84. By My New Banana Plant: Matsuo Basho

Note: There really is a poem at the bottom of this. It is a haiku; very short, dwarfed by the path that leads to it.

The twenty-first century will be about sorting information.

I know this is no great revelation, but it struck me the other day as I was helping a student who knew way too much about Neil Armstrong and Sputnik to put it all together in a single paragraph meant to offer insight into the Cold War. When I suggested that chronological order might be the best, first step he looked at me with no comprehension of what the word meant. When I explained, he could not do it.

In our day, school was like climbing a ladder. We were not exposed to ideas and skills that were not age appropriate, and because schools and libraries were the only source of knowledge–and they help it very tight–knowledge of Indian slaughter and our Founding Fathers’ having slaves did not come out until we first learned the nobility of Manifest Destiny and that “all men are created equal.” In short, we learned when it was felt we were ready to learn. In that way, each rung of the ladder followed logically from the one before it. We were, by college, well rounded and held a common cultural currency.

Those Waldorf and Montessori and John Holt alternative school crowd had always been pounding away at the monopoly, and while 60s radicals get a lot of the blame for destroying common culture our public school system has been quite good at keeping them all at bay. In the end, we all still read Frost and Hemingway, although I am sad that “A Separate Peace” has dropped by the wayside.

Enter the internet. Actually, enter video in the classroom and lots of cable channels at home. Now, first graders learn the truth. Or, a version of the truth, but not necessarily the version of the truth that was given on the bottom rung thirty years ago. So, they come with too much information. My students cannot tell you anything about World War II, but they have amazing amounts of information about Hitler’s private sex life and how the SS was involved in the occult. Heck, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” seems more true and relevant to them than “Saving Private Ryan” or, god forbid, a Cornelius Ryan history.

But I digress. In no way do I mean to be negative, because without this new technology you would not be reading this. This new flurry of information is liberating, because now we can focus on creating meaning and not acquiring facts in a prescribed order.

To the parent of the student I mentioned above, I described his process not as climbing a ladder (old paradigm), but of being thrown into the deep end of a pool. He’s thrashing about, not knowing which way is up, and simply trying to get to the edge. At this point, pointing out his kicking form (i.e., grammar) will not be heard, much less be helpful.

Instead, like any survival expert, we need to advise calm. They need to calmly assess where they are and what steps will get them to the edge of the pool. From there, we can talk about swimming and form.

What does this have to do with Basho? Ah, this new way of thinking is how I got here:

1. I was having coffee this morning, and noticed two old Banana Yoshimoto novels that had been “all the rage” fifteen years ago.
2. Joking where her career went (she was such the hot commodity!), I searched Wikipedia for her and discovered that her father is a famous Japanese poet (and that she’s still very popular; it is me that is out of touch).
3. Thinking his work might be an appropriate for this site, I searched and found no text to post.
4. I did, though, find several mentions to Basho. He kept coming up.
5. My son is a huge fan of the “Magic Tree House”, and in “No. 37 of Dragons something on the Red Dawn” (his words) Jack and Annie meet Basho. About six months ago he shared the book with my wife and me, and we talked about poetry (my wife’s bailiwick) and Asian culture (mine).
6. I had a copy of Basho’s “Travel Sketches”, bought used and never read, which I loaned to my son. He had no interest, but Basho’s smiling face looked up at me as the book kicked around the house wanting to be reshelved.
7. Haiku is one of my least favorite poetry forms, as it is overused. The short length is a distraction from the fact that its restricted length is supposed to drive students to dig deeper with word choice. Instead, their haiku poems just suck.
8. All of this floated around in my head, so that when I could not find a good Yoshimoto poem I felt I could not, at this point, avoid Basho.

Do you see how this random interaction with facts and experiences led me back to Basho’s poetry? And, facing the poems, I found a few that tickled me. The circle of learning is complete, but did not take the form of a ladder.

As teachers, we often want to have students climb the ladder because we can see success clearly and offer support. Learning in the deep end is ugly, and, without measures, many would drown or leave scarred and never go into the pool again. Still, we are so much wiser than our students because we have lived longer and reflect. Time is not a commodity we can afford, yet we need to recreate our own processes as much as possible. They are coming in with much more information than we can imagine. Let’s harness that. Let us mimic the lessons that time gives in those ways we can.

Oh, and here’s the poem. If you want to know more about Basho or how this poem came to be, go here. Or, have students look at the poem with face value. Below the English translation is the Japanese pronunciation.

By My New Banana Plant
Matsuo Basho

by my new banana plant
the first sign of something I loathe
a miscanthus bud!

bashō uete
mazu nikumu ogi no
futaba kana


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