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Japanese Ink painting of man on a donkey with fields in the background

Kobayashi Issa: Master and Rebel of Haiku


Deeply innovative even within one of poetry’s stricter genres, Issa is among haiku’s most emblematic exponents...

The artifice in poetry that we so marvel over takes its most discreet (nearly imperceptible) form in Japanese haiku. Lyrical miniatures, they’re constructed with but a few words and still less imagery, yet they dazzle in subtlety and brevity. This very simplicity, designed for maximum impact, is a sort of spiritual blow. It breaks the logical sequence of much lyric poetry and closes with a paradoxical, singular, unexpected ending. Haikus are tiny, limited portraits of but an instant, and whose echo continues even long after the poem has ended.

The particular graphic quality and depth of the genre has attracted the attention of some of the most fascinating literary minds; Jorge Luis Borges, Ezra Pound and Octavio Paz come to mind. The author Alan Watts, another lover of haiku, once described haiku as a piece that, more than any other work of art, might seem like a work of nature. The relation of this particular poetry to the natural world is evident as well in its imagination: we think of the animals and plants who inhabit it, and its constant references to the seasons of the year or to meteorological phenomena (like fog).

Among the great masters of haiku -Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Masaoka Shiki – one stands out for his originality and courage: Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). His life was marked by sadness, misery, and loss, and these are reflected, in an unexpected way, within his poetry.

Nearness, perhaps one of the most evident characteristics of Issa’s poetry, marks a new stylistic pattern in the haiku universe. Unlike the of other greats of the genre, Issa’s poems abound in sad, ironic references. Above all, they’re near to the intimate side of his life. Perhaps this is one reason Issa’s work was never fully accepted in his own time. It may also explain why many experts believe that Issa opened the genre to a wider audience; not through vulgarization, but through a pristine approach to events in the human dimension.

Kobayashi Issa wrote about 20,000 haikus during his lifetime. They were often accompanied by drawings he made himself. Below are but seven of them …

Goes out,

comes back—

the love life of a cat.

*     *     *

All the time I pray to Buddha

I keep on

killing mosquitoes.

*     *     *

The snow is melting

and the village is flooded

with children.

*     *     *

For you fleas too

the night must be long,

they must be lonely.

*     *     *

On a branch

floating downriver

a cricket, singing.

*     *     *

Don’t worry, spiders,

I keep house


*     *     *

Napped half the day;

no one

punished me!


English translations: Robert Hass


*Image: Public Domain

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