“Xiao, He chases Han Xin” by Yosa Buson
Poetry | Reviews

The Narrow Road to Bashō: a short review of travel sketches

I first learned about the travel sketches of seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō from a comment in an interview. The combination of travel and poetry intrigued me, so I picked up a copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

A helpful introduction by translator Nobuyuki Yuasa situates Bashō’s travels in his long poetic career as well as in the longer tradition of Japanese poetry. The chronological arrangement of the narratives offers a portrait of the poet’s development as traveler and narrator over the decade of his journeys between 1684 and 1694. Travel for Bashō, explains Yuasa, culminated a period of casting away the material things of life, so that the poet might “restore his true identity (what he calls the ‘everlasting self which is poetry’…).”

Bashō’s travel sketches are neither travel accounts nor poetry collections in the conventional sense. They seem more a poetic vision of travel experiences. Certainly, his essays include conventional moments of travelers’ tales, narrating the places he visits in what sometimes sounds almost like a seventeenth-century tourist. And Bashō’s narratives are littered with haiku poems that would be expected from one of the great figures of this literary form. But the essays stand as more than the sum of their parts. In the end, Bashō gives us an account of an itinerant meditation with the poetry of slow travel.

Bashō’s sketches help me think differently about taking to the road, even as they bring pleasure to stay comfortably at home reading his words. This book definitely goes on my “read again” shelf.

[Daily post 028 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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