Comments on Issa’s Haiku

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Inukshuk at cabin on Harp Lake

Of the four foremost poets of Japanese haiku tradition, (Bashô, Buson, Issa, Shiki), Issa is my favourite. I enjoy his openness, humour, sense of transience, and compassion for animals and plants. I’d guess he’d forgive me for copycatting but also suggest I find my own way of writing about spiders.

I wrote and posted this piece, because I enjoy getting deeper into Issa’s haiku and interspersing his haiku with my prose helps me to get deeper into his writing. Also, this blog is about the structure and poetics of haiku, haibun and haiga. So this post allows me to showcase Issa’s haibun style as well as his haiku.

About Issa’s Haiku

When I first read Issa’s haiku some years ago, I was surprised, because he seems to stray from what have become orthodoxies in contemporary English-language haiku practice. As examples of pronouncements I’ve seen in various places:

1. He uses personification in the sense that he talks to the critters in his haiku: “don’t worry spiders”;

2. He uses tells as well as shows in his haiku:
“what good luck”;
“I keep house casually”;

3. He generalizes and uses poetic tropes:

“we walk on the roof of hell”;

4. He sometimes writes sentences as haiku:

don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually

5. His work is rife with humour and touching bits of self-deprecation.

I’d guess that some would call these senryu because they focus more on the human condition and humour than the typical haiku with its seriousnessness and focus on nature. The Haiku Society of America offers this definition of senryu:

A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. Notes: A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break.

As a caveat, Issa’s haiku are all translations, albeit by respected writers. Each translator’s version of a particular haiku written in Japanese will have a contemporary English-language flair and tends to follow the “rules” and “pronouncements” of the translators’ eras. Early translators of Japanese Masters’ works tended to use a 5-7-5 syllable construction which we now know stemmed from a misunderstanding of how sound units in Japanese (on) translate into sound units (syllables) in English. The Haiku Society of America states: “. . . about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on (sound units . . . )”

Should Issa be used as an Exemplar?

David Lanoue, who has a comprehensive website about Issa reports that one of his readers wrote:

“This (Issa’s haiku and haibun) is so contemporary. It might have been written today!”

In response Lanoue wrote:

“Actually, my internet friend has it backwards: Issa does not write like contemporary haiku poets; contemporary haiku poets, the best of them, write like Issa.”

In my own practice, I’ve concluded that it’s the poetic feel of the haiku and and how it works with the prose that matters most, and not religiously following the structural rules and pronouncements about haiku.

About Issa

Below is a brief excerpt about the life of Kobayashi Issa taken from David G. Lanoue’s Haiku Guy website. If you’d like to know more about the poet that many Japanese think of as their favourite haiku master or peruse many of Lanoue’s translations of Issa’s haiku, the Haiku Guy website is a good place to visit. The passage is a paraphrase of Lanoue’s more comprehensive biography of Issa.

Koybayashi Issa (1763-1828) practiced the art of haiku (then called haikai) as he wandered the length and breadth of Japan. Though his real name was Kobayashi Yatarô, he chose Issa (Cup-of-Tea) as his haiku name. He also referenced himself as “Shinano Province’s Chief Beggar” and “Priest Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple.” His work was imbued with Buddhist themes: sin, grace, trusting in Amida Buddha, reincarnation, transience, compassion, and the joyful celebration of the ordinary.

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