This Day In Writing History
On June 15th, 1763, the legendary Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa was born. He was born Nobuyuki Yataro in Kashiwabara, Japan.
When Issa was three years old, his mother died, and he was cared for by his doting grandmother. He began studying haiku with Shinpo, a local poet.
Five years later, Issa's father remarried. His stepmother turned out to be a hard and cruel woman, and after she gave birth to a son of her own, she mistreated Issa terribly. He complained to his father that she beat him a hundred times a day.
When he was fourteen, Issa's beloved grandmother died. Lonely, moody, withdrawn, and estranged from his family, Issa preferred to stay away from them, wandering the fields and forests and communing with nature, which further infuriated his cruel stepmother.
Sensing Issa's unhappiness, his father sent him to Edo, (now known as Tokyo) where he lived in poverty, did odd jobs, and continued his haiku studies, this time at the Kastushika Haiku School with poets Mizoguchi Sogan and Norokuan Chikua.
After Chikua's death, Issa was elected to succeed him as a teacher at the school. He later resigned and took to wandering again, until his father's death in 1801.
In his father's will, Issa was named as sole beneficiary, but his stepmother and half-brother conspired to steal his inheritance from him. After thirteen years of legal wrangling, Issa finally received his rightful inheritance.
In the meantime, he had traveled around Japan, visiting and living in many places, including Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki, Matsuyama, and other cities. He worked hard to support himself and made a name for himself as a haiku poet.
Taking the pseudonym Kobayashi Issa, he wrote prolifically, both poetry and prose. At the age of 51, after finally receiving his inheritance, Issa returned to his hometown, Kashiwabari, and married a young village woman named Kiku.
Sadly, the four children Issa's wife bore him died in infancy, and his wife died in childbirth. Later, his house burned down. A devout Buddhist for many years, Issa's spirit could not be crushed by tragedy.
He married again, and his second wife bore him his only surviving child, a baby girl. She was born in 1827 - shortly after Issa's death at the age of 65.
Throughout his prolific literary career, Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku poems and over 250 prose works, including memoirs, his most famous being The Year Of My Life, published in 1820.
As a haiku poet, Issa wrote the simple, unadorned poetry of the common man, using local dialects and the words of daily conversation.
And yet, in their simplicity, Issa's poems were extremely profound. Sometimes they were humorous, sometimes sarcastic, and sometimes quiet and thoughtful.
Issa's haiku are best known for their remarkably poignant and compassionate insight. And of course, they are steeped deep in Buddhism - but without the slightest hint of religious dogmatism.
After the death of one of his children, Issa wrote the following poem. It's a perfect example of his simplicity, his profoundness, and his compassion:
This world of dew
is a world of dew -
and yet, and yet...
Here are some other memorable Issa haiku:
Flitting butterfly -
thus is Buddha's law
in this world
A light snow
over fields, over woods...
The beggar child prays
with trembling voice...
for a doll
dewdrops are tumbling
Issa's haiku inspired me to become a poet when I was eight years old. I came across Issa: Haiku Poet - a short biography and a selection of his poems - in my school reading textbook.
Moved and impressed by how much he packed into his little three-line, seventeen-syllable poems, I immediately started writing my own haiku. Issa is rightfully considered one of Japan's greatest haiku masters.
Quote Of The Day
"A real haiku's gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes 'The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet,' by Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles." - Jack Kerouac
Today's video features Jack Kerouac reading from his famous collection of poems, American Haiku, accompanied by a jazz saxophonist. In the 1950s, Kerouac rekindled interest in the haiku format with his English language haiku poems.
They didn't follow the seventeen-syllable format; they were shorter than that, as more words can be formed in seventeen English syllables than in seventeen Japanese syllables, and Kerouac wanted his English haiku to be as authentic as possible. Enjoy!