Reviewed by David Berridge
Cid Corman's co-translation of Basho's Backroads To Far Towns first appeared in his magazine Origin in 1964. It was expanded and published by Grossman in 1968, by White Pine Press in 1986, and now, by White Pine Press again, in a small pocket-sized edition as part of their Companions for the Road series. For English speaking audiences this reprint makes available a Basho different in form and structure from others available in English. It is also a text of historical importance in tracing connections of haiku and haibun to several generations of American poetry: from Lorine Niedecker's development of a five-line American “equivalent” to the haiku to, for example, Andrew Schelling's recent explorations of the haibun and travel journal/poem.
Corman began translating Basho in the 1950's, publishing versions in Origin, and in his self-published Cool Melon (1959). He continued up to his death in 2004 and a substantial selection of this work was recently collected in One Man's Moon (Gnomon Press, 2003). Corman's translations reveal his sense both of haiku and of the methods and assumptions underlying Basho's relating of experience and poem. Take, for example, Basho's most famous haiku, which Corman, in a version included in One Man's Moon, strips down to a bare minimum “Old pond / frog leaping / splash.” Even the smooth leanness of Robert Hass' translations in Essential Haiku has double the number of words: “The old pond-- / a frog jumps in, / sound of water.” Hass also introduces Basho to English-language readers through a biography stressing class background--his father was of the landed gentry or samurai class--and social conditions of a still feudal seventeenth-century Japan. Backroads To Far Towns concludes with over twenty pages of detailed notes elucidating names and cultural references but Corman is attracted to an essence he abstracts from Basho's poems and biography. Corman highlights this in his introduction:
Most of his poetry . . . evokes a context and wants one. The poems are not isolated instances of lyricism, but cries of their occasions, of someone intently passing through a world, often arrested by the momentary nature of things within an unfathomable “order.”
Backroads To Far Towns chronicles Basho's journey north from his home in Edo in spring of 1689. He did not return until 1691, although Backroads To Far Towns chronicles the journey only as far as his arrival at Ogaki in Autumn 1689. How Basho chronicled this journey and how differently he comes to us through Corman's translation, is seen by comparing part of the entry for March 27 in, first, Corman's version with that of, second, Nobuyuki Yuasa's roughly contemporary Penguin Classic translation of 1966:
Yayoi: last seventh, slightly hazy dawn, “a waning moon, a failing light,” summit of Fuji vague, crowns of blossoming cherry at Ueno and Yanaka, when would they--and would they--be seen again.? Friends, gathering since nightfall, came along by boat to see us off. Landed at Senju, sense of three thousand li ahead swelling the heart, world so much a dream, tears at point of departure.
It was early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh that I took to the road. There was darkness lingering in the sky, and the moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. The faint shadow of Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka were bidding me a last farewell. My friends had got together the night before, and they all came with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles.
Corman attempts to convey what he terms Basho's “unusual syntax” with “its lack of rule . . . curious, characteristic, and exact.” This removes Basho's writing from the descriptive narrative we find in Yuasa's translation. Instead it inhabits a space of environment and its allusions; present, past and future; personal and cultural history. In Corman's translation the relationship and interfusion between them cannot be conveyed in the grammar of a conventional sentence, nor in the accumulation of sentences into narrative paragraphs. Details accumulate as a structuring and condensing of experience that considers weight and juxtaposition of word and detail, texture and rhythm as a way towards narrative. Corman writes how the haiku concluding each haibun “help clot passages, so that one doesn't read too rapidly.” His use of Japanese vocabulary and quotations sending the reader to the notes also clot and slow the prose, and Basho emerges as a writer who constantly pauses and reflects during a slow, gradual process of composition.
Understanding Basho in terms of field and condensery, montage and particulars highlights, of course, how comfortably Basho fitted into the pages of Origin alongside Charles Olson, Niedecker, and Louis Zukofsky. This translation reveals Basho's response to a place, like that of many Origin contributors, to be a multi-layered montage. Commitment to particulars and direct response to the object, in Basho as well as Zukofsky, produces complex and often allusive writing. In Basho this means a quality of “grounded in season and particularity, no matter how allusive” goes along with limits to how much an experience can be conveyed to those not part of the situation itself or its wider cultural context. Corman's use of Japanese words, for example, emphasizes more than other translations how much these poems depend upon a shared, literate culture to be written and understood. Sometimes this goes as far as to remove the need to write or imposes a restriction: “story behind it common knowledge.” Other times, the joining of poetry and landscape becomes disjunctive. In contrast to a poem's fixity, Basho observes, “landscapes and floods have altered paths and covered markers with earth.”
Relationships of traveling and writing are also more complex than a sense of Basho's haibun as “cries of their occasions” allows. Demands of travelling, the continual memories it provokes and the strain of “being entranced simply by the sense” mean that “there wasn't much chance for thinking words of my own through” Basho often seems to need excessive prompting to write at all, as when, leaving a temple, “young priests came hurrying down the steps after me with paper and ink-slab . . . Sandals already on, jotted it [haiku] hastily down for them.” I may be missing a cultural protocol or etiquette here, but it also connects to a wider lament about the failure of words: “who with brush or speech can hope to describe the work of heaven and earth's divinity?” The strength of Corman's translation is that it allows all of these difficulties and complexities into its very grammar. It is this that relates Basho to recent traditions in American poetries responding to nature not as the securely external and observed but as an always intertwining ecology involving mind and culture.