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 |

What can be learned about writing from this prolific poet?

There’s a personal openness in directly relating his feelings and thoughts.

And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations.
. . .  I welcome the New Year just as I am.

New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring
(tr. Hamill)

His story feels real. There’s no hint of fiction in the service of writing a good story. This isn’t to say that Issa’s journal is factually accurate. As Woodward has stated,

In the case of Basho’s Narrow Road, for example, the diary of his traveling companion, Sora, was rediscovered and the various departures from Sora's factual reporting demonstrate that Basho's goal was art, not exactitude, and that he took many liberties to achieve his aim.22

This should come as no surprise to writers of haibun, with its emphasis on reportage and storytelling. To have our stories evoke the sentiments we wish them to convey, we select facts, pay attention to sequencing and use language with care in an attempt to make them interesting and poetic.

Issa’s language is plain-spoken, yet poetic. He knows how to turn a phrase. His prose is succinct, yet his use of simile and metaphor enriches what otherwise might be what Ken Jones eschews as “mud banks.” That is, Jones sees much haibun prose as “narrations   . . .   rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku” which he likens to “diamonds in mud banks.” 23

Among Issa’s passages that I found well written are:

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way.

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.

. . . though the path ahead be difficult and steep, like a snow-covered road winding through the mountains, I welcome the New Year — even as I am.

His passage contains bits of philosophizing, his feelings about certain cultural practices and Buddhist philosophy as well as allusions to literature:

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.

Overall, the passage captures my interest in the man and his times despite the common pronouncements that haibun and should not contain very much ‘telling’ and that haiku should focus mainly on ‘showing’. Were there an imbalance in the mix of show and tell, Issa’s piece would read more like a social essay. As written, the mix feels like what I expect in a contemporary haibun.

To this point, one of Lanoue’s ‘Issa Haiku-a-Day’ readers attests to the immediacy of Issa’s haiku: "This is so contemporary. It might have been written today!" And in response Lanoue writes: “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.”

Issa’s and Basho’s approaches to their journals.

In AHG’s inaugural issue I wrote a commentary on the passage “Hiraizumi” from Basho’s travel journal, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) .

In preparing this essay on Issa’s journal I noticed how different Issa’s style and structure is from Basho's. I corresponded on this issue with Jeffrey Woodward and he offered the following in an email correspondence:

Basho situates his own book within the travel genre; its organization therefore follows his itinerary which, as Japanese literary tradition would have it, is centered around "poetic places," spots made famous by poems written over the generations. These poetic places offer a chronological sequence in his visitation and allusion (based on the poems previously composed about them). The very absence of any such convention in the UK or North America, of poetic places with conventional associations based upon the poems composed there, is one reason that travel haibun in English are so often impoverished. The structure of Issa’s Oraga doesn't have an itinerary, as his intended pilgrimage is comically cut short by his own homesickness, and so, at a first glance, his haibun seem to be a tissue of anecdotes, some concerning himself, others concerning memorable characters such as the New Year's priest, the gardener with his false paper peonies, etc. You cannot look at Basho for parallels but must turn, therefore, to Sei Shōnagon’s “Pillow Book”, Kamo no Chōmei’s "An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut" and Yoshida Kenkō’s “Essays in Idleness”. While Issa presents what superficially appear to be many disconnected anecdotes, the anecdotes, observations and poems are like so many beads quietly joined by unifying threads (motifs) such as his daughter's death and his general reflections upon mutability, his impoverished status and his willingness to "leave it all to the Buddha.” The repetition of major motifs, with variations, is what makes the chaotic surface phenomena cohere at the deeper level.