Friday, August 13, 2010

Issa by Robert Hass

In last Sunday's post, I mentioned that I'd spent some time with Robert Hass's The Essential Haiku. Most of the translations are by Hass himself but, as he mentions in a note, when he couldn't better a translation by R. H. Blyth, Sam Hamill, Lucien Stryk, Makoto Ueda, or Jorie Graham, he included them. I thought over a couple of posts to highlight some of what Hass has done in choosing work by 3 of the 4 great masters for this volume, the poets being Issa, Buson, and Bashō. Previously, I featured 27 poems by Issa as rendered by Hass. Since I've revisited the translations nearly a year and a half later, I thought I'd see if any others struck me this go round.

And of course there were, 7 more to be exact.

.......Zealous flea,
you're about to be a Buddha my hand.

I love this one. Here is this pious monk, Issa, sending off a flea to its next destination for fulfilling so well its current destiny. Is it rationalization, is it serious, or is it humorous?  Well, no, it's poetry, and it made me laugh, which probably says more about me than the ku. This reminded me of an interview Bill Moyers did, probably 20 years ago, with the Dalai Lama. It was outdoors at some sort of conference, a hot summer day, they were sitting under a tree and a single, persistent fly kept lighting on the Dalai Lama, on his arm, on his face, on his head. The fly was so persistent that finally Moyers could ignore it no longer and said, "I notice this fly keeps landing on you and yet you remain perfectly still. Is it because all life is sacred." And this was his answer:

.......The holes in the wall
play the flute
.......this evening.

Issa is so poor that his hut is full of holes and yet what does he make of it but music.

........From the end of the nose
of the Buddha on the moor
........hang icicles.

When I first read this one I didn't like it much. But when I thought more about it, how the vapor from breathe, too, can form icicles, I realized there was more here than I originally assumed.

.......face of the spring moon-
about twelve years old
.......I'd say.

Here is another where the poet, with a touch of Zen, catches the reader off guard.   How deep might one dig for the truism herein.  When reading this I think of the adage, it is the moon and not the finger pointing at it.

.......Fleas in my hut,
it's my fault look so skinny.

Like with the hut with holes, we see here that Issa is so impoverished he feels obliged to apologize to his friends, the fleas, because he is so skinny himself he can't feed them very well.


.......Her row veering off,
the peasant woman plants
.......toward her crying child.

Issa, the orphan, was always appreciative of attentive parents and longed for that attention himself. Here he observes what others might overlook.

.......The moon tonight-
I even miss
.......her grumbling

Possibly for his wife, who died before him, his sadness overwhelms his thoughts, and this reader.  The melancholy humor is typical of Issa in its resonance.

.......The world of dew
is the world of dew.
.......And yet, and yet ...

The most famous of these 7, this poem in 13 monosyllabic words encompasses the entire world and the summation of all of knowledge, be it religious, philosophical, scientific or spiritual. Here is all we know, and all we don't know, about our life on this tiny spinning ball. He did this with a couple of the 20,000 plus poems he wrote - I'm thinking about the one with the insect on the branch singing as it is carried downstream  and the one about walking on hell's roof gazing at flowers - huge philosophical statements about life summed up in a few slight words.

It's amazing to me that this time round, from over 100 poems by Issa translated by Hass, I picked between 35 to 40 and, of those, 27 were the same as I'd picked before.


This week's feature poem from the Lilliput archive is by British poet David Lindley and was originally published in issue #139 in October 2004.  Things being what they are, anytime a poet composes a haiku with a frog, a comparison is inevitable.  This one, however, gives a different angle to man's place in nature and, for that matter, Mr. Frog's, too.

My hand trailing in
the water.  The frog and I
surprise each other.
David Lindley

old pond--
please, you go first
frog jumping
translated by David G. Lanoue

Here is David Lanoue's note to this Issa poem:

This haiku has the prescript, "Looking at the ruins of Bashô's hut." The opening phrase, "old pond" (furu ike ya), is a playful reference to Bashô's famous haiku: furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto:

old pond--
the frog jumps in
with a splash

Shinji Ogawa adds, "I would like to point out the humor Issa put into the haiku. The old pond is not any pond but the pond of the great haiku master Bashô. Therefore, there must be the descendants of Bashô's frog [in the pond]. The ordinary frogs, perhaps Issa's, must pay respect to the frogs of high birth. When it comes to this type of humor, Issa towers above the rest."



Ed Baker said...

such-much absence of humor
in/ via today's (English-language)"haiku" mystifies me...

once seen everything changes
especially through these three Immortals (Issa, Buson and
Basho ... Winkin', Blinkin', and Nod):

my reply to the "frog" poem and the 10,000 other replies:

far beyond moon frog leaps
far beyond frog moon leaps

(take your pick)

this book is an essential read... just don't eat it!

Charles Gramlich said...

I just love Issa's humor, and it's something I'm just not able to capture myself.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Indeed, Ed - I like them but am leaning toward the second (today):

far beyond frog moon leaps

Charles, today it is difficult to comprehend the life of poverty of monks like Issa.

As you both note, it is the in the humor, tho sometimes grim, that Issa transcends manny moe and jack ...

Ed Baker said...

me thinks that these-then mendicant monks were well circuit-riders/walkers and were
well taken care of...sort of by their constituency

just trek along with Ryokkan

who comes to mind closer to our times?

Santoka and Nanao Sakaki... both went: INCH BY INCH

singing, dancing, drinking

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

singing, dancing, drinking

Ah, there it is ...

Ed Baker said...

we'll all go to the Everyday Gourmet Café when it re:opens

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, thanks for posting the link ... fine work.

peachy queen said...

temple steps

our wet footprints


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

pq ... very nice. Don