“Issa, Cup-Of-Tea”

owls, baby 2

(unfinished watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2018, “Baby Owls”)

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


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, 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, and a compassion for people.

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.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018








Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to ““Issa, Cup-Of-Tea””

  1. petrujviljoen Says:

    I’ve wondered if I don’t like Issa above Basho?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Frank J. Tassone Says:

    Well said, Jane! Issa embodies some of the best examples of compassion in haiku. Check out David Lanoue, past HSA President, haiku scholar and poet. He wrote and excellent translation of Issa. Check him out at haikuguy.com.


  3. ladynyo Says:

    I will, and Thank You, Frank! I absolutely love Issa. He’s more than compassionate. To me, he speaks to the best of humanity down through the ages. I love his earthiness, his simplicity. Basho is more intellectual but there are times that Issa really speaks to the heart like no one else. I will check out David Lanoue. Issa speaks (writes) from direct observation, of the smallest in most ‘insignificant ‘ elements and that to me is wonderful. I read a little of Issa and I feel compelled to compose haiku. He is a generator of so much ‘good’ in this world. Thank you, Frank.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ladynyo Says:

    If you do, you and I are similar. I love him because he speaks to my heart and not so much to my intellect. I would rather the heart than the head. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. petrujviljoen Says:

    Ah! The heart!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: