Kobayashi Issa, (1763-1827) A Haiku Poet with Enormous Heart

sky in the NorthEast, Jane Kohut-Bartels, June 25, 2012

sky in the NorthEast, Jane Kohut-Bartels, June 25, 2012

I have had “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa” for a few years and have only really read to Basho. But recently reading Issa, (Issa means Cup-of-Tea), the world of haiku opened up in ways I didn’t expect.

What is remarkable about Issa’s poetry is the compassion for the lowest of creatures (insects, etc.), the deep interest in the commonalities of life, compassion for humanity, and the joyful celebration of the ordinary.

Haiku can be a perplexing poetry form. Recently I have read a lot of bad haiku. I’ve written about this before. (I’ve also written bad haiku myself) It seems people throw together observations and call it haiku. It generally isn’t. There are ‘rules’ and structures for this poetry form, and it seems that many people who attempt haiku have no regard for even reading or researching some of these fundamentals. If they started with a reading and research of renga, they would get some background of haiku, or hokku, which is what haiku was first called.

Renga, or linked verse, is marvelous to read. One poet starts with a three line poem, another picks it up, and so on. They can go on for a hundred linked poems or more. Usually accompanied by sake.

What was remarkable of renga, and later of haiku…is the shifts and dissolves that remind one of early surrealist films. And there are some modernist poets, like Ezra Pound’s XXX Cantos, or even better, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” that comes near to the renga spirit, this shifting and resolve.
But the Buddhist tradition embraced this shifting and resolve. Renga, and then haiku, have a way of embracing this life, this transitory nature of all things.

I came across a part of a 14th century treatise on poetry:

“Contemplate deeply the vicissitudes of the life of man and body, always keep in your heart the image of mujo (ephemerality) and when you go to the mountains or the sea, feel the pathos (aware) of the karma of sentient beings and non-sentient things. Give feeling to those things without a heart (mushintai no mono) and through your own heart express their beauty (yugen) in a delicate form.”(from “Basho and the Way of Poetry in the Japanese Religious Tradition”)

Again, haiku isn’t as simple as it seems. But it’s direct, forceful and of a keenness that satisfies.

People complain of the ‘oddness’ of haiku. Perhaps it is this ‘shifts and resolve’ embedded in the form. To me, Issa has less of this than Basho or Buson. There is a directness and compassion of Issa that deeply involves the heart and eyes.

And a deep sense of the absurb and a great sense of humor in Issa.

My words will not convince anyone. But perhaps examples of Issa will.

Lady Nyo

Haiku of Issa: from The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass

New Year’s Day—
Everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

The snow is melting
And the village is flooded
With children.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

Goes out,
Comes back—
The loves of a cat.

Children imitating cormorants
Are even more wonderful
Than cormorants.

O flea! Whatever you do,
Don’t jump;
That way is the river.

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell,
Gazing at flowers.

Don’t kill that fly!
Look—it’s wringing its hands
Wringing its feet.

I’m going out,
Flies, so relax,
Make love.

(approaching his village)

Don’t know about the people,
But all the scarecrows
Are crooked.

A huge frog and I,
Staring at each other,
Neither of us moves.

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
Killing mosquitoes.

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.

The bedbug
Scatter as I clean,
Parents and children.

And my personal favorite…

Zealous flea,
You’re about to be a Buddha
By my hand.

some of my own, struggling with the form.

Dogwoods are blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night

A frog with moon eyes
Sits staring in the path.
Is he stone or flesh?

Billowing spring winds
Blow pollen in crevices
The water floats green.

The moon howls tonight.
Perhaps the dogs entice it.
Chickens are restless.

A fox on the prowl
This bitter cold spring night.
Dried grasses rustle.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

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17 Responses to “Kobayashi Issa, (1763-1827) A Haiku Poet with Enormous Heart”

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  4. brian miller Says:

    actually i rather like yours jane…the imagery is pretty amazing…i think we need to get you in to do an article on it sometime in the near future….though i will say i see less haiku out there than we once did…seemed a year or so ago it was everywhere…you are about to be a buddha by my hand…lol….


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Rolling on the floor laughing very, very loud! LOL!

    Isn’t Issa wonderful??? He strikes at the heart of sanity and the ordinary…which shows that poetry is based in these things. or some of the best…..humanness in spades!

    A lot of people still write haiku: but perhaps some are studying and researching and realizing that what they have done is falling short. It’s really a marvelous poetry form, and is deeper than most of us see. A little time with some books would help here. And a sensitivity to the cultural standards (those aesthetics) that brought forth haiku and other forms.

    I don’t know, Brian. I am seen as a crank on this stuff and people seem to make a wide berth when I come around. LOL! People like to stay in their comfort zone, and that is probably ok for the majority of poets.

    Haiku shouldn’t be….but I find (or found) it harder than tanka. Let me think about it. I am sure at dverse there are many much better than I with haiku and the explanation. But I’m open to a lot of things….

    Thanks, Brian…still laughing.



  6. claudia Says:

    wonderful images..the flies ringing hands and feet…loved the frog with moon eyes…really amazing jane


  7. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Claudia. Issa is wonderful. So human, and humane.

    I think he is exactly what those of us who are daunted about haiku need to study. He also (according to Robert Hass) has written terrible haiku, but I don’t see any of it. It was hard to pick his work for this entry because it was all so good and fit the heart.

    I think there are some very good haiku poets at dverse, and I hope they start to contribute their work more. I am just in the beginning of my study of haiku….it took me 5 years to get around tanka! LOL!

    Good knows how long it’s going to take me with haiku!

    I am about to write a post that will get a lot of poets angry…and some not. It’s about the ‘disconnect’ of poetry with the masses. I have strong feelings about this, and some experience behind me. I think that a poet like Issa (who is a bit easier to understand than Basho…) could really soothe the waters in the minds and hearts of people who complain (and rightfully so…) about the ‘ivory tower’ mentality of a lot of poets and poetry.

    We talk about a disconnect of poetry but perhaps we are the ones who are pulling the plug?

    Thanks for reading, Claudia. will be over to your blog tomorrow.



  8. aprille Says:

    Only me:

    Last night
    I killed 100 mosquitoes
    this morning one woke me

    [One thing my Dad used to say,
    a lot,
    not taking it for a haiku.]


  9. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! Aprille!

    Your father was a poet and didn’t know it! LOL!

    I don’t know what it looks like in Japanese (the counted form…) but it sure expresses what Cup-of-tea is writing. LOL!

    It’s lovely. My father used to have a soft and sweet refrain….”I takes it all.” LOL! There was a marvelous story behind this, but I’ll tell you privately.

    I appreciate your commment. Looks like dverse folk don’t care much for haiku, which is rather surprising because last year there were tons of it…perhaps with the disappearance of Shashi, it has gone flat there?

    Well, it doesn’t matter because haiku is a world poetry form, and people are still writing in this form…and tanka. I think one of the probelms for haiku is that people are just damn lazy, and don’t want to study the cultural issues, aspects behind this particular form. So their haiku comes out sounding like fortune cookie shit. I know it took me 5 years to study tanka and it wasn’t easy. I think in a way, haiku is even harder. So it goes.

    I’m about to post something of Ono no Komachi’s poems. They are so beautiful and heartfelt…sensual, sexual…and I do know that there are many people around the world that still read and hang onto her work. We can learn so much by studying these great classics…it’s just that some poets avoid them, thinking they aren’t relevant to their own work. They are fools….LOL!

    Thanks for reading, Aprille.



  10. ladynyo Says:

    High praise and thank you. But I think the issue is this: what I write isn’t exactly very popular. I hold that investigating Japanese literature is hard work, complicated by cultural issues, and people are generally lazy…especially poets. We think that whatever comes out of our heads (or asses…) is precious.

    Lady Nyo


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