Issa is there

Only recently I happened upon this haiku by a famous haikaishi (haiku poet), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828):

やせ蛙まけるな一茶これにあり

Yasegaeru makerna Issa kore ni ari

Frail frog
Do not give up
Issa is there
(my translation)

Part of the reason why I liked this haiku is the linguistic play in the end. The final part is deceptively simple: it contains three of the commonest words, plus Issa’s own name before that. The phrase merely says, There-(particle)-is, which probably cannot be translated satisfactorily (sign languages could possibly do this as well, though). But this simple phrase, kore ni ari, infuses spirituality and meaning into the whole haiku. It tells a lot about the writer, Issa.

issa-kobayashi-image.jpg

Issa Kobayashi lost his mother at the age of 3, and then he was cared of by his grandmother, as his father re-married and the stepmother and the stepsiblings did not like him, so he felt cast off and isolated. He often wandered in the fields in solitude. He eventually moved to Edo and learned the art of haiku at 25. Supposedly, he was so ugly, getting white hair by the time he turned 30, that women ridiculed him for his looks. Nevertheless, he lived on, dove into deep debt, finally marrying at the age of 50, and got married two more times, while outliving all but one of his children and wives. He wrote prodigiously – he composed over 20,000 haiku in his lifetime, a magnitude greater than the more famous Matsuo Basho, who wrote less than one thousand. After marrying three times and losing four of his five children, and shortly after losing his house due to fire, Issa passed away at 65.

Issa is said to have had an inferiority complex throughout his life, and he sympathized with small creatures such as sparrows, frogs, and ants, which frequently popped up in his verses. One can imagine Issa observing a weak frog combating a bigger frog over a female during mating season, and Issa cheering on the weak, because he saw himself there.

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