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Saša Važic on Issa

Sasa Vazic


The first question is whether what we are offered in translation from Japanese, most often into English or from English into other languages, has been transferred correctly and accurately. Not only in Issa's case. Most of his poems, at least those available to our (Serbian) readers, can be said to be, more or less, easy to understand, in contrast to some "philosophical" images of other old masters that have still been, even after 300 or less years, seriously reconsidered and, sometimes, even fiercely disputed.

The second problem is whether we have read all that is essential and necessary or just what we were able to find of what was "served" to us by competent minds. Here in Serbia there are few or not enough books of carefully selected works of any master of Japanese haiku from its classical period.

Third, and it is a question that anyone, who has a possibility to study Issa's work, can put to his/herself: Is Issa controversial as a poet, and (if yes) why?

The first associations with Issa's name are his sorrowful, pathetic, touching and cute poems about insects and other small, helpless, "poor" creatures, as well as his confessional poems. Every Japanese schoolchild knows the former.

Come! With each other
let's play -- little sparrow
without any mother! (1)

Lean frog,
don't give up the fight!
Issa is here. (2)

There's our Kiku --
A lot she cares, how she looks,
how she goes! (3)

The world of dew --
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet . . . (4)

and surviving...
how cold it is! (5)

The origin and meaning of these poems can only be understood in terms of Issa's humanity, but also in terms of his weakness for his own self, which can easily be realized and explained by his, for the most part, misfortunate life and his lot confronting him all too often with deaths of his closest and dearest ones. If we consider that "weakness" from the formal, literary point of view, we cannot but agree with Anita Virgil's commentary given in her essay "Issa: The Uses of Adversity" (The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku, 1998), which could be summarized as follows: to understand such crie de coeur poems, it is necessary to be acquainted with Issa's life and those events "forcing" him into writing about these topics and in this fashion. However, that is not and should not be the way of a true haiku.

On the other hand, there is a great number of Issa's poems pointing to his transformation into a being that turns to universal topics and essences, those which need not be explained by biography. Those are poems which are long remembered by the depth of their insight and overtones, those which are impressive and which evoke not only a more powerful emotive, but also meditative response of the reader who is well acquainted with the essence of (haiku) poetry.

eyes glued to the chestnut
beyond reach (6)

The spring day closes,
where there is water (7)

by itself
my head bows...
Mount Kamiji (8)

The feeble plant
at last
has a wobbly flower (9)

the great lord
forced off his horse...
cherry blossoms (10)

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji! (11)

I myself have come to a new understanding of Issa and his poetry when reading David G Lanoue's Haiku Guy. What has turned out? First of all, almost all the poems quoted in the novel are quite new for me. Second, my mind has now been transformed, faced with Issa, a very stable and firm person, who knows his path well, who does not get tired nor lose hope, and who spontaneously moves along his way as the one who mastered the wisdom of life long ago, and thus speaks little or nothing, and yet says much. The one-breath poems springing up from the novel reflect the lightness of a skillful (poetically true, brilliant, concise, spontaneous, sono-mama) creating of images.

full moon...
going out
going back in

Great Japan—
overgrown in weeds

blown away
by the horse's fart

lightning flash—
only the dog's face
is innocent

tied to a tree
the foolish cat cries
for love

What origins are to be trusted? Where are we to search for the most real image of Issa and his work? Since most of us do not know Japanese and have no way to come to know all of Issa's 20,000 poems, we can only lean on those who are bestowed with love and capable of constantly studying and searching for the truth of the life and work of this haiku guy—Issa—who left a precious riddle for us. And, no need to mention—an indelible trace in the history of poetry immortalized as one of the four pillars of haiku poetry.

Life is a constant search for truths and confrontation with miracles. What else could we do but follow life, watchful and interested?

1. Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City, NY, Doublday & Co., Inc. 1958) p. 129.
2. Ibid, p. 133.
3. Lewis Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind (London, John Murray Ltd., 1957) p. 38.
4. Ibid, p. 5.
5. David G Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa p. 34.
6. David G. Lanoue, Haiku of Kobayashi Issa
7. Blyth, Haiku, Vol II, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido Press, 1950), p. 38.
8. David G. Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, p. 84.
9. R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. I, p. 1100 (edited).
10. David G. Lanoue, Haiku of Kobayashi Issa
11 Ibid.

Serbian version