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New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

With thanks to Michael Lustbader.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), of course, is one of Japan’s favorite haiku poets, and often the subject of works for children. What most people, in Japan and elsewhere, know about Issa is that many of his poems are about small creatures, and about the spirited way he made through his sad life. Unfortunately, this picture trivializes Issa, who became a very successful and well-known poet, though he did have some difficulties as a young man and more in his last decade.

Issa was successful in his own day not because he often wrote of difficult times or of bugs and little animals, but because he was a fine poet. He deeply understood the richness of the Japanese language, from the terse, formal grammar of haiku to the pithy sayings of his home-town region in the mountains of Shinano. And he made full use of that range and more, as he travelled up and down Japan, spreading his well-crafted poems and building a reputation almost unrivalled before his death. In his last two decades, he became a land-owner and father. It is true that the sadness of losing a wife and four children to illness before he himself died seems to put a tragic ending to his long, productive life. But he had remarried, and a daughter born after he passed away survived, as did most of his hundreds of poems. His collected works fill nine volumes. And his reputation continues to grow, even if it tends to celebrate the “smallness” of his subjects more than the fineness of his skill as a poet.

Regardless of the specific subject matter of any one of Issa’s haiku, reading them, we see pretty quickly that he has both a sharp eye for what is going on around him and a broad empathy that includes people as well as other beings. Capitalizing on this empathy and humanity, G. Brian Karas has selected 18 from among existing translations of Issa’s haiku, and provided a seasonal arrangement and child-like drawings of a family of four—or members of the family—to tie the poems together. The translations are from three sources, including work by Sam Hamill, Robert Hass, and one by Nanao Sakaki. The latter is the best translator of the three, and, to the best of my knowledge, the only one who worked from the Japanese originals, rather than reworking others’ already published translations.

Overall, the book works well and gives an impression of a more well-rounded Issa than many larger collections of his work, which tend to focus on the well-known poems about small creatures and the pathos of the author’s life. The following are typical of the tone of the book:

Once snows have fallen,
the village soon overflows
with friendly children

Summer night—
even the stars
are whispering to each other

These are translations that any family might enjoy, reflecting tender moments of their life together—as seems to have been just what the selector-illustrator wanted.

Bill

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