First published online in a slightly different version at David Lanoue’s site, Haiku of Kobayashi Issa, on 11 July 2006. For my review of the Issa book by Matthew Gollub, see also Two Books for Children. See also my poem “Flowers on the Roof of Hell.”
hito kitara kawazu to nare yo hiyashi uri
turn to frogs!
If people should come near.
(translation by Matthew Gollub, from Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. New York: Lee & Low, 1998, p. 35)
When describing the great Japanese masters of haiku, the traits that always arise to distinguish Issa are his folksy and empathetic style and a penchant for what Lewis Mackenzie called “a cheerful and endearing interest in the smallest matters of daily life” (The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1957, 1984, p. 7). Indeed, the attitude of Issa’s poems on snails, fleas, sparrows, and crickets, as well as his careless way of life, have made him surely the most endearing poet in the history of Japan. Yet he wrote with such cheer despite great hardship and tragedy: His mother died when he was three, his stepmother despised him and made him work in the fields instead of going to school, he was forced to leave home at fourteen, he lived a life of much poverty, and though he later married and found some literary success as a haiku poet, his children died very young, as did one of his wives. Yet he wrote 20,000 haiku in his lifetime (1763–1828), and though they are not without sadness and other emotions, he is best remembered for his indomitable spirit of joy. Issa is easy to love.
I don’t recall when I first learned of Issa, but I do know I read Lewis Mackenzie’s book on the poet in 1988, and for me Issa has been a poetic touchstone for empathy and an appreciation of the small ever since. Mackenzie admits that “in Issa’s verse there is much that is mediocre and monotonous” (p. 3), but then it is best to judge a poet by his or her finest work, not the poorest, and it is this finest work for which I deeply admire and remember Issa. Perhaps one of his most unforgettable poems is this one:
tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew—
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
(translation by Lewis Mackenzie, p. 5)
Listen to the bubbling, tumbling sounds in Japanese. It somehow sounds happy! Yet we know this poem was written after the third death of his very young children, and in it we feel both the lament of loss (that it’s a transient world of dew) and yet the pull of that cheerful spirit. He is still able to find beauty in the world despite—or maybe even because of—its transience.
Later, Issa wrote the following three poems that relate to dew. Again, notice the frequent repetition of Japanese sounds in these and many other poems he wrote—an aural characteristic that contributes to the appeal of his verses, both for children and adults. (All unattributed translations are by David Lanoue throughout this essay.)
tsuyu no tama hitotsu hitotsu ni furusato ari
in beads of dew
one by one my home
tada tanome tanome to tsuyu no kobore keri
simply trust! trust!
yoi yo ja to tsuyu ga zanburi zanburi kana
a good world?
Here is another poem that typifies Issa’s identification with small things around him, like the sympathetic “cool melons” poem quoted at the beginning:
yase-gaeru makeru na issa kore ni ari
scrawny frog, hang tough!
He sees the vulnerability of the frog, and offers himself as protection and support, yet really Issa himself is that frog. Mackenzie states that “his strength and simplicity had brought something back to poetry lacking almost since Bashō’s death” (p. 39), and we see this unshakable spirit borne out over and over again in his deceptively simple poems.
The following are four more poems that show Issa’s identification with his surroundings, the first, third, and fourth of which are among his most famous haiku:
yare utsu na hae ga te wo suri ashi wo suru
don’t swat the fly!
saki no yo no ore ga itoko ka kankodori
In another world
Was I perhaps your cousin
(translation by Lewis Mackenzie, p. 79)
negaeri wo suru zo soko noke kirigirisu
I’m going to turn now—
Move over, Cricket!
(translation by Lewis Mackenzie, p. 91; Lanoue translates kirigirisu as “katydid”)
suzume no ko soko noke soko noke o-uma ga tōru
Sir Horse passes
As a new father myself, I now relate more intimately to many of Issa’s poems about his children, such as the following two haiku, the second of which is one of my most favourite of all Japanese haiku for how it captures the joy of childhood wonder:
niwa no chō ko ga haeba tobi haeba tobu
the child crawls, it flies
crawls, it flies . . .
yuki tokete mura ippai no kodomo kana
the village brimming over . . .
Mackenzie’s translation is as follows (p. 68):
The snow thaws—
And suddenly the whole village
Is full of children!
Here are three additional favourites, of many poems I could offer that are easy to appreciate and adore:
suzume ko mo ume ni kuchi aku nebutsu kana
The little sparrows
They open their mouths at the plum tree—
This too is worship.
(translation by Lewis Mackenzie, p. 55)
uguisu ya doroashi nuguu ume no hana
a nightingale wipes
his muddy feet . . .
yo no naka wa jigoku no ue no hanami kana
in this world
over hell . . . +
viewing spring blossoms
Perhaps Issa’s hard life and his attitude towards it can be summed up by the preceding poem, a recognition of hell and heaven, of pain and delight. However, let me close this appreciation of Issa and his endearing poems with the following verse that takes, perhaps oddly for him, a more neutral stance:
yūzen to shite yama wo miru kawazu kana
Composedly, he sits,
Contemplating the mountains—
The worthy frog!
(translation by Lewis Mackenzie, p. 100)
We have much to learn from Issa, that little frog, composed and worthy as he so often was.