Lips Too Chilled (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Matsuo Bashō

This is quite a challenging review to write: not only is this the first post I have made about poetry (not sure why I’ve not mentioned it before), but it is also about a form of poetry I know very little about. In the UK, we learn briefly about haiku, perhaps in primary school, but it is not taught in much depth at all. Yet I know that Bashō has had an incredible influence on Japanese Literature, and when I saw that his work was included in the Penguin Little Black Classics series, I thought it was a good opportunity to discover more about a literary history and a poetry form of which I had limited knowledge. I found this little collection of poetry to be a fascinating and very readable insight into the haiku form, and I’m glad I took the time to read it.

I’m not sure how representative the haiku selected for this collection are of Bashō’s wider work, but I assume that whoever did the compiling wanted this to be a broad introduction to the general themes of Bashō. If this collection is any indication, it is clear that Bashō takes strong inspiration from the natural world around him: with a very small number of exceptions, all the haiku in this collection have some reference to the seasons, or the natural landscape of Japan. Each haiku is incredibly visual in its imagery, working to create a small snapshot of the world Bashō was viewing.

One thing I really enjoyed about this particular collection was the way in which it moved through the seasons. I couldn’t find an editor credited anywhere on the book, but I would be really interested to know how much of that was in the original collection these haiku are taken from, and how much was the compiling work of the editor. The collection moves easily from season to season, spending more time on some than others, beginning with spring and ending with spring. Reading the haiku in this way had the effect of each small poem becoming a contribution to a wider picture; in many ways it seemed to suggest that, although each of these haiku exist as complete poems in their own right, they are also part of a longer work comprising of the entire collection. Someone more familiar with Bashō’s work might be able to tell me how much of that is outside editing and how much of that is the poetry itself.

There was one haiku that really stood out to me: both in the fact that it was my favourite, but also that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection. This was actually the very first haiku in the collection, and it actually made me stop in my tracks. I am still thinking about it, days later, because it is incredible to me how such a short poem can imply so many different meanings.

In my new robe
this morning –
someone else.
(p.1)

I think this is such a great example of how complex, understated, and effective haiku can be. These three lines could imply any number of situations: a realisation of infidelity, or an identity crisis, or a very important visitor. There is a wider story here of which the reader is only seeing a snapshot. It’s intriguing and elusive in the very best way.

This collection definitely made me want to read more haiku, and to find out more about this form of poetry. I realised as I was reading that, much as I enjoyed the depictions of the landscape and nature, I didn’t connect with them in the same way I connected with that initial, more introspective haiku. Apparently I prefer poetry that is more character-focussed than nature-focussed. Yet I did enjoy reading this collection, and I think it is a good introduction for anyone wanting to read haiku.

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