Basho uses the traditional haibun to express himself beautifully in Narrow Route to the Deep North. The themes he covers include nature, faith, folklore as well as physical and mental journeys. The haibun is a short prose piece that tells a story and sets a mood. It’s then condensed to three lines for the haiku. It is easy to understand–a brief narrative followed by three lines in a pattern of five-seven-5 syllables–which leads many readers, including myself, to think it’s a children’s form. This simplicity is what reveals Basho’s brilliance. It is important to choose words carefully and precisely. Flowery embellishments are not allowed in such a simple and straightforward framework. Basho carefully selects each syllable to accurately and poignantly convey his emotions. By doing so, he shows how haibun can be a powerful art form that is suitable for children as well as adults.
In the selection titled “IN TSURUGA. Second Year Genroku”, there are two folk tales: a first story about an ancient ritual of taking sand and carrying it to Kei Shrine. A second tale is related by a Tsuruga Harbor innkeeper, who tells a story of how a Dragon knocked down a temple bell from a boat, which fell into the deep sea. Basho’s emotional moments are framed by these folk stories, which create a background for the story. In a couple of sentences, he expresses the importance of folklore in the context. “With a deep sense reverence seeping into my bone, the holiness the shrine, and the light of the moon pouring on through the tree, a deep respect for the place” (Basho), seamlessly draws from the lore. He combines the knowledge he already had, the “holiness the shrine,” with the immediate experience he has, the “light of the moon pouring”. The combination of nature and knowledge conveys a poetic intent that is unmistakable even though it was translated from Japanese. Haibun are concise and powerful because they use simple language. In this case, the reader has to infer Basho’s emotions, but the haiku suggests that he is uncertain. Basho writes, “The temple ring sunk/to bottom of the ocean” to show that the story is in his head as he composes. He also asks, “Where is moon?” which reflects the feelings he has about the tale. Basho asks, “Where is the moon?” because rainclouds have obscured the moon’s view. He wonders if it’s not there anymore since it’s not visible. These lines together raise a fascinating question about faith. Basho’s knowledge of the moon, even if it’s not visible, raises an interesting question: Does this mean, despite the fact that his only contact with the mythical temple bell was through a folk tale told by a local innkeeper, he is certain the bell lies under the sea? If a folktale cannot be disproven, can we accept it as true? Basho sets the scene perfectly to answer all these questions with three lines.
Basho assumes the reader already knows about folklore and uses this knowledge to support his arguments. Folk stories are prone to skepticism by their very nature. As they are passed along by word-of mouth, there is no accountability for the storytellers. This can be a problem if the stories have been embellished. The stories are passed on through the generations even if they were based solely on superstition. They can’t be disproven over time because no one has seen it. Basho connects the Moon with folktales very early; “the moon / so pure / on sand brought here / By the Pilgrim Priests”. This blurs Basho’s own experience with the story he is describing. Basho’s expression of uncertainty is expressed when rain falls in a previous haibun: “the North Country Weather / So Uncertain”. His concern for unpredictable weather could affect his journey. But he can also use the moon to represent truth in stories to help better understand how it is used in the poem. Basho wonders where the moon is when rain clouds roll in, hiding it from view. This can also be interpreted metaphorically, with the cloudy sky representing the uncertainty surrounding the moon. Basho’s haibun can be determined by the simple fact that, even though the moon has been hidden by clouds in this work, it still exists. If the moon in this haibun represents truth and the clouds represent doubt, then we can assume that truth is always found in folklore. He describes a journey in Narrow Way that is full of obstacles and uncertainty, but ends with a peaceful resting place. Basho is convinced that there’s a grain truth in every folktale, a temple bell does indeed lie at sea bottom. His haibuns and haikus are a good way to get a sense of his philosophy.
The poet and reader work together to understand the meaning of the poem in this medium. The haibun’s unspoken content is no less important than what it says, and may even be more so. How can haibun be dismissed as a form of “children’s poetry”? As we gain more experience and understanding of the subject, our interpretations of the work will continue to grow. We will find the poems more inspiring as we grow older. Basho’s poetry is simple and accessible to all ages and languages.