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Part 1: Introduction
When Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki are mentioned as the “great four” Japanese Masters, it’s implied that we should find writing instruction reading their works. Sam Hamill is explicit on the matter:
Know the masters. Know them well enough to quote passages/poems that remain with you (not the same thing as memorizing a poem.)
I was a relatively new writer in the haibun genre when I decided to take Hamill’s advice. Some years ago, this essay is what I gleaned from reading a passage from Issa’s Oraga Haru.
I found two translations of Oraga Haru: Nobuyuki Yuasa’s The Year of My Life and Sam Hamill’s The Spring of My Life. From these, I selected an early passage for study that contains several prose paragraphs and three haiku. A full passage is reprinted below with the permission of translator Sam Hamill. There is no title because the Japanese masters rarely used titles in their journals.
My suggestion is that you too consider following Hamill’s advice by first reading the passage and gleaning what you can from it while on your own learning journey into haiku and haibun. And in the next parts, I’ll tell you what I think.
An Early Passage from Issa’s Oraga Haru
Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace “crane” and “tortoise” echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year’s Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. I won’t even sweep my dusty house, living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to Buddha, as in the ancient story.
The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snowy trails winding through high mountains. Nevertheless I welcome the New Year just as I am.
New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring
And although she was born only last May, I gave my little daughter a bowl of soup and a whole rice cake for New Year’s breakfast, saying:
Laughing, crawling, you’re
exploring — already two
years old this morning
No servant to draw wakamizu, New Year’s “first water.”
But look: Deputy
Crow arrives to enjoy
the first New Year’s bath