Basho (1644–1694)


To me the word is just the place where sense and non-sense reveal themselves, not as concept but as life lived. I was rereading some of Basho’s poems (Haiku) today:

Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

So simple, elegant; and, at the same time, mundane and ordinary. But isn’t that it? Isn’t the point of creativity to lead us back into our lives, give us back again the truth of our ordinariness: our ordinary lives in the mundane, day to day activities, where for the most part we act unconsciously, automaton like; and, in this awakening of the power of poetic or conceptual revelation to once again help us realize that, yes – that’s it exactly: to wake up and be blessed by the truth of our ordinary lives, our lived moment, the traveling of this road that is our singularity? No longer to live unconsciously, but to cherish even the triviality of spliced water melon, or a conversation, or the flight of a bird? This is where the natural occurrences break across an awakened mind…


The 17th-century Japanese haiku master Basho was born Matsuo Kinsaku near Kyoto, Japan, to a minor samurai and his wife. Soon after the poet’s birth, Japan closed its borders, beginning a seclusion that allowed its native culture to flourish. It is believed that Basho’s siblings became farmers, while Basho, at Ueno Castle in the service of the local lord’s son, grew interested in literature. After the young lord’s early death, Basho left the castle and moved to Kyoto, where he studied with Kigin, a distinguished local poet. During these early years Basho studied Chinese poetry and Taoism, and soon began writing haikai no renga, a form of linked verses composed in collaboration.

In his late 20s Basho moved to Edo (now a sector of Tokyo), where he joined a rapidly growing literary community. After a gift of basho trees from one student in 1680, the poet began to write under the name Basho. His work, rooted in observation of the natural world as well as in historical and literary concerns, engages themes of stillness and movement in a voice that is by turns self-questioning, wry, and oracular.

Soon after Basho began to study Zen Buddhism, a fire that destroyed much of his city also took his house. Around 1682, Basho began the months-long journeys on foot that would become the material for a new poetic form he created, called haibun. Haibun is a hybrid form alternating fragments of prose and haiku to trace a journey. Haibun imagery follows two paths: the external images observed en route, and the internal images that move through the traveler’s mind during the journey. Basho composed several extended haibun sequences starting in 1684, including Nozarashi Kiko, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones (1685); Oi no Kobumi, or The Knapsack Notebook (1688); and Sarashina Kiko, or Sarashina Travelogue (1688). 1

Collection of Six Haiku

Waking in the night;
the lamp is low,
the oil freezing.

It has rained enough
to turn the stubble on the field

Winter rain
falls on the cow-shed;
a cock crows.

The leeks
newly washed white,-
how cold it is!

The sea darkens;
the voices of the wild ducks
are faintly white.

Ill on a journey;
my dreams wander
over a withered moor.

  1. Basho, Biography