Harrison Middleton University

Poetry for A New Year

Poetry for A New Year

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


December 31, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

It is the eve of a new year. That seems hopeful considering the struggles of 2020 and 2021. What better way, then, to ring in the new year than with verse dedicated to the beauty and honesty of winter? Before the poems, however, is a little background about the poet, Matsuo Bashō, who was born Matsuo Munefusa. Bashō’s name is taken from a banana (bashō) tree that he planted in his garden. He writes:

“The leaves of the bashō tree are large enough to cover a harp. When they are wind-broken, they remind me of the injured tail of a phoenix, and when they are torn, they remind me of a green fan ripped by the wind. The tree does bear flowers, but unlike other flowers, there is nothing gay about them. The big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness…I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it.”

To me, this describes Bashō’s beginnings very well. He sees the tree’s worth, though it is not used in the sense that we often apply to ideas of utility. Rather, the nature of the bashō tree can be one of beauty, of art, of growth, and longevity. This is also how I see Bashō’s poetry. He focuses on images of great familiarity, things that he studies, embraces and understands. For this reason, he is able to communicate an essence into words. This seems like a simple task, but is in fact, very difficult. For example, after Basho’s mother died in 1683, a new house was built for him. He wrote:
Overhearing the hail,
my old self sits again
in the new house,
like an overgrown oak.

I sense grief, but also a new and surprising being who contemplates grief. After this, Bashō spent many years traveling as described in some of his writings. In one journal, he writes that he does not intend to keep a factual record, but “a random collection of what I have seen on the road, views somehow remaining in my heart” and that these are just the “intoxicated and rambling talk of dreaming.” The journey deepens Bashō’s experiences and feelings. He notes that at times he feels confident, weak, sad, joyous, contemplative, etc. Not only does he notice his feelings, he records them, which is an important element of understanding emotion. In one example, he witnesses the most beautiful cherry trees, but finds that he cannot write a single line of poetry about them. This sense of imminent beauty and his lack of language makes Bashō question his profession and skill. While he cannot explain his failure, he finally says that the presence of such beauty demonstrates the human’s “poverty of mind,” something he actively works against.

These journeys, then, express the human condition in concert with nature. I pulled a few excerpts from his various Travel Sketches, as translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. As we begin our journey into the new year, it is worthwhile to reflect on the old, on this moment and this day, as well as contemplate our future goals. May 2022 bring much contemplation, friendship, and joy. Please be well!

All the livelong day
a lark has sung in the air,
yet he seems to have had
not quite his fill.

Confined to my house
by winter weather,
I snuggled as before
against an old pillar.

For his morning tea
a priest sits down
in utter silence –
confronted by chrysanthemums.

A white narcissus
and a white paper screen
illuminate each other
in this quiet room.

The moment you open
your mouth to speak,
the autumn wind stirs
and chills your lips.

Half-asleep on horseback
I saw as if in a dream
A distant moon and a line of smoke
for the morning tea.

In utter darkness
of a moonless night,
A powerful wind embraces
the ancient cedar trees.

In the sun
of a cold winter day,
my shadow had frozen stiff
on horseback.

Deep as the snow is,
let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall,
Viewing the white landscape.

Coming home at last
At the end of the year,
I wept to find
My old umbilical cord.

On the second at least
I will get up early
to give welcome
to the floral spring.

To talk casually
about an iris flower
is one of the pleasures
of the wandering journey.

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1 thought on “Poetry for A New Year”

  1. It seems like we have an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth that we get to live through each year like some kind of renewing ritual. The feeling of getting a fresh start is probably a part of it, but I also think it has a lot to do with feeling forgiveness for the areas where we feel like we have fallen short as well as deciding when we have went far enough in the grieving process (like what you described here) and allowing ourselves to move on in life.

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