Mary Gamble

Comparing Nature in Haiku:
Kobayashi Issa vs. Gary Hotham

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Comparing Nature in Haiku:
Kobayashi Issa vs. Gary Hotham

One of the most distinct differences between Japanese haiku and haiku of other cultures, specifically American, revolves around the treatment of nature. Japanese haiku poets tend to focus on nature much more than American haiku poets. The artists of Japan write with compassion for all living things. These haiku poets often believe that these animals and plants are equal to, if not above, humans. American haiku artists tend to focus on the personal aspect of each moment presented. Often, if nature is evident, it is used to create a mood or to place the reader in the moment. Seldom do American haiku poets use nature in their works for the purpose of concentrating on creation for an entire haiku.

Kobayashi Issa is perhaps the epitome of Japanese nature haiku artists. In his poetry, Issa treats animals and other forms of nature like people. These elements are living beings and he treats them with respect. In Issa’s work, animals are given voices and their remarks are explained and rationalized. In fact, Issa often personifies animals and nature. He often talks with animals in his haiku and even listens to their responses. He obviously believed that everything in nature is alive. As a result, he treated all natural things with reverence.

Gary Hotham’s American haiku brings each moment to life. He uses nature to set the scene. When he includes nature in his work, Hotham almost always includes another subject line as well. It is very seldom that Hotham will write an entire haiku focused on nature. Instead, he includes nature to recreate the state of being for each haiku. Perhaps Hotham’s use of nature can be best described in his own words.

Of course haiku are not just nature poems. There are lots of trees, clouds, wind, snow, and rain in mine, if that is what defines a nature poem. But there are other things in them such as cups of coffee, daughters, famous men, blank forms, soup, dentists, and closets. But even in the ones that look like a nature poem there is us. As far as the materials of the haiku go and its subject matter, all aspects of creation are legitimate. (Breath Marks 101-102)

Nature, as a subject matter, is vast in its range. One important part of nature is weather. Rain is often used in haiku.

Umbrellas at the ready
We crossed the Hakone passes
In the spring rain

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 60)

the rain keeps us in the car—
her mother
not any better

(Hotham Footprints & Fingerprints 21)

This matching pair is a great illustration of the difference between the way nature is viewed in different cultures. Both haiku selections contain references to the rain. However, dramatic differences in the way the rain is viewed and dealt with are evident. Issa, a Japanese poet, does not let the rain stop him from continuing his plans for the day. He simply prepares himself with an umbrella and continues on his journey for the day. The rain is not depicted as negative or uninvited in this haiku. Instead, the rain is a natural occurrence and is dealt with promptly and without complaints. Hotham’s haiku portrays a completely different interpretation of rain. Hotham represents the rain as a nuisance. The rain interrupts his plans for the day. In fact, it appears that his day may in fact be ruined because of the rainfall. Additionally, Hotham puts some blame on the rain. His haiku states that the rain kept him in the car. In Issa’s poem, the rain is just an addition to the day and he continues across the Hakone passes.

Along with rain, other types of weather are often mentioned in haiku poetry of Japan and America. The wind is one such example.

The cool breeze—
Comes winding and wandering
At last-it’s here!

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 83)

late evening heat
the newspaper rattles
in the fan’s breeze

(Hotham Haiku Anthology 84)

Nature is certainly referred to differently in these poems. The reaction to the breeze in both poems is the same. Both Hotham and Issa’s reference to the cool breeze is inviting. However, it is interesting to note that Issa’s breeze is a natural one. Issa does not complain about the previous heat. Instead, he almost praises nature for refreshing him with such a breeze. His connotations involving the wind are playful and dramatic, almost giving the wind a face. However, Hotham’s breeze comes from an alternate source. This source is electric and motorized, not natural. In addition, Hotham’s attitude toward the heat is negative. He is almost grumbling about nature. The fan, however, a man-made item, is Hotham’s saving grace from the perils of nature’s heat. Issa embraces the breeze, but does not curse the heat.

The seasons and all of the weather that accompany them are often referred to in detail through haiku. One particularly popular season to write haiku about is Autumn. During this season, the weather is quite interesting and creates ample opportunities for interpretation.

Wind of Autumn!
And the scarlet flowers are there
That she loved to pluck!

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 100)

autumn wind
autumn rain
dirty dishes
in the sink

(Hotham Off and On Rain)

Both of these haiku refer to autumn wind. During fall, the wind is unique. It is not a frigid wind of winter, a steaming wind of summer, or even a soft breeze of spring. This autumn wind is unique. It is refreshing and unexpected. The wind brings with it relief from the heat. Also, autumn wind creates a comfortable surrounding atmosphere. The winds of autumn create an exquisite scene. In fact, the wind contributes a great deal to the beauty of the season. An interesting note is that Issa and Hotham have completely different reactions to this season. Issa’s haiku was written about his daughter, Sato. She had died and he wrote this haiku out of sorrow from missing her. The beauty of the season inspired him to think back to memories of his deceased daughter.

Hotham, on the other hand, uses this season for a completely different effect. Hotham’s haiku almost leaves nature out completely. The season is mentioned as a reference to the time of year, not as an important part of the moment. The subject of his haiku is the dirty dishes, while Issa’s subject is the nature memory.
Nature includes plants as well. Trees and leaves are popular subject matter for haiku in both societies. Often, the color of the leaves is used as a season word. The haiku is then immediately placed in a time of the year. These words simplify the description of the time without over explaining the occasion. In other cases, leaves are used to create a certain visual experience.

people scattered
the leaves too scattered
and spread

(Issa Classical Tradition 66)

on my way to the car—
the leaves give the wind
a hurried sound

(Hotham Footprints & Fingerprints 26)

Issa’s comparison in this haiku between the leaves and the people is unique. Leaves blow in a unique way. The image is unmistakable. However, people do not usually "scatter" in a regular way. With the image of the leaves scattering and replacing it with people, this moment is clearly represented. It seems, to me, as a "matrix" type image. This entire haiku centers on a natural theme. Issa is comparing two natural images- leaves and people. In this haiku, Hotham does concentrate on nature. However, it is not done with the same reverence that Issa gives. Hotham’s reference to the wind and the leaves adds to the sense of hustle and bustle of the moment depicted. Hotham seems to be shuffling to his car and is prodded along by the sound of the rustling leaves.

Sometimes, haiku poets write haiku that appeal directly to the reader’s senses. Humans have many senses including sight, sound, and touch/feel. A well-written haiku can accurately create a feeling of these senses even when they do not literally exist. One of the most challenging senses to convey to the reader is the sense of sound.

Listen! O Listen!
Like water into sleeping ears
The cuckoo’s song

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 72)

half heard rain—
page after page
of family photos

(Hotham Footprints & Fingerprints 5)

The connection in this haiku pair is unique. Both of these haiku have to do with hearing. Reference is made in both haiku to listening to nature. However, the way in which nature is treated in each haiku is astonishing. In Issa’s poem, the cuckoo’s song is the main subject. This bird is singing a natural song and creating a beautiful aria. Issa begs the reader to "Listen! O Listen!" to this gorgeous sound. Both the cuckoo and his song are exquisite and special. Hotham’s poem paints an entirely different view on listening to nature. His haiku does not concentrate on the natural, the rain, but instead concentrates on the photo album. The original rules of haiku, which stress the importance of nature, are almost entirely lost in this instance. Hotham’s unique poem, however, creates a wonderfully depicted moment containing a sense of nature in the background. This rainfall is not ignored on purpose. In fact, the addition of the "half heard rain" gives the haiku a sense of setting. The difference between Issa’s reference to nature and Hotham’s is that Issa puts nature in the foreground while Hotham places nature in the background.

Each spring and summer, one of the most common things to see in the morning is fresh dew on the ground.

The dews dissolve;
With reverence do your office now,
Chirping sparrow!

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 66)

before the dew is off—
he pulls his son
in the new red wagon

(Hotham Footprints & Fingerprints 12)

Neither of these haiku use dew as their main subject, but each of them use dew in a different way. Issa’s attention to the dew is interesting. The dew is simply a part of the story. The sparrow has been waiting to fulfill his duty until the dew was gone. The time of day is implied by the dew reference also. The absence of the dew invites the sparrow to continue on in his performance. This haiku uses two aspects of nature - the dew and the sparrow. Hotham uses dew to denote the early morning aspect of the haiku. Hotham writes "before the dew is off." The picture projected through the use of the dew is a father awakened by his young son begging to be pulled in the new wagon. Because the wagon is new, this occasion is one of excitement and increased delight. This young child wants to use his new toy as soon as he possibly can, even when the dew is still on the ground.

Children and their interaction with nature are often used as topics for haiku. In most cases, children represent purity and innocence. Often, children are referenced as information seekers. In addition, some haiku use children’s size to create interesting images. Children make beautiful mental pictures.

Garden butterfly
The child crawls, it flutters,
Crawls again, it flies.

(Issa Autumn Wind Haiku 44)

today’s she ten—
the wind too big for the hand
she holds open

(Hotham Footprints & Fingerprints 29)

In both of these two haiku, the emphasis is on maturity always being just out of reach. In Issa’s poem, the child cannot catch that butterfly. No matter how hard he tries, the butterfly keeps moving before the child can make contact with it. But, the child will not give up. He continues to chase the butterfly in hopes of catching it this time. The focus of this haiku is not the butterfly, but rather the relationship between child and the butterfly. Hotham’s haiku is comparable to Issa’s. Hotham uses the wind to create a similar image. Instead of trying to catch a butterfly, the child is trying to catch the wind in her hand. But, the wind is too big for the child to hold. This haiku seems to be a statement regarding growth. The child is still young and unable to understand and grasp the concepts of this fantastic and confusing world. Both of these images of children are beautiful.

Haiku poets from different cultures treat nature differently in their work. American haiku poets, such as Gary Hotham, often use haiku to set a mood or stage a scene. It is not often that nature is used in American haiku as a main subject matter. Instead, American haiku poets center on the moment and use nature to further the description of the image. However, Japanese haiku poets, such as Kobayashi Issa often use haiku to show their compassion for all living things. Nature, including such things as plants, animals, and vegetation, is often used as a main subject matter in Japanese haiku poetry. These poets focus on nature as an integral part of everyday life. Nature and haiku have a very strong bond that offers many aspects to ponder.

Works Cited

Hotham, Gary. Breath Marks : Haiku To Read In The Dark. Canon Press, 2000.

Hotham, Gary. Footprints & Fingerprints. Pittsburgh: Modest Proposal Chapbooks,

Hotham, Gary. Off and On Rain. Battle Ground, IN: High/Coo, 1978.

Hotham, Gary. "Selected Haiku." The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel.
New York: Norton & Company, 1999. 80-87.

Issa, Kobayashi. "Selected Haiku." The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. Ed. Fabion Bowers. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 61-70.

Mackenzie, Lewis. Autumn Wind Haiku. New York: Kodansha International, 1984.

—Mary Gamble


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors