Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

— Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: “This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey.” Me too.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

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9 thoughts on “Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

  1. Wow! Thank you, Melissa!!! Your love for “Issa” (pardon the pun intended but in my country, Issa is the diminutive for your name) is warming up and leaping sparks as in the wood fireplaces soon to be lit.

    Not like a firefly but more like a waif begging for warmth is how I’m getting drawn to your ever so impassioned discussions about haiku. So much to learn here and realize how infinity could be possible with haiku! Ten thousand haiku and there’s more from Issa and David who doesn’t seem to let up catching fireflies–how humbling yet how hopeful for us trying to write our hundredth or five hundredth…

    catching fireflies–
    up in the sky
    the Milky Way

    Thank you again and again

    • Yes, others have commented on how Issa is part of my name — sometimes I joke that my name is really Mel Issa and I am a distant relative of his (I wish!). 🙂

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my posts. It has been quite the journey starting to learn about haiku and it’s amazing to me how my really very uninformed musings seem to interest so many people :), but I’m very glad because it has allowed me to meet so many talented, interesting, and kind people and create this little space for us all to talk about the things that interest us.

  2. Great post, Mel – I love that about Issa’s haiku too – at times they seem gleefully irreverant! And David’s translations are fantastic, aren’t they. And 10,000, woah, that’s something of a Heruclean accomplishment

  3. devika says:

    This is was a great work Melissa -thanks for the effort; it’s truly enriching…the way mood, life, nature is captured in haiku 🙂

    thanks once again — and good additions by you as well,

    wishes,
    devika

  4. little snail
    inch by inch, climb
    Mount Fuji!
    WOW what an inspiring little Haiku. have made it my status msg. at FB..
    Thanks a ton MLA for sharing all your knowledge on this wonderful Haiku Poet Issa.
    I am going to share this pg. with all the Haiku lovers I know..
    I am so happy that I happened to come by here!!!! :))

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