Although Issa (ee-sah) is known primarily as one of the three great haiku poets, he also wrote prose—in Chichi no shen nikki (1801; Diary of My Father’s Death, 1992), a response to his father’s death—and mixed prose and verse, or haibun, in Oragu haru (1819; The Year of My Life, 1960), an autobiographical account of his most memorable year.
Ezra Pound’s recognition of the power of a single image that concentrates poetic attention with enormous force and his examination of the complexity of the Japanese written character led to an increasing awareness of the possibilities of haiku poetry for Western readers in the early part of the twentieth century. Combined with a growing interest in Asian studies and philosophy, haiku offered an entrance into Japanese concepts of existence concerning the relationship of humans and the natural world. Because the brevity of haiku is in such contrast to conventional ideas of a complete poem in the Western tradition, however, only the most accomplished haiku poets have been able to reach beyond the boundaries of their culture.
The most prominent among these are Matsuo Bash (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1715-1783), and Issa. As William Cohen describes him, “in humor and sympathy for all that lives, Issa is unsurpassed in the history of Japanese literature and perhaps even in world literature.” A perpetual underdog who employed humor as an instrument of endurance, who was exceptionally sensitive to the infinite subtlety of the natural world, and who was incapable of acting with anything but extraordinary decency, Issa wrote poetry that moves across the barriers of language and time to capture the “wordless moment” when revelation is imminent. More accessible than the magisterial Buson, less confident than the brilliant Bash, Issa expresses in his work the genius that is often hidden in the commonplace. The definition of haiku as “simply what is happening in this place at this moment” is an apt emblem for a poet who saw humans forever poised between the timely and the timeless.
Blyth, R. H. Eastern Culture. Vol. 1 in Haiku. 4th ed. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1990. Discusses Issa in the context of the spiritual origins of haiku in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions. Sees Issa as the poet of destiny, who saw his own tragic experiences as part of the larger motions of fate. Also interprets him both as a poet within Japanese culture and as a poet of universal appeal.
_______. From the Beginnings Up to Issa. Vol. 1 in A History of Haiku. 1963. Reprint. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1973. Devotes four chapters to Issa, presenting Issa’s work in chronological order, ending in the haiku of Issa’s old age. Includes interpretations of Issa’s work plus examples of his portrayals of plants and the small creatures of the earth and of meaningful personal incidents, such as the deaths of his wife and children. Compares and contrasts him with the great haiku poet Bash.
Issa. Autumn Wind Haiku: Selected Poems by Kobayashi Issa. Translated by Lewis Mackenzie. New York: Kodansha International, 1999. This volume was originally published as Autumn Wind in 1957. The translator provides an informative introduction to a selection of Issa’s haiku. Mackenzie assesses Issa’s contributions to the haiku form, includes a detailed narrative of Issa’s often troubled life, and comments on individual haiku. Includes both English translations of the poems and phonetic Japanese versions.
Kato, Shichi. A History of Japanese Literature: The Modern Years. Vol. 3. Translated by Don Sanderson. New York: Kodansha International, 1990. Includes a short chapter on Issa as a realistic, down-to-earth poet of everyday life and in the context of the Japanese society of the time.
Ueda, Makoto. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Boston: Brill, 2004. A biography of Issa that incorporates his poetry and modern Japanese scholarship. In the preface, Ueda notes that Issa has had a marked influence on Japanese poets and novelists but is viewed as less skilled than Buson and Bash by Japanese scholars.
Yasuda, Kenneth. Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994. References to Issa and samples of his work in the context of a thorough analysis of the theory and practice of haiku.