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Matsuo Basho: Modern English Translations of the Japanese Haiku Master

Matsuo Bashō [1644-1694] was an ancient Japanese master of brief, startlingly clear and concise haiku/hokku and haikai no renga ("comic linked verse") also known as renku. Bashō influenced many Western poets, including early English/American modernists like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Modernist poetry has been a turn away from highly ornate language toward the clarity and conciseness of Oriental poetry forms such as haiku and tanka.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Basho's poem is a deceptively simple masterpiece; it subtly illuminates the symbiotic nature of life through a stunning image. The butterfly is attracted by the perfumed nectar of flowers; in the process of imbibing it helps pollinate them. Basho's poem is an example of art mirroring nature; it's hard to say which is more lovely: the butterfly fanning the orchid, or the exquisitely wrought poem. One might even hazzard that the poem is suggestive of a boudoir, with the orchid playing the role of geisha ...

Pausing between clouds
the moon rests
in the eyes of its beholders
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above also illustrates the simplicity and power of haiku in the hands of a master. My translation has a slightly different "take" on the poem than other translations, and I can't say that my translation is absolutely correct or completely faithful to the original, but I like it and I think it captures the "idea" of the original poem, which suggests the connection between the stages of the moon and human life; both consist of passages and rests. Usually we sleep as the moon floats above. If we see the moon at night, slipping between clouds, it can seem eerily lovely, haunting and restful at the same time. When a poet like Basho deftly invokes the image of the moon, he can appeal to all the things we know (or think we know) and feel about the moon.

Graven images of long-departed gods,
dry spiritless leaves:
companions of the temple porch
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I like Basho's poem above, because it questions the authenticity and authority of religion. The witchdoctors, priests and evangelists of nearly every religion pretend to be able to speak for the gods, but their gods are singularly unjust and ineffective. The gods of the witchdoctors, priests and evangelists never spare human beings from suffering and death: to the truth-telling poets, that seems to imply something obvious. Basho's poem suggests that the "gods" are just as dead and spiritless as the leaves lining the temple porch.

See: whose surviving sons
visit the ancestral graves
white-bearded, with trembling canes?
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Again, Basho speaks honestly, with a daunting but compelling truthfulness. The ancient Greek poets also spoke of death forthrightly. Here's my "interpretation" of an ancient Greek epitaph (a gravestone inscription) that rivals Basho in brevity, forthrightness and clarity:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Now here, without comment, are a number of other poems by Matsuo Basho:

This darkening autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue?
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn darkness
                descends
on this road I travel
                                 alone
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Lightning
shatters the darkness

the night heron's shriek
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there's no rice
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first chill rain:
poor monkey, you too could use
a woven cape of straw
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This snowy morning:
cries of the crow I despise
(ah, but so beautiful!)
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Like a heavy fragrance
snow-flakes settle:
lilies on rocks
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The cheerful-chirping cricket
contends gray autumn's gay,
contemptuous of frost
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Whistle on, twilight whippoorwill,
solemn evangelist
of loneliness
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The sea darkening,
the voices of the wild geese:
my mysterious companions!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Will we meet again?
Here at your flowering grave:
two white butterflies
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

These brown summer grasses?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

An empty road
lonelier than abandonment:
this autumn evening
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Spring has come:
the nameless hill
lies shrouded in mist
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Fever-felled mid-path
my dreams resurrect, to trek
into a hollow land
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti Rainer Maria Rilke
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa

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