Basho is the Shakespeare of haiku, and since I’ve been delving deeper into the study of Japanese poetry I figured it would be pure madness not to read through his major works. I ordered several of his books from Amazon a few months ago–admittedly without doing enough research–which included the Penguin Classic’s version of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and the Shambhala Classics version of Narrow Road to the Interior. Both copies included Basho’s major works of travel writing. Both also included scholarly essays. Both, I realized as I read through them, featured the exact same work. As it turns out, “the Deep North” and “the Interior” are just different translations of the same title. After my initial disappointment–and facepalm–I found that it was well worth it to read two different translations of the same title, as my experience with each was quite different.
A bit of background: Basho is considered the founder of haiku poetry. He lived in medieval Japan, espoused the values of Buddhism (even training to be a monk for part of his life), and eventually founded a sort of school of poetry focused on haiku. Throughout his life, he took many journeys as a way to take in the natural beauty of the world and detach himself from material life. He would travel light–carrying only a raincoat and a few sundries. Throughout these journeys he wrote travel journals in a mix of prose and haiku poetry–The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of these. It was a time in Japan when traveling for pleasure was not a common pursuit, so he often had to dress as a monk for safety on the road, spending his nights sleeping in temples.
I think I most enjoyed simply learning about the culture in which he lived via his travel writing. It’s fascinating to me that he sometimes had to sleep in guard houses or shabby inns when he couldn’t find places to stay, and yet at other times he would stay in the lap of luxury at the home of a rich lover of poetry. It’s amazing to me just how fragmented the different parts of Japan were during this time period. To think of a man literally just walking from place to place when, at times, there were barely roads, in order to see natural wonders, temples that were ancient even then, or to watch the moon rise over a specific bay, is so different from my modern life that I found the whole thing very engrossing.
And yet, as a modern reader I felt that on the whole the book as a travelogue fell a bit flat. I live in a world where travel bloggers post Instagram stories in almost real time of the gorgeous things they’re seeing. I’m sure that at the time Basho was writing, putting ink to brush and writing a few sentences about a temple he stayed in or a sunset that was particularly beautiful was a nigh-unto revolutionary act. But now it feels a bit thin and passé. I hate to admit that at times I almost found it a bit boring.
I should highlight that I found the Shambala Classics version particularly boring compared to the Penguin Classics translation. I think that perhaps the translator of the former tried to be a bit too literal, which often made the writing fall flat and at times made it even hard to understand. Several of the haiku in the Shambala version are translated to have totally different meanings from the ones in the Penguin version. Perhaps it’s personal bias, but I found the essay from translator in the Penguin version to not only be more edifying, but more moving and engaging. I could tell by the translator’s writing that he really cared about the work he was translating. I did not get that impression from the essay in the Shambala Classics version. The Shambala Classics essay was, there is no better word for it, bad. It includes a snooze-worthy explanation of the various aesthetics in haiku peppered with a few odd and at times inscrutable opinions about Basho. Not worth reading.
Having finished both versions, I can say that while I’m glad to have read them–or really to have read the Penguin version–Basho’s travel writings are much more interesting from a historical perspective than from a literary or poetic view. Given how much I enjoyed the haiku mixed in with the prose, I think my next step is to read some of Basho’s many collections of haiku.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a haiku from this collection that I particularly liked:
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.