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Let children know
what Basho wrote
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form without written permission – however please inform the
author of how you are using the material.
Robbins, Jeff 1952 –
What Children Do: Young and Alive with Basho
Includes bibliography and Subject Guide for Child Studies.
1. Child development 2 Infancy 3 Small children
4. Adolescence 5. Japanese society 6. Japanese
literature 7. Haiku 8. Essays 9. Letters
10. Anthropology 11. Matsuo Basho (1644-94)
Cover illustration drawn in crayons by a third-grade boy, Sakamoto
Taiyo,in Iga, Basho’shometown, 2009
This volume is dedicated to the children and teens reading it
May you share Basho with your children and grandchildren
Father and Son
That my face
resembles my mother’s
Biology lessons from Cassatt and Basho.
1 Introduction 9
Translations and Commentaries 12
What Age Child is the Book For? 14
What are Haiku? 15
Lightness = Newness 16
Links of Childhoood and Adolescence 18
Children in Basho Prose 20
Letters about Children 21
Basho Speaks 22
2 The Poet of Children – Verses Only
3 Being a Baby
4 Age 3 to 7
5 Age 7 to 12
Prose and Letters
7 Blessings unto Kasane
8 Kids In His journals
9 In Basho’s Letters
10 Journey with Grandnephew
11 Japanese Literature before Basho
12 Western Literature till Shakespeare
Here to welcome children into this book. is a child-like bit of
nonsense drawn by Basho in 1687
Diagram of a Snore
From tiny mouth opening to huge roar in the middle,
then shaking away like crazy, and fading out to nothing,
this is how grown-up men snore.
So, kids, draw a picture of daddy’s snore and send it to us.
We can read thousands of pages through the history and literature of a hundred lands and find almost no mention of children – except for children starving or dying. One poet of long ago, however, paid
attention to the young of our species and recorded their living activity and speech in a hundred poems and dozens of prose passages and personal letters. This was Basho who lived in Japan from 1644 to 1694. Basho actually paid attention to both boys and girls, and their care-givers, and portrayed them with gentle appreciation and hope for the future. In his final year, three months before he died, he told his
When Basho applies his heart to what children do, he records his observations in poems even shorter than an tweet:
We see that boys in his time played “Ring the Doorbell and Run” – without doorbells.
She is a young girl in Basho’s time, or in school today. What does the verse “mean”? You tell me.
It belongs to you. Feel the activity of her sliding back the tray, the discomfort that takes away her appetite.
sho does not moralize, telling children what to do or how to think; he simply records what they (you) do.
Several books in English include some of his poetry and prose, but not the works on children and teens.
The Basho haiku in those books are mostly nature poems with no human in the scene, or they are sad
lonely verses about poverty, growing old, and dying. The poems in What Children Do are altogether different. They are full of children and teens and their caregivers, full of youth and lively activity and
humor and that special energy called “Hope.”
The lovely fragrance of plum blossoms opens the mind to the book (which, since this is Basho4Now, could be on a pad or e-reader) of romantic tales from long ago, and this girl reading for enjoyment. The haiku is a ‘sketch’ – just a few brush strokes and much blank space for each one of you to fill it from your own imagination. Explore it as you would explore a photo your friend tweets to you.
Basho portrays both the teenage girl upset in her search for love, and her mother who manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe her turmoil.
Let’s spread Basho’s vision of children and teens beyond Japanese Literature and Japanese culture, to kids all over the world/internet. Let the children of Asia and the world, from kindergarten to college,
know the poems about them by one of the greatest, and certainly the most child-friendly and girl-positive, poets the world has ever produced.
Whether you open the book at random or read the pages in order, consider each two-page spread, left and right pages, as a unit. If you look for connections among the various items
on each two-page spread, you will find them.
The two different voices are seen in the succession of stanzas in a linked verse:
This ordinary font is used for commentary written by me, or translated from Japanese commentaries.
My aim in translation is to give you exactly the information in the original, no more, no less – to reproduce Basho’s actual words in English with nothing – or very little -- from my mind or another mind to “help you understand.” Remember a Basho verse is like a riddle – no fun if too easy to understand. You need to search.
My efforts for your understanding have gone not into the translations but rather into the commentaries there on the same page as Basho’s original. You never need to look in the back of the book for the clues to Basho’s riddles; instead look immediately before or after the translation. Japanese also rely on commentaries on the same page to find Basho’shidden meanings. In my commentaries I have followed authoritative commentaries by Japanese Basho scholars, however from that base I fly freely through the worlds of knowledge -
children’s songs, folktales, Basho biography, biology, anthropology, child development -- whatever is fun and interesting, or sad but teresting, whatever will make Basho more entertaining, or more inspiring.
My purpose in the commentaries is three-fold:
Scholars may not approve of my “having fun with Basho”—they may not like the jokes and anecdotes and stream of consciousness wandering— but this trilogy is not Basho4scholars but rather Basho4Humanity, for ordinary people who like reading to be fun, enjoy learning about children and teens, and feel compassion and hope for them.
What Children Do is a collection of resources for children, parents, and teachers to learn about children; you may read to them, or copy poems (with or without commentaries) for children to read and discuss. Small children, whether they read themselves or are to read to, will enjoy the poems about them in Chapters Four to Seven. Small children at first may read only the Basho poems in this font.
Children can learn to read from this haiku and dozens of others in this volume; for best results, provide an eggplant seed and cup of soil to each student. Even if a word or two is unfamiliar to the young reader,
the structure is so simple they will easily learn. The poems can be an avenue into reading the more difficult language in the commentaries in ordinary print. By fourth or fifth grade, children should be able to read and
understand much more of the book. Children between 7 and 12 will get a kick out of Chapter named for them. Teenagers who do not enjoy reading books may prefer these seven-word poems that make a tweet seem long-winded. Those learning English as a second language, especially in Asia, will appreciate the simple
straightforward, non-intellectual commentaries about Asian topics such as rice-planting and long straight black hair. I will be very happy if students in Asia use the book to study English as well as learn
Basho’s Asian thought, and equally happy if students in the West learn Basho’s universal and youthful thought.
Basho, like many young people in every era, rejected the traditions important to his elders: he told Kyorai:
The disease of Oldness (which he also called “heaviness”) is the preference for old-fashioned literary words instead of the modern words young people use, the focus on heavy situations, disappointment and tragedy, dragging the reader down with allusions to the sad past or inevitable dying, the love for mono aware, the
pathos of all things and all people passing away, how sad it is. Basho said “Enough!” of that old past. Look rather at Now, actually focusing on what a child does in good health and ordinary circumstances -- crawling, crying, playing, sleeping, working, studying, fooling around, waiting, desiring. Sometimes he called it
“Lightness,” and sometimes “Newness.”
The verse overflows with life and activity: boy standing tall and watching, whale breeching, waves surging, boy skillfully blowing into shell so sound travels throughout the village, adults running to their boats. The sound from the shell is the life-force of this child. The verse is “Light” because it has no tragedy in it, no grief
(except to the whale), just a direct appreciation of a living child, of his life-breath.
Most of the verses in this book contain an actual child or children; the few that do not are characterized by their fundemental simplicity, and will amuse children.
Mochi rice cakes are eaten during the New Year’s season which in Japan lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however if dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it. Usually we hear the lovely song of the bush warbler, but Basho notices something else about the bird. Scholar Kon Eizo says this verse is a “crystallization” of Lightness; it gives a definite form to Basho’s ideal: nothing poetic or philosophic.
romantic or tragic, simply life as is, with a touch of humor, to be interesting. Small children will like any verse with pee or poop in it, so this should be a favorite.
In a letter to two followers in 1690, Basho described Lightness as, neither heavy nor spinning about
A poem of Lightness does not sink down with literary weight; it goes somewhere, instead of spinning about aimlessly. It is full of life and Hope, not sadness or regret. Haruo Shirane says that Basho’s Lightness consists of “youthful playfulness, spontaneity, naturalness, and fresh perspective…” Those who love Western poetry may find Basho’s poems of Lightness so simple and childlike, so lightweight, they feel like nothing – yet they are alive and life-giving – so they please the young and childlike:
Haiku are single moments of experience
A small child wishing for a playmate speaks to the butterfly before her eyes. Maria Montessori says that between age 3 and 6, the small child’s “mind compels her to sort through, order, and make sense of the information she unconsciously absorbed.”
In Japanese each haiku has 17 on, or sound-units – however this word has been mistranslated to “syllables.” They are closer to half-syllables. The word ramen, noodles, has two syllables, yet these contain four sound-units: ra-a me-n. Japanese sound units are very brief, and 17 of them is only room for about seven words plus two or three particles for grammar. It is usually easy and natural to translate the seven words of a Japanese haiku (or three-line stanza of linked verse) to about seven English words plus particles – and then the syllables come to about eleven. More important than the count of syllables, however, is the count of beat. The 5-7-5 sounds-units of a Japanese have a 3-4-3 pattern of spoken beats, plus there are silent pauses in the first and third segments, so the rhythm because four-four-four,
Although Basho is known as a haiku poet, haiku were only a small part of his poetry; his major work was renku, or linked verses composed by a team of poets, each poet writing one stanza connecting in one way or another to the stanza before. Although quite a few of his haiku explore the mind of a child, in renku we discover the depths of search for what children do, and how they (you) perceive the world.
Most of the stanza-pairs in this book are a first stanza by another poet, then Basho’s stanza which fulfills the vision of the first stanza. Basho said the second stanza
stands out to the eyes, not from our appreciation for this image,
but rather from the connection to the previous stanza
through the heart with Newness.”
Let us explore what he means:
At the home-and-shop of a cloth dyer we see a perfectly woven expanse of fabric dyed indigo blue with no other colors, no designs, no blemishes anywhere. The baby crawls about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds. sometimes scooting about on his bottom. the “dirt” on “that place” may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the house, or – especially in this house – the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of these could be there on the derriere.
I love the contrast between immaculate blue fabric spreading over the yard and the haphazard collection of whatnot on this soft chubby tush. Basho actually wrote a poem about a baby’s rear end. To truly appreciate this verse, to ‘get’ the link to the blue fabric verse, we need a mind as bizarre and fun-loving as his.
He shows us the mind of small children, age 7 to 12:
“Granddaddy’s ball sack,” the egg sack of the praying mantis which the mother mantis attaches to brushwood, has a shriveled appearance which to a child might look like an old man’s testicles so scrawny and miserable that the highly imaginative kids call it bimbou gami, the name of that skinny, dirty, old-man-spirit who brings people hardship and misery.
As children reach adolerscence, their minds and hearts become more complex:
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or body movement, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Having growing up together with her sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it. Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town.
If Basho’s haiku are snapshots of reality, then his prose is the video. The most well-known child in Basho prose is the abandoned two-year old he encounters in Chapter Three, however his compassionate
account of this incident has been misunderstood to give Basho the reputation for being “that horrid man who left the child to die.” I try to repair the damage done.
Basho portrays his interaction, in 1688, with an eleven year old boy
Through Basho’s lively active prose, we meet this kid dealing with an eccentric old geezer.
Eleven year olds, however, grow up to encounter inner urges more compelling than “a snack at the tea-house”
Yes, they do. If this passage speaks to the heart of teenagers today dealing with those adolescent urges, Basho would be very pleased.
Authors with no knowledge at all of Basho’s letters – the repositories of his consciousness -- claim that he was “impersonal” and “detached.” (R 10-11) The many sections of deeply personal and human-involved
passages in his letters prove how misguided these authors are. The letters in this book reveal Basho’s devotion to children, his concern for their well-being.
We met the infant Takesuke , and learnmore about him and papa Kyokusui
Uko’s daughter Sai appears in two Basho letters and possibly in two haiku by her mom
We meet the granddaughter of Basho’s childhood friend Ensui in two letters, and possibly one haiku,
The most remarkable glimpses of children in Basho’s letters are those of his grandnephew Jirobei and grandnieces Masa and Ofu. He made the choice to take 15 year old Jirobei with him on his journey west in
1694. Basho’s observations of Jirobei adapting to the rigors of traveling 25 to 30 miles a day, much of this on foot, are only a dozen sentences in seven letters on pages 174-9, but they offer considerable insights into male adolescent development. Basho writes of Jirobei:
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin initiated the study of child development with detailed systematic observations of his own children, but 200 years before Darwin, Basho’s undetailed and nonsystematic
observations of children and teens should be recognized as among the earliest portraits of young people in world literature, a forerunner of anthropological studies of children and adolescents, and furthermore a call for recognition of children as whole human beings.
The “heart’s immediacy” is the province of small children; as we grow up, we discover ways to interfere with that spontaneity. When we try to write a poem, all that mental baggage comes to mind. Basho searches for ways to avoid “too much making” and return to the heart untainted by adult words, thoughts, considerations, excuses, etc.
Basho observed that as people grew older, they lost their childhood innocence and could no longer could appreciate Lightness. He said,
Adults are so full of their skill, they can never be simple and Light; this, according to Basho, is their “disease.” The child is three feet tall (not having three feet, which would be weird). To “get” a poem can
be to read, write, or interpret it. Basho is saying children have a wisdom that enables them to see the haiku moment and ‘get it.’ Instead of teaching them Basho, we should learn Basho from them.
Basho spoke to his follower Doho words that children may appreciate
The “Energy” here is ki, or qi, the “universal energy” of martial or healing arts, or as George Lucas called it “the Force.” Children who play a musical instrument, or surf the waves , or fly a kite, or practice a martial art, may best understand Basho’s meaning. To see how Basho himself rode the Energy in poetry, consider these two stanzas from the first of 300 sequences in which Basho participated. The year is 1666 and Basho is about 22. The first poet offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance, and Basho takes that feeling into the world of children:
The movement of the dancer’s hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki. The hand rides the Energy downward, as a surfer stays on the
board even as the board drops and rises. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but is obedient to that universal Energy ashowas as far as I can tell, the only male author in world literature
who focuses on ordinary women and children in ordinary life, these works are a legacy belonging to women and children everywhere.