Bashō’s Back Roads to Far Towns

by Clayton Eshleman

The Cid Corman / Kamaike Susumu translation of Bashō’s last and most impressive hike journal (in which poet and companion walked some 1500 hundred miles) was published in origin magazine, July, 1964, under the Japanese title: Oku-no-hosomichi. It was published as a book by Mushinsha-Grossman in 1968. To the best that I can tell, it is the finest translation of haiku (and haibun, which is prose accompanying haiku) that has ever been done in English.

In his introduction, Corman writes: “Early one spring morning in 1689 Bashō accompanied by his friend and disciple Sora set forth from Edo (old Tokyo) on the long nine-month journey which was to take them through the backlands and highlands north of the capital and then west to the Japan Sea coast and along it until they turned inland again toward Lake Biwa (near Kyoto). Approximately the first half of this journey, the most arduous part, remains recorded in the Oku-no-hosomichi.”

Wallace Stevens once wrote, in Adagia, that “Poetry is the scholar’s art.” As I read it, he means that poetry is the literary art that should hold the greatest appeal to scholars. Poets can also be scholars without lessening the intuitive drive it takes to write substantial poetry. Bashō is a sterling example of the spiritual poet/scholar. He did his homework on the lore and history concerning the sites and temples he planned to visit on his three long hikes. The narrative drift of his haibun is like a parachute weighted with a haiku body under it. Or to put it another way: it is a pleasure to visit and describe precisely what one has seen (haibun); it is more challenging, after, to sense the essence of the seen, to sound it in the tiny crucible of a haiku. Here is Bashō’s May 27th entry, haibun followed by haiku:

    In the demesne of Yamagata the mountain temple called Ryushakuji. Founded by Jikaku Daishi, unusually well-kept place. “You must go and see it,” people urged; from here, off back towards Obanazawa, about seven li. Sun not yet down. Reserved space at dormitory at bottom, then climbed to temple on ridge. This mountain one of rocky steeps, ancient pines and cypresses, old earth and stone and smooth moss, and on the rock temple-doors locked, no sound. Climbed along edges of and crept over boulders, worshipped at temples, penetrating scene, profound quietness, heart/mind open clear.

          into rock absorbing
          cicada sounds

In 1991, Sam Hamill published a translation of Bashō’s journal, entitled Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambala Centaur Editions). In one section of my serial poem, Erratics (Hunger Press, 2000), I did a “test of translation” on Corman / Kamaike and Hamill haiku versions from this journal.

Corman / Kamaike:

wild seas (ya
to Sado shoring up
the great star stream


summer grass
dreams ruins


under the helmet


into rock absorbing
cicada sounds


High over wild seas
surrounding Sado Island:
the river of heaven


Summer grasses:
all that remain of great soldiers’
imperial dreams


Ungraciously, under
a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings


Lonely silence
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone

Here we have two contemporary American poets translating Bashō. Corman: language as enactment, the reader interprets. Hamill: language as interpretation, the reader abandoned. Corman is deft where Hamill is pleonastic and inaccurate (crickets don’t sing; cicadas don’t cry). In a haiku-like poem of his own, Corman writes:

            The cicada
            singing isn’t;
            that sound’s its life.