Posts Tagged ‘surrealism’

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

May 7, 2017


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






Random Haiku…..

March 25, 2015

Marsh Grass 3

A reader just raised the issue of why these haiku below seemed to be rather bitten with surrealism.  That was a great question!  There is a commonality between surrealists and haiku in many ways:  both (or should or do) delve beneath the surface of a thought, sentiment, etc…trying to get to a deeper level of explanation or reveal.  I believe it’s this concept of ‘yugen’ so prevalent in Japanese literature, especially poetry:  of course it depends upon context, but yugen means to me a distance, a deeper concept, something not proclaimed but hidden.  So many ways to go about this.  Pulling out something different and new and startling perhaps in your haiku.  I also think it is an ‘off-handed’ way of expression, and that can become difficult, but I believe it makes for better haiku.

But I think it also depends upon the measure and duration of study of Japanese culture and literature.  I’ve only done some serious study of this for the past 8 years, and this doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface.  I believe to really get comfortable with these forms, you have to study and immerse yourself for a lifetime.  And that is a great pleasure! 

But anyone who reads Basho/Issa/Buson will immediately see each poet’s ‘place’ in their work.  And the Buddhist influence is strong in their writings:  Nature is transitory, contingent and of course, suffers.  (we are part of that nature).The pure mysteriousness of Life!

I have (as of a week ago) finished “Song of the Nightingale” and Nick Nicholson will be formatting this book in late June for publication.  This question of surrealism comes up again and again in this new book in the form of ‘moon babies’, Tengus, etc.  There is much of surrealism  and magic in this book.  Sometimes we forget the deep influences in what we write and it takes a good question like this reader (in the comments of these poems) to draw you back to where you have been.

Lady Nyo….and thank you, Staviolatte!

One of my favorite poems of Issa  that seems to  be a bit surreal:

“The snow is melting

and the village is flooded

with children.”


I’ve written very few haiku.  I find the form harder than tanka, though shorter. Of course there are ‘rules’ concerning haiku, as there are with tanka, but modern poets tend to ignore or dismiss these rules.  They are not short free verse, but I think in the beginning without study, most of us fall to this. 

There are haiku writers who have set standards centuries ago:  Basho, Issa, Bucan, to note some masters of the form.  My dear friend, Steve Isaak in California, does a good job on this form.

This spring I intend to do some study of these masters, and hopefully get my head around this poetry form correctly.

Lady Nyo

Sultry air disturbs

The sleep of husband and wife.

They pant without lust.

Dogwoods are blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.

(Dogwoods are a Southern tree here in the South.  White blooms
having the form of the Christian Cross, with nail heads.  They bloom in the spring  right before Easter. They are a symbol of Christianity in Nature.)

Under the dark moon

I awaited your return

Only shadows came.

The moon, a ghostly

Sliver, sails on a jet sea

Wild dogs howl beneath.

A pale half moon drifts

Across a wintry sky.

Trees become monsters.

Fall’s crispness compels

Apples to tumble from trees.

Worms make the journey.

Ice blocks the rivers.

Look! A duck is frozen there.

Nature, no mercy.

Skeleton-trees wave

While the wind whips dead leaves

Wood smoke scents the air.

The moon, a ghostly

Sliver, sails on a jet sea

While dogs howl beneath.

A swirl of blossoms

Caught in the water’s current

Begins the season.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015

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