Kobayashi Issa, “Even with insects”

Even with insects (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Even with insects–
some can sing,
some can’t.


Children, teenagers, and young adults complain that they are not understood, and so it feels horribly immature, even alien, when you’re older and you’re not understood. To be sure, not being understood is a strange condition. You’ll complain you’re not understood for a particular reason, a particular feeling. But when you think about it a bit more, it seems a more involved affair. You’re really asking for a number of things to be characterized a certain way, your way. And sometimes, you wonder how much it would take to get other people to see things your way, a way you don’t fully understand yourself. What could be said that would work?

I suspect all who have a certain maturity can divide our interactions into two categories: successful communication with other people, failed communication. What we want to say can be deeply felt and not easily articulated, and it’s easy to think there are other people who are much better at speaking what’s necessary, people who can talk well naturally. Self-expression, in that respect, is almost like one’s capacity to sing, and it’s possible to be in awe (as well as utterly jealous) of people who can sing. It’s also possible to let that awe or jealousy consume one to the point where one stops caring about expressing one’s own feelings.

Onto the poem. Issa presents us with a picture of someone complaining: “Even with insects– some can sing, some can’t.” One could say the noise of tuneless insects on a hot summer night bothers him, but that’s not quite right. It’s more that the man in question is bothered by whether people can sing or not, thus his introduction “even with insects.” Why on earth would he be bothered if people can sing or not? Why would he be bothered if he couldn’t sing?

That’s the funny thing about a world of indirect, oblique communication. In some cultures, not speaking directly has a high value. Being able to subtly show displeasure or aversion, able to demonstrate a feeling by simply recounting one’s actions or describing a scene, comes at a cost. It prioritizes the medium for the message. Here’s a man who expresses his discomfort at the heat of summer and a cacophony of insect chirps. The complaint concerns where he is, but while that phrase can resound deeply, it is only an invitation to understand him. Giving expression of one’s emotions an aesthetic value takes away from what is actually happening to a given person.

What is happening to him? “Some can sing, some can’t” provides the necessary clue. He’s honed in on the notion that some insects can sing. There’s something he recognizes as a tune in all that chaos, and that tune no less than characterizes an insect for the sake of this musing. If we extend this idea to human beings, that some human beings can sing a tune tells us what we need to know about them. So can the speaker sing?

If he can sing, then the haiku is merely a complaint that the world is annoying to him. If he can’t, if he identifies with tuneless insects, then this poem acquires a certain gravity. He feels naturally unable to express himself. It is quite an oppressive feeling, if not one of the most oppressive feelings. It makes the world nothing but noise, nothing but hell. The tunes others weave don’t act as a model, but as a display of unattainable skill. One joins an ocean of unknown melodies. I guess I shouldn’t be too bleak – Issa’s tone is more that of mild annoyance. Still, I can’t help but feel a general aimlessness or listlessness will lead this direction.

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