Some Thoughts on the Haiku of Basho

Haiku is something I’ve always been aware of as a kind of trope but my first real exposure to it was through the lens of the imagist poets, in particular this Penguin collection. I fell in love with Ezra Pound’s most famous poem, In a Station of the Metro. I think I’ve memorised it; I’ll try and reproduce it from memory below for the benefit of those who haven’t read it.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd-

Petals on a wet, black, bough.

So close. It really has colon instead of a hyphen, and I added an extra comma. Still. I loved this poem and I still do. I think it is probably the best poem ever written in the same way I think The Ramones’ first album is the best rock and roll album ever recorded; it is the essence of the thing. Any less, and it wouldn’t be what it is. Any more, and it would add nothing. They say exactly what they mean to say in exactly the amount of words they mean to say it, and it boggles my mind that Pound was such good friends with people like Joyce and Eliot; interminable, deliberately obscure windbags. In a Station of the Metro conjures a very sharp and defined image (hence, imagist), and uses an abrupt shift in rhythm to highlight the turnaround common to haiku. The line of iambic hexameter grinds to a halt in the second line, mimicking the disembarking a metro train and also jarring us into a moment of revelation as we notice the similarity between a grimy urban scene and a glittering natural one. And then it rhymes, too. It is perfectly constructed and it breaks my fucking heart every time I remember who Ezra Pound actually was.   

The imagist conception of poetry is always the one that has resonated the most with me, and the one that has most informed my own poetry. I like Shelley’s attempt at a new national myth, I like Eliot’s decaying epics, I like Plath’s deeply personal poetry, but it’s the poem as image that always struck me hardest, and that’s what lead me to picking up this edition of Basho when I came across it at a library. I don’t read enough poetry, and since my university days I have rarely sought poetry out. I was happy to let this happenstance take me where it would. 

I ended up really enjoying Basho. Some of these haiku have a real, crushing weight to them; huge ideas and feelings condensed down to an ultra-fine, ultra-dense point. Yes mate. This is what poetry should be all about. There’s plenty in this collection that made me realise that, oh yeah, the imagists just plundered another country’s poetic tradition and used it for themselves. I even used to think that the imagists were a bit more free and easy with the metrical constraints compared to haiku, but no, that’s from haiku too; Basho let no barrier come between him and the sentiment or image he meant to convey. 

And a lot of these Haiku are conveying images and particularly feelings. They’re about how certain places looked at certain times of years. What it’s like lay awake of a night listening to your cat snore. Travels and the striking of newness. Routine and impressions that will never change, especially now that they’ve been captured. Knowing where Pound got his ideas, I’ve always known I’d eventually have to go and get some from the wellspring if I wanted to keep up the pretence of being a reasonable student of poetry, and I’ll be honest, I had not heard of Basho before I picked up this book. Maybe I should have listened harder back in the day. I know Pound did at least acknowledge his fondness for far eastern poetry, but I am not sure if he’d read Basho, or anyone else. I’m glad I also picked up a Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, and The Penguin Book of Haiku. I’m sure I’ll find such perfect, glinting poetry as to make me rue that I ever bothered to try myself.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Haiku of Basho

  1. James, I can see why you love that Ezra Pound poem. “Apparition of these faces … “. “… a wet, black, bough.” I too am drawn to poems with strong imagery, and the smaller the better for me. I had not known this poem before reading it here. The rest of your post spoke well to some of my own thoughts. Thank you.

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