Kobayashi Issa, “Don’t worry, spiders”

Happy Mother’s Day

Don’t worry, spiders
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass, from The Essential Haiku)

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

Comment:

1. I spared many a spider growing up. Mom said spiders killed other pesky insects and shouldn’t be smashed promptly. They could be helpers for keeping the house clean, if it weren’t for those webs they tend to create.

I still spare spiders for the most part. (Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere spotless.)

2. Hass makes two points relevant to our consideration of the poem. First, there is probably a hidden seasonal reference. This is about summer, where housekeepers are a bit less diligent. Their “laziness” allows the spiders to be at work.

Second, Hass declares that Buddhist thought is at play in most haiku. “Three ideas about natural things” are typically seen. They are “transient,” “contingent,” and they do “suffer.” This poem can be seen as an exploration of the contingency of natural things. The spiders emerge in season, but they did not have to emerge in the house. The housekeeper’s whim in allowing the spiders to live is less free will or moral choice and instead more of a physiological reaction.

3. One can get a strong moral reading from the seasonality of the poem. If we let things live because we’re not really in the mood to kill them, why do we ever kill anything? Hass speaks of Issa’s humanism, and I won’t deny that’s important.

I’d rather focus for a minute on the decay spiders represent. Those webs aren’t just messy. They’re a potential takeover of human dwelling. The housekeeper speaks of keeping house casually. Don’t strict routines and laws enable us to preserve our dwelling? Shouldn’t spiders and other vermin always be cast aside?

That’s just it, though: if you want a house to be your house, to be kept, you have to be casual. Otherwise, the house is an object of its own apart from any human use. The whole point of having a house is being able to relax in it. Some decay results from such casual behavior. Again, the house is being used – by both its intended inhabitants and some guests.

References

The Essential Haiku. ed. Robert Hass. New York: HarperCollins, 1944.

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