21 Basho haiku and 5 renku for beginning readers. Basho said, Have a three-foot child get the poem, so here are 28 Basho poems for first to third graders to “get.”
Almost all the words in the translations are basic English, simple enough for the youngest children to learn to read. Occasionally there is a difficult word, and an adult or older child explaining its meaning may unlock the entire poem for a child. You may show them how to make sense from the words – or may read to the small child, allowing imaginations to fly off with Basho’s image.
Tell beginners to read just the poems in this bold font. Later, as they lean how to understand the written word, they can explore the commentaries to learn more about the poems. Even if they cannot understand the entire commentary, it may provide information that helps in understanding the poem.
I pray that small children, whether they read themselves or are read to, will enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by these images of children, and images of children’s thought 350 years ago.
Little children, Basho is your poet, the poet who wrote about you.
Smaller than this ‘o’ in print, so light its weight cannot be felt, the drab brown seed will produce a stalk with large green purple-veined leaves, bright purple flowers, and dark purple eggplants full of a multitude of seeds. Early in spring some are returned to the Earth under a half inch of soil. Spring rains falls gently and continuously to soak the tiny plant emerging from the seed. The two infant leaves reach out to the side like hands welcoming the rain. Is this ‘poetry’? Or ‘biology’? The poem is ultimate simplicity – a mere seven words the smallest child can understand, as simple as DNA. Schools commonly provide an eggplant seed with a cupful of dirt for small children to observe the miracle of life. Why not also give the haiku SPRING RAIN? Can there be a more perfect way to teach first graders reading along with science?
In his twenties in his hometown Basho wrote
Chigo-zakura (baby cherry) is one species of wild cherry, and also a sapling transplanted to a place where it can grow big. Kon elaborates: “Planting this sapling, with fondness for its loveable name, we handle it with the care we would our own child.” Basho asks us to to treat both young plants and baby humans with tenderness and sensitivity.
Early spring, trees around the pond, and their reflections in the water, wear sparse coats of light-green young leaves. Tiny organisms, and insects that eat them, have begun their annual increase. Frogs -- who may live up to 10 to 15 years -- sleep all winter in the mud at the bottom until the slight warmth stimulates them to move. Chigetsu wrote,
They come to the surface to search for food. Frogs have thick thigh muscles and long toes to propel tiny body high in the air. Wherever in the world frogs live, they become friends with children
“Early in the afternoon of a long slow spring day, the stagnant old pond is silent and calm. For an instant there is the sound of a frog jumping in the water, then a return to the former silence. The verse is modest and plain, yet within is a mood of tranquillity and elegant simplicity.”
We complete our frog trio with a bit of linked verse only Basho or a small child could conceive:
Frogs can jump from place to place, but yearn for the unlimited freedom of a butterfly in flight as well as in a dream.
A small child wishing for a playmate speaks to the butterfly on the rock before her eyes: WAKE UP! WAKE UP! OKI YO! OKI YO!
The butterfly casts a moving shadow across the field of young green growing plants.
The suzume, house sparrow, nests under the eaves from March till July, Eggs number 4 to 6. They hatch at 11 at 12 days, and the baby bird grow their wings in the next 12 to 14 days. The parents bring insects and worms for the babies to eat, until the wings are fully formed and the birds can fly away from the nest. For a while the parents watch over their young and teach them how to find food, and then they are on their own.
The nest of sparrows is built outside the wall under the eaves, and the nest of mice are inside that wall, so the two kinds of babies are very close and can cheep to each other. Adult mice and adult sparrows are too ‘grown up’ to learn each other’s language, but maybe through their young, the two species can communicate.
The green pheasant or kiji belongs to the same family as the chicken/rooster. Symbolic of masculine might and prowess as well as maternal love and care, the national bird of Japan since 1947. The sound word horohoro is not the loud harsh squawk of the male showing off, but rather the gentle continuous clucking of the hen to reassure her chicks.
Nakagawa Shiro, former Director of Tokyo’s world-famous Ueno Zoo and Chairman of the Japan Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says
A grass fire rages close to the female pheasant caring for her young. She could try to escape (but has no way to carry her chicks) so she burns to death. When the fire has passed, from under her burnt corpse crawl the chicks. This is said to actually happen. To protect and raise her children, the mother animal exerts her entire strength. Without logic, without ethics or morality, the methods for raising them genetically programmed into her, to do anything else is impossible.
A plover (or sandpiper) mother-to-be finds a hollow in a river bank or near the sea, and lines it with pebbles or wood chips to make a comfortable place for her babies.
In the complete darkness a plover, who has flown away from her nest, cannot find her way back and cries out in distress.
On the 8th day of the 4th Moon (in 1688, May 17th), when so many things are beginning life, in Buddhist temples worshippers pour sweet green tea from tiny ladles over a statue of the Compassionate One as an infant.
Fawns conceived in autumn now are born, 18 inches long, weighing 13 pounds. The doe licks her baby all over, and baby stands up on spindly legs within 15 minutes. Basho sees the Light of eternal creation.
Hiking in the summer mountains, sit down for a rest beside a stream, removing shoes and socks, and putting legs in the stream.
All is sensation: the coolness of the river environment, the sight of the orange crab shape with eight legs and two pincers, the feelings of legs and pincers crawling on my skin, through the cool wet sensations of the stream flowing by.
Little children with no inhibition at all about going naked when the heat is so oppressive even in the evening. Basho adds joyful body movement to the scene. He says naked is okay, but how about a bit of restraint? The kids hold thin straw mats about a meter square in front of them as they dash about screaming. These are their shields.
One naked child notices a dog lying nearby. The animal seems fully asleep -- but also holds its tail with attention. Shiba and Akita dogs, the original breeds on these islands, are known for perpetually holding their tails up in a perfect curl, the white fur under the tail curling around to show on top, as round as the moon.
The poet 300 years ago makes this observation, through the eyes of a child, about Japanese dogs, and we can see the same any evening in a Japanese neighborhood; dogs with tightly curled tails. Somehow the brain signals which produce this tail shape are programmed into Japanese dog genes; the child who runs and jumps about in naked joy can also observe the world and wonder about consciousness and muscle control.
In the mountains of Japan from May to July, you will hear the hototogisu, or ‘little cuckoo.’ Bird-watcher Mark Brazil says “while it is shy and not often seen, the five-note call…is very frequently heard… during the day and night” The call is a three note trill ho toto on one pitch, a quick rise in pitch and intensity on GI, and trailing off in su. The intensity of the GI is the distinguishing feature.
The bird usually calls once, sometimes twice in a row and then sounds very ‘busy.’ Once in a while, you may see one fly.
She may have heard the bird call before but never paid attention to it, never noticed the “hototoGIsu” in the sound. “Announces” suggests her realization of this, putting bird sound together with human word. This is how language and understanding develop in a little sister.
The following verse is autobiographical: we see Basho as a small child.
The scene of this year’s baby bamboos, like brown pointed magician’s hats, peeking out here and there among their towering parents, is one any child would love to draw. Susabi is the absorption of a child in learning, the compulsion to practice a task over and over again, as in a Montessori school. We see 6 year old Basho hunched over the paper, concentrating his entire being on drawing that conical shape on a flat piece of paper.
Here is a drawing he made as an adult: Diagram of a Snore”
The four feet of snore comes from a hole just 1.2 inches in diameter (I love the precision.) Then on the right side, the snore rattles along like a a heavy wooden chest on wheels kept near the door, in case of fire, to get valuables away from the house. The heavily laden chest shakes about as it rolls – which is how the snore ends. It is difficult for me to study this ‘diagram’ without laughing uncontrollably.
Summer is the season of abundance, of much sunlight and rain, plants thick and green, large glorious flowers, sweet juicy melons, an abundance of insects, heat, moisture, swelling, and sweating.
Well children, first we look at the flowers, then we peel and eat the melons, then we go down to play at the river.
After eating the sweet luscious fruit, we play with scraps mother cut away from the fabric she needed to make an article of clothing, scraps of no interest to adults, but fascinating to the mind of a child. Child play the way they eat melons: with enjoyment.
In this era it was a custom for little girls in summer to draw a face with black ink or face-powder on a melon and attach to a stick with two-color strings, to make a hanging toy. He shows us a little girl’s plaything, a picture she drew of her idol, the little girl whose fairytale dream comes true. She feels about her face drawn on a melon the way little girls today feel about pictures of their idols in music, movies and royal families.
The traditional Japanese autumn begins in mid-August when it is still very hot, but at times we feel the coming chill. Now comes the O-Bon festival for honoring ancestors. People return to their native places. They bring their children to meet their grandparents, so children who ordinarily never meet can play together.
Basho’s stanza tweeks all sorts of memories and feelings about children, friendship, and the succession of life through generations
The mukuge is a type of hibiscus, is common in Japan as well as in South Korea where it is the national flower. They usually grow wild on an old wall or fence, blooming at the end of summer into autumn, large trumpet- shaped flowers, usually pink with prominent yellow-tipped white stamens.
A fine ornament for the hair of a tiny peasant girl naked in the August heat. The child stands there innocent and charming, the ideal human form; she carries the future of humanity. My research assistant Shoko, with daughters this age, sees in the verse “an expression of the warmth in Basho’s heart.”
Dragonflies born from the water grow fine membranous wings then cruise over a field or along
side a stream catching insects from the air with their powerful forelegs.
Vivid beneath clear autumn sky, a dragonfly—most skilful acrobat in the insect world—whizzes about the tall grass, grabs for a tip swaying in the wind, but MISSES ITS TIMING. Instantly it recovers and flies away. There is only the moment, so brief and fleeting we cannot hold onto it in imagination. Try to think about it and it’s gone.
A temple hall is surrounded by a wide verandah with a rail people can lean on while watching the moon:
Feel the children’s life force, their reaching up to get a bit closer to Moon. The glory of Moon merges with the glory of the child.
Here is a verse for children who are forced to work:
Gazing at the bright moon may provide a momentary escape from Earth and the labor of a tired body. We can see Basho’s haiku from the point of view of someone (such as me) who has never done this work, however I wish to know how children who hull rice today will experience Basho’s poem. Let’s take the verse beyond the scholars and put it in the books young people in the developing world read, both in English and native languages. May children and teens worldwide who work long hours feel some connection to the child laborer in Basho’s haiku.
The road is dark and in the cold moonlight even familiar things become fearsome shadows. Foxes in Japanese folklore bewitch people and make them do evil. When things get scary, every child needs someone bigger who can be trusted.
Because the stanza gives no hint of circumstances, we can imagine the child in any circumstances shedding silent tears.
Japanese monkeys, the only ones in the world whose native habitat is so far north, live in packs of bout ten in mountain forests. In autumn they eat all the fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, insects, and crabs they can find, so they grow fat with the thick fur needed to survive winter in a mountain forest.
When it starts to rain, Basho hurriedly puts on his mino, a cape woven of straw and waterproofed with persimmon juice. He then sees a monkey shivering beside the road and presents his immediate child-like compassionate thought -- expressed in that word “too”. He teaches us to go back to the beginnings of thought, the thoughts in childhood that begin the development of Compassion.
Rabbits in Japan, a sub-species of the northern European snow-rabbit, have the enormous snowshoe-like feet and powerful legs needed to run fast and leap through the air on snow. They are ‘field rabbits’, not burrow-rabbits; adults do not dig underground for shelter. During the day they rest in the bushes, and at night they search around for grass.
The poet is in his hometown with those 40 years younger; these are the hills where Basho played as a child. Joyful in the year’s first snow, they bound about like rabbits, so Uncle Basho suggests they find some real rabbits somewhere, pull off some fur, and stick it on their faces between nose and mouth, to complete the picture. Basho’s disciple Kyorai pointed out that we should not be surprised when we notice that the verse “makes no sense” -- it is not supposed to be logical or make sense. It’s a joke shouted by one child to another as they run about in the snow. If it made sense, it would not be funny. Basho recreates the mind-set of children’s humor.
The cold rain gets inside the robe because instead of one sleeve there is just a large opening around the shoulder. Why, you ask, is one sleeve missing? Basho provides the answer: the family has five boys and apparently no girls, so no one to help mother make clothing for this zoo. She ran out of fabric while making multiple robes and had no time to spin yarn or weave – what with all the chaos of five sons. Basho uses the word hoeru for a dog barking – so we hear the clamor of multiple boys in Japan 300 years ago..
Sora lives near Basho and often comes over to visit and help with housework. Basho writes:
Not just a snowball, but a ball of snow rolled on the snowy ground to get bigger and bigger. What fun! As if Basho and Sora were children, children in the give and take of human personal relationships. .
Basho speaks to his followers as if they were children, as a compliment.
Hail is droplets of ice falling from the clouds, not soft snow; it hurts when it hits you. Some people enjoy snow, but who enjoys hail? Basho says “We can!” if we do it together. It’s FUN to be pelted by gems of ice if we consider it play. See how pretty they are.
Children love being in snow, but when it starts to hail - freezing, wet, white – they come inside and use sticky paste (made from the starch in wheat or rice flour) to hold paper together. This is delicate work with the hands, so the palms must not have used paste on them. So the kindergartners pass the day.