Issa’s Haiku Lessons

MARCH 2003

Haiku In Education

Issa’s Haiku Lessons
David G. Lanoue, Phd.
Xavier University of Louisiana, USA

This semester, I’m happy to be teaching, for the very first time, a seminar on Global Haiku: a senior-level class at Xavier University of Louisiana. So far, we’ve pondered Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho, William Higginson and Penny Harter’s The Haiku Handbook, and Richard Wright’s Haiku: This Other World. In addition to such scholarly study, we have plunged into several hands-on activities, including class kukai and renku.

Those who know me will not be surprised that I’ve also thrown my “Kobayashi Issa” website into the mix, instructing the class to visit and work on the five “For Students” lessons, in which Issa provides examples of key aspects of haiku, in general, and of his own haiku, in particular. In other words, Issa has become my virtual guest lecturer.

Lesson 1 illustrates one of the most striking and endearing qualities of Issa’s style: his sympathetic and loving treatment of animals. A prime example of this is one of the poet’s most famous verses:

yasegaeru makeru na issa kore ni ari

scrawny frog, fight on!
to the rescue

In his diary, Issa explains, “I stooped to watch a frog scuffle on the 20th day of Fourth Month.” Evidently, he did not remain an impartial observer, but plunged into the fray to help out the “scrawny frog.” Literally, the last phrase reads: “Issa is here!” A comic poem, the haiku illustrates sincere compassion for one’s fellow beings. My students were asked to scour the online archive and come up with similar poems involving animals. Here are some of their choices:

uguisu no mane shite ireba uguisu yo

while imitating
a nightingale…
a nightingale!

aoume ni te wo kakete neru kawazu kana

resting his hands
on the green plum…
the frog sleeps

Geralyn L. Buford picked the first haiku; Karla Vincent, the second–after which they tried their own hands at Issa-esque animal poems:

no need for laughter,
tears are natural too

Geralyn Buford
Eager spider
Explores the terrain
of the fern

Karla Vincent

Geralyn uses Issa’s technique of direct address: speaking to the hyena as if it is a person who understands human speech. Karla’s haiku captures the warm sympathy with which Issa regards his fellow creatures: one feels, with her, the spider’s sense of excitement as it explores the new territory of the fern. With Master Issa’s direction, two interesting modern haiku are born.

Jamilah D. Smith’s animal haiku has a harder, more modern edge to it:

the roach crawls
under the shoe’s shadow

Jamila Smith

At first glance, Jamilah’s poem seems to lack Issa’s compassion, but its humorous tone places it firmly in the Japanese master’s tradition. Issa wrote his share of bug-killing haiku, a good example being this minimalist, wry composition:

hae hitotsu utte wa yama wo mitari keri

swatting at a fly
looking at
a mountain

Lessons 2 and 3 are interrelated: “The Art of Surprise” and “Juxtaposition.” In these exercises, students are exposed to examples of haiku that end with surprises: revelations of the unexpected. The opening phrases set up the delight of unpredictable conclusions, just as a skillful comic sets up a punch line. Much of this surprise derives from juxtaposition, a good haiku being, essentially, a two-part poem where consciousness moves from one thing/idea to another thing/idea. The farther apart the two things/ideas, the greater the energy generated…and the greater the delight.

Nekkeya Glover chose this Issa poem as an example of strong, energy-packed juxtaposition:

ominaeshi karamitsuke keri shiwa ashi ni

by the maiden flower…
my wrinkled foot

She writes, “I expected him to mention an insect. I like the juxtaposition of a maiden flower to a wrinkled foot.” Geralyn Buford was similarly impressed by the surprise ending of this haiku:

murasame ni sukkuri tatsu ya daikon hiki

in the rain shower
standing straight…
the radish puller

Geralyn comments, “It is important to be unpredictable in haiku because you want to keep the reader’s interest.” I agree; the pleasant shocks that Issa provides in poem after poem are what keep me motivated as a translator. I dive again and again into my dog-eared Issa zenshû, eager to decipher the next happy, unpredictable leap.

Geralyn selected another haiku to exemplify juxtaposition in Issa:

karasura mo koi wo seyo tote yaku no kana

make love, crows
while you can!
burning fields

This poem, she believes,

represents the intensity of life to fulfill every moment. Most people think of crows as pests, but here Issa gives them a softer side, with passion. The break before ‘burning fields’ adds urgency to the beautiful event.

Inspired by Issa’s example, Geralyn has composed her own poem of juxtaposition and surprise:

the dancer’s thoughts–
arabesque, grand plié
all-you-can-eat buffet

Geralyn Buford

Though this is more senryu than haiku (a topic that we haven’t yet gotten to in class), Geralyn portrays a funny and surprising leap of consciousness within the diligent, yet hungry, dancer’s mind.

Karla Vincent picked this next haiku as an example of dramatic juxtaposition in Issa:

neko tsuka ni shôgatsu saseru gomame kana

on the cat’s grave
in First Month…
dried sardines

The combination of images is indeed striking. A child (or perhaps Issa) has left a New Year’s present on the little grave: the dried sardines that the cat once loved. Karla took her instruction from Issa and used it to compose her own “leaping” haiku:

Little girl
Reflects in puddles
of tears

Karla Vincent

In one of the exercises, I invite students to take the first two lines of any Issa haiku of their choosing, and then to write their own new ending, striving for interesting juxtaposition and surprise. Karla submitted a poem that, I’m sure, Issa would appreciate:

from the pines
frogs watch, too…
lovers bathing in the moonlight

Karla Vincent

The original poem by Issa has quite a different conclusion:

matsu no ki ni kawazu mo miru miya sumô

from the pines
frogs watch, too…
sumo wrestling

Lesson 4 deals with “Seasons in Haiku.” Students are asked to explore seasonality in Issa and to consider the importance of seasons to traditional haiku as well as to their own. The class came up with their own American season words, as the following selections show.

Too humid to fly,
The dragonfly seeks shade
Under my newspaper

Geralyn Buford

Sleigh bells faintly sound
Children’s laughter slowly fades
Snowflakes on my nose

Allison Jackson

the clock strikes twelve
lips connect
and are frozen together

Jamilah Smith

The smell of
Burnt paper
And champagne

Karla Vincent

Geralyn uses “humid” to suggest summer, particularly the sweltering, heavy-wet summer of the Deep South, where our university is located. Allison deftly evokes the Christmas season, while Jamilah suggests a New Year’s Eve scene. Karla’s New Year’s poem is a bit more abstract and, to my eyes, more modern-seeming: the “burnt paper” highly suggestive without being explicit.

In the final lesson, “Concreteness,” students consider the importance of palpable images in haiku: how great poets like Issa elegantly express abstractions with concrete language. For instance, Issa conveys the idea of human compassion in a haiku about a traveler:

tabi-bito ya no ni sashite yuku nagare nae

the traveler fixes
the farmer’s floating
rice stalks

Hiroshi Kobori, who assisted with my translation, helped me to visualize the scene: a traveler, walking along, notices rice stalks floating loosely in a flooded field. In an act of spontaneous kindness, he stops to stick them back into the mud so that they can grow. Nekkeya Glover reacts:

Now-a-days people will only do things if it benefits themselves. Plus, people are so immersed in their own lives, that they do not realize what is going on around them. So in a way this poem brings about sadness, because that compassion is needed today.

After exploring several similar examples of Issa’s concrete expressions, the students were asked to perform perhaps the most difficult task of the five lessons: create concrete haiku that express certain concepts, such as unfairness and freedom. I was impressed with what they came up with.

the sick child cries
while the mother explains
no insurance

Geralyn Buford

Geralyn’s idea was to communicate the notion of unfairness without using this word or any abstraction whatsoever — and I think she did a wonderful job. One of her inspirations, chosen from the archive, was this haiku by Issa:

hitotsu kie futatsu kie-tsutsu tôro kana

one dies out
two die out…
lanterns for the dead

This verse, according to Geralyn, embodies the notion of “grief.”
In this next haiku, Jamilah Smith takes up the challenge of depicting “unfairness”:

she enters the store
blue eyes follow
her chocolate frame

Jamilah Smith

Xavier University of Louisiana is historically Black; when she shared it with the class, Jamilah’s succinct and concrete depiction of racial profiling in a store resonated deeply.

Karla Vincent also profited from Master Issa’s concreteness:

The booming voice
like God–
Why we can’t wait

Karla Vincent

The exercise took place during Black History Month, so there was little doubt as to whose “booming voice” she was referring to, especially given that the third line is the title of a book written by a certain individual with the initials “MLK.”

I was pleased with the results of these Issa-based lessons but not completely surprised, since great poets have always inspired others to emulate and learn from them. My online exercises simply provide a structured framework within which this emulation and learning can occur. In life, Issa taught haiku to scores of disciples, and though he has been dead now for 176 years, he remains a teacher, by example, for a new generation of poets.

This entry was posted in Haiku, Issa, Lessons, Vol 3-1 March 2003 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Issa’s Haiku Lessons

  1. Pingback: Poetry, scrawny frogs, humor and much more « Rohini Gupta's Blog

  2. Pingback: How to Learn Haiku « Word Skies

  3. normanmuise says:

    I am glad that I found this. I have respected your work for ages. I have spent so many hours reading your translations of Master Issa. I have read many of your books, you are an inspiration.

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