Friday, August 17, 2007

Issa -- a Poetry Friday post

Today I thought I'd offer a brief look at one of the great haiku masters, Kobayashi Issa. He was born in Japan in 1763 to a farming family, and given the name Yataro. His registered name was later Nobuyuki, but he is best known by his pen name, "Issa." At the age of 25 (24 in the Western tradition of calculating age -- a child was considered age 1 at birth in Japan), Issa was enrolled in a haiku school run by Chikua. After Chikua's death, in 1791 (at the age of 29), Issa spent about 10 years travelling to other provinces in order to study and write haiku. During his poetic journeys, he mastered the form and found his own particular style.

In translating Issa (or any other foreign poet), the syllable count for the best translation may differ from the 5-7-5 of the traditional haiku. Here's a particularly funny one from 1795 (although I think there's a Zen-like truth in there, as well):

also changing
into a summer robe...
my journey's lice

In 1802, Issa moved to the Shogun capital, Edo (now Tokyo), where he spent a decade as a teacher of the haiku form. In 1813, Issa returned to his home village in order to start a family. I should note that Issa was, at this point, in his 50s. (Late bloomer?) Issa continued to teach and write poetry until his death in 1827. He reached his peak as a teacher and poet in the years between 1813-1824.

Here's one from 1822, during his "peak":

Insects on a bough
floating downriver,
still singing.

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