Kobayashi Issa: haiku about shitting

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is generally counted as one of the four greatest haiku poets, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Issa was a devout, if irreverent, Buddhist of the True Pure Land sect whose pen-name means “one cup of tea.” His haiku are extremely down-to-earth, making ample use of vernacular speech and often taking insects or other invertebrates for their subject matter. He wrote at least fifteen haiku about excrement and excretory functions, in which I believe he was not only riffing on the Buddhist doctrine about the essential oneness of nirvana and samsara, but also trying to challenge traditional Japanese concepts of beauty and purity. Japan is a purity-obsessed culture, in which cleanliness and beauty are closely linked. Foreign visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that, in this otherwise extremely clean and tidy country, public restrooms, especially in train stations, can be unspeakably filthy. Since such places are considered inherently impure, little effort is expended to keep them clean. But to Issa, any place where people or animals pause to take a shit seems worthy of a second look. After all, anything that breaks us loose from our ordinary mental habits might lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.

For a more comprehensive sample of Issa’s work, see David G. Lanoue’s massive online archive (to which I am indebted for the Japanese texts below). The following are my own translations.

*

ta no hito no kasa ni hako shite kaeru kari

The wild geese take wing
from the flooded fields,
shitting on the farmers’ hats.

*

sôjô ga no-guso asobasu higasa kana

In the middle of the field,
the high priest takes a shit —
that parasol.

*

no setchin no ushiro wo kakou yanagi kana

An impromptu outhouse,
screening bare asses from view:
the lone willow.

*

musashi no ya no-guso no togi ni naku hibari

On Musashi Plain,
I listened to the song of a skylark
while I took a shit.

*

nichi-nichi no kuso darake nari hana no yama

The mountain in cherry blossom time:
each day a deeper layer
of excrement.

*

kado-gado ni aoshi kaiko no kuso no yama

At every gate,
a blue-green mountain
of silkworm frass.

*

uguisu ya kuso shi nagara mo hokkekyô

The bush warbler
intones the Lotus Sutra
even as it shits.

*

kasugano ya dagashi ni majiru shika no kuso

In Kasuga Field, between the temples,
cheap candy mingles
with the deer pellets.

*

hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso

First snow:
not even enough to hide
all the dogshit.

17 Comments


  1. The sound of goose poop on the farmer’s hats: I like that one.

    Frass. Wonderful word.

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  2. Wow, Dave. My mind boggles. Where would I learn these things, were it not for Via Negativa? :-)

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  3. Frass… yes, that sounds just as it falls, I suppose!

    When my oldest child was in middle school, he had a T-shirt with pictures of the excrement of wild animals, all in Latin. He was asked to never wear that T-shirt to school again.

    I wonder what the school would make of these haiku?

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  4. Frass. Yup. New to me. Great word. “Footling frass”. Excellent.

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  5. Oh my goodness gracious, these are delightful. I laughed out loud and am still grinning. I LOVE the one about the mountain in cherry blossom time. I realize this is crass frass, but how great would it be to have these on delicately handmade cards with some sort of faux Japanese art on the cover and the shitter of the verse inside. Dave, arigato gozaimasu!

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  6. I wonder what my elderly Japanese friends would make of these haiku. They are too funny – the contrast in the traditional images of cherry blossoms and birds with the excrement. Like Brett said.

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  7. Haikus about shit? I would have never guessed. How wonderful.

    airport rendezvous
    side by side in public restrooms
    the flush of excitement

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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  8. Hey y’all, thanks for the comments. I wasn’t sure how well these would go over; I guess I shouldn’t have worried!

    My main reason for wanting to translate these was what I felt to be the inadequacy of Lanoue’s translation of kuso, etc. as “poop.” In the case of deer and caterpillars, we have specific words for their excrement that should be used. “Frass” might be a little obscure for non-naturalists, but it seems wrong to use the word “shit” for something so hard and dry (human excrement, by contrast, is 80 percent water) – and as Maria says, the word is as dry as the sound the stuff makes when it falls to the forest floor.

    robin andrea – Thanks for the fun comment. I didn’t see any Issa haiku that deal explictly with the link between sex and bowel movements for some men, though homosexuality was certainly not a taboo subject in pre-modern Japan (see, for example, haiku master and novelist Saikaku Ihara’s story collection Comrade Loves of the Samurai).

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  9. I’m surprised Teju hasn’t weighed in, honestly. I’d think this post would be right up his alley.

    Er. So to speak. ;-)

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  10. Actually, he did comment back-channel. Uh, so to speak.

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  11. ��純粋�土地�����洗�必���る。

    (My Pure Land needs scrubbing.)

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  12. You’re lucky Amida isn’t the smiting kind of deity. You’d be in deep shit.

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  13. After the success of the International Rock Flipping Day, why not have Poop Poetry day?

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  14. Oh lord no. I mean, if someone else wants to organize it, I’d be happy to participate (after all, I have written a few Bathroom Poems), but I don’t want V.N. to become the #1 search engine result for shitty poetry.

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  15. I like the skylark one best. A bird song soundtrack for shitting. Sounds like a missing Leonard Nimoy album.

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  16. Oh, my very favorite haiku poet!

    And you’ve aptly demonstrated why.

    Reply

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