In Narrow Road to the Deep North, Japanese poet Bashō expresses himself masterfully through the traditional forms of haibun, covering themes of nature, folklore, faith, and journeys both physical and spiritual. All these stories and sentiments are contained within a haibun—a short piece of prose that tells the story and sets the mood—and meaningfully condensed into three lines in the haiku. The form seems simple—a short narrative, then three lines with a five-seven-five syllable pattern—which has lead many readers to regard it as a “children’s form”. It is this simplicity, however, that testifies to the brilliance of Bashō. Such strict and simple parameters require precise and purposeful word choice—there is no room for flowery embellishments. Every syllable must contribute fully to the meaning of the work, and Bashō makes deliberate choices to poignantly and accurately convey the depth of his feelings. In this way, he demonstrates the value of haibun as an art form—for children and adults alike.
In the selection entitled “IN TSURUGA: Second Year of Genroku”, two folk tales appear: first the ancient ritual of carrying sand to the Kei Shrine, and later a story recounted by an innkeeper at Tsuruga Harbor about a temple bell, knocked from a boat by a dragon into the depths of the sea. These folk tales set the scene, creating a contextual background against which Bashō can drape moments of emotional clarity. In a few brief sentences, he explains the folklore and expresses how it adds to the sanctity of the place. The line “With the holiness of the shrine and the moon’s light pouring down through the trees, a deep sense of reverence seeped into my bones” (Bashō) seamlessly draws upon the lore to increase the significance of his emotional reaction to it; combining his preexisting knowledge, “holiness of the shrine,” with his immediate experience, “moon’s light pouring down”. Nature and knowledge meet to convey poetic intention, unmistakable in English despite having been translated from Japanese. Simplicity of language also keeps the haibun concise and impactful; “There’s a temple bell deep in the sea” (Bashō), for example, sets the scene effectively. Here, the reader must infer the emotions of the poet, but cues in the haiku itself point to Bashō’s uncertainty. With “The temple bell sunk / to the bottom of the sea,” Bashō makes it clear that the story is alive in his consciousness, running through his mind when he composes the haiku, and the question he writes in the first line, “Where’s the moon?”, parallels his feelings about the story. The moon is obscured from view by rainclouds; Bashō wonders where it is, as if the fact that the moon isn’t visible means it’s no longer in the sky. All together, these lines raise an interesting question about belief. Bashō knows the moon is still in the sky, even though it can’t be seen—does this mean he knows that the mythic temple bell still lies at the bottom of the sea, even though his only experience with the bell was through an innkeeper’s folk story? Can we assume all folk tales true once they can’t be disproved? All these queries can be drawn from three simple lines, once the stage has been adequately set, and Bashō does this expertly.
Continuing to express only what needs to be expressed, Bashō uses the reader’s assumed prior understanding of folklore as a base for his points. The nature of folk stories inevitably invites skepticism. They are passed on by word of mouth, removing all accountability from the storytellers who may intentionally or unintentionally embellish the original tale; they often include fantastical events which seem impossible but can never be disproven due to their inability to be traced. Even when they are based on superstition and whimsy, they continue to be passed along through generations. Over time, they can no longer be disproven—no one witnessed it firsthand, so it’s impossible to say what the truth really is. Bashō associates the moon with truth in folk stories early on; “the moon so pure / on the sand carried here / by the Pilgrim Priests” connects the moon to folk tales right away, blurring the line between Bashō’s current experience and the stories that he associates with the scene before him. When rain falls in an earlier haibun, Bashō expresses feelings of uncertainty: “the north country weather / so uncertain”. While his concern most certainly relates to the fickle weather that might detriment his journey, applying those feelings to the moon as a symbol of truth in stories helps us better understand its role in the poem. Rain clouds rolling in and concealing the moon from view leads Bashō to wonder where the moon has gone; this can be understood metaphorically as well, with the moon as a symbol of truth in stories, and the clouds as the uncertainty that surrounds it. What ultimately helps us determine Bashō’s intention behind the haibun is this simple fact: even when concealed by clouds, the moon is still there. If the moon is aligned with the truth in this work, and clouds represent a shroud of doubt, then it can be assumed that truth can always be found in the midst of folklore. His arrival at this conclusion is much like the physical journey he describes in Narrow Road, marked by obstacles and doubt, but ultimately arriving safe at a resting place that feels fitting. Bashō believes that a grain of truth lies at the center of every folktale—that a temple bell truly does lie at the bottom of the sea. All this can be discerned from his brief haibun and even briefer haikus.
In this medium, understanding the intention of the poetry is a collaborative effort between the poet and the reader. Like other forms, what is unsaid in the form of the haibun is just as relevant and important as what is said—perhaps even more so. How, then, can we dismiss haibun as a “children’s form” of poetry? When understanding of the theme is relative to our own experience, our interpretation of the piece will only change and expand over time. As we get older and wiser, the poems will prove more enlightening to us—though Bashō’s poetic simplicity ensures that at any age, and in any language, we will be able to connect and share these moments with him.