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On the cover: The Story of Issa, Japanese Haiku Poet (technically, this is not a subtitle, as it does not appear on the title page, but I think it should, and if it had . . . well, read on).

San Carolos, CA: Golden Gate Junior Books, 1970. Illustrated by Lydia Cooley; written “with the editorial assistance of Mark Taylor. Haiku translations by Hanako Fukuda”.

1970! Gosh, if I’d not come to Chatham Middle School and had some free time to roam their school library, I might never have seen this book.

Thank you, Chatham Middle School!

This is a gently illustrated prose narrative of Issa’s life, appropriate to elementary and middle school readers. In the course of the text, Ms. Fukuda includes numerous haiku that arose from some of the more personal aspects of Issa’s life, set in a frame story of the time Issa returned to his family home after establishing himself as a major haikai master. At the outset, old man Issa approaches a mountain village, and engages in conversation with a group of children who are singing a song he rememvers from his childhood. I do not now have time to read through the engaginly told story, but I notice that in this book, published in 1970, the haiku translations are not in 5-7-5. Rather, they use only the words the translator feels are needed to convey the poems’ meanings. For example, one of his more famous poems is offered as:

Come and play with me,
Motherless, fatherless
Little sparrow.

Unfortunately, because this book is a biography, no one scanning the poetry shelves in a library is likely to spot it. But the gentle telling of the story, the softly pastel or gray-scale spot and occasional full-page illustrations, and the simple, straightforward haiku translations make this a winner. I’ll be looking to find a copy for myself. If you’re the parent of a reader, or a teacher, or just enjoy children’s books yourself, you might like to get a copy of this one for yourself.

Bill

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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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