Poem-A-Day: Kobayashi Issa

Today I found myself writing a script for a video I need to make this weekend to include in my school’s distance learning repertory of art instruction. My lesson needed to be fairly quick and highly accessible to all skill levels of Creative Writing. I decided to do a lesson on haiku, which sometimes appear simple but are actually as complex as they are lovely.

This wonderful and famous poem by Kobayashi Issa — one of Japan’s most celebrated poets and considered one of the four great Japanese masters of haiku — is in my mind tonight because right now the entire world is in a challenging state, many of the people running the show (at least here in the U.S.) are not well suited to the task, and anxiety is understandably high. We are in for a couple of very bumpy weeks, to put it mildly.

But despite all of this, tonight I learned how to arrange the technology to host an online dance party for a few friends, and it was a really good, really necessary time. This juxtaposition of turmoil and grace reminds me of Issa’s haiku, translated here by Robert Hass.

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

I hope tonight you are somewhere safe and in stable health.


Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!


Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), also known as Kobayashi Yataro and Kobayashi Nobuyuki, was born in Kashiwabara, Shinanao province. He eventually took the pen name Issa, which means “cup of tea” or, according to poet Robert Hass, “a single bubble in steeping tea.”

Issa’s father was a farmer. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother. His father remarried, and Issa did not get along well with his stepmother or stepbrother, eventually becoming involved in disputes over his father’s property. When Issa was 14, he left home to study haiku in Edo. He spent years traveling and working until returning to Kashiwabara in the early 1810s. In Kashiwabara, his life was marked by sorrow— the death of his first wife and three children, an unsuccessful second marriage, the burning down of his house, and a third marriage.

Issa’s haiku are as attentive to the small creatures of the world—mosquitoes, bats, cats—as they are tinged with sorrow and an awareness of the nuances of human behavior. In addition to haiku, Issa wrote pieces that intertwined prose and poetry, including Journal of My Father’s Last Days and The Year of My Life.

(Biographical information respectfully quoted from the Poetry Foundation.)

15 thoughts on “Poem-A-Day: Kobayashi Issa

      1. Oops! I totally missed your comment back in April! Sorry about that!

        As I remember, I liked the idea of these traveling poets who made it their life’s mission to observe all the things we take for granted — things we barely notice — and turn them into these beautiful works of art. The poems are so short and matter-of-fact, but there’s something so epic and mythic about them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The PoPoFest is like that for me, I think. Spontaneous poems on postcards sent to people also participating, often strangers (at first). Short bursts of verse often (for me) inspired by something I notice or experience in a day. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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