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

spring garden 4


 Tulips in the South

are as permanent as snow

and yet, and yet….

I have had “The Essential haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa” for a few years and have only really gotten 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 celebration of 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 ) 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. One of the main problems is this ‘learn the rules and then break them’ mentality.  Why in HELL would you disregard the guidelines for a particular form of poetry?  Would poets disregard the ‘rules’ of sonnets, etc?

I believe it’s a problem of western arrogance.  And laziness.  These ‘rules” that poets object to are the basis of all Japanese art forms:  aesthetics.  The terms of yugen, ma, mono no aware, etc. are the parts of the structure of haiku and tanka.  They make tanka and haiku, tanka and haiku.  We think that freeverse is the same.  It’s not. What we generally write, when we disregard these aesthetics are nothing more than freeverse.

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.  Pretty much the same with Shinto.

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.  This to me is ‘kokoru’ or feeling.

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.


A few of my own, struggling with the form.


Dogwoods are blooming.

The crucifixion appears

White moths in the night.

Tibetan earthworms

Bring a halt to all labor.

Here? Fat koi eat well.

Soft rains caress earth

A hand slides up a soft thigh.

Cherry blossoms bloom.

Sorrow floats like air

Strong winds blow throughout the night

Plague of death descends.

Pale lavender sky

Balances the moon and sun

The scale shifts to night.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2013-2016
















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

  1. Sherry Marr Says:

    What an interesting post. I am especially interested by Issa, whose work I do not know. He writes about the small ordinary miracles of existence, which I so love.I especially love the mosquito about to become a Buddha. And I like your haiku as much as his.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Oh, Sherry! You will LOVE Issa. Knowing you as I do, I can see what a soulmate he would be with you. I am reading Buson, Basho, and Issa and I have to say, they are all stellar, but Issa is the one who moves my heart the most. His life was full of common place tragedy. The death of his two young children, his wife, and his nephew….enough trials to inflict on any man. He poetry is especially tender and ….well, just so humane.

    Thank you, Sherry, but these haiku (except for the dogwood one) are of my earliest before I even had a sense of haiku…which I must say I am still trying to get my head (and heart) around. Now? I think I have a little better understanding about the issue…and coming across this issue of ‘ma’..which is time, space, silence, the void, well, it put something new before me to think about. I am helped by this new issue of haibun. Seeing the prose and the haiku together, well, it makes some sense this connection…and there has to be some connection. With haiku, there’s a weirdness, a displacement that works, a ‘not saying everything’ let the few words you compose reflect kokoru….feelings.

    Thank you, Sherry, for reading and your lovely comment. That mosquito about to become a Buddha is one that always sticks in my mind. I quoted it frequently to my young son, who now, at 28, quotes it back to me!
    Hugs, jane


  3. Björn Rudberg (brudberg) Says:

    Thank you for the share.. and yes I do agree what we can learn from the poetry of past, how we break the rules by knowing them, then I think also the ancient forms need renewal, just as Neruda’a sonnets are in every bit a sonnet even lacking rhyme scheme, I can think about haiku beyond the ancient kigo, the introduction of humor etc etc… I really like the mention of the imaginist movement that you touch upon with Ezra Pound (a horrible man, but a great poet)… Like:

    THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    Not haiku, though I guess the last lines could be. I also like what Kerouac and Ginzburg did with haiku by moving making it contemporary…

    But as you say, why should you avoid caring for the past just because you want to break the rules?


  4. ladynyo Says:

    I’m not sure, Bjorn, what is going on with modern poets when it comes to haiku. Just about nobody studies the form…they pick up kira (cutting word) and some adhere to the syllabic content…but they refuse to study seriously the aesthetics of Japanese art: all of Japanese art flows from this aesthetic. Ma, yugen, mono no aware, sabi, all these terms represent something that is universal in the forming of haiku (and tanka) . Why do the Serbians write haiku, using the fundamental aesthetics yet apply it to he particular Serbian landscape? It’s not any less haiku when applying these (Japanese) terms. These terms are not specific to any geography, or country. They are the structure of a particular form.
    something can be made contemporary by applying these aesthetics….they may be founded in classical haiku, but they are universal to the form…yesterday and today.
    I just wish the majority of Western poets would take a serious stab at the study of these aesthetics ..before announcing that they have discarded these forms. They go on, usually to write freeverse, nothing to do with haiku or tanka.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    computer not right this morning had more to say about this, but perhaps it’s beating a dead horse. I know for me….I don’t WANT to break the rules. I want to compose within the rules and I don’t think this limits the contemporary poetry at all. It gives me guidance, signposts as to the formation.

    Well, I will continue to LEARN these ‘rules;, which are no more than a culture’s aesthetics…and can be seen in Serbian poets application to be relatable ….and see, first, what I can produce with them. I;m not saying that they are forever in stone….kokoru is something that is flowing…and for me…transcends these ‘scary’ rules. LOL!

    Thanks for reading this small essay. I am sure that this struggle will continue on wherever poets gather.



  6. paulscribbles Says:

    Thanks for the introduction to Issa. I am now off in search of more. I commend your journey into deeper understanding with regards to Haiku. It is after all your journey. This question of understanding, of holding up tradition and form has been with me in another way for much of my adult life as a musician who has worked primarily with music of another culture (West Africa) My learning in this matter is that however much I study and however closely I follow the traditional footsteps of my teachers I will never BE West African and so perhaps will only ever understand things as I am and not necessarily as they are from the perspective of the originating culture. Nevertheless I have studied. It is a continuing journey but one that currently is moving into a space where the question arising is more to do with my own inner inspiration and less to do with cultural specifics.


  7. ladynyo Says:

    That is ABSOLUTELY wonderful, Paul. And as it should be. We can be outsiders to a culture, but we can strive to understand and develop our own abilities in this other culture. I was a bellydancer for 10 years, taught classes, too…and travelled in my quest to understand the nature of this dance and music. I danced with a lot of Moroccan and Algerian, Sudanese , Egyptian women, who were in the states and loved their cultural tradition so much that they had to go up against much of the religious issues. Although we were all belly dancers, the dances reflected the different countries. The Egyptians didn’t move much…their torsos were rather rigid, but others who took up the baladi style were all over the place. LOL@! I loved that style because it was always a issue of pushing freedom of our bodies. I also LOVE Berber music…and the people. I worked for years with them, and I have never found a culture more willing to accept strangers. They taught me to drum…dumbeks….and they taught me about the Zar! When I tired of dancing, I would grab a drum and join them. They always made room for me. LOL!
    Yes, Learning is a continued journey. And when you get to the place where it is more about your inner inspiration, I think you have made a great journey! thank you so much for writing about your own travels in music….as in poetry.


  8. paulscribbles Says:

    Wow…poetess, erotic writer, belly dancer and worldly wise woman…and of course drummer.
    I loved my time in Morocco too and have played many a Hafla for dancers over the years. The more of a journey I make the more I understand that I know nothing. Liberation and terror in equal amounts 😉


  9. ladynyo Says:

    Exactly….Liberation and Terror in equal amounts. LOL! But if you can look (or survive) the terror, so many of the people are so genuine, compassionate, etc. I think that we are screwed here in the states with all our divisions…and we quibble over small things…(of course there are also large things out there) but living in a region where you don’t know whether you will survive to see the dusk, puts a different perspective on things.
    Haflas! Ah….wonderful stuff, rolling around on the floor possessed by a Zar! LOL! Or pretending to be possessed. I loved them and miss the event now that I’m not in a troupe or teaching. However, I do listen to my Berber and Arabic music. Loudly. I love the rhythms…so complex from 9/8s to 3/4 to such constant changes. I can’t count them anymore, but the body certainly has muscle memory. What our minds forget, our bodies never do.
    And yes, the more I come to understand, the more I don’t know. Period. One life isn’t long enough to explore even the basics.

    Liked by 1 person

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