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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


Dew on The Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa by Makota Ueda
A Review by Robert D. Wilson

Like a relay racer, Kobayashi Issa carried the baton for his predecessors, Matsuo Basho and Yosa Buson, in the evolutionary development of haiku into the poetic genre that would eventually take Japan by storm. Today, over a million people compose haiku in this tiny Asian island nation. It has become a national pass-time. And like a tsunami wave, this love for haiku has enveloped other countries, and shows no signs of abating. Haiku has come a long way from its beginning, evolving from renga (meaning: linked poetry), a popular genre of Japanese poetry, especially during the 14th and 15th centuries. From renga emerged a derivative called haikai (meaning: light hearted), a playful linked verse that allowed room for one's imagination and the infusion of artistic exploration and cognitive experimentation. Haiku (the name Masaoka Shiki christened the form during the 19th century) originally were called hokku, the opening 5/7/5 syllable verse in a renga.

The majority of historians and Japanese literary scholars today say Haikai was not, for the most part, a poetic genre that society, especiallythose in educated circles, took seriously during the height of its popularity,though this point is debatable. It was Matsuo Basho in the 17th century who paved the way for the transformation of haikai into a mature, respected art form. Hokku was, by this time, becoming popular as a separate form, and although a practitioner of haikai until his death, Basho did much to elevate the popularity of hokku. A steady trickle of hokku (Haiku) masters refined and developed the literary form, including Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa. It is, therefore, not uncommon to hear the three referred to as the Three Pillars of Haiku.

Professor Makoto Ueda, in his book Dew on The Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, makes an interesting though controversial point in the book's Preface regarding the evolution of hokku into modern haiku, pertaining to the contribution of Issa:

"The received opinion is that, while Basho with his mystic asceticism and Buson with his romantic aestheticism immeasurably enriched the haiku tradition, it was Issa who, with his bold individualism and all-embracing humanism, helped to modernize the form to a degree matched by no other poet."

I say controversial because as Ueda points out, "Today's Japanese scholars, however, seem reluctant to grant him (Issa) the same literary stature as the other two masters. Ogata Tsutomu, generally considered the foremost living authority on haiku literature, has consistently taken the position that the history of haiku has had only two towering peaks, Basho and Buson."

Ueda goes on to quote other eminent scholars who agree with Tsutomu's assessment of Issa. These men respected and valued Issa's contribution to the evolution of haiku but did not see him as an equal to Basho and Buson. Says Ueda, "Their appraisal sounds especially convincing, coming as it does from authorities who have dedicated most of their scholarly careers to the study of Issa's poetry."

Later in the Preface, Ueda posits, "...Issa has been a valuable source of inspiration for a number of practicing poets and novelists in Japan."Realizing the chasm of differing opinions between many Japanese scholars and people of letters, Professor Makoto Ueda decided to write a book making use of "the fruits of the latest Japanese scholarship." Ueda says to his knowledge there are no other biographies of Issa in the English language that make use of the latest scholarship and wanted to, therefore, fill in the gap. "What I hope for is that the book will stimulate an interest in this controversial poet and eventually lead to further studies that take other critical perspectives." Makoto Ueda's book, Dew on The Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, therefore, becomes an important resource for scholars and poets interested in the poetry and contribution of this important Japanese poet.

Who is Issa? Why did he write the way he did? Why is his standing as one of the Three Pillars of Haiku in question? What were his major influences? And what were his contributions to the genre?

Ueda gives readers an in-depth look into the mindset and haiku of Issa, in a way that is readable, accessible for non-scholars, and enlightening. Readers are introduced to the culture and social context of Japan between 1763 and 1828. Likewise, they, via Ueda, examine Issa's unhappy childhood; his unsettled mobile youth; his spiritual beliefs, multiple marriages, and wanderings through western Japan; and the influences these had on his poetry. In addition, readers also benefit from Ueda's crisp, accurate translations.

This is an important book by one of the greatest living scholars in the field of Japanese literature. Professor Emeritus of Japanese at Stanford University, Dr. Ueda is the author of many important books including: The Path of The Flowering Thorn: The Life and poetry of Yosa Buson; Basho and His Interpreters; and Far Beyond The Field: Haiku by Japanese Women.

My only criticism of the book is its high cost: $96. This is an unrealistic price, and Ueda agrees, calling it "that high priced book." Although attractively bound, it is only 189 pages long. I can only hope that the book's publisher, Brill, comes to its senses and publishes a paperback version at a price accessible to the general public.

come here
and play with me, orphaned
little sparrow
               —Kobayashi Issa

Dew On The Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa
by Makoto Ueda
Brill, Netherlands; 2004
ISBN 90 04 13723 8

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku