Oceans and Mountains: Dissecting Bashō’s Hokku

Darcy Jay Gagnon

Ten years ago I read Matsuo Bashō’s oku no hosomichi for the first time. I was 20, writing a research paper for a prose poetry class on an ancient figure I knew little about, borrowing Cid Corman’s translation from my at-the-time boss. The travel diary was written in 1691, two years after Bashō departed from Edo, present day Tokyo, north toward the Shirakawa Barrier in order to explore the rural, seldom traveled central Honshu region of Japan. Since then, I have amassed several copies of the travel diary, the various titles translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North, Narrow Road to the Interior, Back Roads to Far Towns, Road to the North, The Narrow Way Within and The Narrow Road Through the Provinces. I will refer to it as, simply, Narrow Road.

Two years before that, I moved to the mountains of Western Maryland, living at the tip of the Potomac river, where in some places it was not much more than a stream, especially in the places by my house, where my cats would lounge in the yard all day as the sun danced between the mountains on both sides of the valley. Semis would roar over the overpass above my house, heading west, and sometimes people would park there and jump to their deaths.

Before that, I wasn’t born. It was 1957 and Jack Kerouac just published On the Road to a critical reception that would see the novel forced into the hands of nearly every high school literature student for decades to come— but before that, Kerouac, the fledgling Buddhist, was dharma bumming somewhere around the American west, legs hanging out of the window of Neal Cassady’s car on a hot day, R.H. Blyth’s translations of Bashō’s haiku draped over his napping head.

Before 1957, it was 1694 and Bashō was on his deathbed at the age of 50, cursing himself for being unable to free his mind of desire before he died, writing:

on a journey, ailing—

my dreams roam about

on a withered moor[1]

Before 1694, it was 552 AD, and politicians from Korea sent a statue of Buddha to the Emperor Kimmei on the Japanese throne, with a note that said, “Imagine a treasure capable of satisfying all desires in proportion as it is use.”

Before that, the islands of Japan were formed when drops of land fell from a spear pulled from the ocean.

Every one of Bashō’s poems is incomplete. In modern haiku or western poetry in general, the end of the last line, the inevitable white space on the page, signals the end of the poem and forces a kind of resolution. For poets of Bashō’s time, this was not the case, and Bashō was among many writing hokku, not haiku. A hokku is the first three lines of a haikai sequence, haikai a form of dialogic poetry in which individuals trade verses for as long as they like, but in competitive form or during haikai gatherings, haikai sequences usually last between 34 and 100 verses. The idea of an independent, three-line poem did not come into popular Japanese culture until the late 1800s.

So, when Bashō writes a hokku, it is an invitation (or occasionally, a challenge) to another person to continue the poem. This is sometimes performed in person, the hokku given as a parting gift or greeting to a host. It is a much more utilitarian gift, in a way, as if being given the blueprint to build a house rather than the house itself. Other times, Bashō would leave his hokku on a piece of parchment at a famous place, for some other pilgrim or traveler to contribute to, like 17th century graffiti. Other times, the hokku is just published as is, for anyone in the distant future, including right now, to continue. This has been done by haikai poets in the east and the west who will write responses or rebuttals to Bashō’s hokku in their collections, or it is done by the casual reader who simply reads the hokku and allows themselves to continue the thought or feeling, in their own way, in their own head. Hokku is a window to gaze out of while haiku is a closed door. Hokku is a point of departure rather than an arrival. It is the art of the invisible ellipsis.

Japanese scholar Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-1988) says that each hokku should be read as if it ends with the unsaid, implicit question, “Isn’t it?” Take Bashō’s most famous poem, The Frog Poem, for example:

old pond

a frog jumps in—

sound of water[2]

Kenkichi believes, in the consideration of the hokku format as a thing to be shared, that the seventeen-syllable poem might be read as “The frog has always been regarded as a creature that sings, especially in fresh streams, in the spring, but I want to look at the frog differently. Wouldn’t you be interested in doing this together?”

I’ll try it too. With this Bashō poem on a skylark: 

above the moor

not attached to anything

a skylark sings[3]

Is it so that a skylark, unrestricted by earth, soaring above the meadow in a cloudless, lonely sky, can seem so unattached to any worldly thing, in a way that makes the heaviness of steps, physical and emotional fatigue, and even the attachment of desire seem so undesirable?—

Or, is it so that the skylark’s call isn’t attached to anything either, as the poem’s ambiguous wording suggests; the skylark can’t be seen singing from this distance, but one can hear its call echoing, as if the sound itself is not attached to any creature in view, but rather the pleasant sound of a thing coming from seemingly nowhere, like a tree that leans on another tree, its creek calling, but difficult to place as you and I wander a path through these woods on an autumn day?—

Or, is it that the skylark and the skylark’s call are the envy of the mind itself; the mind with its desire to express the inexpressible, the gravity of inadvertently experiencing something like a skylark in the cloudless sky or a limp tree creaking in a forest of other limp trees, something restricted by logic, rationality, meaning, relatability, metaphor, whatever?

A skylark is a bit like that too, isn’t it?

umi kurete

kamo no koe

honoka ni shiroshi


the sea darkens—

a wild duck’s call

faintly white


umi | kurete | kamo | no | koe | honokani | shiroshi

sea | grow-dark | wild-duck | ‘s | voice | faintly | white[4]


Count the syllables on your hands.




This departure from what we identify as the main characteristic of a haiku—the placement of syllables— isn’t so uncommon. Bashō said himself that to occasionally break form is essential if the form distracts from the poem. But here, the reversal of the last two lines seems so inessential that scholars have long speculated over its peculiarity. The confusion is in the color. Supposing the last two lines were re-oriented, the poem would read “the sea darkens— / faintly white / a wild duck’s call,” and the “whiteness” would be referring to the white crests of the dark sea or the color of the duck, or both, and that would be fine.

Just fine.

However, the placement of “white” in the poem forces it to become a descriptor for neither the sea, nor the duck, but rather the duck’s call.

The whiteness of a duck’s call. The duck’s call is white.

Abe Y. (1883-1966) speculates that Bashō is literally referencing the whiteness of the duck’s breath in the frigid cold, since a darkened sea is imagistic of winter. Handa (1887-1945) says the reversal had more linguistic purposes, so that Bashō could end on a more powerful, aurally pleasing line like “honokani shiroshi,” but, according to Donto (1704-?), this also makes the poem imbalanced and therefore difficult to read aloud.

Peipei Qiu says the poem evokes a kind of synesthesia, to which Iwata adds, “he felt as if his eyes saw what his ears heard, and he made that delicate feeling into a poem.” Konishi (1915-2007) believes this merging of senses exemplifies the idea of kanjaku, or, “the profound stillness perceived through a mental state of emptiness.”

All the while, Ogata (1920-2009) feels everyone is focusing too much on “faintly white.”

“A duck’s call,” he claims, is a much more interesting line to focus on, which he says symbolizes feelings of nostalgia. I agree. I used to keep white ducks in the backyard of my childhood home, and they would chaotically call every time I would stand in front of the kitchen window to wash dishes. It sounded nothing like white.

In Japanese poetry, crying was often used to express nostalgia for a famous place or landmark. However, seldom did the poetic aristocrats actually go to these landmarks, which were well known, but often very hard to travel to, and especially dangerous for those higher up in court who might have gotten robbed along the way. For this reason, specific seasonal words called utamakura are used to refer to these places. These archetypal words or phrases imbue centuries of literary allusion and association into a mere few syllables. For instance, when writing about the region of Yoshino, there is an expectation to also comment on snow or cherry blossoms, for which the region is famous. Alternatively, utamakura for a place can deal more with an abstraction, like in the Tales of Ise, when the protagonist writes:

I long to find a path

To the depths of Mount Shinobu

That I might fathom

the secrets

of another’s heart. [5]

Shinobu is not only the name of the mountain, but a verb meaning “to conceal.”

Using these universal allusions, the literate nobles could write about places as if they had visited them, reflect on the de facto beauty of the place, and weep over nostalgia for them. Bashō was unique in the sense that he actually went to the places, but on occasion, he would arrive and find the subject of many poems before him would no longer exist. For instance, Bashō stopped on his travels to observe a historic, sculpted stone that was once used to dye cloth, but when he arrived, he found it toppled and half buried in the mountain. He discovered that the village elders knocked it over since visitors kept coming to see the monument and trampled the village crops in the process. “Their story made perfect sense,” Bashō said of the situation in a diary entry where he recounts the encounter, followed by this haiku:

girls’ busy hands

plant rice almost like

the ancient ones made dye[6]

Did Bashō feel any nostalgia for the stone (or the lack of it), I wonder? My thoughts are no, that the story of the reality was intriguing enough that it had replaced the literary nostalgia. So he wrote about the farmer girls instead, but still honored the idea of utamakura, sneaking in an allusion to the history of the area.

Nostalgia is a disease. During the American Civil War, it was considered a serious enough ailment that more than five-thousand troops were sent home with “nostalgia” appearing below the “diagnosis” line of their medical discharge papers. Seventy-four soldiers, allegedly, died from it.

I like the idea of nostalgia being something you can catch and carry, like a fleeting stomach bug that comes and goes. Maybe because I’ve never felt particularly nostalgic about where I’m from, and even in Appalachia, my second home, I only feel nostalgic for it when I return there.

Even in Appalachia

I long for Appalachia.[7]

This is also why I feel like Bashō’s poetry affects me on a in a nostalgic sense. Even though he actually goes to the places, he often adheres to the same traditional words to describe the famous landmarks, honoring the heteroglosic tradition of “the idea of the place” rather than place itself. It always feels to me like I am reading about a place in theory when I reread Narrow Road, rather than an actual place he visited. Occasionally, this is because Bashō himself is removed from the situation in his prose and poetry, but in a way, so is the place itself. This might also be why he takes liberties so often within his travel narrative and invents situations where he traveled to places not recorded anywhere in his traveling companion Sora’s journal— a more factual recording scholars call on for the day-to-day movements of Bashō’s travel. We know from Sora’s journal that Bashō did not visit the seaside city of Shiogoshi itself despite his poems about being there, but perhaps he was somewhere that had “silk-tree blossoms” that seemed to sleep against the cool sea and made him feel nostalgic for Shiogoshi all the same.

Similarly, we see this when we read his famous account of the rocky islands of Matsushima, a place that Bashō found himself unable to form verse around a landscape he found so awesome: “My pen strove in vain to equal this superb creation of divine artifice.” Despite Bashō’s silent fascination with this series of coastal islands, Matsushima ultimately got scrapped from my itinerary when I visited Japan last summer, partly because it was too far away and therefore too expensive to get to, and partly because the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 mostly destroyed what little was left of the eroded islands. Yet, I still feel like I’ve been there, and I have a clear picture in my mind of what it looked like that’s probably not at all like how Bashō actually viewed it, and the syllables Mat-su-shi-ma haunt me in the same way App-a-la-chia does. It is my fourth or fifth home, and if I start to get nostalgic for it, I might be brought to tears.

 ki no moto ni

shiru mo namasu mo

sakura kana


under the tree

soup and fish salad—

cherry blossoms


ki | no | moto | ni | shiru | mo | namasu | mo | sakura | kana

tree | ‘s | base | at | soup | also | fish-salad | also | cherry | kana[8]


According to a guide I received from a Bashō museum in Tokyo, “it was Bashō’s belief that a Haiku without a verb is lighter,” using this poem as an example.

It is interesting how this effect of karumi, or “lightness” in a poem without verbs, doesn’t translate as easily into English, where we often find verbs are more fleeting, cloudlike, and abstract, while visceral nouns ground English prose with concrete images. How can one find heaviness in a verb like “enjoy” or “imagine,” which don’t appear in this poem, but nonetheless, we enjoy and imagine this scene?

When I read this poem, I picture a tree— a sakura tree. Then I picture the soup, then the fish salad, then the individual cherry blossoms. I imagine the heaviness of artifacts and things. But Bashō is right, the scene itself is very “light” as a whole. A modestly sized tree with a simple meal beneath it, showered by blowing cherry blossoms. If the scene were a still life, it would be occupied by a lot of empty space, and, without the verbs, we aren’t even imagining the person who is eating the meal, composing the hokku, painting the thing. Without that person, there isn’t a focal point. I mean this in two senses. In one way, our lyrical eye isn’t attracted to any person in this scene, but also, our lyrical eye isn’t from the perspective of any person in the scene. It is a distant fleeting thing, perhaps airborne, or looking up from the leaves of grass dotted with fallen sakura blossoms.

This poem uses the associative technique, in the sense that its wording implies the blossoms, soup, and fish salad are all underneath the tree. But where is Bashō? Where are you, and where am I? Peipei Qui says that when Bashō portrays landscape, like in this poem, “the identity of the poet is not absent, but has merged into the entity of nature; the poet’s voice is evident, yet conveyed through harmony with the work of [divine nature].” I would argue that this becomes the case for the reader as well.

Ueda defines karumi differently than the museum pamphlet, his version not specific to verb usage. He says, “[karumi] points toward a simple, plain beauty that emerges when the poet finds his theme in familiar things and expresses it in artless language.”

How does one learn to achieve a sense of lightness in poetry?

“Watch what children do,” Bashō answers.

“Eat vegetable soup.”


[1] Translated by Ueda. Bashō and His Interpreters. 1992, p 413

[2] Translated by R. H. Blyth. Haiku. 1949, p 253

[3] Translated by Ueda. Bashō and His Interpreters. 1992, p 156

[4] Translated by Ueda. Bashō and His Interpreters. 1992, p 123

[5] Translation from Jamie Newhard and Lewis Cook, Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, 2012, p 112.

[6] Translated by Hamill, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Travel Sketches, 1998, p 11

[7] Even in Kyoto / I long for Kyoto— / a Japanese Cuckoo” - Bashō

[8] Adapted from Ueda’s translation in Bashō and His Interpreters. 1992, p 286