Friday, September 10, 2010

Poems from Dew on the Grass: Issa

Makoto Ueda, the author of Matsuo Bashō: the Master Haiku Poet (while searching for this link, I found this example of a google books scan gone kerfuffle) and Bashō and His Interpreters among other seminal works on Japanese poetry, wrote a book on Issa entitled Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa that some folks know about and not enough have seen.  Fortunately, my library has a copy so I have gotten to see it.  There are 15 copies available via, both used and new, starting at $129. There are 11 copies available via abebooks at the lower rate of $105. Evidently books from Brill's Japanese Studies Library are priced liked this right from the get-go.

Welcome to the world of Haiku Academia.

If anyone's analysis is worth this kind of dough, it is Makoto Ueda.  His biography of Bashō is a master work and belongs on the shelf of any serious student of haiku.  I am looking forward to settling in with Dew on the Grass sometime in the near future.

In the interim, I did get the opportunity to read the 200 plus translations that Makoto Ueda has provided in Dew.  It is always a great pleasure to find new translations from the vast store of 20,000 plus haiku Issa wrote.  Despite such a large body of work, we often read the same relatively small set of poems translated again and again.  We are regularly reminded by the experts that Issa wrote a lot of mediocre verse; anyone who has spent time exploring David G. Lanoue excellent massive database of Issa's poems (or has signed up for his "Issa Haiku-a-Day" email service as I have) knows there is some truth to this statement.  It is amazing to me that anyone could write 30, 40, 50 or even more poems that survive for posterity; Issa has certainly done that and, as such, will forever be a pillar of the haiku canon.  Think of the volumes and volumes of verse by the great poets of all countries and persuasions from which we remember a handful to a dozen poems at best and we realize what an accomplishment this is, not in spite of all their bad verse, but because of it.

Think of all the mediocre cabinets the master cabinet makers built before they excelled in their trade. 

Here are 19 poems that got my attention in Dew.  I've tried to highlight ones I've never seen rendered before, though there are the occasionally familiar poems that I couldn't resist since they reveal new dimensions in Makoto Ueda's astute translations.  I also recalled a couple of poems while reading these, which I transcribed from memory, that felt related in either subject or mood.

to tell the truth
I too like sweet dumplings
better than blossoms

Ever honest, Issa tells it like it is.  Evidently, from the phrasing he seems to be watching someone (or perhaps others) at dinner or a festival digging in with relish and recognizes their humanity in himself.

"Get ready to die,
get ready to die," so say
the cherry blossoms

This is a haiku that has been translated before and is one of Issa's most important.  The significance of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture can hardly be over emphasized.  Though Westerners see the beauty in them, they don't necessarily contemplate the full implication, the wabi-sabi, of the tradition of cherry blossom viewing.  Here Issa reminds us that in the cherry blossom we see how very brief life is, whether measured in mere days, as with the blossoms, or years or decades.  Beautiful and transient, lovely with a deep shade of sadness, the cherry blossoms touch the soul. 

the loneliness---
whichever way I look
wild violets

Haiku often have two distinct parts, which the poet uses for contrast and comparison.  Sometimes, the link is not apparent and this is when we must feel or sense what the poet is after.  Beauty and loneliness, like beauty and transience, are in contrast here and the messages are related.  To paraphrase Issa's famous death verse ("a bath when you're born / a bath when you die / how stupid!"), you're born alone, you die alone, how poignant.

cicadas' screech---
so utterly red
a pinwheel

I pulled up when I read this one.  The imagistic style of Buson immediately comes to mind.  This feels as if the moment truly wrote the poem, evoking the idea of synesthesia, a common enough stylistic device with Buson and even Bashō .  The cicadas in Pittsburgh were certainly bright red this summer.

blown away
by the horse's fart
a firefly

Well, Master Issa always likes to have his bit of fun and here it is.  High art?  Maybe not.  Pointless?  Definitely not.  Humor in Issa is of great importance.  If the loneliness highlighted by wild violets is almost unbearable, the stupidity of life itself maddening, the sadness of cherry blossoms overwhelming, the humor of life is all-important.  Humor in fact is the answer for many a great philosopher and the refuge of the humble.

Plus, this just must have been a moment to see!

for each fly
that's swatted, I call on
"The Merciful Buddha!"

This seems slightly different than Issa's poems about swatting mosquitoes while praying to Buddha or sending a mosquito off to its next incarnation.  The sentiment is there; the contrast of praying and killing is one that speaks to the essence of human nature.  So many wars are waged in the name of major religions.

brushing the flies away
from his prostrate body---
today is the last time!

This poem written at his father's death is deeply moving; to be thinking this during the very moments of dying evokes at once the sadness and prescience which can be so often muddled in the rush of emotions surrounding the death experience.

in the blue sky
I scroll letters with a finger---
the end of autumn

Another poem that caught me by surprise from Issa and one I have no idea about.  It feels as if there is some cultural implication that I'm unaware of, yet the image is striking enough to be moving in itself.  The act of creation here is portrayed as fleeting as the season itself, the creator truly seeing the work in the larger context.  Art, too, is transient.

as it falls
the peony lets drop the rain
of yesterday

Makota Ueda nails this one which I've seen translated a variety of ways.  The peony has held the water for a day, since yesterday's rain, and the moment when the weight overwhelms the flower captures in miniature the cycle of all things.

moss in bloom
on his little scars---
stone Buddha

Again, this is a familiar haiku that is extremely evocative in Makota Ueda's translation.  It all turns on the word "scars," which I don't ever recall seeing previously in the context of this poem.  Truly a perfect poem, dovetailing as it does philosophy and lyricism.

that loner
must be my star---
Heaven's River

There are a number of poems about the Milky Way (Heaven's River) in this collection, ones that have been variously rendered by well-known translators.  This one, however, is new to me and quintessentially Issa.  Even in the great pattern of the stars, the Milky Way, Issa spots the loner that he identifies with, just as he does with lone sparrows and bugs.

life on earth
is as evanescent as dew---
why kill yourself?

Here is a philosophical poem with highly charged emotional and psychological underpinnings.  This from the same poet who gave us "The world of dew / is a world of dew ... / and yet, and yet ...," written on the death of his daughter.   There is a very real, very powerful connection between these two poems, if I'm not sorely mistaken.  "The world of dew" is almost universally present in selections of Issa's work; I've never seen any version of "life on earth" that I know of.

There is nothing more transitory than dew, which is what brings such force to "The world of dew" haiku.  The world is simply a world of dew, "but a moment's sunlight, fading in the grass," and yet, and yet ... is there something else?  It is a wish one suspects Issa sorrowfully doubts, which gives the poem its pathos.  By the same token, that very doubt is what gives strength  to "life on earth."

he is careful
not to sit on the blooming grass:
the wrestler who won

Another traditional senryu/haiku, not very typical of Issa - but so wonderful.  The massive sumo wrestler's respect for delicate new grass is poignant in apparent contrast with his profession.  Perhaps there is a hint here of sumo's origins in Shinto religion and observance.

a wild duck in my yard
when I arrive back home
glares at me

This seems to be all about ownership or, more precisely, not about ownership.  Nature in Issa's work is about interacting, no laying back and observing here.  My guess is that our protagonists talked this one out.

as I hug my knees
another leaf falls

It takes but a single leaf for Issa to tell exactly how cold and desolate he feels this late autumn night.

the morning glory---
no human face is pure
of blemishes

There have been other versions of this poem that I have seen and enjoyed but this one sidesteps an overt comparison of its two elements, feeling more objective in its execution.  This is a favorite of mine, as are morning glories and, yes, human faces.

"How mean it looks!"
blowfish must think, gazing
at a human face

Another haiku that is new to me.   I'm not for the anthropomorphic approach in any poetic form, especially haiku.  Still this gives the reader insight to what Issa feels people think about blowfish and what Issa thinks about people.

bright like a gem
the New Year begins to dawn
on my lice

Even for the lice it is a bright beautiful New Year's - from this translation it is difficult to gather the mood, but knowing Issa and his reverence for his bug menagerie, I'm thinking upbeat.

mother I never knew---
each time I look over the sea
over the sea

This is a poem that transcends culture, language, and lyrical boundaries - to repeat 3 words in a 14 word poem, leaving only 8 to sketch it out and to compose a masterpiece of love, emotion, and longing, well, this is why Issa is Master Issa around here.

The repetition breaks the heart.


This week's featured poem is by Britain's David Lindley, whose fine work has appeared in Lilliput quite often, and originally appeared in #134, in October 2003.

On the stream we float
little boats made from walnut
halves with paper sails.

All that has ever been is
still endlessly voyaging.
David Lindley

"Look! Plum blossoms!"
the little boat
turns around
translated by David G. Lanoue


PS  Get 2 free issues     Get 2 more free issues     Lillie poem archive


Ed Baker said...

track down:

Journal of My Father's Last Days. Issa's Chichi no Shuen Nikki
-Robert N. Huey

Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Spring, 1984), pp. 25-54

this is (I got it) via
J STOR before you had to join up and get a pass-word ... I think that J STOR (now) requires a user to be "connected" to/with some Academic Situation/Institution

good 'stuff' in your post today...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Hey, Ed, thanks a lot. You tipped me to this article awhile back and it is great. I was able to get it through my library ... they pay for it. Not everybody is so lucky.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wonderful. I've seen so very few of these. Great to get new ones. That book is a bit out of my price range, for sure.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for the reference to Ueda's work and some superb haiku analysis of your own. You've made my day!

I appreciate the comment about the relatively unknown mediocrity of a lot of work produced by even the masters. Which is, ironically enough, a good thing (as you say) because the bad verse act as a foil to the good stuff.The very best will be remembered always for only a few great pieces (unless you're Milton, Shakespeare, of course).I think of Wordsworth's sonnets which he wrote at the end of his career: all pretty rank and amateurish.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Very glad you liked these, they really did grab me, too.


I'm very happy that what I said made sense regarding even the great poets. I went on about this at greater length in a review I did for my day job. I think it might be up your street.


Theresa Williams said...

I enjoyed your commentaries. They really embellished the works. And I'm a believer that farts make any literature better literature. There's just no way to lose. I think of the wonderful Native American Trickster tales about farts, piss, and shit. Should we be too good to speak of these thing? Thanks, Don.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Well, what could be more nature-al? This is the essence of what makes haiku important to me - returning us to our natural selves, reminding us what we are.

We can all fool around with who we are after we recall the other ...

Glad you enjoyed the post ...