Kobayashi Issa, “Napped half the day”

With thanks to Madeline Frohlich

Steam rises from sidewalks, lungs fight with thick air, and skin tingles like it will make me melt before the sun itself does so. This is a Texas summer, and I’m only slightly exaggerating the effects, as I have a long way to go in terms of repairing my health. I know many of you, for a number of reasons (e.g. crappy, long hours at work, crazy family situations, a lack of interest or support for what’s important to you) can feel like taking life off some days. I’ve got just the poem for all of us; here’s Issa speaking of napping half the day:

Napped half the day (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

The sheer audacity of this poem startles me. As we have discussed before, William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” gets mercilessly mocked because the audience has expectations for poetry. The audience may not have definite, strict standards, but they will take offense at things that seem stupid. In fact, our current world can be defined not simply as media-dominated, but media dominated by a specific theme. It’s an outrage machine, where people actively look for what they think maligns them, treats them as unintelligent. People build a case for their own rationality by keeping a list of all the stupidity they think they see. I didn’t speak a one-word poem that was an obscenity at a poetry festival, so I must know something.

A good place to begin with this poem is its central line, “no one.” It is a quiet play on words. Instead of saying the speaker was not punished at all for napping half the day, he actually was punished — by “no one.” What does such a curious phrasing tell us about why this poem was written? I suspect it will tie into the larger question, the question of what napping half the day actually means. We are told by innumerable others, of course, that sleeping all the time is a denial of existence.

“No one” is an observer that is the speaker himself, not everyone else. The speaker observed himself, now relates the story. Defiant, he rejects any say that everyone or anyone could have regarding his behavior. He is clear that napping half the day, in other contexts, would bring punishment from society. He has chosen to “punish” himself through his own declaration; it is no punishment at all.

That the napper is defiant and independent, rejecting conventional notions of what his life means, is only part of the story. Can he prove to himself that napping half the day is a naturally good thing, a thing he ought to be doing? Again, others would say he wastes his life, that he’s denying the very reason he exists.

To that end, we have to ask whether we are truly ourselves when we sleep. How do our waking and sleeping selves unite? Truth be told, they don’t. Sleep is almost punishment for being awake, and waking is definitely punishment at times after sleep. Our lives aren’t torture, they just don’t make a lot of sense. We work to try and maintain a world which we feel does make sense. We are punished for betraying the conventions constituting that world, those which help keep others sane. But this poem introduces an ironic twist to the strange, hypocritical logic of everyday living: with the situation made clear, napping half the day isn’t really insanity. It isn’t just laziness. Issa slyly demonstrates that napping half the day actually attempts to reconcile our sleeping and waking hours. He was not punished for existing, for once. He was not forced to support a system which tells him what everything means. On this reading, a lack of existence is a lack of such a reconciliation.

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