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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 3, September 2012


Patricia Prime
Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand

Notes on Ray Rasmussen’s Commentary: Bashō’s “Hiraizumi,”
A passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Ono no Hosomichi)

Rasmussen’s commentary enters into dialogue with Bashō’s haibun and the ensuing relationship contributes to a reader’s meaning-making process. I should stress that there is no injunction from Rasmussen that the commentary should be used in this way. But for me, this type of commentary is irresistible, contributing enjoyment and enhancing engagement with the haibun.

Many years of Japanese poetry vibrate behind Rasmussen’s haibun modeled on “Hiraizumi.” It’s there in the cadence, in the control of emphasis, in the thematic contrast between the Anasazi people who lost their livelihoods through drought and the poet’s sadness as he contemplates where they flourished in better times. There is also a lightness of touch and tenderness that fends off any temptation to become maudlin.

My main focus is going to be on the ways I experienced Rasmussen’s text as a reader, writer and editor of haibun. I want to reflect on the reading practices I found myself engaging in, especially intertextual reading practices. The latter are produced by the juxtaposition of three individual textual components, each with distinct characteristics: Part I: The Commentary, Part II: A Personal Recognition, Part III: A Conversation of Sorts with Bashō with Part IV: Definitive Writing—Of What Value?

Part I: The Commentary. From the commentary, we learn that Bashō’s travel journals are recognized as being the earliest examples of haibun and are worthwhile reading for anyone who enjoys poetic prose. Bashō was a pioneer of travel writing in the kind of “call and response” between prose and haiku that we call haibun.

In his commentary, Rasmussen selects the passage “Hiraizumi” from The Narrow Road to the Deep North because he recognizes in it his own experiences of recent travels in the Southwest United States. He goes on to detail the traditions or rules governing this type of haibun: descriptive detail, lyrical phrasing, some telling as well as showing, and the concluding haiku “which can be viewed as a succinct summary” of one’s feelings, and which adds an overall succinctness to the haibun. In the following paragraphs of the commentary, Rasmussen focuses on the explication of haibun given by two renowned haibun poets, David Cobb and Ken Jones. Cobb reports that Bashō took “such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events.” While Jones states that “Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku (“diamonds in mud banks”) are now mercifully few—although occasionally published.” Rasmussen sums up “Hiraizumi” as being “a good story with the key compositional elements of haibun to support it.”

In Part II: A Personal Recognition, Rasmussen, a prolific writer and editor of haibun, tells the reader about the way in which “Hiraizumi” moved him to compare his own haibun about a hike he took in Utah’s sandstone canyons with that of Bashō. Details in the poem deposit the reader in “the ruins of ancients who have been given the name ‘Anasazi’ by the Navajo who now occupy the nearby lands.” Among the ruins, Rasmussen sees handprints above a dwelling’s doorway that reinforce his feelings of sadness, regret, loneliness, or sabi.

The frustrations engendered by his experiences, coupled with his growing feeling of antipathy for the cause of the Anasazi’s demise, makes Rasmussen take stock of the situation. That decision has led Rasmussen to make his haibun serve as a celebration of the way in which the Anasazi pursued their lifestyles.

From his musings, the concentric impressions continue for both poet and reader as we empathize with his feelings. We are also asked to acknowledge the plight of indigenous people in many parts of the world.

Part III: A Conversation of Sorts with Bashō indicates the way in which Rasmussen came to write his own haibun, “Slickhorn Canyon,” which he modeled on Bashō’s “Hiraizumi,” and how that creative act enabled him to better understand Bashō’s journey through Japan and reminded him of the plight of the Anasazi which has been repeated throughout human history.

Initially, Rasmussen may not have been conscious of the common theme between his and Bashō’s haibun, but may have begun to recognize that he was modeling his experience on that of Bashō. We can pick up on these men we admire and whom we may want to emulate, in that they are not standing back doing nothing, but are acting on their passions. In the same manner, we may feel inspired to take up the causes of fellow humanity.

I relate to the magic of Rasmussen’s story. More particularly to its drama, and how it takes you through the emotions of seeing something incredible unfold before you—the “ghostlike handprints.” The dramatic question at the heart of Rasmussen’s narrative is not amenable to a satisfying conclusion but leaves the reader wanting to learn more about those mysterious people, the Anasazi.

Part IV: Derivative Writing—Of what Value? Derivative writing means to take something from a point of origin or from a literary or historical source and to use it in one’s own writing. In Rasmussen’s haibun, he reflects the shock and grief he experienced in the canyon in which the Anasazi had once lived. This he bases on a similar experience by Bashō.

The work wrestles with language and observation of detail and causes the poet to meditate over meaning. The meaning of life and death lies behind the haibun. There is a subtlety of expression that can be interpreted by the reader in different ways; it is delicately written but with power.

Language is essentially transformative. Power, ability, essence is inherent in the language of bygone poets and writers. By working with these authors, one can tap into their ideas and language, make it more visible, more of an active presence. Rasmussen’s influence by Bashō is a tribute to him; it’s the mining and the shaking language up which is important. It’s the scrupulous working with the original and transposing it in some way which, I believe, is the essence of Rasmussen’s haibun.

Those who come to read Rasmussen’s haibun can expect a satisfying experience; he works hard to ensure it makes a strong emotional connection to the reader. Of course, he is pleasing himself, but if he is not pleasing the reader too, then he will not feel people responding to his work in the way he hopes.

Because haibun contain the seeds of history, experience, communication, energy and perception, they require quiet attention, reading and rereading. Rasmussen’s haibun is no exception. It is full of mystery and grace, the skillful work of a poet connected with nature, humanity and his own feelings.


Rasmussen's Commentary on Basho's "Hiraizumi" can be read in this issue.

R. Rasmussen, Slickhorn Canyon, Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.

Bashō’s "Hiraizumi" can be read here.



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