Winning the Kokoro of the People

In 1689, Basho went for a long walk into the interior, Oku. After he returned in 1690, he began revising his travelogue from the adventure. I offer the introduction as a testament to its beauty:

The moon and the sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times, there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn to windblown clouds into the dreams of a lifetime wandering.

It’s not your average travelogue. It’s not a day-to-day record of events. Basho avoids either or the major tropes in travel writing: “I went to an exotic place and found it exotic” and “I went to an exotic place and found it quite ordinary, just like home.” And while most travelogues are meant to relate useful or timely information, Basho’s writing feels timeless to such a great extent that I have been enjoying it 317 years later.

Basho’s haibun works in a similar way to the headnotes in the Kokinshu and haiku emerges through the hybrid form: the prose sets up the poem. The travelogue aspect of the work is as crafted as the poetry—his account of his journey in The Narrow Road to the Interior does not represent a straightforward, factual, or complete rendering of his travels. He did travel, walking for a hundred and fifty days with the goal to visit the famous places mentioned in poetry, but in the book, the order of events has changed, details have been deleted or embellished. Likewise, the poems might feel spontaneous embedded in the narrative context, but he spent five years revising the text that appears in the final compilation.

His autobiographical prose sections rarely lean overly lyrical, since Basho observed the renga (linked verse) tradition of including less lyrical passages before and after gemlike vignettes, so as not to exhaust the reader. For instance, his account of visiting the place called “Under-the-Trees” moves from the mystic to the mundane—from a narrative description of this dense, dark, dew-laden forest to a quote from the Kokinshu (Poem 1091) where the speaker suggests that one should carry an umbrella in this place.

“Kokoro” means the “heart and mind,” here, the beautiful cohesion that cannot be found in form alone. It includes the sincerity and conviction of the poem.

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