Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Matsuo Basho's "Narrow Road to a Far Province"


In honor of National Poetry Month, I decided to read some classic works of poetry. In particular, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone of Western literature, so I chose to read Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, a Japanese masterpiece. Narrow Road is a haibun, a fusion of poetry and prose that originated in Japan and has elements of memoir, travelogue, and essays as well as interspersed short poems like haiku, waka, and tanka.

The book describes Basho's journey through the northern province of Japan, which he takes in order to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Japanese poet Saigyo, who made a similar trip. But Basho's travels become a metaphor for a soul's journey to enlightenment. This gives the poet's wandering a powerful spiritual dimension, especially in zen buddhism, which has a tradition of wayfaring saints.

I enjoyed this book. It's very short, but each entry has beautiful images and scenes from the Japan of several hundred years ago. Despite its age, Narrow Road feels surprisingly modern, or perhaps timeless. Basho's deep reverence for nature reminds me of the writings of John Muir, and the book has a profound balance of simplicity and depth. The descriptions of Japan's haunting natural beauties makes me long to visit them and travel along Basho's path. As I read the book, I often wondered how much the landscape has changed, and if any of the views Basho described still exist. I hope they do.

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