Matsuo Basho radically redefined the three-line, 17-syllable haiku poetic form from an entertaining pastime in 16th-century Japan to a major literary genre in the 17th century. An early Basho haiku provides an example of his meticulous and sensitive approach in selecting and arranging words and images to produce highly evocative allusions: Haiku emanates from the 31 syllable, five-line “tanka” (short poem) which was originally arranged in two parts, an opening triplet (hokku) and a couplet. The Haiku form was popularized during the Heian period (794-1185).
At that time, it was customary for the educated elite of Japan to engage in writing, singing, and reciting poetry as forms of cultural entertainment. In addition, social customs of the day demanded that the aristocracy of the refined court society display both a sensitivity to nature in their poetic expression and an ability to discuss the poetic classics of Japanese and Chinese literature. Tanka, then, could express a wealth of meaning in five elegant lines expressing a single idea, emotion, or observation.
By the 16th century, tanka had found expression in playful and less refined experimental forms and began to attract the participation of the merchant classes as well. But it was not until Basho came along with an artistic sensibility, reflective calm, and keen originality, coupled with his formal training in Japanese and Chinese classics and poetry, that new power was infused into the haiku. Basho’s greatest contribution to the genre was to take the opening triplet of the tanka (hokku) and make it an independent, autonomous form.
The term haiku was formed from the first three letters of the word haikai (a 17-syllable comical verse) and the last two letters of the word hokku. The following, well-known Basho haiku serves as an example of the beauty of nature, the fleeting image of time, and a compression of language: At first glance, “Falling Upon Earth” offers a meditative reflection on the wonders of nature. The poem invites contemplation on the beauty of the camellia blossom and implicitly situates the tropical Asiatic evergreen tree in a calm, rural setting in Japan among the hidden forces of nature.
Yet the power of Basho’s haiku clearly emanates from his meticulous selection of words, his fleeting yet evocative imagery, and the ambiguity resulting from words having multiple meanings. The power word of the first line is falling. The ambiguity of who or what is falling immediately challenges meaning and entices the reader’s active participation in the poem. In Japanese literature, the camellia blossom is often used as a symbolic representation of the samurai, a professional soldier of the feudal military aristocracy of Japan, whose life, like that of the camellia, was often brilliant but brief.
The falling of the flower takes on an allegorical dimension since Basho once trained in the service of a young samurai master who died unexpectedly. Basho grieved deeply and renounced his own samurai status. Thus, the implication of the camellia blossom moving abruptly from a state of natural beauty and vigor to one of quiet, somber death invites speculation on life’s brevity, as well as the need to recognize and appreciate the rich, evocative images in nature.
Likewise, while the word earth overtly suggests an objective description of nature, in fact, Basho might have selected ground or soil, with the apparent implication of a hard, flat, non-receptive surface. However, he skillfully positions the word earth to evoke connotations of the earth mother as receiver or absorber of the pure water that spills from the camellia, an image that immediately softens the ominous tone in lines one and two.
Earth becomes the immediate vessel and eventual transmitter of the pure water of the camellia that will cycle the life force of the blossom and restore vital nutrients to the earth to replenish, regenerate, and revitalize the earth’s bounty for new growth. Thus, the opening tone of a death that has spilled unexpectedly is balanced by the theme of rejuvenation as a poetic commentary on the cyclical nature of the universe and the ultimate need for humankind to be at one with nature.