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October 2016, vol 12 no 3

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Bashō’s “Hiraizumi”: A passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Ono no Hosomichi)

Ray Rasmussen

"Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own." ~Salvatore Quasimodo

Part I: Introduction

Bashō's travel journals, purportedly the earliest examples of haibun, are accounts of his pilgrimage journeys through Japan to various cultural, historical and spiritual places. His work (and that of other masters) is often cited as important reading for serious writers. More generally, these classics are held up as good reading for anyone who likes poetic prose and who wants a glimpse of the insights and spirit of a man who lived several centuries ago.

You may wish to read "Hiraizumi" prior to reading my thoughts about it. If so, go here to open a second window.

I've selected the passage "Hiraizumi" about the demise of the Fujiwara clan. I chose it because as Quasimodo suggests, I recognized something of my own when I read it. Bashō expressed feelings and situations in this piece that I identified with during my recent travels in the Southwest United States.

Part II: Bashō's Writing Style

There are several keys to understanding Bashō's success in establishing haibun as a serious form of Japanese literature. The first is the amount of descriptive detail – what might be called 'reportage' – that provides a context for the poetry and that establish a storyline. Example of reportage passages include:

"The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I came upon Lord Hidehira's mansion, which had been utterly reduced to rice-paddies..."

"The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier-gate of Koromogaseki, thus blocking the entrance from the Nambu area and forming a protection against barbarous intruders from the north."

Bashō's reportage makes reference to cultural, historical and spiritual events and places. A non-Japanese reader’s lament might be that such references aren’t understandable, and thus, the piece becomes somewhat oblique. However, to get a feel for the passage and it’s poetics, you need not know specifically who Lords Hidehira and Yashira are, nor the significance of the Koromogaseki barrier gate, nor details about of the Nambu area, nor who the intruders were that are labeled “barbarous intruders.”

Descriptive detail without some measure of lyrical phrasing can become monotonous. Lyrical passages that touched me included:

"It was here that the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream,"

"When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive."

As a third element, haibun prose can focus on narrative detail or it can be lyrical in nature or a mix. In all cases, it allows a third key element ― some telling as well as showing:

"I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time."

A fourth element or haibun is the marriage of prose and haiku. Bashō's closing haiku, which many will recognize without having read “Hiraizumi,” can be viewed both as a succinct and poetic expression of his thoughts about that most serious of human foibles – war. As with many of the haiku in Narrow Road his haiku step out to a new level of insight and lyricism:

summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams
~ Bashō (trans. L. Stryk)

Putting it all together, how are haibun structured according to Bashō’s practice?

  • Rich descriptive, yet succinct detail that sets the stage
  • Poetic phrasings that stir the reader
  • Mostly showing, with a modest amount of telling
  • A haiku that steps out from the prose and takes readers to a new level of feeling and insight
  • An overall succinctness that allows us to enter and leave a scene in a short reading

While these are the nuts and bolts of haibun, they don't explain the whole. Haibun is a form of storytelling and these components have to be put together in a way that captivates the reader. As such, haibun prose goes well beyond a more typical account of an outing which, as David Cobb has put it "is often as disorganized and unrooted in thematic content as a set of holiday snaps." Haibun also goes far deeper in its storyline theme than the "go here, see this, eat that, pay this much" type of travel writing that one finds in newspapers and magazines. Of course, good travel writing can also be literary. Nor is haibun mere journalism. As Cobb has put it, "I view the haibun writer as a literary artist, someone who has high regard for authenticity, but not afraid to bend facts when it suits, setting poetic truth above a factual narrative, and free to rearrange chronology." Cobb further reports that according to Yuasa, Bashō, did indeed "take such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events."

With his long term perspective on the English-language haibun scene, Ken Jones stated that "The haibun has come a long way in recent years. Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku ("diamonds in mud banks") are now mercifully few—though still occasionally published."

Summing up, "Hiraizumi" is a worthy historical story. Bashō takes the reader into the Japan of several centuries ago using a poetic style of expression that he made famous and that instructs writers today.

The intent of this essay is not to suggest that there's but one form of haibun, namely one or more prose paragraphs followed by one or more haiku. For a full discussion and examples of the variety of forms of haibun see Jeffrey Woodward, "Form in Haibun," Haibun Today 4:4 December 2010.

Part III: A Personal Recognition

"Hiraizumi" brought to mind the ruins that I had recently come upon in one of southern Utah's sandstone canyons. After hiking several hours, I had found a way down into a remote, seldom-visited area named Slickhorn Canyon. There I unexpectedly came on the ruins of ancients who have been given the name "Anasazi" by the Navajos who arrived later in this area.

Some of the ruins looked as if they had been abandoned only yesterday; others were reduced to little more than piles of rubble. Still visible were the finger impressions made when the builders pressed mud as mortar in between the building stones. One spot of mud-mortar had an impression of a baby's foot.

Bashō doesn't tell us what led to the demise of the Fujiwara clan, but from the omnipresent wars of our last century and from the records of Japanese historians, we can readily infer the causes. The Anasazi disappeared from the area where I was hiking around 1100 AD, leaving dwelling, storage bins and important artifacts such as pottery and tools behind. While there is neither a written nor an oral remembering of the Anasazi, research from the natural record, the ring thickness of sections of 1000-year-old trees and the carbon dating of debris from the sites, tell us that the area experienced a 100-year drought. We can guess that skirmishes developed between those whose crops had failed and had thus become nomadic raiders and those who had managed to carry on and now had to protect their crops.

I sat in the shade near one ruin that had handprints painted above the dwelling's doorway. I could imagine men gathered after a fruitless hunt, women preparing the evening meal from the sparse pickings and the children, hungry, perhaps dying of starvation. All about me were pot shards, the broken remains of generations. I thought about my own children and the problems of today’s civilization.

The handprints seemed to be saying, “We were here.” Like Bashō, I felt tears coming to my eyes.

Part IV: A Conversation of Sorts with Bashō

After reading Bashō’s haibun, I decided to pen a haibun modeled on the structure of "Hiraizumi." I wanted to explore his style while utilizing my own experiences in Slickhorn Canyon as context. Whether my piece succeeds or fails is of little importance. Writing my piece, “Slickhorn Canyon,” helped me to identify with Bashō's journey through his Japan. And it reminded me that the plight of the Anasazi is one that has been repeated throughout our environmental disaster- and war-inclined human history, that these ruins were not just interesting artifacts, but places where families and entire clans once lived, felt the joys of life, suffered and then disappeared.

In writing “Slickhorn Canyon” I felt as if I had had a deep conversation with a travelling monk who loved to write poetry.

1. Salvatore Quasimodo, poet and literary critic, was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1959.
2. David Cobb, "A Few Timely Heresies about English Haibun," Blithe Spirit 10:3 September 2000 and reprinted in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.
3. Ken Jones, "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," Contemporary Haibun Oonline 3:3, Sept 2007.
4. Ray Rasmussen's haibun, "Slickhorn Canyon," which was modeled on Bashō's "Hiraizumi" was published in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.
5. I addressed the pros and cons of modelling one’s writing on the work of other writers. For a fuller discussion of the issues see Ray Rasmussen, "The Role of Modeling in Haibun Composition," Haibun Today 7:2 June 2013.
6. This essay is a revision of one that originally appeared in A Hundred Gourds 1:1 December 2011.