An Alphabet of Poets – I is for Issa

The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet—


Kobayashi Issa from The Essential Haiku – Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, The Ecco Press, 1994, edited and translated by Robert Hass

In my search for poets whose last name started with I, and there aren’t many, trust me, I came across Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), one of the masters of the Japanese Haiku form of poetry. Once I remembered the astonishing simple three lines above, three lines that punch shockingly above their size and seeming weight, I knew I needed to add Issa to my Alphabet of Poets.

In Issa I felt also a kinship with the spare imagist poems of David Ignatow, small hauntings. My balanced pair of I’s for this National Poetry Month.

Robert Hass in his introduction to  The Essential Haiku, movingly, says of Issa: in his best work he is, for all the comparisons, quite unlike anyone else, the laughter cosmic, the sense of pain intense, as if the accuracy and openness of his observation left him with a thinness of the mind’s skin, with no defences against the suffering in the world.

Issa suffered much. A bitter feud with his step-mother over the family property occupied much of his life and within a three year period between 1816 and 1819 he suffered shocking losses – the death of a first born boy; his second child, a girl Sato; his wife and later, his second son. The poem above, poignant, open ended, carries even more heft when you realize he wrote it after the death of Sato.

Issa’s words, so deceptively simple, so complex; the two repetitions, beautifully balanced, mirrored. He catches such a sense of the ephemeral, delicate nature of beauty, of life. He captures the hope beauty holds (the world of dew) but also hints at its loss, hints at it not being all it seems ( and yet, and yet). And he leaves the reader to emotionally experience an almost impossible awareness, the heart-breaking sense of life’s fragility.

And Issa has so much to show poets about the power of image. And in this William Carlos Williams is an echo when he says – no ideas but in things – a saying now perilously close to becoming cliché. But in our time when many poems become the runway where nothing takes off, where narrative lacks lyric magic, image holds the transformative key. The world of dew seen by a reader’s imagination, is a limitless world; it holds galaxies, universes.

Spend any time with Issa’s tiny three-line worlds and they spin into a largeness hard to comprehend.

        The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
        with a radish.

from The Essential Haiku

Ah! To explain this in prose just defeats its wonder. The farmer will use what he has grown and tended to show another where to go in the world. It is his essence that will give truest directions. When I ask Issa my way he speaks, he points, with a poem.

I like to think of these small groups of words like impossibly dense matter that in contact with  another mind, another soul, explode into a big bang and expand in a poetic sense, forever.

    The holes in the wall
play the flute
    This autumn evening.

from The Essential Haiku

His death poem:

        A bath when you’re born,
a bath when you die,
        how stupid.

from The Essential Haiku


  1. Posted April 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I await each letter with breath held… what a tour, what a month… thank you.

  2. katy McCuish
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    i would like to receive your daily “alphabet” posts/ thank you, katy

  3. Richard
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink


    Thank you for your interest. I so appreciate it! Youcan subscribe by gooing to my blog link on my site, make sure you scroll over to the right and you will see the box to subscribe in. Let me know if you have troubles. Best.


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