The Narrow Road to Oku


5.0 out of 5 stars Simply beautiful

“The Narrow Road to Oku” is about as close to perfection as one can get. First you have Matsuo Basho, Japan’s greatest poet, chronicling his hundred and fifty day journey into Oku to visit the grave of his mother, who had died the previous year. Translating this masterpiece is Donald Keene, possibly the greatest modern interpreter and translator of the Japanese mind. If this wasn’t enough, Miyata Masayuki has taken Basho’s poetry and created stunning works of Kiri-e, torn paper art, that provides a visual to match the written imagery.

“The Narrow Road to Oku” was the last of Basho’s five travelogues, and he finally attained the essential balance between observation and inspiration, between prose and poetry. Along the narrow road he and his traveling companion, student Kawai Sora, experienced the highs and lows of ancient Japan. The Tokugawa Shrine at Nikko, the famed Bridge of Heaven at Matsushima and the ancient Ise Shrine were all stops on this fantastic voyage. As well as these wonders, he encountered poor prostitutes and fishermen, giving them equal time to his poetic genius.

Miyata Masayuki, as he has with other books in this series such as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and “Love Songs from the Man’Yoshu,” has created delightful and whimsical artwork that enhances rather than distracts from Basho’s musings. There is a hint of Ukiyo-e in his style, but not enough to consider it redundant. The art is fresh and lively. sometimes powerful and bittersweet.

The original Japanese text is preserved alongside Keene’s translation, which I think is essential of a work of this type. “The Narrow Road to Oku” is 100% authentic, and 100% beautiful. Definitely a treasure in my library.


Matsuo Basho


5.0 out of 5 stars An introduction to haiku and its master

While reading this book I realized that I knew nothing about haiku. I had always thought that the form of haiku, the 5-7-5 pattern was important but I had never really considered why this pattern mattered, or what one tried to accomplish with a haiku that could not be accomplished with a more free-form style of poetry.

This book, “Matsuo Basho,” not only supplies an interesting history of the undisputed master of Japanese haiku, but it also contains an introductory lesson on the different forms of poetry that Basho utilized, the haiku, the renku and the haibun. Many of Basho’s poems are included, both in the original Japanese as well as with a translation, and then interpreted. The author puts the poem in historical context, as well as gives an idea of the scene that Basho was describing. It is truly amazing how complete a scene Basho could bring forth using such a limited palette of words.

Also included are descriptions of Basho’s travel guides, that he wrote on his many voyages across Japan, some highlights of Basho’s thoughts on poetry as well as the author’s personal interpretation of why Basho has remained a relevant poet, and will continue to remain so.

A fascinating book overall, and one that has led me to become interested in haiku and seeking out more books by this amazing writer, Matsuo Basho.

Basho: The Complete Haiku



4.0 out of 5 stars Basho: An interpretation

Matsuo Basho is the undisputed master of haiku. He refined what was seen as a simple, almost comic, style of verse into something that we would call high art. A collection like this, with all of his haiku translated and gathered together into a single, annotated volume is an absolute treasure, and the only surprise is that it wasn’t published many years ago.

Of course, collecting the haiku is easy. There are numerous collections available in Japanese, and it is simply a matter of reprinting them. But translating his haiku is a different problem all together. Haiku are a form of art that take unique advantage of the Japanese language, and they can only be approximated at best. There are two general styles, a more-literal translation that tries to capture the form and order of the writer, and an artistic translation that tries to capture the feel of the poem while using the flow of the English language. The main difference is with the third line, which in a Japanese haiku is always a non-sequitur image that relates only indirectly with the first two lines, providing the scenery for the story.

Jane Reichhold takes the artistic approach, and I must admit it is one I am not particularly fond of. This is definitely “Jane Reichhold’s Basho: The Complete Haiku”, with the emphasis being on her interpretation rather than on introducing people to Basho’s poetry. She is undoubtedly talented and respected, having published such books as Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide and Narrow Road to Renga: A Collection of Renga, and her translations have a beauty and power all of their own, but she ignores Basho’s forms, and creates continuous narratives in the poems, narratives that do not exist in the original.

Ultimately, it is a matter of style, and preference of one over the other. I prefer a more literal translation that is true to the Japanese original. Others prefer the artistic approach. Some of the best haiku collections, such as The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions), present the same poem translated by several different people so you can see how the meaning can change depending on the interpretation.

To me, the greatest section of “Basho: The Complete Haiku”, which I wish had been the focus of the book rather than tucked into the back, is the appendix with all of Basho’s haiku in both their original kanji and in the Alphabet-characters romaji, along with a literal English translation and annotations. This is the true treasure trove, with the master’s art in his own words. To make this book perfect, and to take the emphasis off of Reichhold and put it back on Basho, the appendix wouldn’t have been tucked into the back but threaded throughout the front with each poem being presented in its original Japanese and accompanied by the annotations and both literal and artistic translations. As it is, I find myself reading the back of the book much more than the front, but even so it is an amazing addition to my library and I am happy to have all the poems collected at last.

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