Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To by David G. Lanoue

“To Write like Issa means writing tenderly about one’s fellow creatures, human and otherwise”

David G. Lanoue

Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To by David G. Lanoue explores the mindset needed to write haiku like Kobayashi Issa.  The six lessons contained in this book came about as a result of Lanoue’s experiences teaching haiku workshops. Lanoue readily admits that there is something special about a group process that could be lost when shifting the content to a book format. Therefore, he included many haiku from his workshop participants in order to add another layer to each lesson. What resulted is a wonderful little book that is part poetic analysis, and part individual practice, which is supported by a blend of different voices to help the reader understand what it really means to write a haiku like Issa.  

Lanoue begins this book by telling us that Issa’s “haiku celebrate life on a living planet with appreciation, empathy and good humor.” It is Issa’s concern for the small things, and his understanding that “he was not living on a higher plane” but on the same level as the insects, the animals, and all people that made his writing unique.  This approach to life enabled Issa to write haiku that displayed a child-like imagination and a Buddha-like compassion. 

The six lessons contained in this book each hold great gems of wisdom worthy of being mentioned. However, for this review I will just focus on Lesson 1: Compassion as a Way of Perception, Consciousness, and Art; Lesson 2: Childlike Vision: The Joy and Necessity of Unlearning; and Lesson 6: Answer Issa in Kind.  

Lesson 1: Compassion as a Way of Perception, Consciousness, and Art

the cricket’s
winter residence . .. 
my quilt

Issa’s compassion for others, even the little cricket, is a hallmark of his haiku. Lanoue explains. “Outside the walls of Issa’s hut the universe is cold, vast, black, and unforgiving.  Why not share this warmth, this moment of precision existence, with (even) a cricket”.   So this first lesson is as much about compassion as it is about perceptions. Issa is challenging us to think about who is worthy of compassion in this world.

Lanoue states that Issa’s haiku shows us that “other beings–even non-human ones–experience the same universe and, on some level, have feelings about those experiences.”   Issa’s writing asks the reader to crouch down and look at the cricket, see what it is doing, recognize that it holds the same spark of life as you do. It is a lesson that is grounded in Issa’s Buddhist practices, yet you do not need to be Buddhist to engage in this shift in perception.  You just need to be open to recognizing the wonder of life on earth.

don’t swat that fly!
rubbing hands
rubbing feet

 Lesson 2: Childlike Vision – The Joy and Necessity of Unlearning

baby sparrows
move aside!
Sir Horse passes

Lanoue says that Issa was often called the “child’s poet.” This title came to be partially because of his compassion for others, and the way that showed up in his haiku.  However, Lanoue explains that this was not because Issa was childlike, it was more because he held a level of spiritual maturity that enabled him to transcend, or unlearn, the restrictions of the adult brain.

“Unlearning involves the setting aside of grownup prejudices, assumptions, and black-and-white definitions: plunging one’s self wholly into the here-and-now moment to experience life with out the adult brain’s filters and blinders.”

The unlearning process enables us to experience the present moment for what it truly is.  Unlearning allows us to step out of our adult mind, which colors every experience with our past experiences or future hopes. Unlearning asks us to sit and notice the wonder of the seasons, the weather, the animals, and our senses. Unlearning lets us approach the world with a curiosity and awe toward the natural world.

moo, moo, moo
from the mist cows

Lesson 6: Answer Issa In Kind

Following a tradition that began before Issa, Lanoue’s last lesson is more of a writing challenge.  Lanoue explains that Basho admired the poets of ancient China and often incorporated their verse into his work.  Likewise, Issa admired Basho, and sometimes answered Basho’s haiku with his own.  Lanoue provides us with this example:

old pond–
a frog jumping into water

old Pond
“Let me go first!”
jumping frog

Issa’s response is, in fact, an acknowledgement of Basho’s influence on him as a teacher. Lanoue thus asks the reader of this book to attempt to answer one of Issa’s haiku.  He states that when he did this practice he “felt somehow close to him, as if I was momentarily seeing the world of my own experience through his eyes; as if I was creating the kind of haiku that, if he were me, he might have written.” Therefore, think of this last lesson as an invitation to join the tradition of answering haikus by those who have come before us.

stone still
he lets the snow fall
colt in the pasture

icicles form
on the bull's nose
bomb cyclone

“Think like Issa; write like Issa; jump into the old pond of haiku tradition. Add your own ripples!”

Davis Lanoue
Write Like Issa book cover

David G. Lanoue is a translator of Japanese haiku, a teacher of English and world literature, the author of 18 books and a past president of the Haiku Society of America.  Lanoue also runs Haikuguy.com, which is a searchable collection of over 11,000 of Issa’s haiku. Visit his site to learn more about him and his printed work.


12 thoughts on “Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To by David G. Lanoue

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  1. Issa seems as though he had a playful side. I’ve read several of his haiku that were quite humorous. He also seems to have a thing for crickets! I like his attitude regarding his place in the grand scheme of things: on the same level as everything else, not above anything. That sort of thinking really opens the door to true empathy and understanding not just other humans, but all of the natural world. Your haiku is brilliant. I’ve seen icicles on the noses of livestock (yep, another “I remember my days on the farm…” anecdote!). Keep; ’em coming, Mark. You’ve got some good haiku writing chops! This was a fun and informative essay. I’ll check out the book, too. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I thought you would know about icicles on livestock. That is definitely a farm thing. Because who else would be out looking at cows in that type of weather. Well maybe me. But, in my defense, they are our neighbors. Yes, check out the books. He actually has quite a few of them. Take care.

    1. Thanks! I am glad that you enjoyed this. I was just working on a haiku yesterday and came back to these lessons. It is good to have concepts to fall back on.

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