The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku

Kobayashi Issa

Book cover

Issa is my favorite of the three great Japanese haiku poets (Basho, Buson, and Issa). He has a sense of humor and an earthy humanism that are really appealing to me. My favorite Issa haiku, translated by Robert Hass, is:

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way with a radish

I once had a kindred experience where the man selling cabbages counted my change out of a cabbage leaf.

I read this book sort-of in relation to my recent trip to Japan, although I didn’t actually read it until I was back. It is a “haibun,” a combination of travelogue and haiku similar to Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Far North.”

The main thing I realized in reading this book was how great Hass’s translations are (he is not the translator of this book). It was through his translations that I really fell for Issa. I suspect that Hass, a great poet himself, takes a great deal of liberty in communicating the spirit of Issa’s poems without too much concern for the literal content. The translations don’t seem bad, but they don’t have the pop that Hass’s have for the most part. Here is a comparison example, again with one of my favorites from reading Hass’s versions.


New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.


New Year greeting time:
I feel about average,
welcoming my spring.

The key funny line “I feel about average” is translated identically in each, but Hass’s has great comedic timing. The “aboutness” of the poem is perfectly evident in Hass, not really in Hamill. “Welcoming my spring” is kind of an abstract notion that I don’t really feel fits well, at least in modern English.

Even so, this book was enjoyable. It’s much more disjointed than “The Narrow Road to the Far North”–Issa seems more inclined just to drop in haiku without really connecting them to the narrative. My favorite find, which unfortunately I can’t quote directly because I already returned the book to the library and I can’t turn it up on the internet, is what may be the first written record of mansplaining. Something like:

A man watching the eclipse
tells a woman all about the eclipse.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars