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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 4, December 2016


Ray Rasmussen
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Issa’s Humanity and Humour: A Haibun Passage from His Travel Journal Oraga Haru

| Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | About Issa | Endnotes |

Page 5

Can a lay exploration be of use to other writers new to haibun?

A place that I enjoy visiting is the editor’s choice page in The Heron’s Nest. There the editors explain their best-of-issue picks. Initially, I’d quickly read the elected haiku and not get much from them. Then I’d look at the editors’ impressions of the work. They’ve learned how to appreciate haiku through exploring context, highlighting specific poetic phrases and relating the content to their own experiences.

I came to realize that most haiku are not readily appreciated with a quick reading, nor even, as some have suggested, through several readings aloud. It takes intuition, method and work to "get it." Of course, the editors or we readers may have different interpretations than what was on the writers' minds, but that’s another matter.

It’s my belief that commentaries by well-versed readers are potentially as valuable as scholarly treatments in lending insights, particularly to readers and writers who are newer to the form.

Of course, the work of scholars is critical to guiding us to a deep understanding of a work, but often their writing is lengthy, academic and jargon prone. As such, it fails to engage on intuitive level. Thus, as has often been asserted, the scholars may be mostly speaking among themselves. However, without their translations and commentaries, we’d not be able to have a conversation with the masters.

In an editorial in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward has commented on the need for a critical literature on English-language haibun:

If haibun is to survive and develop as a viable genre, bibliographies, anthologies, monographs, book reviews and critical essays will play a role that is only slightly less central than the writing of haibun itself. Nor may haibun poets cast their eyes about the larger environment and blame their relative obscurity, with any justice, upon an indifferent "mainstream" literati or broader haikai community. Writers in any arena have an obligation not only to write well but to work, also, to promote that writing, to secure an audience and to improve, thereby, the odds of their art's survival. (25)

I would agree that two levels of literary criticism are essential: that done by scholars and translators, and that done by contemporary readers and writers. We non-scholars can do this by sharing our impressions on a deeper level than “I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t get it." Today there is a world of resources on the Internet, widespread availability of inexpensive books, and increasingly rich resources found in our own haiku-genre journals to assist us in exploring these works on a deeper level.

On a personal level, I've found that writing commentaries takes me further into a haibun than one or two readings would. Reading haiku and haibun is, after all, an acquired skill—one that has to be worked at. And deconstructing a piece of fine writing can lead to ideas for improving one’s own writing.


I hope that I’ve been able to encourage others to similarly read in greater depth and to consider writing commentaries on haibun that appeal to them for whatever reason.

As for further gains by reading the ancients, Jane Hirshfield’s thoughts about two Japanese female master poets are apt:

We turn to these poems not to discover the past but to experience the present more deeply. In this way, they satisfy the test of all great literature, for it is our own lives we find illuminated in them. (26)

Indeed, the next time I decide not to put up Christmas lights, I’m sure that Issa’s distant voice will come to mind as I gaze out into the darkness of night.

And Issa’s haiku will continue to remind me of my good fortune despite life’s myriad problems:

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.
(tr. Robert Hass)

[ Go to About Issa Page]



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