Three Bashō Haibun

by Franz Wright


I am acquainted with a Kyoto monk by the name of Unchiku who once did a painting. Maybe it was a self-portrait. I don’t know. It showed a monk with his face turned away. He asked me if I would write something on it, so I set down these words: You are more than sixty years old, and I am almost fifty. We are both shadows in a dream, the same dream, maybe. Then as if talking in my sleep, I added my poem:

Turn and look back at me

I am so lonely

cold fall night


As the freezing rain of early winter began falling desolately over everything, I sought warmth and company at a roadside inn. Allowed to dry my soaked clothes at the fire, I was further comforted for a time by the innkeeper who tactfully listened to me relate some of the troubles I met with on the road. Suddenly it was evening. I sat down under a lamp, taking great care with them as I produced my ink and brushes, and began to write. Recognizing my work, he solemnly requested that I consider composing a poem in honor of our one brief encounter in this world:

At an inn I am asked for identification

traveler let that be my name

the first winter rain


Wherever I travel, wherever I happen to find myself, I am not from there. In fact, the whole world is just such a place to me. I have spent the past six or seven months on the road, a nocturnal traveler who has survived, so far, many devastating illnesses as I made my way onward. I found the more alien I came to see myself, the more I missed beloved faces, lifelong friends and aging students, until my steps were drawn irresistibly back toward the outskirts of Edo. And sure enough, day after day they appeared, coming to sit in the small hut of a poor man and talk to me. I had nothing to offer in return except my poem.

I am still alive but why

silvery grass that withers

at the touch of the snow


From F: Poem, New York: Knopf, 2013, pages 76–78. These three haibun translations were also previously published (with a dedication to Sam Hamill) in Notes from the Gean 3:3, December 2011 (see also archived copy at The Haiku Foundation). There you can also read a lengthy introductory comment by Franz Wright. With these haibun, I first thought that Franz Wright had adopted Bashō’s voice to present three presumably imagined experiences and haiku to go with them. However, these are indeed translations. The last section of David Landis Barnhill’s Basho’s Journey (State University of New York Press, 2005) collects miscellaneous haibun, and there the first of Wright’s three translations is called “On a Portrait of Unchiku” (pages 128–129). The second one is “Early Winter Shower at Shimada” (page 133), and the third one is “Withered Miscanthus in Snow” (pages 133–134). I wonder why Wright chose these particular haibun to translate. And did he translate any others? +