Now, toward the end of a particularly long and drawn out winter, the thought of spring has entered my mind. Not because I’m tired of winter really. I’m not. I enjoy running in the dark cold icy early am. There are elements of isolation and adventure that dissipate under the sun.
I like all of the seasons and especially look forward to the points of transitions in between. As one approaches, unformed ideas for new adventure well up in profusion. As the nature of the new season manifests itself so do new plans.
In the spring of 1689 Japanese poet Basho set out on a five month journey across north central Honshu to visit to visit landmarks of nature and civilization as well as to spread the form of verse that he transformed from an antiphonal game into something more sophisticated.
His recording of that journey in prose and poetry is regarded as among the most important in Japanese literature. The Narrow Road to the Interior begins: “The sun and the moon 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.”
The travel narrative is articulated by a form of linked verse called renga. There are three syllabic units: 5-7-5; 7-7; 5-7-5. Two of the units must relate to each other in sequence, but three cannot – thus regular shifts in flow.
The opening unit is called a hokku and sets the tone and place usually invoking some aspect of nature denoting the season. (Stand alone hokku came to be called haiku.)
This is probably Basho’s best known haiku:Into the old pond A frog suddenly plunges The sound of water.
What really interests me in all this is that some think that Basho was a ninja. From a low samurai family, he was raised in an area where ninja were recruited and trained. The funding of the journey remains a mystery and he traveled the considerable distance of this journey so efficiently that secret techniques were suspected. Finally, at the time of his travels, there was turmoil in the shogunate and such discreet services would likely have been procured.
The powers of observation and perspicacity of a great poet might have served a spy well. An artist’s personality would have allowed him to move through a populace with syncopation and quietly productive conviviality. As opposed to Karate and a Walther PPK.
Probably this is all fantasy. Basho had become a Zen monk and the title of the work would have one consider the interinextricability of his inner and outer journeys. But still…