Life, nature, humanity and haiku

COOL MELONS — TURN TO FROGS! THE LIFE AND POEMS OF ISSA

Story and translations by Matthew Gollub, illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone (New York: Lee and Low Books, 1998, 40 pp., $9.95, paperback)

Poignant English translations of Issa’s haiku, the same poem written in Japanese calligraphy, accompanied by biographical material about the life of the poet, comprise each page of this volume. Together with vivid watercolor and colored pencil illustrations, this book makes haiku both appealing and approachable. Issa is one of the world’s best-known haiku poets.

What is haiku? It’s a Japanese poem containing 17 syllables. The poems contain three lines, the first containing five syllables, the second containing seven syllables, and the third line five syllables. Haiku generally describe a single moment in nature. Sometimes a haiku juxtaposes two events. Here’s an example.

Plum tree in bloom
a cat’s silhouette
upon the paper screen
.

“A haiku, because of its brevity, resembles a quick line sketch. It’s up to the reader to imagine the details and to make the picture complete.” In the poem above, the reader must decide how or if the two images are related.

With that brief explanation, let’s proceed to the haiku in the book.

Lilies blooming
thick and fast,
a skylark’s lonesome cry.

This poem shares a page with the information that Issa’s father regretfully sent his 14-year-old son to live away from home because the young boy was constantly at odds with his stepmother. Issa traveled to the large city of Edo, now called Tokyo, finding work as a stable boy or servant. As a young man he found a master poet and asked to be trained in exchange for janitorial work. His talent became apparent, and Issa became a teacher. After a time he left teaching to become a traveling poet for seven years, walking from place to place, observing the seasons, the animals, sleeping in temples and composing haiku.

While I have not previously enjoyed haiku, I found these poems endearing. The author says Issa had “affection for small creatures — or for almost anything he found along his path.”

Motherless sparrow
come play
with me.

Years passed, and Issa returned to his village to nurse his ailing father in the final months of his life. His father asked Issa to settle in the family farmhouse and raise a family. Attempting to honor his father’s request, Issa tried unsuccessfully to live under the same roof with his stepmother. So bitter were their feelings toward each other that eventually a wall was built dividing the house in two. Issa and his stepfamily did not speak.

When he was 51, Issa married a young woman and they had a beloved daughter.

Crawl! Laugh! Just like that.
You’re two years old
This morning.

Sadly, the child died of smallpox, as did Issa’s succeeding children. Then Issa lost his wife. He turned to his haiku for comfort. During his lifetime he wrote more than 20,000 haiku. He died at the age of 64.

 A motionless horse,
at peace in the field,
in the quietly falling snow.

Though commonly known as Issa, Kobayashi Yataro (1763-1827) was his given name. He later adopted the name Haikaiji Nyudo Issa-bo, which means Brother Issa, Lay Priest of the Temple of Poetry.

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