Vol. 10, No. 17, Summer 2013
Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2013
Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011
Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Issa's Best: A Translator's Selection of Master Haiku by Issa Kobayashi; English translation by David G. Lanoue; HaikuGuy.com; 2012; ISBN 13-978-0-98590003-6-6.
(From the Introduction to Issa’s Best: A Translator’s Selection of Master Haiku by David G. Lanoue)
The poet we know today as Issa was born on the fifth day of Fifth Month of 1763 (June 15 on the Western calendar) in Kashiwabara, a small village in the highlands of Shinano Province, today’s Nagano Prefecture. His family name was Kobayashi; his given name, Yatarô. His father was a well-to-do farmer who owned enough land that the family’s economic status, in the context of time and place, was closer to middle class than peasant. Yatarô’s mother must have been warm and loving; he never recovered emotionally from her dying when he was three years old. He writes about her 47 years later, at age 50:
my dead mother—
every time I see the ocean
His mother’s replacement in the household, Satsu, soon gave birth to a son of her own, and treated young Yatarô cruelly, according to the latter’s journal accounts, years later. For maternal love, he turned to his grandmother, but her death in 1776, when he was fourteen, was a second heart-crushing loss. The hostility directed at him by his stepmother Satsu disrupted domestic tranquility so much, Yatarô was sent away by his father to Edo, today’s Tokyo, a year later. He was 15 years old in the Japanese age-reckoning system, according to which a person gains a year of age with each New Year’s Day after birth. By Western standards, he was only thirteen. The historical record is silent on what type of servile or manual labor he found in Edo.
He joined the hordes of migrant workers from outlying provinces who swarmed every year into Edo to provide that city with a good portion of its labor force, surfacing in 1787 as a member of a haiku school led by Chikua: the Nirokuan. He eventually adopted the penname of Issa, “One Tea” or, more idiomatically, “Cup-of-Tea.” The emotionally wounded, unwanted stepchild of the mountains had found poetry, or perhaps poetry had found him. Either way, he decided to dedicate his life to the way of haiku or, as it was called in Issa’s day, haikai.
At age 29, inspired by the example set by the first great haiku master, Matsuo Bashô (1644-94), Issa took to the road on the first of a series of haiku-writing journeys. He describes himself in this period: “Rambling to the west, wandering to the east, there is a madman who never stays in one place. In the morning, he eats breakfast in Kazusa; by evening, he finds lodging in Musashi. Helpless as a white wave, apt to vanish like a bubble in froth—he is named Priest Issa.”
“Priest Issa” visited his home village of Kashiwabara in Third Month of 1801, in time to find his father sick and dying. He tended to his father and vowed to him that he would stop wandering and return to live in the family homestead. According to Issa’s poetic diary that covers this episode, The Journal of My Father’s Last Days (Chichi no Shûen Nikki), stepmother Satsu and half brother Senroku rejected the death wish of their husband and father, respectively, and refused to allow Issa’s return, thus setting off a long and bitter legal struggle. Finally, in autumn of 1813, the village headman decided that the Kobayashi house would be partitioned and that Issa would be permitted to live in one side of it. With great joy the poet moved in after 36 years of exile, and, two years later, married a local woman, Kiku. They proceeded to start a family of their own.
Much ink has been spilled about the ensuing tragedies that marred Issa’s homecoming joy: four of his children dying, one by one, from diseases such as smallpox and, in one case, accidental suffocation. Especially devastating to the poet was the death of little Sato, his precious daughter, in 1819—a loss recounted in his journal My Spring (Oraga haru). Her death inspired one of his most poignant and famous verses:
is a dewdrop world
His wife Kiku’s death in 1823 was another awful blow, but critics of Issa should beware of letting these family tragedies become the dominant theme when writing about him and his poetry. While he certainly mourns in his haiku, in times of mourning, he also laughs in times of laughter, gasps in moments of surprise...and so on. From his mid-twenties on, he was a prolific, dedicated writer committed to discovering the meaning of all of his moods—happy, sad, silly, reflective—in haiku. The image of him as a poet weighed down by “the sorrow of life” (to translate the title of one Japanese book about him) is grossly inaccurate.
Just as significant as the sorrows of this period of his maturity is the fact that his reputation as a teacher of haiku was spreading far and wide. Issa enjoyed great celebrity in his home province of Shinano, as well as in Edo and surrounding areas, where he visited from time to time. The period 1812 to 1824 represents the peak years of his poetry, but what kind of poetry was it?
He is known for four characteristics for which he was unrivaled by the other great figures of haiku tradition. The first is his warm, loving connection with living things, especially animals but also including humans and plants. As a Buddhist artist brimming with compassion and respect for his fellow beings, however small, Issa likes to address his nonhuman colleagues directly—a thing that prompts many critics to label him as a poet of “personification” or “anthropomorphism.”
does the red dawn
In light of his Buddhist faith, however, he is not projecting “human” attributes on the snail—a fellow traveler on the road of existence. For Issa, even a snail can have a poet’s heart that delights in the colors of the morning sky.
A second characteristic is his comedy. Issa perceives the ironic, the off-kilter and the absurd—and is prone to express such perceptions with the perfect timing of a master joke teller in his one-breath poetry. However, his comic approach should not be misunderstood as flippant or intellectually shallow. He rejects the tragic gesture of clinging to things, people, even to his own happiness—all of which must, inevitably, fade away. Instead, he approaches the universe with the comic gesture of not grasping: of letting go and surrendering to it with good humor.
the year’s first rain—
my grass roof’s
Though he often mentions his own poverty, referring to his home as a hermit’s hut or a “Trash House” (kuzu ya), Issa accepts his situation, and all the rain that comes leaking in on New Year’s Day. Some might worry or even weep in such circumstances; Issa chooses acceptance...and laughter.
A third characteristic of Issa is how he transforms the personal into art. He doesn’t hesitate to tell the story of his life in his haiku. I’ve already mentioned his poems of mourning for lost loved ones that some readers and critics tend to overemphasize. His complete works include verses that relate all sorts of situations and moods in highly personal, intimately autobiographical statements.
in hazy night
stepping into water...
losing my way
It was a hazy night of spring in 1795. In the uncertain, dreamlike light, Issa stepped off a path into water. We know from his travel journal that he was attempting to visit, that night, a friend and Buddhist priest, Sarai, who, he discovered, had been dead for several years. After being told of his friend’s death, Issa begged Sarai’s replacement at the temple for a night’s stay, but was refused. He had come over 300 ri (1,178 kilometers), “without a soul to lean on, going over the fields and the yards...” In light of this biographical context, the phrase in the haiku, “losing my way,” has deep, troubling resonance.
A fourth characteristic at which Issa surpasses all competition among masters of haiku is his propensity for defending the underdog, or at times, the under-frog.
scrawny frog, hang tough!
Issa’s vision is democratic and often iconoclastic. His verses are filled with images of figures of authority in silly postures (a high priest of a temple pooping in a field) and reflections on the meaninglessness of human hierarchy and social class (a war lord or “daimyo” forced to dismount from his horse because of the higher power of...cherry blossoms!). This is why Issa is so loved by Japanese people. Bashô and Buson are perceived as revered masters of haiku sitting on high seats of honor; Issa stands shoulder-to-shoulder with common folk, shunning and lampooning authority and pretense.
looks like the boss
in the seat of honor...
As far as his biography goes, there are only a few more key facts that the reader should know. In 1824, at age 62, he married for a second time, briefly, but divorced within three months. In 1826, he married his third wife, Yao. In 1827, his house burned down in a fire that swept through Kashiwabara village. He and his wife moved into a small, musty grain barn—a structure that still stands today—where he died on the 19th day of Eleventh Month of the Tenth Year of the Bunsei Era, the equivalent Western date being January 5, 1828.
In the mid-19th century, in 1851, Issa’s poetic diary of 1819, Oraga haru, was published with two postscripts that reveal how he was perceived by his countrymen 24 years after his death. In the first postscript, Seian Saiba mentions his humor but hastens to add that “sarcasm is not the main object of this priest; his writing also contains loneliness, laughter, and sadness; and it expresses human feeling, worldly conditions, and transience.” The author of the second postscript, Hyôkai Shisanjin, agrees: “Though it has a bit of jest in it, [Issa’s poetry] visits well the way of Buddhism ... boldly not loathing the dust of this world and filled with human feeling.” Half-hidden within his haiku jokes are profound and sincere Buddhist lessons about worldly conditions and the transience of things. This is how the generation after him viewed his poetry.
In the more secular 20th century, the spiritual aspect of Issa’s writing gradually faded from the attention of critics, who chose instead to dwell on biographical details, especially those details, as I have mentioned, having to do with suffering and loss. There were exceptions, of course: in 1969 Murata Shôcho published a study of Issa in connection to Pure Land Buddhism, Haikai-ji Issa no geijutsu (The Art of Haiku Temple Issa), a title derived from the verse:
Yatarô is reborn...
into Haiku Temple
Yatarô, we remember, was Issa’s given name. This poem celebrates his “rebirth” as a poet-priest, serving in the “temple” of haiku. My own book, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa (2004), continues in the tradition of Seian Saiba, Hyôkai Shisanjin, and Murata Shôcho in asserting that Issa is a spiritual poet for whom Buddhism and haiku are one thing.
Today, Issa is a world treasure. Though his popularity in Japan persists, with new books about him appearing every year, he is becoming just as recognized and admired in other countries, as more and more translations, like the present one, are published. He is a poet who speaks to our common humanity in a way that is so honest, so contemporary, his verses might have been written this morning. Bashô is the most revered of the haiku poets of Old Japan, but Issa is the most loved.