The Poetry of Bashô

Haiku, the famous short poetic form of Japan, reached its pinnacle in the works of the master Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694). Haiku remains a popular art form today.

Six Haiku by Bashô

Te wo uteba kodama ni akuru natsu no tsuki

as I clap my hands
with the echoes, it begins to dawn —
the summer moon

Susuhaki wa ono ga tana tsuru daiku kana

housecleaning day —
hanging a shelf at his own house
a carpenter

Hototogisu otakeyabu wo moru tsukiyo

hototogisu (little cuckoo) —
through a vast bamboo forest
moonlight seeping

Kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

on a bare branch
a crow has alighted
autumn evening.

Akebono ya shirauo shiroki koto issun

in the twilight of dawn
a whitefish, with an inch
of whiteness.

Kirishigure Fuji wo minu hi zo omoshiroki

in the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day —
how intriguing!

From Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, by Makoto Ueda (Stanford University Press, 1991) 102, 314, 317, 374. Translations for "Kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure" and "Kebono ya shirauo shiroki koto issun" provided by Haruo Shirane, Professor of Japanese Literature, Columbia University.

Classroom Exercises

  1. Every haiku has to have a seasonal word. See if you can find the seasonal word in each haiku.

  2. What qualities make the haiku popular? What are its strengths? Limitations?

  3. Write your own haiku. Remember, it must have three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.

  4. Haiku are very difficult to translate from Japanese into English. One of Bashô's most famous poem, below, has been translated in many different ways. Make your own translation of it; the English meaning of each word is already given in parentheses. Bashô wrote it when he visited the site of an old battlefield, now covered over by weeds. Does knowing the context in which Bashô wrote the poem affect how you choose to translate it?

    Natsugusa [Summer grass] ya [O!]
    Tsuwamonodomo ga [warriors]
    Yume no [dreams] ato [afterward]