Kobayashi Issa, A Haiku Poet with an Enormous Heart

Kobayashi Issa, (1763-1827)

Savannah Birds


“Song of the Nightingale”.  Watercolor by the author.

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. I have spent my Easter weekend delighting in Issa’s poetry, and it has begun to restore my battered humanity.

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.

Radishes are Up!

From such tiny seeds they grow

My stomach rumbles.

The morning glories

Twisting up the iron fence

paint random colors.

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, 2013-2015






Tags: , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Kobayashi Issa, A Haiku Poet with an Enormous Heart”

  1. kanzensakura Says:

    Most people are idiots when it comes to haiku. anything is a haiku. Bah. Issa had heart indeed. and wrote beautiful haiku that translates well into English. I wish people had the guts to call them minipoems or senryu or American Sentences instead of haiku. But they all seem to walnt to jump on the bandwagon and be stylish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ladynyo Says:

    H Sweetie….yep….this ‘shit’ is trendy. LOL. It’s a constant struggle to weave in and out of this subject. I remember probably 10 years ago, when this snitch sent my first tanka to Jane Hirshfield and she said:: “Good start, but not tanka yet.” I remember being so crest fallen but she was right! I went back and started to study Japanese aesthetics (yugen, aware, etc.) and it changed the voice of my tanka. LOL. These things are tough to un derstand and when we don’t seriously take these things in hand, we produce crap. Amercian crap. LOL.


  3. kanzensakura Says:

    Yeppers. People don’t have a clue nor do they want to. As far as I am concerned it is fauxku. Some people even claim to be world known haiku artists. Bah.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ladynyo Says:

    fauxku….LOL~ Good one!


  5. ladynyo Says:

    to me, the’test’ is to question them about yugen, aware without time to google. You have to get into the mind and culture of MJL before you can do anything right and original in this field. LOL.


  6. rothpoetry Says:

    I love all of the haiku you have shared, Jane! They are so well done, both his and yours! It would be very hard to pick a favorite! I still have a lot to learn about writing haiku!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Dwight! Me, too. I’ve just started to scratch the surface on haiku! Issa is stellar haiku poet and I would believe also, human! LOL.

    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: