Basho did not invent the long tradition of haiku, but he brought it to perfection. By the late seventeenth-century, however, the immense associations compressed into such a tiny form stood in need of commentary.

A literate class brought up with its codes had no need of context; context needed to be explicit only when such assurances were breaking down. Basho had expected to become a modestly secure samurai but was thwarted in that career by the death of his patron. Thus he became a professional writer dependent on his disciples, on those who valued his commentary at literary events and on whose cultivated hospitality he could call upon on his restless journeys. It is therefore natural that, so far from relying on his poems as compact pods of meaning, he would often lead his readers into them through highly crafted prose.

Basho's prose is of four overlapping kinds. One consists of critical remarks, such as his judgements in poetry contests which imply tenets of writing. A second is the explanatory headnote. A third is narration, usually about one of his journeys, which may set the context for a haiku but also offsets it poetically.

And fourthly there are his haibun, or brief prose introductions which are as considered as the poems themselves, which share some haiku technique such as omission of explanatory conjunctives, and to which the ensuing poem relates in ways that are similar to its internal relations.


As a hiker, I am looking mostly not at the landscape but at my feet. Which is to say at the thought processes of other walkers, such as goats. How they have expanded the path and its erosion by walking in parallel to a slightly lower path which had become too squelchy. How the stone or stick dropped in the boggiest place is a record that someone put it there to help himself; yet also, how it helps me across an awkward spot. If we find such aids across the mire, it follows that someone has 'gone before' and left them for us underfoot.

Basho wrote in elements of two or three lines. The landscape of his very last poem is a blasted moor. In the renku 'Summer Moon,' he had described one's footsteps across a marsh being aided by farmers in poor land who had laid planks over the worst of the quag.


On a high lonely moor, tradition. A curlew's call, haiku, haiku. The centuries. The morning. That glint on a curlew's wing. That exact mood of loneliness which is set up between a frail creature or event and the surroundings by which it could well be overshadowed, but to which this very mood might show it to connect.

To find a few timbers carefully laid down. A precursor. What is friendship? A common taste in poetry.


a desolate moor

grasses trembling in the wind


these two or three sticks