Kobayashi Issa, "[the snow is melting]"

I should say, the first time I read this poem, I thought Issa was in "grouchy old man" mode, bemoaning the noisy, shouty kids disturbing his peace.

Kobayashi Issa, "[the snow is melting]"

Here, Issa provides a study in expectations. First, "the snow is melting." At once, we're imagining spring, feeling hopeful. Then, "the village is flooded." Our hope has dangerous consequences. Worry and anxiety enter. Finally, "the village is flooded / with children." We're back to hoping. The haiku might be a dark joke about moods. Will the cycle of one good thought followed by one bad thought continue forever? Our moods seem so easily manipulated.

[the snow is melting] (from Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
      with children.

I find myself fascinated by "snow." "Snow" stands terrible and beautiful in our experiences. Heidegger opens a poem of his own with a recounting of how it both overwhelmed and calmed him:

When in the winter nights snowstorms
tear at the cabin and one morning the
landscape is hushed in its blanket of 

The object, in this case "snow," is fundamental to our experiences and memories. But if we try to pinpoint how it is for us—if we confront the object, question its being—it stays mysterious. It's tempting to say such an investigation is fruitless, unworthy of the sciences and humanities. What could possibly be gained?

I suspect we make such investigations all the time, though. Consider someone writing memoir. They typically find objects recur in their lives. They're reminded of the tiara they adored at age 4 after they see one like it while hunting for antiques at age 50.  The object isn't symbolic, as it has talismanic influence upon one's mind. The effect may be more pronounced when an explicit effort to reflect isn't made. An example: everyone is endlessly fascinated with others' homes. How everyone else lives so beautifully, in perfect order.

"What is spoken is never, and in no / language, what is said," Heidegger declares. He points directly to the space between words and thought. We're always striving to close that gap, introducing new words and thoughts to do so, complicating our task while finding resolution. We do get a sense of what looms large for us. We can discover ourselves as actors in the world, not just sightseers. An openness to being is operative. Objects, in this case, are not strictly material occupying space and changing over time.


I venture there is a disclosure of being in beholding snow as terrible and beautiful. That, however, only serves as a beginning. I'd like to feel genuinely hopeful, not trapped by an instance of worry followed by an instance of relative calm. Issa's own poem ends "with children," prompting me to wonder if he settled on a more permanent sense of hope.

—I should say, the first time I read this poem, I thought Issa was in "grouchy old man" mode, bemoaning the noisy, shouty kids disturbing his peace.—

I have to consider how my vision hides my expectations. This is the puzzle of "snow," how it is possible to see an object as giving a landscape an angelic quiet while knowing it nearly killed you. How can such contradicatory notions coexist within one object? But they do coexist, and it does make sense to us. Often, those of us claiming we're "normal" can't understand the trauma of someone hurt by a natural disaster.

It's our normality that's questionable. Just as one immediately equates "melting snow" with springtime and hope, I've seen things as fixed goods. Work as profitable. Effort as commendable. Friendship as a form of mutual respect. It's not that these associations are unreasonable. They're extremely reasonable, and therein lies a trap. What happens when work isn't profitable, when you could meet more people and make more money playing video games? What happens when your efforts are neglected? And what of those who refuse to conceive anything higher or deeper?

A major reason why many of us get upset with our parents is that they can't see we live out their values. If they said and meant it, we actually live it. Vision hides expectations so well that it's hard to see that a smaller version of you is not just approaching the world with your mindset, but approaching a world you made.

There's a strange power in looking for one's own expectations. To be sure, what we've read does not speak that power explicitly. Issa, listening to children play, may be thought a bit bothered by them. Heidegger might be thought lost in the forest, despite his grand rhetoric. But the only way to grapple with the future is to know what you expect and build from there. I've known many who were bitter, feeling like life passed them by. I can't blame them—life definitely didn't treat them well—but no one would ever accuse them of being curious. They want victories everyone recognizes as such, like winning the lottery. There's no ability to see what life does with the world, what spring brings into being.


Heidegger, Martin. “The Thinker as Poet” in Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins/Perennial, 2001. 11.