A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014

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Issa’s Humanity and Humour:
A Haibun Passage from His Travel Journal Oraga Haru

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 |

About Issa’s Poetry

I had not previously read haibun prose by Issa, but I’d been particularly attracted to his haiku for its humour, accessibility, plain talk and focus on the creatures of the earth. David Lanoue, whose Haiku Guy website on Issa is perhaps the best Internet resource, puts it this way:

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.11

A favorite of Issa’s haiku of mine is:

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house
(tr. Robert Hass)12

This example and Lanoue’s comment isn’t to say that Issa’s haiku lack depth. Consider:

So hospitably
waving at the entrance gate–
the willow tree.
(tr. Henderson)13

According to Henderson,
At first sight this is primarily a sympathetic description of a willow – which of course it is. But we can appreciate Issa's feelings when he wrote the poem far more deeply after we are told that there was a willow at the entrance of his own house, from which he was so long kept out by his stepmother.

While some consider Issa’s poetry lesser than that of the other masters, Lanoue puts another light on its quality:

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’s haiku) leave no doubt as to what he thinks about "important" people who occupy this world's high seats14:

looks like boss frog
in the high seat
(tr. David Lanoue)

perhaps a haiga by Ron, here?