Thoughts on The Narrow Road

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write a blog about for a couple days now.  The Daily Post suggestions are all well and good, but for some reason none of them were really working for me this week.  One of them asked something about what important thing you did in 2010.  Well, I got my Master’s.  End of story (sort of).  Not much to write about there that doesn’t devolve into whining about the fact that I didn’t make it into a PhD program this past year.

book cover from

So, instead I’m going to talk a little about some reading I’ve been doing this week.  I started re-reading Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, a book of poetry in the form of a zuihitsu, which was the main inspiration for the name of this blog.  The first time I read it, I borrowed it from the library.  The second time I read parts of it while writing a paper (and again borrowed it from the library.)  This time around I finally got around to buying both The Narrow Road to the Interior and another of her books Mosquito and Ant.  I also already owned her most recent poetry collection, Toxic Flora.  However, I went one step further and also bought two of the books that are the biggest inspirations for Kimiko Hahn in many of her collections, but most especially in The Narrow Road.  Those two books are The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (arguably the first zuihitsu, written sometime during the Heian Period of Japan) and the original The Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho (the famous Zen haiku poet).

book cover from

As I read through Basho’s The Narrow Road I am struck not only by the beauty of his particular mix of prose and haiku but also by the extraordinary tranquility and peace he portrays.  The Narrow Road recounts, in prose interspersed with haiku, Basho’s journey through Northern Japan.  As such, the book deals in part with the hardships and dangers of traveling by foot in Japan during a time when bandits and the like were still a very real threat.  Despite this, however, the most tangible sensation the book embodies is peacefulness, as well as a kind of aloneness that is not only accepted but possibly desirable.  I read haiku like:

To have blue irises

blooming on one’s feet:

walking-sandal straps

or, the commonly quoted opening lines:

The moon and sun are eternal travelers.  Even the years wander on.  A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home…

and I am find myself envious of the kind of peace and surety Basho seemed to possess.  The comfort he took in nature, the confidence he had that he was on the right path, going in the right direction, and for the right reasons, the balance he had found between the demands of everyday life and the spiritual demands of his soul.

I suspect Kimiko Hahn might have been a little envious of him as well.  She titled her book The Narrow Road to the Interior, and quotes Basho on a number of occasions, so that no one, least of all herself, can forget the legacy behind her – the mastery that Basho possessed not only over words but also over his own person.  And I think Hahn recognizes this and calls upon it but does not reach that level of peace and surety and balance herself.  For all that the title of the book calls to mind the tranquility of Basho’s haiku, Hahn’s poems are anything but tranquil.  They are riotous, sometimes angry, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes confused, sometimes joyous.  Often all of these things at once.  But peaceful, they are not.  On the other hand, however, while she appreciates the kind of peace Basho reached, Hahn seems more interested in the experience of life, in the honest, unvarnished experience of life – with all the chaos, pain, and mess that entails.  She may wish she could have peace, but I suspect she would not be willing to give up the experience of living in order to attain it.

(I would like to offer an example of Hahn’s poetry from The Narrow Road; however, they are too long to type up here and there are surprisingly few of her poems available online.  So I will have to simply suggest you go buy or borrow her books.)

Some links on these topics:

A little about the zuihitsu

随筆 ZUIHITSU: a genre of Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas that typically respond to the author’s surroundings. The name is derived from two Kanji meaning “to follow” and “brush”, and thus works of the genre should be considered not as traditionally planned literary pieces but rather as casual or random jottings down of thought by their authors.

The zuihitsu is sometimes considered a form of prose poetry.  Others think it is more akin to a journal of sorts.  It is fragmentary, sometimes spontaneous, and relies on such devices as juxtaposition, contradiction, and haiku-like imagism.  Zuihitsu writings are contemplative, philosophical, and usually a bit pessimistic.  Some common Japanese themes of focus are “the unpleasantness of society” and “the impermanence of the material world,” as well as the very traditional Japanese themes of nature, the seasons, duty and honor.

The zuihitsu first emerged in the Heian period, with Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, and was a diary (of sorts) of her musings about life in the Imperial Court, and the natures and faults of the aristocracy.  The zuihitsu gained popularity in the Edo period.  But my favorite zuihitsu is The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn, a contemporary Japanese-American poet who writes about (among other things) her ex-husband, her daughters, her love-affairs, her strong political views, her life as a teacher, etc.  Kimiko Hahn is one of my favorite poets, and while all of her poetry collections are amazing and passionate and thought-provoking, The Narrow Road to the Interior is by far my favorite.  It is that book which inspired by the name of this blog.  It seems a fitting name for such a random collection of thoughts and reflections as this blog will likely become.

(Some information was taken from the wikipedia page on zuihitsu writing.)