A Gem from Issa


When I'm busy, you get poems.

I was first exposed to haiku in elementary school, along with acrostics and whatever else teachers use to wrangle overactive young minds. Decades later I still remember the haiku I wrote so proudly:

Looking at the leaves,
whirling, twirling, golden brown,
only in the fall.

That we first see haiku as children, and that they have a simple structure — five syllables, then seven, then five — leaves the impression that they are toy poems, on the same tier as knock-knock jokes and nursery rhymes. And as we continue on to stories and novels, the impression lingers, if it is left at all.

This is understandable if unfortunate. I'm reminded now of Kakuzo Okakura's words on the tea ceremony:

[W]e could hardly expect the outsider to appreciate the subtle beauty of the tea-room, its principles of construction and decoration being entirely different from those of the West.

Which just as easily applies to haiku.

(I'm also reminded of the perennial complaint that contemporary art is gibberish. Maybe; but art is part of a larger conversation, and it's only natural that a sentence plucked from its context is almost meaningless.)

My coarse outsider's take on haiku is that it is the fleeting expression of a particular moment, which explains its short and almost fragmentary form. And naturally, the haiku draws on a large shared context of symbol, mood, and metaphor. A haiku master might write tens of thousands of poems in his life.

It was only when I read a book of Basho, the greatest of the four traditional masters of haiku, that I could get a handle on it as an art form. But it was only when I found Issa that I became a convert.

Issa's life was a difficult one. Born in a family of farmers, his mother died when he was three years old. At 14 his beloved grandmother died, and he felt estranged from his family, which by then included a tough stepmother and a younger half-brother.

After years of wandering, including a stint in Edo (now called Tokyo), and a protracted legal battle with his stepmother over his dead father's estate, he returned home at 49 and married for the first time. But the couple's firstborn son died shortly after birth, and his daughter died not long after.

The Diamond Sutra contains a famous verse on how the Buddhist practitioner should see the ordinary world:

Like stars, or darkness, or a lamp,
A trick, a dew drop, a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, a cloud,
— So should one view the conditioned.

The metaphor of the beautiful but transient dewdrop world was well-known in Issa's time. And so he wrote, after the death of his beloved two-year-old daughter:

tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
This dewdrop world
is a dewdrop world;
and yet — and yet —

I have nothing to add. Even a decade later, my eyes still mist over when I think of this line.

Not long after this poem, Issa's third child died, and then his wife, and then himself. But despite the tragedy of Issa's life, the power and energy of his often irreverent poems makes him immensely popular. His intensity and his love of poetry might have made him fast friends with Bhartrihari, whom I wrote about yesterday.

But lest you get the wrong impression, Issa's haiku are also joyful and irreverent. So let me leave you with more of my favorites:

New Year's Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
(trans. Robert Hass)

little snail,
inch by inch climb
Mount Fuji!
(trans. David Lanoue)

the first snowfall
doesn't hide it ...
dog poop.
(trans. David Lanoue)