Narrow Road To The Interior and Other Writings by Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill

narrowKnown also by the title Narrow Road to the North, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings collates several travelogues and hundreds of Haiku written by the Japanese master Basho.

All translated works depend on the skills and abilities of their translators and on the choices they are forced to make in trying to recreate something in another language and culture.  To that end I think Sam Hamill does a good job, or his tastes are more in line with mine i.e. three line haiku.

I have the paperback version of a similar work (the same travelogues) by Nobuyuki Yuasa that dates from the 1960’s and it presents the Haiku in four lines, this destroyed much of my enjoyment because they felt over explained to me – though the translations were perhaps more exact in their transmission of Basho’s ideas.

I of course, bring my own baggage to this book as both a reader and a Haiku poet having grown up in the West and been trained/ have learned, to write English Language Haiku.

In this collection you get:

  • Narrow Road to the Interior
  • Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones
  • The Knapsack Notebook
  • Sarashina Travelogue

Plus selected Haiku with their Romaji pronunciation.

Essentially you have poetic observations of travel, the people met on the journeyand hardships endured.  The travelogues are not long by modern standards, some sketches can be sampled on their own with out missing too much and some can be downright funny:

The road through the Nambu Plain visible in the distance, we stayed the night in Iwate, then trudged on past Cape Oguro and Mizu Island, both along the river. Beyond Narugo Hot Springs, we crossed Shitomae Barrier and entered Dewa Province. Almost no one comes this way, and the barrier guards were suspicious, slow, and thorough. Delayed, we climbed a steep mountain in falling dark, and took refuge in a guard shack. A heavy storm pounded the shack with wind and rain for three miserable days.

Eaten alive by

lice and fleas—now the horse

beside my pillow pees


from Narrow Road to the Interior


Now the Haiku above rhymes(which can unbalance a Haiku in English), which is a choice of this translator. The Romaji is nomi shirami / uma no bari suru /makuramoto so perhaps Hamill was trying to match the internal rhyming of the original.  Thankfully the rhyme is spare in most of the other translations.

What I enjoyed most about the collection was understanding the context that some of his poems were written in.  I find when reading even great poems of the Japanese masters they can come across a little flat and underwhelming because we don’t have the basic cultural backgrounding that most Japanese would have.


They say the ancient poet Sōgi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga. I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.


If I’d walked Walking-

stick Pass, I’d not have fallen

from my horse


from The Knapsack Notebook


Even though time and technology, country and culture separate us I found connection with these observations. The collection is a must for those wanting to attempt there own collection of Haibun and for anyone who studies Japanese form poetry in English.  For the general reader the prose observations might hold more interest or lead to an appreciation of the Haiku contained. 


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