Saturday, April 26, 2014

Poetic Musings: Matsushima Haiku Attributed to Basho

A haiku avoids adverbs and adjectives to the greatest possible extent. Even verbs, the backbone of language, are elimiated where they can be understood. Many haiku masterpieces have not a single verb, adverb, or adjective (note: this line of thinking clearly indicates that haiku is a "poetry of nouns")

matsushima ya
aa matsushima ya
matsushima ya

oh! Matsushima!

Matsushima, an archipelago in northern Japan, is famous for its beauty, and Basho "describes" it by only naming the place and adding an exclamation of awe. It is a tour de force.

Hiag Akmakjian, Snow Falling from a Bamboo leaf: The Art of Haiku, pp. 18-9, 104

"Basho" describes it

Historically speaking, there is no evidence to support Hiag Akmakjian's claim made in the excerpt: Basho wrote the above-mentioned haiku. This poem is a well-known apocryphal haiku often attributed to Basho. There are at least two reasons for this attribution: one is simply that using Basho's name definitely can give this haiku a certain elevated status, and the other is that Basho is known for his love of Matsushima:

morning and evening,
as if someone waits for me at Matsushima
my unfulfilled love

written by Basho in 1689 and translated by David Landis Barnhill

Matsu means both "wait" and "pine," and Matsushima is a cluster of pine clad islands famous for its beauty. Basho yearned for it so much seemed that a beautiful lover was there waiting for him (Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, p. 208)

Basho "describes" it by only naming the place and adding an exclamation of awe. It is a tour de force.

Textually speaking, this haiku is made up of three repetitive lines, "matsushima ya" (place name, Matsushima, followed by a cutting word, ya, that expresses "exclamation of awe"). One simple question: does this haiku leave any "dreaming room" for the reader's imagination and reflection? Definitely NO. It's simply because it is a complete haiku (not a half-finished one) that asks the reader to express exclamation of awe when gazing at Matsushima. As indicated in the line of thinking behind the opening paragraph of the excerpt, it's obvious that Hiag Akmakjian uses this haiku to introduce his readers to the ideal of haiku as a poetry of nouns.

Technically speaking, there is nothing wrong about the use of repetition in haiku writing. It all depends on how the poet uses it to increase the impact of a haiku.As Ian Marshall emphasizes in Walden by Haiku, “one flaw evident in much contemporary [English language] haiku…. is that its emphasis on simplicity and invisibility of language called “wordlessness” at times leads to a flatness that often lacks any “rhetorical anomaly…,” (p. 50) a characteristic of classic Japanese haiku. In his study of haiku aesthetics (included in Chapter Two, "The Poetics of the Haiku," of his award-winning book, entitled The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter), Kōji Kawamoto notes that the appealing power of a haiku mainly stems from some "rhetorical anomaly" that "can come in the form of pun, paradox, repetition, hyperbole, something striking in the haiku's sound or its image, or some disruption of syntax or expectation -- in short, something in the language, some derivation from language's denotative function, that catches our notice." (Marshall, p.50).

For more information about the effective use of repetition and haiku examples, see "To the Lighthouse: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition" (note: Epizeuxis or palilogia is the repetition of a single word, with no other words in between).

Note:  Matsushima is one of the high points of Basho's travelogue, The Narrow Road to the Interior. Below is a relevant excerpt from my essay, titled "Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho’s Transformation of Haikai Prose," which was first published in Simply Haiku, 8:1, Summer 2010 and reprinted in Haibun Today, 6:1, March 2012:

Finally, in addition to modelling on Chinese parallel prose, Basho adopted his haikai approach to the Chinese fu, a dominant genre of Han Dynasty literature. 55 It was a kind of rhymed prose poetry based on the ornate and extravagant style of Chu ci (Chu lyrics). The prose provides the necessary exposition written in the form of questions and answers for exploration of an object or natural phenomenon, and the verse its rhapsodic language. It employs complex rhyme patterns and balanced parallel phrases.  Take one of Basho’s haibun on Matsushima for example:

Well, it has been said many times, but Matsushima is the most beautiful place in all of Japan. First of all, it can hold its head up to Tung-t’ing Lake or West Lake. Letting in the sea from the southeast, it fills the bay, three leagues wide, with the tide of Che-chiang. Matsushima has gathered countless islands: the high islands point their fingers to heaven, those lying down crawl over the waves. Some are piled two deep, some three deep. To the left, the islands are separated from each other, but to the right they are linked. Some islands seem to be carrying islands on their backs, others to be embracing them, like someone caressing a child. The green of the pine is dark and dense, the branches and leaves bent by the salty sea breeze -- it seems as if the branches have been deliberately twisted. The landscape creates a tranquil, soft feeling, like a beautiful lady powdering her face. Did the god of the mountain create this long ago, in the age of the gods? Is this the work of the Creator? What words could a human being use to describe this? 56

The language of the passage above is highly figurative and allusive. In the opening lines, Basho tried to elevate the beauty of Matsushima to an iconic status through comparison with and allusion to one of the Great Four Lakes of China, Tung-t’ing Lake, and the famous tidal bore on the Chien-tang River in Che-chiang province, two iconic scenes portrayed by numerous classical Chinese poems.  Later, he employed the parallel, contrastive phrases -- such as the high islands point their fingers to heaven, those lying down crawl over the waves -- that resemble “the couplet structure of the Chinese fu while possessing haikai humor.” 57 At the end of the passage, he stirred emotions about and reflection upon the status of Matsushima in the reader through a series of heartfelt questions, which is another technique utilized in the Chinese fu. In the classical Japanese poetic tradition, Matsushima was used to be associated with hovels, beach shelters, boats of the fisherfolk, and Ojima island, 58 and it was now transformed into the most beautiful place in Japan through Basho’s fu-esque haibun. The same techniques were also utilized in his description of Kisagata, a “notable example of Chinese-Japanese hybrid style, interweaving Chinese, fu-esque motifs with classical Japanese prose.” 59


  1. One more comment on the use of cutting:

    oh! Matsushima!

    This haiku is not only a complete haiku, but also a haiku with no cutting. It's simply because there is no shift in theme, or tone, or mood, or image.

    Below is excerpted from Basho's remark on cutting:

    "First, the cutting word is inserted in order to cut the verse. If the verse is already cut, it is not necessary to employ a word to cut it. For those poets who cannot distinguish between a cut and non-cut poem, earlier poets established cutting words. If one uses one of these words in a hokku, seven or eight times out of ten the hokku will be cut. The remaining two or three times, however, the hokku will not be cut even though it includes a cutting word. On the other hand, there are hokku that are cut even though they include no cutting words (NKBZ 51:478-79)”

    For Basho, it was “the cutting effect rather than the cutting word itself that ultimately mattered.” (Shirane, p 104). According to Herbert Jonsson's study, in the haikai-related writings after Basho the actual use of cutting words became less important, whereas, the cut, whether it is marked by a cutting word or not, was the central issue (Jonsson, p. 43)

    For more information, see "To the Lighthouse: Re-examining the Concept and Practice of Cutting,"

  2. Good Haikus!
    I tried to make a Haiku about Mount Fuji, Hope you like it too: