Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012
Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011
Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
David G. Lanoue, USA
Write Like Issa
The poet who later named himself Issa was born on the fifth day of Fifth Month in the Thirteenth Year of the Hôreki Era: 15 June 1763 on the Western calendar. Saturday, 15 June 2013, exactly marked his 250th birthday. Two hundred and fifty years after his birth, Issa still has much to teach haiku poets of today. To write like him, one might choose to emulate six of his most common tendencies evidenced throughout his writing: (1) a feeling of tender compassion, (2) an attitude of perceptive openness, (3) a willingness to laugh, (4) bold subjectivity, (5) a habit of alluding to earlier stories and literature, and (6) free-flowing imagination.
1 . Tender Compassion
In his haiku Issa expresses compassion not only for people—farmers, wrestlers, geisha, beggars, outcasts, prostitutes—but also for animals and even plants. Issa’s universe is egalitarian; in his Buddhist vision all creatures are fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. A cricket who comes to visit his bedding is perceived as a roommate, not a pest.
Issa talks to animals and, in his poetry, they speak to him. This is not a sign that he is, as some people think, a “child’s poet.” In fact, his tender compassion toward fellow beings is quite contemporary 250 years after his birth, since today so many philosophers, scientists and ordinary citizens advocate for the ethical treatment of animals. In his compassionate treatment of animals as peers with legitimate points of view and deserving of respect, Issa was way ahead of his time.
2. Perceptive Openness
As a poet Issa stays keenly alert to the sights, sounds and other sensations of this world. He remains open to now-moments, so much so that many of his haiku feel like on-the-spot distillations of real-life experience. Whether he records these experiences immediately or conjures them later via memory is not important. The important point is the way that he works perceptions into his haiku. When cows come mooing in a thick spring mist, their sound seems as palpable as their ponderous bodies.
moo, moo, moo
from the mist cows
By examples such as this one, Issa suggests that haiku poets should pay very close attention to ordinary moments because sometimes the most ordinary things on planet Earth can seem like astounding revelations if we pay close enough attention.
3. A Willingness to Laugh
Issa wills to laugh even while immersed in this “dewdrop world” of impermanence and necessary loss. His laughter acknowledges the comic side of the tragicomedy that constitutes life. He laughs at authority figures, such as daimyo, samurai, and—in the next example—the high priest of a Buddhist temple.
the high priest
poops in the field...
This haiku becomes even funnier when we consider who might be holding the parasol: perhaps some young, shaved-headed acolyte, shading the important spiritual man as he performs this decidedly non-spiritual function. Issa is just as willing to make fun of himself in his haiku portraits: a poor “lazybones” living in a trashy, broken-down hut. His lightheartedness partly explains Issa’s worldwide popularity.
Issa also writes highly personal, autobiographical haiku. He exposes and explores real life moments, memories, dreams, joys and sorrows. Ironically, his most personal haiku often convey the most universal messages, as in this famous example.
is a dewdrop world
His baby daughter Sato died of smallpox in Sixth Month, 1819. Issa’s friends might have attempted to console him with the Buddha’s dictum that we live in a temporary dewdrop world where all things must pass. In his haiku Issa acknowledges this truth: “this world/ is a dewdrop world,” but he ends with the phrase, nagara sari nagara, which is often translated as “yet, and yet,” but I have translated as, “yes... but...” Issa the Buddhist may understand, but Issa the grieving father cannot let go. His willingness to lay bare his grieving heart in this most personal poem allows him to express a universal truth about the human experience. Though some guides to haiku advise poets to erase their personal lives from their poems, striving for clean objectivity, Issa instructs us, through many examples like this one, to boldly expose the most intimate details and emotions of our lives.
5. Allusions to Earlier Stories and Literature
Issa does not rely only on here-and-now experiences and perceptions to build his haiku. He also borrows liberally from the collective imagination in the form of folklore and the classical literature of China and Japan. This is the theme of my talk for the August 2013 Haiku North America conference, “Stories Behind the Haiku: Cultural Memory in Issa,” a lecture that will appear in a future issue of Modern Haiku magazine. To cite just one example, consider this allusion to the eleventh-century Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji.
the lover cat
dandied up like Genji
at the fence
The haiku spoofs a scene from Chapter 5, in which Prince Genji peers through a wattle fence and catches sight of ten-year old Murasaki. Later that year, he abducts her and begins training her to be his ideal woman. Issa’s sly poem can be seen to elevate the mate-seeking cat—by equating him with a romantic lover—and yet also to denigrate Genji, suggesting slyly that the lofty prince is just a sexually excited animal, in fact, a predator. Through examples such as this one, Issa invites haiku poets to allow the world of fictional characters and plots to mingle with the real world of blossoms and moon.
6. Free-Flowing Imagination
We have already noted that Issa’s poetic vision goes beyond his immediate perceptions. In addition to the collective imagination, he also fills haiku with the creations of his private imagination. Though many poets and editors scoff at so-called “desk haiku” (haiku that do not derive from a poet’s direct experience), Issa had no problem with such verses; he allowed his imagination to flow freely. We find evidence of this throughout his works, but a series of several haiku about the Great Buddha is especially revealing.
in the great bronze
Buddha’s nose chirping...
from the great bronze
from the great bronze
from the great bronze
When he wrote these haiku, Issa was living in his home province of Shinano, hundreds of kilometers from the Great Buddha statues at Kamakura and Nara. While he might have remembered the first image from direct experience, all of the later emanations from the great nose are most probably inventions. Without his incessant application of imagination, Issa never would have arrived at his masterpiece poem of 1822 in which the Great Buddha sneezes forth . . . a swallow!
After 250 years Issa still can teach us much about the art of haiku—and, unless I’m greatly mistaken, he will still be a relevant source of haiku instruction for poets 250 years hence.