Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:
Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.
There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.
This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.
I think of his poem about a ruined castle:
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.
Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.
How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.
The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.