By Peter Anderson
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Japan’s most famous poet, was and still is known as a master of the haiku, a short poetic form consisting of three lines, often but not always arranged in a sequence of five-then seven-then five syllables.
You were born three and half centuries ago on the other side of the earth, but the word pictures you left us are as clear as the water in a shallow mountain stream. Sometimes we learn your poems in school. Maybe the teacher begins with your most famous poem, the one about the frog and the old pond and the frog jumping into the sound of water. We can see, even hear, the moment just like your students did. It is your most famous poem, but it is not my favorite. Then again, favorites come and go depending on the season. Right now, this one speaks to me:
This road –
No one goes down it
I marvel at the economy of your language – never a word wasted. Every syllable matters. And even though you don’t tell us how you’re feeling, we get it. A little bit of that high lonesome melancholy, maybe. That wasn’t unusual for a mountain wanderer like you.
Sometimes the moment was your refuge from suffering – a strategy that makes more sense perhaps for those of us who are a little older, who are well into our own autumn seasons, who are expecting storms, who know that the darkest day of the year isn’t too far off in the future. You told us about your weather-beaten skeleton. Some of us know what you meant by that. We look for a way into as many moments as we can, so that we might slow down the clock. That’s why your words are so precious. They show us how to do that.
Unless things are seen with fresh eyes, you said, nothing is worth writing down. So I’ve been walking with you in mind. On trails less traveled. Practicing the craft that you perfected, not with the expectation of making a great haiku or even a good one, but with the hope that a few words strung together will help me to slow down and see with more clarity. That begins with taking the time to notice something. Maybe it is a flock of jays against the sky. Maybe fresh snow on the peaks. Maybe the experience of a shorter day after daylight savings. Then, maybe it’s just a matter of walking with a few phrases until they fall into place.
A flock of jays,
new snow on the peak, sunset
comes an hour too soon
On a different day, maybe a memory surfaces. Not long ago, a moment of deep silence from a long-ago solo trip in Utah came to mind:
Dark canyon walking,
what happened to the voice that
lives inside my head?
And then yesterday I heard, and really listened this time, to the wind blowing across the needles of a ponderosa pine:
are you playing the wind or
does the wind play you?
Thanks, Basho. It has been good to walk with you.
Peter Anderson recently retired from teaching in order to become a full-time word wrangler. He lives in Crestone.