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A Review of Going to the Pine: Four Essays on Bashō

Wilkinson, Geoffrey. Going to the Pine: Four Essays on Bashō. (self-published, 2019.) 60 pages. £7.99 / $8.99US / $12.99AUS. ISBN 978-1-9160622-0-7.

“Set aside all personal thoughts and motives, for you will learn nothing if you insist on interpreting objects as you see them.” Thus speaks Bashō in a quote that opens Geoffrey Wilkinson´s interesting collection of essays. It’s a slim volume (some 60 pages) containing four previously published essays, and its title is taken from a quote attributed to Bashō: “Go to the pine to learn about the pine.”
In the first essay, the author compares Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō and English poet John Keats, and deals with their poetic notions of annihilating the self, and also their experience with travelling. The comparison is interesting and reminds one of the work of Blyth, who often found counterpoints from World Literature to compare with Japanese haiku.
With plenty of reference to Bashō’s poems and writings, and many extracts from Keat’s letters to his acquaintances, Wilkinson states that “much of what Keats says could easily have been uttered by Bashō, and vice versa.” It is Wilkinson’s belief that both Bashō and Keats teach us that “we are deluded (. . .) if we suppose that truth is something we set out to discover as we pass through the world. The reality is that truth discovers itself as the world passes through us.” The first essay is a unique opening to the book, and certainly gives us food for thought and is a welcome addition to comparative literature.
The second essay, “Bashō’s Frog, the Great Survivor,” delves into the back-stories behind the renowned frog-pond haiku, one of the most infamous haiku of all time. It looks at a variety of narratives that aim to reconstruct the poem’s origin, and subsequent interpretations, and highlights how some of them may not be as reliable as others. Anyone who knows the haiku and hasn’t read the differing stories regarding its genesis would do well to read this essay and ponder what lies beyond the pond.
The essay shows the importance some have attributed to the poem, and how others felt it was an inferior haiku. The interpretations also vary. Shiki felt it was more like the kind of “life-sketch” poem he himself advocated — in Shiki’s own words:

“This poem is nothing more than a report of what the poet’s auditory nerves sensed. Not only did it include none of his subjective ideas or visual, moving images, but what is recorded was nothing more than a moment of time.”

Other versions consider the poem to be the result of a Zen exchange in which “paradoxical and seemingly meaningless utterances” are exchanged between master and disciple in order to strive towards illumination. D.T. Suzuki is one of the key figures in promoting a more Zen interpretation, and he influenced haiku commentator Blyth as a result. Wilkinson summarizes Suzuki’s view thus: “The frog, the pond, the poet, the whole universe itself, are all dissolved in that one sound and united in the undifferentiated nothingness.”
It is interesting, as always, to see varying translations. Let’s look at the first rendering in the essay:

The old pond —
A frog jumps in,
The sound of water.

Now let us compare that more austere translation with this limerick version, which appears later in the essay, by Alfred Marks:

There once was a curious frog
Who sat by a pond on a log
And, to see what resulted,
In the pond catapulted
With a water-noise heard round the bog.

Of particular interest to myself was one particular four-line translation, in which the first line is repeated at the end, and which brings to mind the early haiku experiments of Catalan poet Josep Maria Junoy, whom I recently investigated for my anthology Haiku from Iberia and Beyond, and who also used said technique (a technique, it might be added, which mirrors our instinctive reading patterns, especially when reading haiku.) The four-line version is as follows:

The old pond —
A frog jumps in;
The water sounds —
The old pond!

The essay ends with an interesting comparison to Arvo Pärt that makes us consider the relationships between artist and audience; in Pärt’s words: “There are as many different ways of perception as there are listeners (. . .) and all of them are justified.”
The third essay, “Found in Translation,” stands out for its style, which is less academic and strikes a more conversational tone, imitating — as it does—the inner monologues of a translator. As a translator myself, I found this piece illuminating, although the constant mental leaps of the translator-narrator at times make it less of an easy read, and it is potentially a little specific for the casual reader not familiar with translation or with the Japanese language.
The final essay, “The Frog and the Basilisk,” suffers from some overlap with elements which are repeated here from other essays. This may have been more evident to me as I read the whole book through in one sitting, and perhaps someone reading these essays individually, with a little space between them, might not notice the few minor repetitions. The final essay is rather ambitious in its scope, and I found it perhaps the least convincing essay of the collection, but there are nevertheless some admirable efforts on the part of Wilkinson to broaden the scope of our interpretations of Bashō, and our understanding of the world itself. This essay looks at the Eastern poet Bashō in reference to the West and its Judaeo-Christian traditions. Wilkinson sees in the East and the West the following common denominator: “a collective fear of the unintelligible, that is, of the merest suspicion that there might not be any reason why the world is as it is.” The author assuages that fear by telling us that it is “both a disconcerting discovery and a liberating one, because it frees us to recognize that responsibility for what happens in our world (…) lies with us, not with some imagined creator or force.”
I look forward to reading more of Wilkinson’s work on haiku in the future, and I can recommend this collection of essays as a good way to dip one’s toe into Bashō’s own peculiar pond and come out with new perspectives, and maybe new questions, regarding what lies behind the poems and poets we spend so much time with, and how best to translate and interpret them.

— Danny Blackwell

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