A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014

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Issa’s Humanity and Humour:
A Haibun Passage from His Travel Journal Oraga Haru

by Ray Rasmussen

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 |


When Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki are mentioned as the “great four”1 or when Basho is cited as the originator of haibun2, it’s implied that we should find writing instruction from their examples. Hamill is explicit on the matter:

Know the masters. Know them well enough to quote passages/poems that remain with you (not the same thing as memorizing a poem.)3

My intent as a relatively new writer of haibun (my first published haibun appeared 10 years ago) is:
• to explore the work of Issa who for reasons we will explore is referred to as the best loved of the haiku masters4,
• to introduce Issa’s haibun to writers and readers, and particularly to new writers,
• to examine the role of context and culture in appreciating the haibun of the masters, and
• to ask, “What can be learned from Issa to apply to our own contemporary writing?”

Jon LaCure’s Modern Haiku review5 of Issa biographies by Makoto Ueda6 and David Lanoue7 whetted my appetite for a study of Issa’s prose style and led me to two translations of Issa’s Oraga Haru, his travel journal containing prose with integrated haiku: Nobuyuki Yuasa’s The Year of My Life 8 and Sam Hamill’s The Spring of My Life.9 From these, I’ve selected an early passage for study that contains several prose paragraphs and three haiku. The full passage is reprinted below with the permission of translator Sam Hamill. There is no title because the Japanese masters rarely used titles in their journals.10 )

An Early Passage from Issa’s Oraga Haru

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace "crane" and "tortoise" echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year's Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. I won't even sweep my dusty house, living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to Buddha, as in the ancient story.

The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snowy trails winding through high mountains. Nevertheless I welcome the New Year just as I am.

New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring

And although she was born only last May, I gave my little daughter a bowl of soup and a whole rice cake for New Year's breakfast, saying:

Laughing, crawling, you're
exploring — already two
years old this morning

No servant to draw wakamizu, New Year's "first water."

But look: Deputy
Crow arrives to enjoy
the first New Year's bath