Basho, a child, a poem, and an ethical question

A few years ago, I wrote a poem inspired by a scene in Japanese haiku-master Basho’s Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton. In this first of Basho’s five haibun works (the other four being A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, IA Visit to Sarashina Village, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North), Basho and his traveling companion come across a young child sitting by the side of the road, having been abandoned by his parents. Basho comments on the boy, then leaves food, and then writes a haiku about the scene. It always struck me that Basho did nothing but leave food, as if an abandoned child must be left where she or he sat. Why did he not take the child with him? Or, at least to the nearest village to leave the child in the care of others? Should the zen poet be a dispassionate observer, interfering in the lives of poetic subjects as little as possible? The more I thought about the scene, the more it bothered me.

I wrote the following poem, using the tanka form for the two stanzas. The tanka form, which consists of five lines, with syllable counts of 5-7-5-7-7. Haiku derived from the first three lines of a tanka poem. Since Basho was a master of haiku and tanka, the form seemed appropriate.

The poem was originally published in Symmetry Pebbles, issue 4. After its publication, I kept feeling like it should be revised in some way. Something didn’t feel quite right. While I have played with various revisions, including moving away from tanka or a strict syllable form, in the end, I realized the only thing I didn’t like was the use of the word “great” to describe Basho in the third line of the first stanza. The original, published line was “great Basho leaves food.” I grew to dislike the word “great” as it seemed sarcastic and maybe even condescending. Basho was a great poet. There is no dispute to that and anything, any word that diminishes, questions, or makes light of that honor needs to be revised. That said, I can still question his actions. The revised line is a simple statement, as stark as his action: “Basho leaves him food.” Here’s the poem:

WALKING ALONG THE RIVER FUJI, THE POET BASHO FINDS A CHILD ABANDONED BY HIS PARENTS

A child by the road,
crying in the autumn wind.
Basho leaves him food
and takes away an image
from which to form a poem.

If he had taken
the child with him, would he have
mastered poetry?
Or, would he be known only
as a man who saved a child?

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