Friday, December 3, 2010

The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa

A couple of weeks back, I uncharacteristically took a lunch hour off and went to a favorite local used bookshop.  To my delight and surprise, I ran across, among other things, two signed limited edition chapbooks of translations by one of my favorite translators, Lucien Stryk.

The volume pictured above, which I'll be taking a look at today, is entitled The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, rendered by Stryk along with Takashi Ikemoto.   I am absolutely thrilled to have this collection, which was limited to 250 copies signed by Stryk, and was published by Rook Press of Derry, Pennsylvania.   To have an Issa collection translated by a Stryk is simply sublime.

As I've noted previously and others much more knowledgeable have before me, the power of Stryk's renderings are in their brevity.  Somehow Stryk manages to portray all the delicacy, power, and resonance of Issa with fewer syllables and words than so many other translators.  Many of the haiku, if not new to me, are effectively new in these succinct, pointed renderings.  Stryk captures mystery, via both his selections and their translations, in a way that is missing from more literal, prosaic versions.

Changing clothes,
but not
the wanderer's lice.

This particular haiku is familiar yet transformed by Styrk; his use of the third person ("the wanderer's') opens the poem up to a more universal view, while still decidedly residing in the physical realm.  It is the plight of the wanderer, the plight of the poor man, the plight of the priest/beggar.

Tonight you too
are rushed,
autumn moon.

The moon reminds the poet of what he is about or, more specifically, how he is about.  This haiku is its mood, the outer realm seeming to reflect the inner.

Buddha Law,
in leaf dew.

I don't remember this particular haiku, though there are certainly plenty of Issa dew drop poems.  What is "Buddha Law" referred to here?  I would think the 4 Noble Truths (plus the 8 Fold Path), but this is only conjecture on my part.  Certainly, when dew is referenced in haiku, we think of its symbolic significance in pointing out the transient nature of all life; this rendering simultaneously captures the beauty and magnificence of all life.

A good world,
dew-drops fall
by ones, by twos.

Would that be as opposed to falling by dozens and dozens?   Well, yes, I think so.  Life may be transient but it plays out at its own pace and, as with the Tao, we flow with it.

all creeping things-
the bell of transience.

I seem focused on Issa's evocation of transience.  What is the bell of transience Issa refers all creeping (i.e. all living) things to?  Certainly, I can only speculate and if it is something specific, I'll be wrong.  Still, the bell is silent, the bell is rung, the bell resounds, the bell fades.

The bell is silent.

Where there are humans
you'll find flies,
and Buddhas.

I'm sure I've quoted this one before - and I'm sure I'll quote it again.  Issa turns the world on its ear and loves.

First cicada:
life is
cruel, cruel, cruel.

I don't remember this one at all and it exemplifies Issa's immense sympathy with insect life.  And humans because, well, the insect may be living it, but humans are reading it (and living it, too).  The struggle of the first cicada of the season may be reflected in the cry Issa hears or at least his perception of it.

Autumn wind-
mountains shadow

A great example of classic haiku translated as succinctly as it possibly can be.  It makes me un-remember the versions I've read before.  Little insects, plants, trees, people - even huge mountains - all bowing to the wind.

Never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.

This is just wonderful - Robert Hass's version, nearly as succinct, is also a favorite:

----In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
----gazing at flowers.
             translated by Robert Hass

Stryk's "Never forget" is more direct, less philosophical, but both have their virtues. 

From the bough
floating down river,
insect song.

To be fair, this is one in which Hass has the superior, just as brief, version:

----Insects on a bough,
floating down river,
----still singing.

The Hass version is more active, more present in the moment, though both are in the present tense.  One translator chooses the singular "insect," the other the plural, as there is no distinction in the original. Why the difference?  To be fair again, Stryk's did come first and therefore was available perhaps to consult.  That can, of course, work to disadvantage when a later translator spots an opening, goes for it and falls short.  To mix the metaphor, one can paint oneself into a corner.  Sometimes avoiding what came before can be fatal, or at least result in sticky soles.    

In any case, both translators use the utmost brevity to great advantage.

Under cherry trees
there are
no strangers.

I have a crewel-point version of this one on my wall, done by someone who is no longer with us, and so I can't be objective.   Everything about it radiates the love, though there are technically better translations.

Dew spread,
the seeds of hell
are sown.

This is a little bit of darkness I've never seen before and I find it simultaneously powerful and very good.  Although the metaphor seems contradictory in light of this haiku's more famous cousin above, I'd say it depends whether or not you know how to stand on your head.


in the dragonfly's eye

I've seen this one translated badly time and again - except this time.   The classic haiku theme of contrast between the very large and very small, this time perfectly dovetailed together, has never been captured better than in Master Issa's fine, fine poem.

Cherry blossoms?
In these parts
grass also blooms.

The one thing I would say is missing from the selection above is an abundance of Issa humor - this one making up for it in spades.   A real beauty.

Finally, here's the signed title page.


This week's selection from the Lilliput archive comes from #121, another poem by Albert Huffsticker I believe hasn't seen the light of day since December 2001.  Enjoy.

I was born
into a body
and set out in it
to learn who
I was.  I saw
no contradiction
in this.
Albert Huffstickler

stubborn they are
even while trampled...
cherry blossoms
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Gabi Greve said...

Thanks for the review !
Gabi from Japan

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Glad you enjoyed. And you have such amazing haiku yourself ... very impressive.


haikucrossroads said...

At the end of the day, Issa is the man and Chiyo-ni the woman. Another nice item, buddy.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, HC ...

Anonymous said...



it jus goes-uh-show
less is more


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Charles Gramlich said...

That top one made my skin crawl. "Not the lice." POwerful.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Don, your liking of Issa's poem about flowers on the roof of hell prompts me to point you to a poem of mine. See it at

And what a wonderful book to find. Even if the poems later ended up in more widely published books by Stryk, it would still be irresistable not to have the books you found. What an inviting review, too -- thanks for writing it.


Theresa Williams said...

Thanks for this entry. One of the haiku really helped me to streamline one of my own. This is one of those nights when everything I read lends itself to my work. Miracle. What a lucky find for you, Don!

Haiku Crossroads said...

That Issa hell ku is great, I also like his wry poke at Emma, king of Hell - a psychedelic classic! Check it out here:

in this world
we walk under heaven
gazing at footprints

— s⁰17

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

HC ... thanks for this ... hadn't seen the Emma mushroom ku, though a passing familiarity with the mushrooms I won't deny. Will have to feature this one sometime.

Also, love Issa inversion!

Poet Hound said...

Dear Don,
I enjoyed learning about Stryk and your comparison to Hass' translations of Issa. There are quite a few wonderful used book stores around here that I drop in on from time to time and I'm always looking for gems like the one you found.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks very much for the kind words and link to your poem, which I enjoyed. I've been on the road, like Issa, and this was my first chance to get back.

The companion volume I go along with Duckweed Way, entitled "Haiku of the Japanese Masters," also translated by Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, I hope to be covering in a future post. Thanks for reading.