Light Amidst the Darkness: Issa's "On a branch..."

Tim Farrand

The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa is considered one of the "Great Four" haiku masters in Japan. His haiku, "On a branch," conveys the wisdom of presence and acceptance. Use it as a light in the midst of darkness.

Kobayashi Issa

In an interview for Krista Tippett's On Being podcast, the poet Jane Hirshfield—whose work the nobel prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz describes as containing "a profound empathy for the suffering of all beings"—shares a haiku she loves by the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa in her own translation:[1]

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.

Eight simple words convey, in their tightness of expression, a multitude of truths. Hirshfield states that this was probably an observation of something actually seen by Issa as well as "a portrait for our entire existence." She recites these lines in the midst of a larger conversation on the power of metaphor as a tool for insight. Tippett, in summing up her gleanings from Hirshfield's Ted Talk, says that metaphors conjure "up a scene, a new way to talk about one thing, by describing something else." She adds that while poetry isn't literally true it has the power to express things that are truer than what can be expressed by only facts themselves.

Mary Oliver found poems to be great vehicles for truth-giving metaphors. She says that poetry in and of itself contains nothing more profound than a great piece of literature or music but a poem is condensed—"what is the point of bringing 50,000 new words into the world" when only a few will suffice—and that terseness can more effectively be memorized, unlike a chapter, so that you can possess it, which allows for efficient recall whenever truth is needed. In that way, there is a utility to poetry different from that of any other art form.

Henry David Thoreau considered poetry to be the closest thing to a purely natural act that humanity creates. Thoreau writes that the "loftiest written wisdom" is contained within poetry and that "if men read aright. . .he would never read anything but poems. No history nor philosophy can supply their place" Thoreau saw poetry as the vehicle for "the condensed wisdom of mankind," containing "more truth than science does." The production of poetry, according to Thoreau, is the most natural act that we as a species partake in, a "natural fruit:"[2]

As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem, either spoken or done. It is the chief and most memorable success, for history is but a prose narrative of poetic deeds.

Hirshfield is at once a proponent for using stories and metaphors to help shape our understanding of the world but also advises for humility in the face of what we think we know. She asks, in a time when clinging to stories can result in deadly consequences, that we have "the simple modesty of questioning our own stories," adding ever so powerfully:[3]

A person not sure of their own correctness will not bomb a church, or a mosque, a neighbor, a stranger, a school, an ecosystem, a planet.

Floating downriver is not a good place for a cricket to be

The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, 1836

Issa's haiku imparts on us the observation that we, Hirschfield states, "are probably in peril." She continues, "we're on a branch in the middle of the river. That is not a good place for a cricket to be." Our world is in a state of change. Our actions have consequences and there can be too much of a good thing. Cultivation can only go so far before we come into a period of excess, taking too much from our natural world without giving it time or space for healing.

While cultivation, that act of improving one's systems and society, in and of itself is not harmful it can be dangerous in excess, cutting away too much, cutting out what is worth keeping. As Thoreau and his brother sojourned on down the Concord River, they could see the spire of the schoolhouse off in the distance. This stretch of river they were on was largely "the wildest part" of the voyage and it was here that the stark contrast between the natural mode of living and the cultivated one came to mind. The people living in those remotest parts of nature lived a "very quiet and civil life" and "were plainly cultivators of the earth, [living] under an organized political government." There was a "soft and cultivated English aspect" about the area beyond this undisturbed patch of nature where the schoolhouse seemed to entreat "a long truce to war and savage life" out of which Man had cultivated itself. There are gains to the development of society, but also damages as Thoreau states, "the era in which men cultivate the apple, and the amenities of the garden, is essentially different from that of the hunter and forest life, and neither can displace the other without loss."[4]

A View near Point Levy opposite Quebec with an Indian Encampment, by Thomas Davies (National Gallery of Canada)

"The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England" by Felicia Hemans, with its praise of the Pilgrims that crossed to the New England shores, was a popular poem in the 1800s. It celebrates what first might have seemed like positive cultivation but in retrospect was missing the big picture, the damage that was done.

The Pilgrims came to the New England coast in order to have "freedom to worship God," as Hemans writes, but in laying bare the land for themselves, they took it away from its native inhabitants of animals, plants, and Native Americans. They came to the natural, wild landscape and cut down its trees, dried up its ground, and uprooted animals and Natives from their homes. Hemans claims that they did not come as a "conqueror," but rather "true-hearted," coming not in silence but rather "shook the depths of the desert gloom/With their hymns of lofty cheer." Maybe deserted and gloomy to them but certainly they overlooked what must have been frightened inhabitants whose home was invaded. She calls it "holy ground" where these Pilgrims were the "first [to] trod" yet forgetting that they were actually coming onto much-trafficked territory where billions of beings have lived for many thousands of years from the Humans to animals, from insects to plants, all have been here much longer than the society from which the Pilgrims fled. Her poem, like the Pilgrims, overlooks these innocent generations.

Returning to the Cricket

A cricket does not do well in the water, it has no way to survive. A rock, wave, or some rapids will submerge the little creature and wipe away its existence. But does the cricket panic? No, as Hirshfield puts it, "It sings, because that is its nature, because that is what it has to offer, because it delights in this moment in the sun, because it is on a branch and not yet drowned." Seth Godin, the marketing connoisseur and advocate for making a ruckus by bringing into this world what will make it better, says that "anxiety is experiencing failure in advance."[5] When things look grim, such as a global pandemic or the impending effects of global warming, it can be easy to become paralyzed with fear and incapable of action. The cricket shows us that, while things may be unfavorable, they are not entirely unredeemable. The branch could get stuck on the bank, allowing the cricket to hop off to safety. Against the most extreme odds, there is still a chance.

Most likely the cricket in this story did not survive, and perhaps our own species won't either, but for right now we can hold off the panic and sing. We can embrace the present moment and live with calm consent. We can see that nature is resilient, like the the bird in Oliver's essay, "Bird," and set forth with what we can do, now. The cricket can sing, it can enjoy a new experience for he probably has never sailed upon the water. He can sing in praise of the sun, in praise of the beauty of his surroundings. We can sing too, we still have time to make a change, to first be joyful in life and then do what we can to change the direction of the branch.

“The night follows along, with millions of suns, and sleep, and restoring darkness”

"Youth, Day, Old Age and Night" by Walt Whitman illustrated by Margaret C. Cook.

Each day one faces many difficulties but luckily our pain is weightless, otherwise, we might be stuck. Hirshfield writes, "If the unbearable were not weightless we might yet buckle under the grief of what hasn't changed yet." The weight of our accumulated pain, whether it be personal darkness or the reality that years of fighting for change may yield only marginal results, would crush us if we took that weightless energy and made it physical. But we are able to move despite having to heave around our pains, our grief, our suffering. It is not easy but at least it means we can make progress.

We have the choice to live in the present moment by coming out of our own ambition and releasing our wants or needs. We can achieve tranquility of mind knowing that we are alive: "Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough." We can tone down our wants and delight in the world around us, as Whitman did after a paralytic stroke left him having to redefine his life, and be like the cricket who sings because that is what it does.

Yes, we might be going downstream heading for what looks quite bleak but there are ways of turning that around. There are changes we can make, actions we can take to fix our world. We can take steps towards relieving our own melancholy through acceptance of the present moment and journeying outside of our everyday lives to the inner recesses of unadulterated nature that allow the "vexed world" and "turbulent sphere" of society to fade away, diminishing into the distance until it "touch'st no more:"[6]

The River by William Ellery Channing

There is an inward voice, that in the stream
Sends forth its spirit to the listening ear,
And in a calm content it floweth on,
Like wisdom, welcome with its own respect.
Clear in its breast lie all these beauteous thoughts.
It doth receive the green and graceful trees,
And the gray rocks smile in its peaceful arms,
And over all floats a serenest blue,
Which the mild heaven sheds down on it like rain.
O fair, sweet stream, thy undisturbed repose
Me beckons to thy front, and thou vexed world,
Thou other turbulent sphere where I have swelt,
Diminished into distance touch'st no more.

My feelings here, than does the swaying soft,
(Made by the delicate wave parted in front,
As through the gentle element we move
Like shadows gliding through untroubled realms,)
Disturb these lily circles, these white bells.
And yet on thee shall wind come fiercely down,
Hail pelt thee with dull words, ice bind thee up;
And yet again when the fierce rage is o'er,
O smiling river, shalt thou smile once more,
And, as it were, even in thy depths revere
The sage security thy nature wears.

The darkness we have doesn't need to be negative. We can use it as an invitation to open the door to truth. Whitman acknowledges that an artist must feel fully all the experiences of life in order to touch upon what is elemental in human experience. Mary Oliver echoes similar sentiments in reminding us that we must not stagnate in the darkness—"Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?"—but rather use it for we only ever get such a short amount of time:

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Listen to Mary reading this section of her poem The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

And maybe, through the confrontation with this darkness, we will emerge with new insight, a new vision, the realization that we can break away the chains that hold us down as David Whyte expresses in his beautiful poem, Sweet Darkness:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Read the full poem and listen to Whyte read it for an episode of the On Being podcast

Descending down into our pain not only shows us truth but can be the source of finding our way out and discovering those "sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights." Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 101 portrays this descent through darkness into ecstatic light with depth and profound understanding in its third and fourth movements.

In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie.

Mary Oliver, Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way

Follow your genius

When things feel overwhelming, we can "follow our genius" as Thoreau encourages, and take the risk to venture outside of our current state, build castles in the air, go confidently in the direction of our dreams:[7]

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

This brings to mind another passage of Thoreau who, when looking upon the perfection of undisturbed Nature, wondered: "Why should not our whole life and its scenery be actually thus fair and distinct?"[8]

Why should not our whole life and its scenery be actually thus fair and distinct? All our lives want a suitable background. They should at least, like the life of the anchorite, be as impressive to behold as objects in the desert, a broken shaft or crumbling mound against a limitless horizon. Character always secures for itself this advantage, and is thus distinct and unrelated to near or trivial objects, whether things or persons.

The perfection of stillness and natural beauty that can be found upon entering the purest recesses of nature remains an ideal to arrive at in the crystalline beauty and presence of your own life. A realization that we are able to achieve such clarity about our life's purpose and the task we set out to do, the things that produce a meaningful addition to this wonderful, long chain of life.

After allowing the mind to roam about, pondering and relating, these eight simple words seem to magnify in new significance:

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.

The cricket has "heart to bear [its] fate," as Thoreau asked of the fishes whose migration patterns were cut off by the building of a dam, and we can choose to follow Thoreau's advice:[9]

Keep a stiff fin then, and stem all the tides thou mayst meet.

Hirshfield, in her On Being interview, follows the above haiku with another by Issa which she states is "very different, but equally, profoundly addressing our human condition in this moment, now — written, you know, hundreds of years ago in a different language, a different culture, a different set of crises." Her translation reads:

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gathering blossoms.

Hirschfield comments that she used to see this haiku as bitter, as seeing mankind walking "on the roof of hell, and what do we do?" We pick flowers. Instead, as time has gone on, she has seen a pearl of profound wisdom and a lesson to be learned. She states, "I now feel, you know, every inch of ground on this Earth has seen unfathomable suffering, some of it human, some of it not human, but there is no inch of Earth which is not soaked in suffering. But there is also no inch of Earth which is not soaked in joy and in beauty and in radiance."

Be resilient, celebrate yourself, live a beautiful life, and don't be afraid of the dark.


1. Above quotes, unless otherwise marked, were taken from Jane Hirshfield's conversation with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast,

2. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, edited by Robert F. Sayre, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), 74. Library of America, series 28.

3. From a lecture titled "A Branch of Yellow Leaves" that Hirshfield gave at Smith College:

4. Thoreau, A Week, 45.

5. Seth Godin, interviewed by Tim Ferriss, The Tim Ferriss Show, podcast audio, October 26th, 2020,

6. William Ellery Channing, "The River," II. 1-7, from The Dial, III (January 1843) partially quoted in Thoreau, A Week, 38.

7. From Thoreau's Walden, quoted in "Henry David Thoreau on Defining Your Own Success," by Maria Popova, The Marginalian, July 7th, 2012,

8. Thoreau, A Week, 38-9.

9. Ibid., 31-2.

January 19, 2022

Join Our Newsletter

Thank you!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.