Weekend Poem: Haiku by Kobayashi Issa

Kobayashi Nobuyki, an 18th century Japanese poet and writer, is more popularly known by his pen name of Issa. One of the most loved and popular Haiku masters from the Endo period, he had a rather unhappy childhood and hard life.

While studying in Tokyo under other masters such as Sogan and Chikua, he worked at menial jobs to support himself. Yet, his Haiku was different from that of the other famous masters of his time because he preferred more personal, subjective themes and tones. With that modern Haiku style, he could not even teach at the same school where he had studied – Kasushika. Eventually, a wealthy rice merchant, Seibi Natsume, became his patron and helped him get better-known, although he had to travel far and wide, visiting many shrines and temples across the country, like a wandering ascetic, till he was nearly 50.

He explained his adopted name “Issa”, which means “One Cup of Tea” in a poem:

With spring’s arrival,
Yataro becomes reborn
as Issabo.

Besides poems, he was also a prolific prose writer. By the end of his life, he had written more than 20,000 haiku, hundreds of tanka (see footnotes), and several works of haibun (see footnotes) celebrating the small wonders of everyday life and often accompanied with sketches. There is also a poetic diary, written during a relatively calm period of his life and called “The Spring of My Life” – a charming volume that includes thoughts on nature, his spiritual path and the death of his daughter, Sato. This particular work has often caused him to be compared with the American naturalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau.

In contemporary literature, the most famous uses of one of his works was in J D Salinger’s Franny and Zooey:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

Seen

Seen
through a telescope:
ten cents worth of fog.

Windy fall

At my daughter’s grave, thirty days
after her death:

Windy fall–
these are the scarlet flowers
she liked to pick.

Asked how old he was

Asked how old he was,
the boy in the new kimono
stretched out all five fingers.

Children imitating cormorants

Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.

Don’t know about the people

Approaching my village:

Don’t know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
are crooked.

– Translated by Robert Hass. Read more here.

Footnotes:

1. Tanka – another Japanese poem style with the following structure. Also known as “waka” or “uta”. Similar to Haiku, but with 2 additional lines. Often, a combination of prose and poetry.

Line 1 – 5 syllables
Line 2 – 7 syllables
Line 3 – 5 syllables
Line 4 – 7 syllables
Line 5 – 7 syllables

2. Haibun – A combination of prose and haiku poetry. Popularized by the poet, Basho.

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