The Everyday Essentialness of Issa

Each morning I get an email from a Japanese poet who’s been dead for almost 200 years. And I don’t think that’s weird. Actually, I asked for it and couldn’t get by without it.

Issa: I like the way he thinks.

It all started last summer. While doing some research for an article I was writing about fireflies, I stumbled upon a Web site called HaikuGuy, which is an online repository of haiku poems by Kobayashi Issa (1762-1826). As it turns out, Issa, who reportedly logged more than 20,000 “one-breath poems” (as he called them) in his journals, was fascinated with the little glowing wonderbugs and wrote hundreds of haiku about them. So it wasn’t hard for me to find something for the article.

After getting what I needed, I poked around the Web site a bit, uncovering a rich cache of information, resources, and games involving the poet and the poetic form he devoted his life to writing. The coolest thing on the site was “The Daily Issa,” a service that promised to select haiku randomly from a database of 9,000 poems translated by David Lanoue and deliver one to me each day, via email. That seemed unique and something I might like to get in my inbox, so I registered for it.

And starting the next day, the poems began to arrive. I admit that I didn’t read one every day, at first. I guess I took the poems for granted, storing them up to read later along with the other e-detritus that washes up daily, like Google Alerts, LinkedIn updates, news headlines, weather reports, and the like. But somewhere along the way I began to read them as they came in, and their daily appearance slowly worked its way into my psyche.

In fact, I didn’t realize how much I counted on receiving the emails until one day, without notice, they stopped coming. It was a minor technical glitch that only took a day or two to remedy and service was soon resumed. And if this had happened to any of the other junk that’s flung at me I’m not sure I would have noticed. But the brief interlude without my daily Issas was enough to convince me how essential they had become to my everyday.

You see, these little e-missives work like vitamins on my system, nourishing and fortifying me against any number of ills. Idleness and the fear of it, for one, is something these poems help me battle, giving me thoughts to think during quiet moments — or maybe it’s the reverse: their daily arrival causes me to seek out a quiet moment. I’m not a religious person, but I imagine the feeling I get is not unlike what one gets by reading a daily devotional or saying a prayer.

I read a haiku every morning, think about it for awhile, and if it strikes a chord I let it resonate in my brain a bit. Some of what comes in has little or no meaning to me, and some I don’t even like. But the ones I do like stick with me, sometimes all day, and sometimes for many days. In the way a catchy song or a few memorable lines from a movie will linger, echoing in my head. The ones I like most I print out, cut up, and tape to my office door (each three-liner makes a neat, one-inch-square tile). Then I get to read them every time I pass in or out of the room. It’s wonderfully satisfying.

Why do I do this? I don’t know, really. I don’t even like haiku very much. I do know that what makes haiku appealing to fans of the form is that they are so useful and functional, and unlike most other literary devices. Haiku are brief and compact on the page. Yet the good ones possess an awareness of temporality and reveal a sense of mystery that can fill volumes in the mind. Just a few words and lines, arranged in the right order, can act like keys to unlock messages and meaning that you may never know existed.

Poet and translator Sam Hamill, in his terrific little compendium, The Sound of Water, says “haiku may be the most widely recognizable poetic form in the world,” and he admits that almost anyone can learn to make “decently readable haiku.” (I’ve tried, with some luck, using this approachable exercise developed by poet Timothy Russell.) In fact, learning to write haiku is one of the first poetry lessons schoolchildren are taught. Maybe that’s part of my problem with this type of poetry. Treated like kid’s stuff, too many haiku come across as contrived, cute, or worse — merely just a group of related words lined up on the page in the all-too-familiar (and equally contrived) syllabic format of 5-7-5.

So, if it’s not the haiku itself that captivates me on a daily basis, then it must be the haiku-maker. But why Issa? There are plenty of other haiku poets, many of whom are better known and considered better craftsmen. I suppose if I had found a “Daily Basho” service, for instance, I might have signed up for that instead.

There’s just something about Issa, though, that clicks with me. I know very little about him and from what I have read, other than sharing a love of poetry, we have little in common. According to Hamill’s introduction, Issa’s mother died when he was an infant, he left home at 14, and lived in poverty for the next two decades. He married but his wife and all five of his children eventually died, and his house burned down. He remarried but lived only four more years, and his only heir was born shortly after his death.

He led a terribly tragic life, yet he was able to find joy all around him and expressed it in unique ways. After the death of a daughter, for instance, he wrote one of his most enduring haiku:

This world of dew
is only a world of dew —
and yet

The smallest of poems, yet it says so much by not saying much at all. And I think that’s the hook for me: I like the way he thinks. Compared to the better-known poets, Issa wrote haiku that are less formal, more personal, and slightly irreverent toward the tradition. Humorous, sarcastic, compassionate, poignant. For whatever reason, he speaks to me.

Sometimes I feel like I know exactly how he feels,

making charcoal balls
one by one
a long day

I’m not sure what “charcoal balls” are or why he was making them all day long. It doesn’t matter. What makes the impact on me is the second line: I too plod along day in, day out, writing sentence after sentence, one word at a time. Worse, it often feels as though, after a whole day of wordworking, nothing of much value gets accomplished. At least there’s not much to show for my labor. Yet I want to lean out the window to say,

I too eke out
a living …
rose of Sharon

to the tall, lanky plants growing in the shady patch of ground between my house and my neighbor’s. It’s not exactly clear whose voice is speaking in this poem — the unseen narrator, the plant itself, or both — which is perhaps why it appeals to me. I read into it a kind of kinshipish outreach to all who toil on their own.

And I think that’s what is most compelling about Issa’s poems, at this point in my life. About a year ago, I was laid off and decided to start my own business. I was one of the lucky ones, I guess, getting tossed out before the economy hit the skids. I was able to make the leap to self-sufficiency and got a toe-hold quickly. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m making it work.

Coincidentally (or not), some of the poems I’ve received have been timely and tug at my new, ill-fitting garments (the Emperor’s?), causing me to consider and question my notions of faith and fate. Sometimes these unexpected arrivals remind me that I may not be alone in this endeavor:

in autumn wind
trusting in the Buddha…
little butterfly

Sometimes they make me question what the heck I think I’m doing:

goose, wild goose
when did your
journey begin?

And occasionally they offer some sage advice and encouragement:

“Good luck’s coming!”
the peony longs
to be heard

Just three short lines. But Issa masterfully molds and packs them tightly, leaving the words open to interpretation. Perhaps that’s what fascinates me the most. He is mightiest when expressing the wonderment of being a writer and discovering the magic that can be made using the most ordinary things:

pesky flea
caught in my hand
become a Buddha!

Is this a command or a revelation? Or both? I don’t know or care. What Issa has taught me is that, in the midst of my workaday routine, when chaos reigns in my tiny kingdom, it’s OK to drop everything and play the role of poet, magician, idler, dreamer. Sometimes having to figure everything out, deciding what to do about the modes of production and the products produced, should be someone else’s job:

entrusting the thicket
to the field crow …
the lark sings

As always, leave a comment and let me know what you think of this week’s post. Are there poems or songs or prayers that are indispensable to your life? Or is there something else entirely that you rely on for daily sustenance and inspiration?


  1. iced round ready
    from the mouth of babes…..
    time to make the doughnuts

    Hope you like it Chip…..I am in the office and was getting hungry….and I need to get back to the grind…still love the blog….thanks

  2. Come on Chip!!….work with me here…am I on to something….well, at a minimum I am on to dunkin’ donuts for a cup a joe and a chocolate frosted something or other….

  3. Issa would be proud, Mike, or at least the guy from the old TV ad. People say reading my beer posts in the morning makes them thirsty, well you have sufficiently piqued my craving for an iced-over something or other:

    frosted white outside
    distant rumble …
    laughing Buddha belly

    Ha-ha! Thanks!

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