yuki tokete mura ippai no kodomo kana
snow melting . . .
the village floods
If I had to pick just one Japanese haiku as my favourite above all others, it would have to be this one. After a long winter, all the snow finally melts in spring. The poem starts with a simple image to indicate an optimistic moment of seasonal change, but then adds tension—water from melting snow is threatening a flood. But then we have a twist—the village is not flooding with water, but with children. All is right with the world after all. And more than being right, it is joyous—it is ecstatic!
I do not know to what extent the poem’s wordplay exists in the Japanese, but in English it works very well, giving this haiku a surprise ending. With this surprise, Issa emphasizes the joy of childhood. Now it is warm enough to play outside, and what fun to splash in the puddles—when the world, as Cummings said, is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. And it’s not just one or two children, but all the children of the village, thus celebrating a communal joy.
Issa shares this joy, too, but what makes the poem even more remarkable is its context, amid all his hardships. His mother died when he was three, his stepmother despised him and made him work in the fields instead of going to school, and he was forced to leave home at fourteen. That sounds like a recipe for an unhappy childhood, yet Issa recalls a happy childhood moment. His glass was always half full, and you can see this buoyant spirit in most of Issa’s haiku. He lived a life of much poverty, and though he later married and found some literary success as a haiku poet, his children died very young, as did one of his wives. And that was not all of his troubles. Yet still he was able to find joy in his life.
For me, this haiku captures not only the joy of childhood, but also the joy of haiku, because haiku poets delight in such moments just as much as children who take delight in spring puddles after a long winter. Here’s to Issa’s joy!