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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


Master Bashô, Master Buson ... and Then There’s Issa
David G. Lanoue 

The dewdrop-like elusiveness of happiness in Issa’s life, a theme that the poet himself raises in countless haiku, has led many critics to stress his human and suffering side. One of the first to take this approach was Nakamura Rikurô. In the preface to his 1921 anthology, Issa senshû, Nakamura relates a conversation that he had, months earlier, during the course of which he was asked, “Since Haiku Master Bashô and Haiku Master Buson each have had their complete works published, why hasn’t Haiku Master Issa?” [1]. Nakamura reports that he answered in this way: “Issa of Haiku Temple holds a unique position in the world of haiku. As a person, as a sincere human being, there is value in studying him, yet actually very few people are undertaking such study” [1]. Nakamura goes on to explain that the title of “haiku master,” which applies so fittingly to Bashô and Buson, is something that Issa himself would probably have rejected [4].


The above is an excerpt from my book, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa (77-78). I was lucky to be able to include these quotes from Nakamura Rikurô. During my first visit to Japan in the summer of 1987, I found an old, musty copy of Nakamura's 1921 study of Kobayashi Issa in an equally old and musty Tokyo bookstore. The preface of this book provides a glimpse into how Issa was perceived by Japanese in the early 20th century. At the time, both Matuso Bashô and Yosa Buson were universally acknowledged as "haiku masters," but not Issa. In fact, as Nakamura notes, Issa himself most likely would have rejected such nomenclature. The poet was, Nakamura writes, "an ordinary man who humanly suffered and humanly prayed" [6].

In the popular Japanese view, Bashô and Buson sit with stern and lofty expressions in the high seats of haiku tradition, while Issa, "Chief Beggar of Shinano Province," stands in the crowd below, shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary people: human and approachable. Issa, I think, would approve of this perception, since he forged it with the aggressive persistence of a Hollywood publicist. This is not to say that his poetic persona is false or not representative of the real man. I am only suggesting that we should keep in mind that our image of Issa is a consciously designed literary construct. Slovenly, lazy, sinful, earthy, compassionate, child-and-animal loving, unconcerned about appearances or public rituals or worldly power ... such descriptors pop into our heads when we think of him because he deftly presented himself as such. Issa leaves no doubt as to what he thinks about "important" people who occupy this world's high seats:

oyabun to miete j ôza ni naku kawazu

looks like boss frog
in the high seat

While he certainly admired and in some ways emulated "boss frog" Bashô, Issa never placed himself in ethereal heights in his own work. His vision is unpretentious, blunt, non-censoring and, often, tongue-in-cheek, as any random sampling of his many thousands of verses attests:

yamabuki ni burari to ushi no fuguri kana

dangling in
the yellow roses
the bull's balls

akegata ya nebuka akari no nagashimoto

the glint of leeks
in the sink

hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso

the first snowfall
doesn't hide it...
dog poop

Another 20th century Japanese critic of Issa, Fujimoto Jitsuya , wrote a 778-page study that I happened upon in the same musty Tokyo bookstore mentioned above. On one of that book's deeply yellowed pages, we find the words: "Issa, without concern, makes poems about unsightly, unclean, shameful things ... such topics seem neither chopsticks nor canes [i.e., they are good for nothing], yet Issa encounters them with interest" (500). As an example of a "dirty" (kitanai) poem, Fujimoto cites:

shôben no ana darake nari nokori yuki

riddled with piddle
the last
snow pile

A contemporary Japanese haiku poet and scholar, Kaneko Tohta, agrees with Fujimoto, noting that Issa captures moments of everyday life that Bashô and Buson did not consider to be proper subject matter for poetry. The following verse, according to Kaneko, is one that Bashô and Buson would never have written (228-29):

yûgao no hana de hana kamu musume kana

blowing her snot
on the moonflower...
a young girl

Issa's down-to-earth vision-a vision that I link in my book to Taoist and Buddhist precedents-leads most critics in Japan to see him as less serious than Bashô or Buson: more of a haiku jokester than a haiku master. This appreciation of Issa, however, is just as skewed as the one put forth by biographical critics obsessed with cataloguing his sorrows (Ôshiki Zuike's 1984 study of the poet is titled, "The Sorrow of Life"). Even Makoto Ueda, one of Issa's champions among today's haiku scholars, ends the argument of his recent English-language book, Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, with this somber summation: "To the last days of his life Issa suffered from a deep sense of his own unworthiness, which was the basic source of his creative energy throughout his career" (167).

Iconoclastic jokester, wounded stepchild ... these are just two of many self-images projected by Issa in the course of his writing. To this list we might add: the restless traveler, the indolent napper (while others toil in the fields), the sinner ambling without concern down the road to Hell, the impoverished hermit, the loving husband and father, the grieving husband and father ... and the list goes on. What many critics miss is the fact that Issa, the creator of these images, uses them metaphorically. As I propose in my book, I believe that his "carefully crafted self-portraits reveal an Everyman whose private joys and sorrows broaden in relevance as they are artistically transformed on the page" (32). Yes, he writes from real life, but his art transcends autobiography.

chikazuki no rakugaki miete aki no kure 

friends of mine
scrawled on this wall...
autumn dusk

Biographically-minded critics such as Ueda note that this verse appears in a haibun describing a visit to Zenkôji, the Pure Land Buddhist Temple in Issa's home province, where the poet happened upon some graffiti signed, just the previous day, by people from Nagasaki whom he hadn't seen in years (143-44). His recognition of his friends' writing, grounded in real experience, inspires a poem drenched with universal significance and emotion that, in Wordsworth's phrase, "doth lie too deep for tears." Here is the sabi that Bashô advocated: easy to miss if we don't take Issa seriously or, just as bad, if we focus on his life to the exclusion of seeing his art as art.

Nakamura Rikurô was right. The phrase, "Master Issa," does sound a bit too important to fit the "human" image of Issa that the original Issa myth-maker (Issa himself) puts forth. The poet of poop, piddle and snot-leeks and bull's balls-doesn't quite seem to belong on the high, golden dais reserved for masters. If posterity puts him there, Issa will probably, frog-like, hop down to rejoin the crowd below. Perhaps this is the final test of the true "master" of haiku: he eschews the very term to mingle on equal terms with his fellow creatures, human and nonhuman. He records his experiences and theirs with the kind of immediacy and honesty that were unknown in haiku before he came along.

hana saku ya me wo nuwaretaru tori no naku

cherry blossoms--
chickens with eyes stitched shut
are clucking

Jean Cholley notes that in the poultry market in the Muromachi district of Edo (today's Tokyo), the eyes of the doomed birds were sewn shut to keep them immobile while being fattened in their cages (237). Issa sketches this not-pretty scene with blunt honesty. And though he utters no emotional words, one feels his heart going out to the birds who cannot see, and never again will see, the cherry blossoms. Some readers might slap Fujimoto's kitanai ("dirty") label on such a haiku. But this world we live in is, in fact, dirty, messy, contradictory; monstrous cruelty and breath-taking beauty arise side-by-side every day. Into this everyday world Issa plunges.

The Edo-period haiku poet who named himself Issa doesn't need me or anyone to defend him. His work can do his talking for him, and it holds up. One subscriber to my "Issa Haiku-a-Day" service, in which a randomly chosen haiku is emailed every twenty-four hours, wrote recently, "This is so contemporary. It might have been written today!" 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.

Works Cited

Cholley, Jean. En village de miséreux: Choix de poèmes de Kobayashi Issa. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

Fujimoto Jitsuya. Issa no kenkyû. Tokyo: Meiwa Insatsu, 1949.

Kaneko Tohta. Issa kushû. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1983; rpt. 1984.

Kobayashi Issa. Issa zenshû. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-79.
9 volumes.

Lanoue, David G. Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa. Reno/Tadoshi: Buddhist Books International, 2004.

_____________. "Issa: Haiku-a-Day." []

Nakamura Rikurô. Issa senshû. Kyoto: Kyoto Insatsusha, 1921; rpt. 1930.

Ô shiki Zuike. Jinsei no hiai: Kobayashi Issa. Tokyo: Shintensha, 1984.

Ueda, Makoto. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, David Lanoue earned his BA at Creighton University (1976) and his MA and PhD in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (1977, 1981). He is presently a professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

From 1984 on, he has published original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies—including Modern Haiku and Frogpond.

He conducted research in Japan in 1987 and 1988, and participated in
the N.E.H. Literary Translation Institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989. The result of this labor was his book, Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems; Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991).

Additional publications include Haiku Guy (Red Moon Press 2000), a novel about haiku, life, love, and mad, moonstruck poets, and Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa.

Online Essays:
"Confessions of a Translator-Part 1," in World Haiku Review 1.1, May 2001
"Issa's Comic Vision," in Haijinx I.2, Summer Solstice 2001
"Confessions of a Translator-Part 2," in World Haiku Review 1.2, August 2001
"A Little Help From My Friends," in World Haiku Review 1.3, November 2001
"From Translation to Creation," in World Haiku Review 2.1, March 2002
"Random Clicks" in World Haiku Review 2.2, August 2002
"Treasures from Issa," in World Haiku Review 2.3, November 2002
"Issa's Haiku Lessons," in World Haiku Review 3.1, March 2003
"Not Your Ordinary Saint: Jizô in the Haiku of Issa," in World Haiku Review 3.2, December 2003

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