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


My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture

(Dawn to the East, cellphone)


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 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.

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, 2016






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

  1. kanzensakura Says:

    Super article Jane! Just what I have been saying for years and what you and I have spoken about often. These so-called western style (yee haw) tanka, haibun, and haiku…bogus imitations of true art and tradition and culture. These so-called “thinner” haiku and tanka…bah. Just go ahead and create a new poetry fotm snd name it something original instead of the Japanese names for the form. If one is going to torture a form then at least have the guts to name it something else! Bah on these westernizers and thinner murderers of a culture and a form. Well said Jane. Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! Toni. I think the bigger problem is that most people, who claim to love the Japanese forms,….do only a preliminary study of them….as you know…they are deep, and take years to get your head around. Many years if not decades. It’s not that they are incomprehensible…it’s that the culture that brought forth these forms must be studied. Otherwise, they are almost incomprehensible. That’s the rub. These words, ‘aware’, ‘yugen’, etc. have such great impact on the literature. And when we don’t take the study of even the aesthetics of a culture seriously, well, we are short changing our understand and the culture’s beauty and importance. There is no such thing as ‘thinner’ haiku and tanka! LOL! Well said, Toni. There is just fake forms that are easy to mold to our own ‘liking’. We are a lazy culture, many of us who claim to write tanka and haiku. LOL! As you well know…it takes years, decades, and dedicated study to understand these forms and to try to get the mind in a place where they ….ah….fit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sarahrussellpoetry Says:

    Just lovely. And my favorite is one of yours — the pale lavender sky. Beautiful!!


  4. kanzensakura Says:

    And often they do not fit the prrson’s mind. I did two prompts at dVerse on mujo…don’t know how deeply the idea sank but folks did try. I find most of the people who try to chsnge haiku are often people who have no clue about Japanese culture. There is not the same attitude towards poetry from other cultures. I don’t understand this attitude. They don”y screw around with mid-eastern poetic forms. Racism?? Maybe.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    I don’t know, Toni. I think it is pure laziness. And that Japanese culture is difficult, no straight line to understanding for Westerners, etc. It takes, as you know….years, decades, etc. to fathom it out. Might be racism, but I think it is just…well, people see a ‘popular’ form and just jump on it…without much study or knowledge behind what they are doing. I have been studying this culture and the literature forms for over a decade and I still don’t get it… It’s a struggle always. But it also is possible. Behind the acquired knowledge is a mind set. Thank you so much, Toni for chiming in on this argument….you have 40 years behind your study and experience. I honor that and understand the issues you have put forth constantly on both haiku and tanka.


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Sarah! Thank you so much for reading and your comment. That ‘pale lavender sky’ is very early for me, and one of my favorites. I am hoping it’s haiku, but who knows? Right now, I’m not sure of anything, except my love for Issa and other Japanese poets and writers. Frankly, I have shelves of Japanese fiction writers and I am not as excited by their productions as I am the more ancient poets. They go deep into the heart and psyche for me. Reading Issa can change my entire approach to the day: he’s compassionate, humane, and one can’t help but be influenced by his mentality. I adore him. My favorite of his:

    “This world is one made of dew.
    But still, but still.”


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