Tuesday, August 26, 2008



kisagata mo kyô wa uramazu hana no haru

even Kisa Lagoon
isn't hateful today...
blossoming spring

Before the earthquake of 1804, Kisa Lagoon (Kisagata) was, in Shinji Ogawa's words, "beautiful ... like a miniature archipelago." Shinji sees in this haiku an allusion to a sentence in Bashô's Oku no hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Far Provinces"): "Matsushima is smiling, Kisagata grieving." Though Bashô uses the word, uramu, it does not mean "hateful" but rather "melancholy" (the literary meaning of uramu). Shinji paraphrases, "Though Bashô called it 'melancholy,' Kisagata is not melancholy today because of the blossoming spring."

Makoto Ueda notes that this haiku shows the playful humor typical of the Katsushika school that influenced Issa in his early years; Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004) 14.


hatsu shimo ya soba kuyuru hito mesuru hito

first frost--
one hates buckwheat noodles
one loves 'em

Buckwheat noodles (soba) is a winter dish. The first frost signals the beginning of the season for this food--whether people like it or not.


nikumaruru hie wa ho ni dete aodabara

the hated barnyard grass
rears its head...
green rice field

The unwanted "barnyard grass" (hie) forms heads of seed in a rice field. In an 1804 rewrite Issa changes this to simply "grass" (kusa).


kaeru kari nani wo hanashite yukuyaran

departing geese
whatever are you
gabbing about?

Shinji Ogawa points out that kaeru in this context can be translated as "return" or "leave." Since this is a spring haiku, the wild geese are leaving Japan (i.e., returning to northern lands).


chikamichi wa kiraina hito ya kareno hara

he hates taking
the shortcut...
withered fields

Or: "I hate." Shinji Ogawa notes that chikamichi wa kiraina hito ya means "a person who dislikes (to take) a short cut."


nikumareshi kusa wa ho ni deshi aoda kana

the hated grasses
rear their heads...
green rice field

A rewrite of a 1794 haiku, in which the unwanted plant is identified as hie ("barnyard grass").


hana no kage kono yo wo samisu hito mo ari

in cherry blossom shade
there are even those
who hate this world

Or: "there is even one/ who hates this world." In the shorthand of haiku, "blossoms" (hana) can mean "cherry blossoms." Samisu is an old verb that can mean to be foolish (baka ni suru) or to despise (anadoru); Kogo dai jiten (Shogakukan 1983) 719. The second meaning seems to fit here. Even amid the glories of the blossoms, there are some who hate the world. Is Issa referring to a Buddhist ascetic who has rejected worldly attachments?

Shinji Ogawa notes that blossom viewing is always associated with sake drinking. When they get drunk, some people become jolly; some grumble.


hototogisu nanji mo kyô wa kirai shina

oh cuckoo
you also hate Kyoto
don't you?

In the original text the word mo ("also") suggests that someone else despises the capital, presumably Issa. Shinji Ogawa explains that kirai shina (dislike don't you) is Kyoto dialect. The "capital" (miyako) was Kyoto in Issa's day. This is where the emperor and his court lived. Political and military power was centered in the Shogun's city of Edo, today's Tokyo.


wakaba shite mata mo nikumare enoki kana

fresh leaves again
make it hateful...

I had no idea what Issa might mean in this haiku until Shinji Ogawa suggested that "The fresh leaves again make the nettle tree hated because it blocks the view."

Sakuo Nakamura has a different theory. He believes that people hate the tree because it grows so large that sweeping its fallen leaves in autumn is an onerous chore. They are ungrateful perhaps, since the tree provides ample, cool shade in the summer.


hito no hiku ko matsu no chiyo ya samisuran

men have plucked
little pines a thousand ages...
they must hate us!

This haiku has the prescript, "The crane's inscription." Cranes were famous for their fantastic longevity. This haiku offers a crane's-eye perspective that spans thousands of ages. Pulling up a young pine tree on the first day of Rat is a custom that originated in China. Shinji Ogawa explains that its purpose was to bring good luck or longevity. Samisu is an old verb with the modern equivalent, anadoru: to despise, to hold in contempt; Kogo dai jiten (Shogakukan 1983) 719.


yûdachi ni made nikumareshi kado ta kana

even the cloudbursts
hate it...
rice field by my gate

Or: "by the gate." Issa doesn't specify that it is his gate and field, but this can be inferred. Shinji Ogawa helped me to grasp this haiku: summer storms are missing Issa's little rice field, leading to poet to believe that even they must hate it.


kirawareta yuki mo ichido ni kie ni keri

the snow I hated
all at once
has melted away

In my first translation of this haiku, I ended with present tense "melts away," but Shinji Ogawa notes that kie ni keri is actually past perfect tense: "has gone." In Issa's vision, the snow is completely gone, so in this case I've followed Shinji's advice and changed to the past perfect, "has melted away." As a general principle I try to avoid the past perfect reading of verbs (with keri) as much as possible, since haiku in English sounds cleaner and more immediate in present tense. To cite an example from another poem of Issa's: "From the mist cows emerge" is an image suitable to English haiku, but the technically more accurate, "from the mist cows have emerged" lessens the immediacy of the image by adding a distance of elapsed time between the viewer and the action.


toga mo nai kaze na nikumi so kesa no aki

don't blame the wind
don't hate!
first autumn morning


ikana hi mo uguisu hitori ware hitori kana

whatever the day brings
the nightingale's alone
I'm alone

Ikana is an old word that has the modern equivalent, dono yôna or donna ("what sort of"); Kogo dai jiten (Shogakukan 1983) 100. Issa wrote this haiku in Second Month, 1824. The timing is significant; as Shinji Ogawa points out, the poet was left alone in the world by the deaths of his wife and son the year before, and he had not yet married his second wife (this would happen later in 1824, in Fifth Month). Shinji paraphrases: "Whatever the day is (busy, or uneventful, or happy, or sad; one thing is certain:) the nightingale's alone and I'm alone."


yase-zune wa ka mo kirau yara tsui tôru

even the mosquito hates
thin legs...
quickly moving on

Presumably the legs belong to Issa.