Kobayashi Issa, “Climb Mount Fuji”

Climb Mount Fuji (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.


Before we discuss Issa’s cryptic plea to a snail, I want to highlight two recent encounters with friends. First, one rather pointedly asked why I write on poetry rather than politics. This caused me to raise an eyebrow, because as far as I know, this friend does not like to read. I’m almost certainly sure he doesn’t read what I write – if he does, I am glad for the readership and welcome his response. Second, another has the means to buy something that would launch his career to new heights. He not only has the means to buy this thing, he could buy it an additional 1000 times if he wanted. For whatever reason, he’s decided that talking about buying what he needs is far more interesting and important than actually getting what he needs.

It is with some relief, then, that I turn to Issa’s snail. It is busy climbing no less than Mount Fuji at its own pace. It’s not going to get to the top, not even close. But the snail does what the snail wants to do. Issa addresses it, then, with full respect for its being: “Climb Mount Fuji, O snail, but slowly, slowly.” He lets the expectation that climbing only matters if something is actually climbed stand ridiculous, instead encouraging the snail to slow its slowness.

Of course, there is more to consider. Issa’s work tends to have a sly, sarcastic bend, but that is because it is aware of the larger search in which poets of haiku are engaged. Does he actually think he’s found a truth considering the snail? The snail is as the snail does; whatever it is, it must be weighed relative to Issa himself. That he asks the snail to climb more slowly reflects his advancing age, his own inability to keep up. That the snail’s lack of speed allows it to take in the Earth one grain at a time reflects his aspiration, to see the whole in the smallest of things, to understand where he fits in the cosmos. Thus, I would say he’s giving himself, in his own joking way, this admonition: Despite my advancing age, I should work to slow down more myself. The poem states a means of contemplation. There is no defense of it, other than this is the way of life he has chosen.

Let’s descend from the cosmic to the practical. I could defend my choice of writing on poetry by speaking about the relation of literature to political sentiment and thought. But that’s really a waste of my time, and not truly descriptive of what’s happening here. More true is that I’m searching for something important, day-by-day, and if you were searching for something important, you might try reading more. It’s not the only way to know better, but it is one way, and as longtime readers of this blog know, knowledge builds. In that vein, what I’m trying to do is make sure I have what I need for what I want to do. I’m not dodging the themes of politics, but investing in my thought. When we discover a theme that must be explored, it won’t be found artificially, through questions, for example, that resemble stoner logic: “If I’m going to be original, I need to be away from society, because society tells us what to think, right?” When one has invested, the larger questions are revealed in their permanence. You know more fully how society has told you what to think and how you yourself have broken some of those bonds. You wonder what it means to think yourself original in any way, given that you see most of what you think in thinkers of the past. The funniest thing about that snail climbing slowly is that it makes progress, and that stands as ludicrous as it does true.

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