Here are 43 Basho haiku expressing his “clear respect, affection, and even reverence, for women.” Often the female is specified, but in some verses, the background information found in the commentaries indicates a woman, girl, or women. For instance, at a temple for the Goddess of Mercy and place of pilgrimage for women, Basho wrote:
Once we accept that the “one hidden” is a woman, realize that she is praying to the Goddess Mercy, and explore her woman’s heart, the verse takes on profound feminine meanings (discussed in the commentaries). Whether you read or skip over the commentaries, follow the words of Basho to his "clear respect, affection, and even reverence for women."
Her fingers and palms coated with dough, she uses the side of her hand above the thumb to tuck the hair behind ear without getting any dough on her hair. Women in every land and every time where hair is worn long make this precise, delicate, and utterly feminine movement with the side of the hand around the ear. This is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful hidden woman.
Who is this woman hidden in Basho’s words, her life shuttling back and forth between Buddhist rituals and the struggle to clothe and feed her family? She has washed her family’s winter wear and now pounds it to be soft and smooth. The sound vibrates through the floor and walls of the house. Can I reach her through that sound?
What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away, the heart of the woman doing her work, hour after hour, year after year, must be exceedingly clear.
A woman in a roadside rest area has gathered azaleas and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. She is the center of the verse. She mediates between delicacy of azaleas and coarseness of her hands’ work.
A woman pierces fish with metal pins to roast them over the fire in her sunken hearth. The sound of “skewering” contains the feeling of metal pin puncturing the bloody flesh. The verse takes us beyond our ordinary consciousness to enter the reality of a woman who does such work every day so her children or grandchildren get the protein, minerals, vitamins and omega fatty acids in small fish.
An uba, or wet-nurse, often stayed on with the family to nurse later babies and work in and around the home. In this verse of gratitude to a farm family who allowed Basho to stay the night, he praises the woman for maintaining her vigor into old age. Kon says “implied in the word uba is the prosperity of the whole family.”
Intoxicated by cherry blossoms all around her and beverages she has drunk, she sheds her ladylike inhibitions to act bold and assertive. She has borrowed a padded haori coat from someone and put it on over her kimono, adding some bulk to her chest, shoulders, and arms, making her look manly. No swords are here, but she pretends with something long and thin which she inserts under the thick brocade sash around her waist. Then she does the ever-popular “Hey! See how long my sword is!”
The usually serious Buddhist priests float along, and the otherwise demure self-effacing wives “slither” their hips in an erotic manner, all because of the exuberant “high” feeling that comes with cherry blossoms and spring
Here is an old woman, who can remember her days (and nights) of youthful elegance; she blossoms again along with the cherry trees, and the memories within her also emerge like blossoms. She is an Icon of the Feminine, a symbol for something larger than herself, the continuity from youth to old age.
A "willow" can be a tree, or a woman with long straight hair hanging loose around her body.
The long slender flexible willow branches hang to the ground, swaying in the spring breeze, as a girl’s hair sways around her body while she walks.
The slender flexible willow branches caress the earth with the gentleness and sensitivity of a mother, lover, or nurse soothing away the pain. I hope nurses who work with the sick and injured will find in Basho’s verse a prescription for gentleness and a healing touch.
A willow tree on the riverbank has some branches ending underwater, but now at low tide, these reach into the mud – however in the supernatural legend Green Willow told by Lafcadio Hearn in his collection Kwaidan, this is the name of a slender maiden: she bends down to gather shells and other edibles from the mud.
Holding a lock of his dead mother’s hair: in autumn, frost forms only early in the morning; a harbinger of winter to come. Basho weaves together human emotion and seasonal awareness in a ‘sketch’ of a few strands of white hair on his palm.
Shown the remains of his umbilical cord kept as a momento. Kon reminds us that this navel cord is the “physical remains of Basho’s connection to his mother.” Furu sato, ‘old village’, is among the most poignant of words to the Japanese. ‘End of the Year’ contains one’s feeling for the passage of time, so the verse overflows with sentiment.
Village women wash the dirt from the tuber taro in the river. Either they sing the song “Washing Taro” to the famous poet Saigyo, or he sings to them, of the reality of marriage in Japan: she works hard every day, feeding herself and the children on staple foods like taro while he goes wherever husbands go, eating fancy foods in restaurants and enjoying pleasures he cannot find at home.
Visits his follower Ichiyu, in the guest room, Basho writes of his wife Sonome in the “northside” or woman’s part of the house. The “northside” plum is both a tree and the woman Sonome. He “sees” through the doorway curtain to the hidden woman, and “sees” deep inside her to her heart of elegance.
A woman named Butterfly who used to be a prostitute asked Basho for a haiku on her name.
Basho replied with this ode to her sensuality.
The Japanese does not indicate gender, but in reality, who goes on foot to buy rice? A zukin, or hood, is worn to keep cold and snow from the head, neck and shoulders. Since a bag for rice is sewn differently than a hood, the bag will not give much protection—which is the point of the verse. And on the way home with the bag full, she will have nothing to keep the snow from her head and neck.
Transplanting rice seedlings to the paddy was the work of teenage and unmarried women, their fertility believed to transfer to the fields. In a village where long ago women pressed dye on cloth to produce patterns that became famous throughout the land.
The female hands gently separating the countless tiny seedling roots from the dirt of the nursery bed, careful not to damage them, are the same hands which centuries ago rubbed dye onto cloth: the same hands – the same DNA, the same precision and delicacy – inherited from mother to daughter in this village in the heartlands.
In the songs sung by ordinary peasant women in the mud, Basho hears the origins of “refinement” by which Basho means “poetry” as well as all of culture that refines us to a higher state.
Under the willow branches thick with green leaves, Basho watches the line of women move through the mud, sharing energy with them. When they reach the end of this field, he leaves while they move on the next field.
Safflowers produce the orange-red dye used to color a woman's under kimono. Scholars unable to imagine Basho writing so erotic a verse consider this haiku "authorship doubtful" – yet it has the physical body sensations and activity typical of Basho poetry on women.
At the Cove of Kisa famed among poets, in the rain so common on this gloomy coast facing Siberia, Basho envisions the tragic beauty of Lady Seishi, one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, said to be most beautiful when frowning in resentment. The long red and white stamens of the flower suggest the make up on the eyelashes of an elegant courtesan like Seishi –yet the mascara is smeared by tears – or smeared by rain.
Hearing through the wall of his inn the voices of two indentured prostitutes from a brothel in Niigata on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama.
The wife of the famous general Akechi saved her husband’s career with a noble act but the end was still tragic. Basho is asking the moon to be less bright, more subdued, so we can speak of the sadness in women’s lives. Alongside every man who becomes famous is a woman whose life is just as remarkable and certainly more productive. Of the wife let us speak.
This nun has created her own private monastery of total Buddhist austerity. She has given up on all feminine pursuits, all sensuality. Yet before her hut is a bush of white azaleas in full bloom. White means no color, no sensuality or passion —however they are still azaleas; they have that same suggestive funnel and long pistils. The nun is the same way. She has, inside her robes, the usual female equipment, but with absolutely no pink or soft red: White Azaleas
Basho visits Chigetsu in Zeze she lives and the famous poet-nun Shōshō lived centuries ago. Basho says that talking to her is as speaking to that one long ago. She connects present with past.
As the beautiful scenery of Lake Biwa under the harvest moon transforms according to the position of the moon in the sky, so we recall seven changes in the illusionary beauty of a woman. Watching the enormous round moon move throughout the long night, the seven Ages of Woman unfold before our eyes.
The Japanese actually provides names of three characters in a story a young girl reads in a storybook popular in Basho’s time. She reads beside the open window near a plum tree in bloom, her youth in contrast to the classical elegance of plum blossoms and the romantic tales old centuries before she was born.
The famed beauty Komachi grew old to wander the streets, a beggar in rags. Her dying request was that her corpse be left out on the fields, and was seen with plume grass growing through her skull’s eye sockets. Her beauty – as well as her sanity -- gone like a flash of lightning, Komachi ended up with tall stalks and wispy plumes emerging from her face to the height of a woman.
At the memorial for a follower’s mother: Entering the temple grounds, at a rock basin with spring water, we put our hands together and pray to Buddha; this is called “offering water.” Rice is cooked then dried to a powder for travelers who add water to make a meal. Basho suggests that the temple water added to the dried rice powder will nourish Fuboku’s mother on her long journey.
“Having lost mother familiar with these flowers for so long a time, at her memorial service, they seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of the flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.” (Kon)
On the death of Kyorai’s sister Chine: Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently dispersing in the warm breeze.
The grief of Rika for his wife: Getting between the heavy quilts, shivering till my old blood warms the space so I can go to sleep. All alone where she used to lie nearby. The nights are long and bitter, and the sun brings no warmth till late morning. With these few words, Basho captures the experience of Rika, or anyone who has lost a spouse in winter.
The nodes along hollow stems of bamboo form solid disks through the diameter. Life moves along smoothly but every so often come to a solid mass of sorrow. Kon speaks of Lady Kogo “tossed about in the world, finally to be buried in a bamboo grove where she changed into bamboo shoots, the end of her road so pathetically sad.”
On Mount Abandon-Old-Women where this was done. When she felt her own time coming to an end, she wanted to die in the divine light rather than go through another winter in a dark unheated room where children are crying, eating food that those children need. If she dies as “friends with the moon,” its light will guide her spirit in the other world.
The temple is crowded with people, the majority of them women, their heads bowed to an image of Buddha, chanting a mantra over and over. Each uses a string of 108 sacred beads to keep count of the repetitions while focusing on the mantra. From the vastness and antiquity of Buddhism, to the smaller tactile image of two aged female hands moving beads between them, then ending in the simple sounds of clicking.
Women pick tea, white kerchiefs over their round sedge hats to ward off the sun. I see the white conical hats moving between the parallel rows of round green bushes. The bird calls from somewhere hidden in the forest, and as my heart trembles, the round hats tremble with awareness. Three points – bird, women, and myself – form a triangle with one rhythm, the rhythm of ho toto GI su.
She waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. Her husband has returned from the fields and sits in his loincloth. “Watching his “beloved wife” (aisai, 愛妻) “bestow her heart” (kokoro tsukai心遣い) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.” So this is a love poem
The dead are buried in family plots near the ancestral home. On the first day of the O-Bon Festival, people go to the cemetery and with lanterns and torches escort the spirits home. The middle segment sums up the nature of growing old: white hair and osteoporosis.
To the woman Jutei who died:The KBZ says Basho’s meaning is: “Even a trivial being such as yourself who has become small by living in a corner, you need not be so self-effacing. You too can become a splendid Buddha. In this Festival of Souls, I pray for the repose of your soul.”
At the home of his woman follower Sonome, the final poetry gathering Basho attended, his greeting verse to her: Basho said
Two weeks later, Basho died.