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Sunday, July 27, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

One of poetry's finest reminds us of our place in the natural world


Skinny frog Don't give up! Issa is here

He has been dead for 180 years, but Kobayashi Issa's haiku keep reminding us that the essence of Japan's culture lies in its intimate tie to nature. Humans are seen by him entirely as an element in nature, where ideally there is no artificial hierarchy and certainly no holier-than-thou moralizing.

Kobayashi is one poet who epitomized this intimate tie. Taking a brief look at his legacy might help us all rededicate ourselves to what is our own century's greatest task: restoring the equilibrium between humankind and nature that we have systematically destroyed over the past two centuries.

Japan, in other words, has the answer to our century's dilemma within its own tradition.

The people in Kobayashi's haiku wallow in their association with the elements, the animals and the plants, even when lazy or oblivious to what surrounds them. Here he himself is blissfully unaware . . .

Asleep on my back Midsummer clouds Over my knees

And if this is good enough for him, it's good enough for the farmer who usually works himself to the bone . . .

The mower in the grass Asleep on his horse In a storm of green

The field is green, but the word "storm" leads us to believe that the mower, lost in it, will soon be awakened.

As with the reference to the "skinny frog" above (this is such a famous haiku that Japan Post once issued a stamp commemorating it), Kobayashi often writes about the smaller and weaker animals that he relates to. It is here that his humor, an integral part of the Japanese view of nature, shines through.

Here another frog, with a little help from perspective, appears larger than life . . .

A frog in the evening croaks Lining up its bottom With the top of Mount Fuji

He loves the birds, too, and feels for them . . .

The little orphan sparrow Once again opens its mouth In vain

The "once again" turns this plaintive poem into a little tragedy. Kobayashi sees himself in this light, identifying with the sparrow . . .

C'mon, play with me! Orphan Sparrow In fact, it is harder to imagine a life filled with more personal tragedy than Kobayashi's.

Born in 1763 in Kashiwabara, in what is now Nagano Prefecutre, Kobayashi lost his mother at age 3. He was brutally mistreated by his stepmother, who threw him out of the house at age 14, when he went to Edo (present-day Tokyo). He spent his youth and his early years of adulthood traveling the country, particularly to temples, making a name for himself as a haiku poet.

He didn't marry until he was 49. His wife, Kiku, gave birth to three children, all of whom perished; and then, giving birth to a fourth, she herself died. (The fourth child, too, died, probably as a result of neglect by its nurse.)

A second marriage ended in divorce, but a third, to a woman named Yao, was happier, producing two children. But then he suffered what was probably a series of minor strokes that left him hemiplegic. Not long after that a fire destroyed his home and he came to live in the storehouse beside it, where he passed away, on Jan. 5, 1828.

Here are some of the wonderful haiku he left us about animals . . .

I open a window To set a butterfly off Into the meadow

In a better world I'd welcome more of you in my rice Little fly

I'll be tossing in my sleep So, move over Cricket

The lark cries Around the thicket That conceals her chicks

Each of these speaks of a love of nature in a particularly protective, melancholic or whimsical way; yet each shows respect for all creatures. Kobayashi was by no means well off, and when he went to the outstandingly scenic Matsushima islets in present-day Miyagi Prefecture, he took along some "fellow travelers" as a matter of course . . .

I'll show you Matsushima Then you're on your own Little fleas

But there is a foreboding in his work as well. The primary theme of nature is renewal; and renewal means that all things pass from this living phase of existence into another.

Kobayashi's world view cannot be understood outside of the context of his Buddhist beliefs. There are portents of this . . .

The cow appeared Out of the fog Mooing and mooing and mooing

A bird is building its nest Unaware that the tree Is marked for felling

Despite the ever-presence of death, his faith is open to spoof and even ridicule. This makes it very different from that of most adherents to the three dominant Middle Eastern religions, who generally seem to take themselves more seriously . . .

A swallow shoots out Of the nose Of the Great Buddha

His comments on society are often cutting . . .

Even while strolling Under the cherry blossoms People are lecturing each other

I have made two trips to Kashiwabara, in mid-summer and mid-winter, sitting for hours in the little storehouse that is now a museum. I imagined that I heard his voice then, as if telling us to observe and live with nature and not destroy it. It feeds us, as if by miracle . . .

What a world! Even the grass that you see Turns into rice cakes

And it astounds us, even if we are so poor as to have holes in our flimsy doors . . .

How beautiful! The Milky Way from a hole In my sliding rice-paper door

Kobayashi faces his own death in his haiku time and again. The most famous of these is probably this one, with its reference to his "final home" . . .

Oh well, is this to be My final home These six feet of snow

He wrote more than 20,000 haiku, and I have read but a fraction of these. But of those I know, the following one is my favorite, and, perhaps, the most telling of his devotion to life . . .

The fields are on fire The birds, too, seem to be saying . . . "Love when you can''

All translations here are by Roger Pulvers.


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