Narrow Roads

Narrow Roads

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 28, 2013 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)


In “The Narrow Road To The Deep North” [1] Basho takes us along on his journey, sending us picture postcards with notes about his progress; as though we were his good friends with whom he wished to share his discoveries. He shares his joys and his tears with us; and at the Barrier at Shitomae, his great fear at travelling the road “so little used by travellers” into Dewa Province. The “ill-marked trail through high mountains” is dark and silent, populated by imagined dangers and difficult terrain. It is the climax of the journey, the point of highest emotion which opens up for us the possibility of other unspoken fears and dangers which shadow his journey.



In embarking on writing haibun, the combination of prose and haiku, we enter the maze of roads between the high stands of guidance by established writers.


Ken Jones, writing for Contemporary Haibun Online, [2] describes it as “a watercolour rather than a painting in oils” and advises us that “Abstract ideas and opinions, and anything else that is writer-centric have no place”.


Ray Rasmussen advises us,


“Contemporary haibun prose/poetry tends to focus more on everyday experiences—the journey of the human being living mostly in urban settings as well as ventures into natural settings.” [3]


Whereas the broad brush stroke of Fred Schofield in “Presence” requests from submissions merely,


more intuitive than intellectual

more focused than generalised

light rather than heavy [4]


If you are beginning to feel, like me, that you are at the mercy of every haibun editor’s personal preferences then I think we may be not far from the mark. This is not merely the difference of style, it is the difference of agreement within which each editor has painted his own understandings. The one quality these editors agree on is the lightness of the prose. Why is that? Why is ‘lightness’ an agreed quality of haibun, and is this a necessary quality for modern haibun? Or is it merely the outdated formula which requires a prettyness, a blossom petal moonlight delicacy, in haiku and haiku-related genre? Nothing gross or challenging, nothing ‘heavy’ or personal is permitted to disturb the pastoral, the endless ‘niceness’ of ‘nature’. Is this real?


We might validly ask that question since Basho himself does not shy away from horses pissing by his pillow, prostitutes, and lice. We might also ask it because the idea that ‘nature’ is “light”, that the “I” has no place in ‘nature’, and that ‘nature’ is something outside ourselves; are all debateable. We need not, I think, adopt Japanese sensibilities, culturally determined and culturally specific, towards ‘nature’; this is not necessary to the production of good prose or good poetry. Indeed in exploring our own journeys today we are more likely to be aware of our internal processes, more urban than pastoral in our experiencing, and more aware of the lack of separation between ourselves and the world in which we exist.



M. Scott Peck[5] invites us to follow Robert Frost


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

                                                           — Robert Frost [6]




Bob Lucky, commenting on Steven Carter’s haibun “In the Crowd” reveals the debate around the question “What is it?”


“Many of us follow in the traveling footsteps of Basho, and many of us are miniature memoir writers. Many of us do both. Carter has conflated the two in such a way that the cliché “life is a journey” takes on a new meaning. When you read several Carter haibun together, you get the sense you are setting off on an adventure with a narrator who is trying to make sense of the world rather than peg events on a timeline and stamp them with a definitive explanation or interpretation.” [7]



Carter, in his new volume “Letters to my Parents” [8] takes his own, very personal journey through his relationships with his parents. Far from the detached Zen-inspired denial of self-related content, Carter’s “I” is central to this journey, his journey. Rather than the observation of the external, it is the inquiry into the internal made overt. In Hortensia Anderson’s “Remains of Myself” [9] we again see that inquiry, as Anderson deftly, and with consumate poetic skill, reveals for us her journey through her own mortality. The challenge of Colin Stewart Jones in “Basho Has Left The Building” [8] is to put aside that Golden Age rosy glow of nature as eternally pretty in order to face it straight on in all the harsh reality of its tooth and claw. In his haibun “Baby Steps”, as an example, he shows us winter as threat, as inconvenience, and as an urban trial to be endured only because there is no choice but to endure. Not for him the glorification of light in icicles or moonlight sparkling on fresh snow. As he says elsewhere. “Where I live, sometimes snow is black”.


By taking that ‘road less travelled’ into their own reality, these writers DO make all the difference. We are engaged in their worlds without the artifice of nature-delusion to obscure their process. There is no need to externalise their process onto the world around them artificially, because they are familiar with themselves; seeking their own inner truth as part of the whole, without separation. The journey is not conducted in the external, but in the synthesis of internal/external in which there is no dualistic division, no dichotomy, and no separation.



Peck urges us to courage in “Silencing the familiar and welcoming the strange” (Sam Keene quoted in [5]) It is easier to stay in the safe confines of Editor’s prescriptions and preferences than it is to strike out and to write your truth in your own voice. It is easier to live in the pretty picture you have been given by others than it is to face truth squarely in the eyes and to tell it like it is. It is certainly easier to construct an image of the external which does not challenge our readers or ourselves, than it is to delve deep within ourselves for what WE find it is to be human and true.




low-tide beach

everything one stoops to touch

moves in the fingers

                                      -Chiyo-ni [10]




(stardate 20130128)




[1] Narrow Road to the Deep North. Matsuo Basho. Translated by Tim Chilcott





[6] Robert Frost (1874–1963). Mountain Interval (1920). 1.The Road Not Taken




[10] translated by Jane Reichold



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s