Bashō's Road

to the small poem and the quiet voice within

Bashō’s Road by Norbert Blei

“As we turn every corner of the Narrow Road to the Deep North, we sometimes stand up unawares to applaud and we sometimes fall flat to resist the agonizing pains we feel in the depth of our hearts. There are also times when we feel like taking to the road ourselves, seizing the raincoat nearby, or times when we feel like sitting down till our legs take root, enjoying the scene we picture before our eyes.” –from the Postscript of THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by Matsuo Bashō, (1644-1694)

That could have been written by Kerouac. There’s a sensibility there that Kerouac and all the Beats to follow the same road understood and recorded.

…awakening life…

Haiku I you I too

Here and Now remain here and now.
Nothing changes.
Everything is and is more than meets the eye…

Haiku I hokku I Hokusai… It all comes together. Image and art.
What we see becomes us.

Seventeen syllables, five-seven-five—if tradition is your style and substance.
There’s a problem of course with loss in translation. There always is. So take whatever presents itself, try it, see if it works.

Furuike ya I kawazu tobikomu I mizu no oto.

Old pond:
frog jump-in

Bashō’s masterpiece, some say. The nature of translations vary, but whatever’s said, however it’s said–certainly there’s water, certainly there’s frog, certainly there’s sound. We get the picture. And then some.

I prefer another Basho masterpiece (and translation), a poem that never ever ends for me.

Kare-eda I ni I karasu-no I tomari-keri I aki-no-kure

On a withered branch
a crow has settled—
autumn nightfall.

When and if I’m called upon and willing to be a writer in temporary residence elsewhere (an hour, an afternoon, a day, a week, a month, a semester…a moment), I begin with Basho’s autumn crow warm in hand.

Look at this, I say to them, how alive it becomes the more you take it in. They’re just words–crow, night, fall. They don’t understand. There is no, “AH!”

I tell them about the old Zen Master’s comment: “Have you noticed how clean and glistening the cobblestones are after the rain? Real works of art! And flowers? No words can describe them. One can only exclaim “AH!” in admiration. You must learn to understand the ‘AH!” of things.”

I have read many translations of Basho’s autumn crow poem. I like this one best, from Harold G. Henderson’s book, AN INTRODUCTION TO HAIKU. A book I have owned, carried, consulted (soiled, marked, bent, broken, pages loose, held together with a heavy-duty red rubber band) for so many years it now possesses, for me, what the Japanese/Zen-mind call wabi-sabi—the beauty of things worn down, aging, imperfect. AH!…

On the windowsill in front of my desk sits a small stone with a cavity in it the size of one’s thumb. A stone I found it many years ago walking along a rocky shoreline here one summer morning. There are all sorts of stories and feelings one could attach to this stone, love among them. But the stone is silent, small, ancient, intriguing, comforting in the palm of one’s hand. It tells me things I need to know again.

“The next time you have a tangerine to eat, please put it in the palm of your hand and look at it in a way that makes the tangerine real. You do not need a lot of time to do it, just two or three seconds. Looking at it you can see a beautiful blossom with sunshine and rain, and you can see a tiny fruit forming. You can see the continuation of the sunshine and the rain, and the transformation of the baby fruit into the full developed tangerine in your hand. You can see the color change from green to orange and you can see the tangerine sweetening. Looking at a tangerine in this way, you will see that everything in the cosmos is in it—sunshine, rain, clouds, trees, leaves, everything. Peeling the tangerine, smelling it, and tasting it, you can be very happy.” –Thich Nhat Hahn
(from Mindfulness and Meaningful Work, edited by Claude Whitmyer)

The longer you journey down Basho’s road, the more the smallest things along the way beckon your awareness, the deeper you discover the landscape of Zen, whatever your destination. But you will have to draw your own map as you go.

The work of the poet is to see and to transform…

Oku-no-hosomichi (narrow path to the interior)–Basho’s way

This is the road I wish to revisit here, on the way to the small poem, wherever one discovers it: old…new…traditional… modern. Short. Simple.

Inscrutable—-but awakening. The spirit of old Basho leading the way.

The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel
by Basho
translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred
bones and nine orifices there is something, and this
something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a
better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is
torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind.

This something in me took to writing poetry years ago,
merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it
its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however,
that there were times when it sank into such dejection
that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again
times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted
in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it
began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself,
always wavering between doubts of one kind and another.

At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service
of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth
of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was
prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of
poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of
writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or
less blindly.


  1. wonderful stuff

    i don’t know how you keep up doing all this and all that other stuff.

    explosive energy? does anyone dare stand next to you?


  2. I’m standing next to him … oooooYah. He’s one explosive Czech fersher …………

  3. I have Henderson’s “Haiku in English” on my desk right now. Don’t you love connections like that?

  4. “At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or less blindly.”

    Poetry is both my greatest fear and deepest love. I believe that if I submerse myself in it, I will truly feel what it is like to be alive. I both fear and love this.

    Thank you Norbert, for now introducing me to Basho. Please take care and be well!

  5. i love this place. visually. aesthetically. BTW although I don’t know a word of Japanese, I’ve never read a translation of Basho’s frog/s that conveys what some writers describe is his original japanese: every translation falls plop plop on my ear. unfelicitously where i am told his original cuts through like an aston martin through a double chicane on a cool dry day.

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