Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
David G. Lanoue, USA
Issa's Comic Vision
By the mid-nineteenth century, Issa was famous in Japan for his haiku humor. In fact, when his poetic diary, Oraga haru ("My Spring"), was published posthumously in 1851, Seian Saiba felt the need to insist, in a postscript, that humor wasn't Issa's only attribute. He writes, "Sarcasm [hiniku] is not the main object of this priest . . . His writing also contains loneliness, laughter, and sadness, and it contemplates human compassion, worldly conditions, and Buddhist transience" (Issa zenshû 6.165). The author of the second postscript, Hyôkai Shisanjin, agrees: "This book, being a manuscript produced by Shinano Province's Haiku Priest Issa, provides a collection for today in a joking style. Yet, though it has a bit of jest in it, it visits well the way of Buddhism—though not in the tedious manner used by priests such as Ikkyu or Hakuin (6.157). To these early critics, Issa was known as one who employed a "joking style" in the service of a serious artistic and philosophical purpose: to reveal truths of life and Buddhism.
In the more secular twentieth century, critics began to view Issa's humor outside of the Buddhist context in which "Priest Issa" originally wrote. In his 1949 study, Fujimoto Jitsuya mentions "humor" as distinctive of Issa's style. Fujimoto cites several examples, including this poem (442):
the goddess of spring
missed a few spots . . .
Saohime and her sister, Tatsutahime, were Chinese imports, not part of the native Japanese pantheon. Saohime ruled spring; Tatsutahime, autumn. Saohime's particular task was to supervise the greening of fields and mountains. However, in the case of this mountain, her dyeing job has been spotty.
Irreverent and playful, Issa doesn't hesitate to make even the gods the brunt of his jokes. But he is more famous for myriad, silly encounters with animals:
do you also know
that autumn's ending?
the monkey nods
He typically treats monkeys, fleas, flies, sparrows, frogs, and other animals as if they are his human peers, a practice that his Japanese critics call "personification" (gijinhô). Fujimoto lists personification as the poet's first and foremost stylistic attribute (415). Sometimes, he notes, Issa's "human" interactions with creatures are recorded with childish language and tone. Fujimoto cites the following well-known example:
Sir Horse passes
When schoolchildren in Japan are made to memorize a haiku, this "Sir Horse" verse by Issa is more often than not the one selected. Fujimoto comments, "His heart overflowing with love for innocent children and animals, Issa often uses, in his haiku, language similar to that of children's songs and nursery rhymes" (438).
Here's another case of humor using children's language, also cited by Fujimoto:
playing with the girls
A literal translation of the haiku, "Baby sparrow—among the women, a bean parching," makes no sense in English. But, as Fujimoto points out, the second and third phrases of the poem constitute a children's expression (438). The editors of Issa zenshû elucidate: "When a boy is playing with girls, the saying, 'Among the women, a bean parching', is a form of teasing banter" (4.136, note 1). Issa teases the sparrow with the language of the playground—a bit of poetic absurdity made even funnier by the fact that the poet was 58 at the time.
When he wasn't conversing with his animal friends and (in the Buddhist sense) cousins, Issa found plenty of comedy in ordinary life:
the pretty woman
leaves her butt-print
Here, the joke hinges upon juxtaposition: a beautiful woman and a butt-print. In a similar haiku, he juxtaposes beauty and what Fujimoto calls a kitanai ("dirty") subject:
into the big river
tossing her lice...
Of the above haiku, Fujimoto writes, "Issa, without concern, makes poems about unsightly, unclean, shameful things...Such topics seem neither chopsticks nor canes [i.e., they are good for nothing], yet Issa encounters them with interest" (500).
Among the "shameful things" that Issa encounters with interest, one would have to list farts, piss, and excrement. Anyone who has read much of Issa can cite plenty of examples of such "potty humor." Here's one:
The bottom-five phrase reads, "fart balls," a colorful and funny idiom in itself. Once again, juxtaposition is the key to the humor, as the delicate night blossoms appear side-by-side with the turds.
Issa often focuses his uncensoring comic vision on himself:
leaving blossoms and moon
This haiku contains conflicting season words: blossoms (spring) and moon (autumn). Together, they symbolize the haiku poet's way of life. Feeling lazy, Issa decides that tomorrow the blossoms and moon will still be there, and with that consolation decides not to go out and write haiku. Ironically, this decision not to write a poem has produced one!
Issa often characterizes himself as lazy, sinful, and not all that good-looking:
looking up, wrinkles
looking down, wrinkles . . .
a cold night
through what teeth
I have left
autumn's wind whistles
A more sophisticated type of humor in Issa involves playful allusions to historical and literary texts. In the following example, he adapts a scene from Lady Murasaki's Heian period masterpiece, The Tale of Genji:
the lover cat
dandied up like Genji
at the hedge
A cat searching for a mate emulates the glorious courtly lover, Prince Genji. The particular scene spoofed in this haiku occurs in Chapter 5 of Lady Murasaki's novel, wherein Genji peers through a brushwood hedge and catches sight of ten-year old Murasaki (no relation to the author) for the first time. Intrigued by the girl's beauty and thrilled by her resemblance to a woman "he had loved with all his being" (Lady Fujitsubo), the young prince resolves to adopt her and mold her into the lady of his dreams. In his haiku, Issa fancies that the cat at the hedge, dandied up and looking for a mate, is a Genji—a wonderful bit of haiku silliness.
One of my wise professors once told me that the tragic gesture boils down to an attempt to cling to this slippery, elusive world, while the comic gesture is simply to let go, to surrender . . . to find a measure of victory in defeat and laughter. Issa knew plenty of sorrow and emotional pain in his life: the deaths of his mother and grandmother in his childhood, his cruel treatment by his stepmother, his exile to Edo, the long and bitter dispute over his inheritance, the deaths of his first wife and four infant children, the divorce of his second wife, bouts with paralysis, and a fire that destroyed his home, leaving him to spend his last year in a cramped, musty grain-barn. In fact, the title of ôshiki Zuike's 1984 book, Jinsei no hiai: Kobayashi Issa, translates to: "The Sorrow of Life: Kobayashi Issa." Nevertheless, Issa's fundamental approach to life was comic, not tragic. Though he had reason enough to succumb to depression and bitterness, he chose to greet the improbable universe of day-to-day, most often, with a smile. In the many thousands of haiku that he left behind for us, that warm, mischievous smile of his lives on.
Fujimoto Jitsuya. Issa no kenkyû. Tokyo: Meiwa Insatsu, 1949.
Issa (Kobayashi Issa). Issa zenshû. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-1979. 9 vols.
Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Tran. Arthur Waley. New York: Doubleday, 1955.
Ohshiki Zuike. Jinsei no hiai: Kobayashi Issa. Tokyo: Shintensha, 1984.
First appeared in Haijinx 1.2 (Summer 2001).
Republished by the author’s permisson.