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Japanese poet Matsuo Munefusa — better known as Basho — was born into a low-ranking but respected Samurai family, and as a young man he served as samurai to a local feudal lord, Todo Yoshitada. After his master’s death, however, he rejected tradition and much of civilization and instead became a wandering poet. “I’m not really the kind”, he wrote, “who is so completely enamored of solitude that he must hide every trace of himself away in the mountains and wilds. It’s just that, troubled by frequent illness and weary of dealing with people, I’ve come to dislike society”. In 1687 he settled in a quiet section of Tokyo, where he worked at a waterworks, raised his orphaned nephew Toin, and competed in poetry contests, usually winning. He eventually moved into a hut made of banana leaves (basho), from which he took his pseudonym. He studied Chinese poetry, and rarely went anywhere without his copy of Chinese Taoist Zhuangzi’s writings.
He is best known for his development of haiku, three-line poems usually reflecting on nature and written with five syllables in the first and last line, and seven syllables in the middle line (though these counts are often lost as Basho’s work is translated to English). Contrary to popular misconception, Basho did not invent the haiku form. It evolved from a 31-syllable Japanese style of poetry called tanka, which typically includes the poet’s sentiments to a greater extent than the more observational haiku. Basho also wrote renga in collaboration with other local poets, and wrote haibun, brief but breathtaking travelogues of his frequent journeys.
Another year is gone
a travel hat on my head
straw sandals on my feet.
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