by Buson a tour de force; F. Bowers ed., The Classic Tradition of Haiku p. 54, 1996)

Hoping you are the same.


Bashô, The Narrow Road to Oku (1702; D. Keene tr. 1996) 

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4 thoughts on “On the Narrow Road

  1. Eleanor Arnason’s award-nominated short story “Knapsack Poems” is a response to a Bashô poem: saru kiku hito / sutego ni aki no / kaze ikani.

  2. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    Brother Becker, may the Force be with him, knows I am no foe to leaving things for the reader. But a little more may help.

    One of Bashô’s works is Manuscript in My Knapsack (1709).

    Another, Exposure in the Fields (1684), has the poem Becker (almost) quotes.

    Donald Keene in World Within Walls (rev. 1999) discusses Exposure at pp. 80-83. He translates the poem and its preface (p. 82)

    As we walked along by the Fuji River, we noticed an abandoned child, perhaps three years old, weeping pitifully.

    I wondered if its parents, buffeted by the swift currents of this river, had abandoned him here, thinking his life would last only as long as the dew. Would the tender clover blossoms scatter tonight in the autumn wind beneath the plant, or would they wither tomorrow?

    With these thoughts I took some food from my sleeve and threw it to the child as we passed.

    saru wo kiku hito
    sutego ni aki no
    kaze ika ni

    What would poets who grieved
    To hear monkeys feel about this child
    In the autumn wind?


    “It was a commonplace of Chinese poetry to express grief over the pitiful cries of monkeys but, Bashô suggests, such grief is as nothing compared to the feelings aroused by a child abandoned by its parents, no doubt because of poverty.

    “Modern readers find it difficult, however, to understand why Bashô should have done no more than throw some food at the child. We may wonder why he could not have picked up the child or attempted in some way to save it from certain death by exposure or starvation.

    “Such doubts have suggested to some scholars that the whole passage is a literary invention”.

  3. John’s response is what I wish I could have said and I thank him. And I thank the carrier pigeons.

    Arnason’s response is beyond what I could imagine writing or even imagining. She got it exactly right. The best answer to a melancholy poem is a wonderfully weird science fiction story that is filled with poetry and joy.

    Based on his novel Virtual Zen, I think Ray Faraday Nelson is also well acquainted with Bashô. Who else within our little community?

  4. John Hertz responds by carrier pigeon:

    Brother Nelson quotes and discusses a haiku by Sodô in Flag 22 https://efanzines.com/FLAG/FLAG-22.pdf. The translation is by H.G. Henderson (1889-1974), not cited but his hand can be seen.

    In the second half of my Japan report “The Residence of the Wind” https://efanzines.com/Argentus/Ag08.pdf I tell of meeting a woman from the Bashô Museum, and going to the Sumida River where a hut like his is where his was. I’ll add:

    Sumida River,
    Standing where Bashô stood,
    Looking. Same? Aha!

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