Basho’s Shorter Journals

After reading the shorter travel diaries, I really think translator Sam Hamill would have been wiser to have presented them before Narrow Road to the Interior because, despite some excellent haiku, they came as somewhat of disappointment, though they might have seemed more innovative and stimulating if they had been presented before Basho’s masterpiece. To make matters worse, the second best work Travelogue of Weather Beaten Bones is presented second, and the other two journals drop off rapidly after that.

The most powerful section in Travelogue of Weather Beaten Bones was also, for me at least, a most disturbing one:

On the bank of the Fuji River, we came upon an abandoned child, about age two, its sobs stirring our pity. The child’s parents must have been crushed by the waves of this floating world to have left him here beside the rushing river to pass like dew. I thought the harsh autumn winds would surely scatter the bush clover blossoms in the night or wither them ” and him ” in the frosty dew of dawn. I left him what food I could.
Hearing the monkey’s cries “
what of the child abandoned
to the autumn wind?
How can this happen? Did his father despise him? Did his mother neglect him? I think not. This must be the will of heaven. We mourn his fate.

I’d like to think that we live in a very different time and under very different conditions. But even now reading these words is painful, almost too painful. It reminds me that such conditions still exist in other less fortunate parts of the world, and that some people are still faced with painful dilemmas that force them to rationalize their decisions. But, whether or not I live under “the will of heaven,” I’m glad that I don’t have to see the world this way.

The Knapsack Notebook, the second journal, strings together a series of beautiful haiku united by a narrative thread, but I was disappointed that there was little that actually seemed like modern-day haibun.

One of my favorite haiku reminds me of springs I’ve loved on long-trodden hikes:

I saw a beautiful clear stream pouring from a crack in a moss-covered stone:

A fresh spring rain
must have passed through all the leaves
to nourish this spring.

Unfortunately, the final journal, Sarashina Travelogue, was a mere four pages long, too short to ever really engage me.