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Winter 2005, vol 3 no 4

A column by Robin D. Gill

Godspeed to the Gods

my pal, poverty!

yoi tsure zo binb˘gami mo tachitamae (other version: saa otachi)   issa (d.1827)
(good companion! poverty-god, too, go-off deign-to!)

the gods are off!

poverty, my pal,
its time you, too
hit the road!

When I first read this ku in Issa's journal, I had no idea what it meant. The original has no title; I only knew Issa called a "poverty god" his "good companion" and bid him to get going. My "hit the road" seems too harsh for the polite "tachitamae" version and too polite for the rude "saa otachi" (hurry, off you go!) version. I had read much more classic Japanese poetry (the Manyoushű (8c), Kokinshű (10c), etc.) than haiku and knew that Longing (koi) could be personified and, like the Blues, hide out in the home of the afflicted, so it did not seem odd that Issa personified his nemesis, Poverty, and played with him. At first, I did not know what made Issa's ku a bona fide haiku, i.e., one with a seasonal element. A year later (in his life, not mine) I found this:

furuzukin binb˘gami to nanorikeri   issa
(old-head-cloth poverty-god as name-announce [+emphatic])

the gods are off!

head wrapped
in an old rag, am i
the poverty god?

Even after inheriting his half-a-house (shared with his step-brother) at age 50 and filling it with the perks (a 27 year-old wife who was indeed perky), Issa did not make enough money to stay home. The aged poet had to spend half of the year on the road officiating at haiku jam-sessions and sharing gossip for his honorariums. He never could shake off his companion, Poverty. Or was he, himself, Poverty? Note that I translated poverty god as "poverty, my pal" in the first ku. That reflects the fact that "god" is pegged onto a name much as "sama" (sir/mister/madam) may be and this turns "poverty" into a name. Look how much better the following works:

old head-wrap
guess i'll call myself
mister poverty!

It was customary to wrap a cotton cloth around the head to stay warm in the winter. So, the season was clear (that was obvious from the month in his journal being the 10th equivalent to the 11th or 12th today), though the seasonal theme under which such a ku would be placed was still a mystery to me. Issa's verb nanori (nanoru, lit. name-mount/aboard/list) is what an old-fashioned samurai does before doing battle. It means standing up and loudly announcing oneself. So,

old head-wrap
i am poverty come
to join the fray!

Ridiculous. But Issa is playing with classical literature. I wish I could recall how Lancelot and Sir Galahad did it. Failing that -

this old scarf
on my head the helmet
of sir poverty!

Sir Poverty. Sounds good, right? If we only had a title for a god! Or, how about something like "This old scarf / my helmet, i announce / for poverty!" After all, a samurai, like a knight, always fights for someone. Or, going back to the original god and Occidentalizing him (poverty is always male for men with means care for most females) into a punch-line: "An old rag / on my head: call me god / of poverty!" I had better get back to that first ku (I'll retranslate, no need to scroll up) before you forget it altogether and explain what this is really about:

the gods are off!

poverty, my pal
it's time you, too
deign to leave

Unlike the old scarf, there is no indication of the cold here. So, what is happening? Issa's catch or seasonal excuse for the ku is that it was the start of the Gods-Out-Month (lit. god/s-not-month: kannazuki), when the ancient - i.e. Shint˘, not Buddhist - gods leave for a month-long caucus in Izumo, the land of Eight Clouds (from which Lafcadio Hearn took his Japanese last name). Hence, my title. A saijiki (haiku almanac) would place both poems with kami-no-tabi (gods' travel), kami-okuri (gods' send-off) or kami-tachi (god/s-leaving). Issa wrote dozens of ku on this subject, though not all treat his pal Poverty.


The Gods Are Off!

tabijitaku kami no onmi mo isogashi ya   issa
(travel-preparation god/s' (honorific+)body/self/selves busy!)

travel preparations
even our honored gods
are busy as hell

Can you believe it? A man imagining a bunch of busy gods? It reminds me of Issa's concern in the spring for the boredom of the Gods trying to see through the thick haze. It also reminds me of Bash˘'s:

miyako idete kami mo tabine no hikazu kana   bash˘ (d.1693)
(capital/city leaving god/s too travel-sleep's day-count 'tis/!/?)

leaving the city
do the gods, too, count
their nights away?

The ku refers to Bash˘'s time on the road overlapping the month the gods are out. I cannot find out the breakdown, i.e., how long they were on the road and how long at their caucus, but I imagined they traveled in the usual Japanese manner, by foot. My reading is a bit unusual for I do not find concern for the gods mentioned in any annotations of this ku I have seen (I have only seen two). An older ku:

kyo wa sazo michizure ˘ki kamiokuri   shigeyori (d.1680)
(today-as-for as-expected, road-companions many gods-sendoff)

ah, so that's why
the roads are crowded today
it's gods-are-off

Pleasant, isn't it? (Not pandemonium but countless gods). Here, we see the zure (companion on a road), the same Issa used in his Poverty My Pal ku. Not all of Issa's Poverty ku are interesting. I find this next, a bore:

waga yado no binb˘gami mo otomo seyo   issa
(my dwelling's poverty-god, too, accompany let's!)

join the entourage

go with them!
god of poverty, i mean you
from our home, too!


The Gods Are Back!

o o samushi binb˘gami no okaeri ka   issa
(oh, cold! poverty-god's return?)

shiver of recognition

this awful cold!
has our god poverty
come home?

On the whole, Issa's Welcome back, Poverty! ku (kamimukae or kamigaeri) beat the Godspeed ones. This is good. Damn good. The temperature happens to drop on the last day of the first month or the first day of the second month of winter, when the gods are due back. Issa found a coincidence to capture it. In the summer, when poverty must work as wealth naps and then sleep in tiny houses smothered by smudge because they cannot afford good mosquito netting, Poverty is hot. In the winter, when clothing is thin and charcoal dear, Poverty is cold. Remember that zukin (literally head-cloth)? It did not only give us the seasonal element but a shiver to boot.

jaja-ame no furu ni okaeri binb˘gami   issa
(pouring rain falling in, [honorific+] welcome back poverty-god)

call it confetti

a cold rain
pours down: welcome back
big poverty!

The Month when the gods were gone was also called the shigure - lit. time-rain, but meaning cold drizzles - and, now, suddenly the sky-ceiling drops and with it, a real cold rain. And note that, with the lunar calendar, the night was always pitch black at the start of the month, when the Gods returned. Maybe they can travel blind, but a poor person who could not afford to burn the night-oil would feel his or her poverty at this time.


Poverty & Prosperity Confused?

onmukai dasu to gozaran binbogami   issa
([+honorific] greeting-party out and is [+polite] -not [there] poverty-god)

contrary strategy?

you send out
a welcome party: poverty
stays away!

I use the universal "you" for it seems wittier than an "I." Issa uses neither. Checking Yaba's "Issa Encyclopedia" (Issa Daijiten, in Japanese only), I found that Issa spent the entire second month at a wealthy disciple + friend's house. Perhaps he was joking about his stroke of good luck. But the same month he wrote:

binb˘gami kokoro okaeri nararetaka   issa
(poverty-god heart/mind [honorific+] return, used to it?)

after izumo

welcome back
poverty! is your heart
back, too?

This may be based on the observation that Poverty on the road is not the same as Poverty at home, that after participating in a party of gods, Poverty might need some time to adjust.

Welcome home,
Poverty! Tell me, have
you settled in?

Or, Issa may well be recalling his life with Kiku, who died the previous year. There was bitterness over their last years, mostly involving the deaths of their infant children, but Issa had come to appreciate her (especially after her replacement [?], Yuki, left him after only two months) and the ku right before the above "welcome back" ku reads:

mame na tsuma wasuretamauna kamiokuri   issa
(diligent-wife forget-deign-not: gods-sendoff)

after izumo

don't you forget
your diligent wife!
the godsendoff

A recently departed person is a god, but let us not get into a discussion of gods here. I note this because Issa may have realized that Poverty had not been at home for quite a while and only now was back for good. That changes the reading of the "Welcome home" ku does it not? Let me sum up Issa's life. Before finally marrying at age 51, Issa was a poor man. Not dirt-poor, but poor for a poet. He was also prematurely white haired, flatulent, toothless, occasionally felled by crippling attacks of auge [?] and, I believe, suffered a stroke severe enough to take away his voice for a while (during which time he wrote a ku expressing jealousy at the gaggling of geese above). After marrying, he lost child after child after child after child. Only one, Sato, lived over a year, and that only served to deepen the pain. His wife died. His next left. His next finally bore a child who lived. But Issa didn't know it, because he was dead by then. Yet, while he lived, Issa never lost his wit. He would have loved Lighting Slim's line:

If I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all!

Lacking a blues guitar, Issa turned his bad luck into good haiku. We saw this in the last issue of Simply Haiku with his treatment of the flower of good luck, the peony. Few of his Poverty (god) haiku are well-known in Japan today. Most educated Japanese know about the gods going to Izumo but they are not familiar with Poverty. In Issa's time, they would have been. The poverty gods were no secret. Reading a beautiful short story (translated, but not yet published, by William Scott Wilson) by Issai Chozanshi (1659-1741) of a dream where a company of Gods of Poverty defend their condition against the better-known Gods of Good Fortune, all of Chinese origin, I was reminded of the popular Medieval stories about Indian ascetics lecturing "our" Alexander The Great. As might be expected, Issa was not the first to write ku about God Poverty.

kaeruna yo waga binb˘ no kaminazuki   anon.? inutsukubashű (1539)
(return-not-hey! my poverty-god-less-month)

after izumo

and don't you
come back, my poverty
gods-out month!

I tried to reproduce the original's pivot word (kami=god/s), suffixing poverty and prefacing month, as closely as possible, but the trick does not work well in English. Chances are Issa read this poem published in a very well-known anthology. The brusque vernacular is remarkably similar to that some (wrongly) regard as Issa's invention. Issa's notebook (tomegaki) has a "theme/caption unknown" crazy-verse by someone I cannot date who asks a very logical question:

binb˘ no kami mo izumo e yuku naraba jűgatsu goto ni waga fuku wa   yűch˘r˘ (date?)
(poverty-god, too izumo-to goes-if/when tenth-month-every-during, my prosperity?)

empirical religion

if even
the god of poverty
goes to izumo
every november:
my prosperity?

It is hard to say if the poet means, "Does my God of Prosperity go with him?" or "Maybe I should check carefully to see if I gain in wealth!" Issa has one Gods-out-month ku warning the God of Prosperity not to enter the wrong house on his return from Izumo. A Japanese friend wrote that Issa is saying the god ought to make no mistake in finding his way to the poet's house. I thought Issa had just had a stroke of good luck and was, rather, joking as follows:

kadochigai shite kudasaru na fukunokami   issa
(door-mistake do please-not, prosperity-god)

my house? you must be kidding!

dear prosperity
you'd best not come
to the wrong place!

I assumed Issa's Poverty went to the house Prosperity should have returned to. Who says the gods don't make mistakes? ("Some other guy must have my blues" as a very Jewish-sounding bluesman sang on my Japanese cable radio's blues channel about the time I first read this ku). On second thought, my friend was probably right. Issa does want Prosperity to come to the place where he was, but, I was later to find out that perhaps that was because it was not his place.

Welcome The Gods Day
(staying with soky˘)

Prosperity God
don't you bolt at seeing me
this is the place!

Yes, this was the year Issa spent the month at his friend/disciple's home. Issa also loved his friend's son, a young boy whom he encouraged to haiku. I think he wanted to be sure he was not jinxing them! But I may be overdoing things. Considering the ku I translated as "Contrary Strategy // you send out / a welcome party: poverty / stays away!" together with this "don't you bolt!" reading of the Prosperity God ku, I think the following most likely to reflect Issa's intent:

Welcome The Gods Day
(staying with soky˘)

i go outside
to greet old poverty, but
where is he?


Two Gods More Vulgar than Poverty

The poverty gods were not the only humble deities on the road to Izumo.

[kannazuki] secchin no kami no tabiji ya shirikarage   yusei (rakuy˘shű: 1680)
("god-not-month" - privy's god's travel-road: buttock [of robe] tucked-up)

you'll freeze your big butt off!
(subject: the gods-out-month)

the privy god
is on the road, his robe
tucked up high

It was standard for Japanese males to tuck their robe hems into their belt when traveling in the hot half of the year. That is what was referred to in 1585, by the Portuguese Jesuit Frois in his distich "When we [Europeans] walk, we lift up the front of our clothing so it not be soiled; the Japanese lift it up so high in the back that the entire North is bared." (Frois' euphemism is not strange when we recall our 'nether' region and the location of Milton's hell.) *1 The Japanese term shirikarage is standard idiom and no one (aside from the Occidental) usually notices the buttocks (shiri) in it. But, here, by making the god of the privy the butt of the haiku, Japanese, too, can see it. As long as we are on minor gods, another, noted by Issa:

yoshiwara no tana ya odoketa kamimukae   issa
(yoshiwara's [god]-shelves: farcical god/s welcome)

priapus is back on the altar!

in yoshiwara
they celebrate the return
of sporty gods

It is unclear whether the adjective odoketa (farcical/sporty) modifies the god/s or the welcome. Be that as it may, the "god-shelf" for Shinto, Confucian and Buddhist figures, here, simply "shelf," was a standard feature in Japanese houses. In the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, one of the venerated figures was a priapus. Since traditional fertility celebrations paraded and still parade enormous phalli about town in Japan, one would not think anyone would mind what prostitutes did, but some Confucianists (?) evidently had mixed feelings about the practice, for about a decade after Issa's death, these shelf-phalli were outlawed by the authorities. I recall reading somewhere that they were tossed into a river and, because they were bottom-weighted so as not to tip over in earthquakes, floated downstream erect. Supposedly, schools of these bobbing man-fish drifted slowly out to sea. I do not know if Japanese imagined disembodied phalli gods traveling to Izumo and, if so, whether they grew wings like their Mediterranean brothers or legs like some I recall seeing engaged in sumo with their female counterparts, floated along in a ghostly manner, or crawled like inch-worms (That's an image!). But let us return to the more boring Poverty.

izumo e no rosen wa ikani binb˘gami   teitoku? (konzanshű:1651)
(izumo-to road-coins(toll)-as-for? poverty-god)

highway fees

how will he ever
pay his way to izumo?
poverty god

Or, is it "How will they / pay their way . . ." ? It is possible this is no more than logic, plain and simple. But it is possible this old ku is also a dig at rising expenses for pilgrimage in Japan. It would also seem to offer a fine explanation for why Poverty stays around, even when the other gods are out. Why he is hard to shake and will stick to you better than your shadow (for he even remains at night). If only Poverty had enough pocket money to pay the tolls, he might stay away for a month a year . . .


Issa, Poor Boy for Life

Perhaps I should write a bit more on why Issa may have become so infatuated with the poverty gods. It was not just because he was poor. Take this well-known ku, which has the same psychological cold we have already seen in the poverty god ku:

mukudori to hito ni yobaruru samusa kana   issa
(greystarling [countrybumpkin], people-by called coldness 'tis/!/?)

my roots

"country bumpkin"
that's what people call me:
how cold it is!

I added a title and 2.5 words ("that's what") to Blyth's translation. He explains "Issa had actually lived long in Edo, but was poor, indifferent to clothes, so they called him "grey starling." This is correct for the ku was written in Issa's late 50's on a visit to Edo after Issa had moved back to the country. Blyth neglects to mention that this term generally referred not just to any old country bumpkin, but seasonal workers from Issa's home province of Shinano. The voracious appetites and slobbishness of these workers were the butt of countless jokes in the big city. By jokes, I mean the black humor of senryű, haiku's bad sibling. Much of it concerned their large appetites:

Shinanos: / they smile amiably / and bite in. (shinanomono nikkori shite kuikakari)
A Shinano's / last cup of water / five refills! (shinanomono sueki no mizu o gohai nomu)
Shinano / vs Sagami: gluttony /above, below! (shinnano to sagami j˘ge no ˘gurai)
By day, Shinano / by night, Sagami stuff / their maws! (hiru shinano yoru wa sagami (ga?) ˘gurai)

If Shinano men had bottomless bellies, maids from Sagami were reputed to be insatiable. Shinano men were also stereotyped as dumb louts, or, thinking of the starling, should I say bird-brains?

Talk of fool-hardy! / a Shinano tries to make / his master's wife (bakabutosa ny˘bo o shinano kudokunari)
A Shinano / is bullied: "out with it!" / party-tricks (shinano ni wa dase to ijimeru junnomai)
A Shinano: / always the last to notice / his barn-door (shinano henoko deteite mo shiranu kao)

In Japan, even today, people customarily take turns showing off party tricks. Henoko is actually a "pecker," but I went with the barn-door. A reputation for being well-hung fits the beastly stereotype. Note: all bachelors who read, read senryű in Issa's day. Some of Issa's haiku, including, I think, his famous fly-ku (Don't swat . . .) were influenced by specific ku. Issa must have been terribly sensitive about his belonging to a culture of poverty. He might have reacted by trying to pass, but then he would have had a hard time standing-out among the cultured poets he studied under and worked for. They had the money to have a life and be a poet. Issa did not. To make a long story short, he came to realize that his poverty was his best card, for it was something the other poets, and there were swarms of them at the time, lacked. It was, as Tanabe Seiko wrote in her 1995 novel Hinekureta Issa (Warped Issa) and Yoshida Miwako wrote in her 1996 non-fiction book Issa Burai (i.e., Issa Hooligan),*2 the tactic or strategy he chose. I agree, but feel that neither woman (nor anyone I know of) has noticed, or, at least, pointed out to readers, half of the subtle ways Issa wove the blues (note: blues are witty, not sad) into the body of his work. *3


A Sweet Ending?

kamigami no okimiyage ka yo j˘biyori   issa
(gods' leaving-gift? a high-fine-day)

a parting gift
from the gods perhaps?
this balmy day

This, too, is Issa. Three years before, he wrote: "In the absence / of the gods, what / good weather!" (kamigami no orusu ni nanto hiyori kana). Two years before, he wrote: "In the absence / of Mount Nara's gods, / deer make love. (nara yama no kami no orusu ni shika no koi). I am an atheist; but I prefer to think of good things as a gift from the gods rather than things that happen in their absence.


*1 Frois's list of 611 ways the Europeans and Japanese were contrary was perhaps meant to be an apologia for the new Jesuit policy of Accommodation, justified as necessary because the Japanese were so utterly different yet still clearly "our" equal. A translation of the entire list and long explanations may be found in my books TOPSY-TURVY 1585 (the long version may be searched inside at Amazon or Google Print).
*2 I think Yoshida deserves special credit for not falling for the broadly accepted but wrong view that Issa's poetic powers flagged in his final decade.
*3 I have not read Makoto Ueda's book on Issa (reviewed by Robert Wilson in the last issue of Simply Haiku) yet, so if he does manage to do this, I apologize.


The Fifth Season and Cherry Blossom Epiphany may still, hurricanes permitting, come out this year, if not, definitely by Spring. Despite some excellent reviews, my work remains unknown outside of limited haiku circles. As a result, not a single one of my 5 books in English already available from Amazon, etc. is over the millionth ranking at the time of this writing. That means I am only selling about a copy per month of each book, if that! Readers who appreciate my explorations are encouraged to buy my books (which are all reasonably priced) or give toward my continued research and writing. Were it not for some money donated by a Japanese haiyu, a couple months ago, I would be doing $5./hr work to survive and/or looking for a job teaching basic English, which I detest. Apologies for my poverty-induced gloom. I write in early Fall and here is a parting ku:

emizuki ni omou nihon no asagao yo   keigu

the first moon
is it japan i miss, or
morning glories

The Japanese emizuki is a word I invented meaning "smiling-moon," by which I mean the first moon that can be seen at dawn before sunrise. Thanks to forgetting to put the garbage out the night before . . .

Columnist Robin D. Gill’s first book of translated haiku Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! has recently been reviewed [] in the five colleges magazine of literary translation, Metamorphoses.