Haiku by Matsuo Bashō

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.

I’ve departed from my usual format to introduce one of my favorite haiku by Bashō (1644-1694). I began appreciating this poetic form in 1967 when, on a visit to Greenwich Village in New York City, a slender but pricey book of classic haiku masters called my name. It was years before I could appreciate my purchase.

Why this particular haiku and why, after reading several critiques of this poem, did none resonate with me? This poem expresses longing. To be deeply entranced in a moment but also desire to be more fully immersed is a profound feeling. You realize it’s fleeting, and you already miss it. This is what I tried to capture and evoke in my poem, Silver Cord (January 27, 2020). Looking up at a crescent moon and inhaling the delicious scent of lilacs on a balmy, late Spring evening can be a powerful moment of connection with God, the Earth, the cosmos, loved ones, and humanity. Who wouldn’t want more?

Bashō expressed that although he was in Kyoto, the cuckoo’s cry deeply moved him to want more of the Kyoto he was experiencing. The place, the sound, and everything else those meant to him, were only a taste of the surface. He wanted the depth of that experience. He knew it was transient. What genius to distill that so elegantly.

Bashō’s particular encounter becomes universal. This, despite the poem’s origin within a Zen, supposedly subjective and detached worldview. Kyoto becomes the Earth. The cuckoo’s song, a universal cry of belonging. One man’s unique experience transcends the boundaries of place and philosophical difference.

Yes, all that from three simple lines.

Haiku translated by Robert Hass, The Essential HAIKU: Versions of Bashō, Buson & Issa, HarperCollins, 1994

Photo by Timothy Price, OFF CENTER & NOT EVEN, https://offcenternoteven.com/ I encourage you to visit his wonderful blog featuring PHOTOGRAPHS, MUSIC AND WRITING ABOUT DAILY LIFE. It’s a fun place to engage.


Author: Mary Jo Malo

Christian, mother, grandmother, and poet of occasional worth.

51 thoughts on “Haiku by Matsuo Bashō”

    1. It fascinates me to think how many times Bashō must have heard a cuckoo, a familiar theme for him. Yet he was able to explain an epiphanic moment. One critique I read said that by writing ‘Kyoto’ twice, as well as the sound of the word, he was imitating the sound of the cuckoo. You are welcome, Tim.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Apparently Bashō suffered with loss and loneliness and set out on pilgrimage through Japan’s desolate places. He was tired of teaching and the literary scene but returned to them later in life. Thank you so much, Diana!

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Your analysis is terrific, Mary Jo. My first reaction to reading the haiku here on your blog, before reading what you wrote about it, was that the call of the cuckoo must have reminded Bashō of a moment from his past, that the call made him long for the Kyoto of a time gone by. In this reading, he could be in Kyoto and still long for Kyoto.

    My reading doesn’t conflict with yours, because our past informs and enriches our present. When he was younger, Bashō wouldn’t have longed for Kyoto in the same way, just as you weren’t ready to fully appreciate the little book of poems you bought in 1967.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Brad, I really appreciate your adding to the conversation. I agree with you that the past can enrich the present. Likewise, the present can color the future with either fear or hope. Bashō seems to evoke both, with the present as the paradoxical intersection of both joy and the fear of not experiencing enough. Perhaps it was his sense of running out of time. The cuckoo echoing his cry in both directions.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Such a beautiful expression! I think it speaks to all the pieces of a place we hold in our hearts. I can be somewhere familiar but long for the way I experienced it as a child. Our longings are deep and oh so wide. Love this❤️

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Oh, Mary Jo – this is the 4th time around for me. Thank you for an excellent post and an wonderful follow-up conversation. Don introduced me to Bashō several years ago. Bashō’s poetry continues to inspire me, but I recognize that I will never fully understand his thoughts. I am comfortable with that, because understanding poetry comes in iterations, evolving as we evolve. I have read that Bashō grew dissatisfied and lonely even though he was surrounded by students and was experiencing great success. Even when he practiced Zen meditation he did not attain the tranquility that he sought. It was only in his travels did he feel whole. Perhaps his search for completeness is what we feel, intuitively, when we read his poetry. “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Many many thanks for a wonderful post – sending hugs your way.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. How very well said, Kathy! Sometimes what looks simple is the most complex. I share your enjoyment of this post and the follow-up discussion. Mary Jo always welcomes us to her tranquil space.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Thank you again, Kathy, for adding your voice. Haiku always has a sense of wonder and mystery, sometimes humor, poignancy, but always thought provoking. I appreciate the time you and others have made with your thoughts and comments.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rebecca, I see that you did find this post. For me, these words and there meaning are quite profound because I know I would not think of them or achieve this state of understanding of the meaning of home or meaning from a home city. Why can’t I achieve it? Because my modern life is to fast and I am not able to be still and quiet long enough to reach such a state of deep though and understanding. A wonderful share Mary Jo.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Robbie, thank you kindly for taking time to read and comment. It’s amazing how the simplicity of haiku requires some sort of contemplation, whether we want it or not! 🙂


      2. I agree wholeheartedly, Robbie. Our world is experiencing exponential changes and advances in technology and communications. The messages that promote meditation are all around us, reminding us to pause just a little in our daily schedule and to disconnect from the internet. While they are well-meaning, the reality is there are many barriers to disengaging. The idea of Walden solitude is not available to us. When we are out in the woods, we are still connected. I have heard the ring of cell phones before they are answered. The more difficult aspect is your thought on how our mind tunes into our surroundings. One of our greatest gifts is our adaptability to circumstances. What I especially enjoy about Basho is his focus on moments – moments that he seems to hold in his mind for future reference. “Come, butterfly It’s late- We’ve miles to go together.” Perhaps that is the key – the miles, the companionship. Thank you, Robbie and Mary Jo, for a great conversation.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Graham, for your contribution! You support the idea mentioned by others, that of longing for the past. This Welsh word epitomizes the ineffable quality of the poem. The more I learn about the attributes and role of the cuckoo in haiku, the more I appreciate the art form and this poem in particular.

      Liked by 3 people

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