Matsuo Bashō, "The temple bell stops..."

...I spend considerable time trying to explain my relevance, even when talking about my own life.

Matsuo Bashō, "The temple bell stops..."

Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry does not avoid big emotions about big things. Life, the end of the world, the possibility of God, etc. I just finished a short memoir of his, in which he tells a story of being accidentally separated from his mother when he was a child (1). He describes what is, to be sure, a dangerous situation. Still, his declaring it “my first experience of death”—he was lost for a time in the city, not shipwrecked in the Arctic—feels peculiar to his approach.

I’m fascinated by his reflections because I’m trying to learn how to write about my own life. He writes with intensity, not at all worrying about how his audience will react to his language. —I realize that I’m the one who wants to read his memoir.— Two recent posts about how I learned (or didn’t learn) in high school stand out to me: Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” & Yosa Buson, “The morning breeze…”. In both, I spend considerable time trying to explain my relevance, even when talking about my own life.

Also striking is how Tranströmer describes his childhood productivity. What follows sounds like an apt comment on a lot of my adult work:

“Grandfather brought home rolls of brown paper of the sort then used in all the grocery shops, and I filled the sheets with illustrated stories. I had, to be sure, taught myself to write at the age of five. But it was too slow a process. My imagination needed some speedier means of expression. I didn’t even have enough patience to draw properly. I developed a kind of shorthand sketching method with figures in violent movement, breakneck drama yet no details. Cartoon strips consumed only by myself.” (2)

The young Tranströmer sees opportunity in the rolls of brown paper. He fills them with anything: “I didn’t even have enough patience to draw properly.” I can relate to this. I have plenty of incomprehensible scribbles scattered across the Internet which came from the fear of losing an opportunity. Surely an adult is better than a 5 year old! —No, not really. I’m better at hiding, and sometimes not even that.—

“Cartoon strips consumed only by myself.” What happens in bad, unedited writing is that echoes bounce off other echoes. I didn’t quite realize I was in a world with others who were listening. I was just verbally “vibing,” and not always in a good way.


There is a positive form of echoes upon echoes. Consider this haiku by Bashō:

“The temple bell stops…” 
Matsuo Bashō (trans. Robert Bly)

The temple bell stops—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

Now I confess this does not necessarily speak to a positive experience. A particularly obnoxious church bell rings near my home. It is not always a small annoyance; it can remind me to what I’m bound, to limits more cruel than useful.

But the temple bell can speak the desire to show reverence to what’s here and now. Not just the pure or the beautiful, but the earthly. A mass of flowers, some prettier than others, together a delight.

You’re letting yourself be surrounded. By what, exactly? It’s not only natural beauty or a sense of the sacred. It’s the fullness of what’s on this earth, which strangely enough depends on you and your openness. Bashō indicates this through mixing the senses: “the sound… coming / out of the flowers.” Sound takes the place of sight and smell, at the least.

Can Bashō’s echoing flowers be seen in a similar light as Tranströmer’s cartoon strip scribbles?


On the one hand, no. The “temple bell” points to religious practice and searching. Knowing a tradition. Then transcending that tradition by seeing it reflected in the natural world. What could childish drawings have to do with that?

Wildflowers  at Uppark House Garden, Petersfield
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

On the other hand, my adult desire to write is very much tied to childish drawings. The product doesn’t matter. There’s something that can be done, something that speaks to the excitement of simply being active. Maybe others will get excited and scribble too, and we’ll try to explain our incomprehensible cartoons to each other.

We’re not relevant because we’re accomplished. If we’re accomplished, it’s because we’re treated as relevant. This leads back to Bashō’s spiritual sentiment. The temple bell was found in the flowers. Lots of people hold them to be two separate things, not even realizing what might happen to their own spirit as a result. Sure, someone could be virtuous, heroic, or wise by imagining themselves able to transcend this world completely. Some amazing art has resulted from perspectives totally detached from reality.

Bashō’s own poetry, though, comes from trying to see the obvious. He couldn’t say a temple bell rang and he saw some flowers, because that wasn’t the experience. Bad scribbles, whether from children or adults, have a certain honesty. They reveal the bell to be a marker of sound, the flowers to be playful.


(1) Tomas Tranströmer, "Memories Look at Me: A Memoir" in For the Living and the Dead. Translated by Robin Fulton. New York: Ecco Paperback/Harper Collins, 1995. 25-45.

(2) ibid, 27.