Japanese Death Poems

Talk about “no accounting for taste” even I can’t quite figure out how I’ve gone from liking Galway Kinnell to preferring Japanese Death Poems. I bought Japanese Death Poems quite by accident nearly a year ago when Leslie remarked on the title as I was browsing the poetry section.

Surprisingly, it has turned out to be my favorite collection of haiku poems, one I turn to again and again. Despite the title, or perhaps because of it, the poems constantly make me question my own attitude towards life and death.

Here’s a concise introduction to the book from the back cover:

Although the consciousness of death is in most cultures very much a part of life, this is perhaps nowhere more true than in Japan, where the approach of death has given rise to a centuries-old tradition of writing jisei, or the “death poem.” Such a poem is often written in the very last moments of the poet’s life.

Each of the poems is accompanied by a short description of the author and his philosophy or the circumstances of his death, but most of the poems need no explanation, standing perfectly well by themselves.

The introduction written by the anthologist, Yoel Hoffman, explains many of the conventions used in jisei. For instance, he points out that in Japanese death poems: “The flower represents the powerlessness of life before death and the delusion in our aspiration to live forever. Yet the flower also symbolizes beauty. While it’s helpful to know this before reading the poems, the flower, with its short but beautiful life, would seem to be a universal symbol of short-lived beauty.

Two of my favorite poems in the collection use this symbol:

Blow if you will,
fall wind the flowers
have all faded.
Gansan

and

That which blossoms
falls, the way of all flesh
in this world of flowers.
Kiko

Anyone who hikes the same beautiful place at many different times of year, like I do, can’t help but notice that each time you hike there it is quite different, that nature, and life, is in constant flux.

Not even for a moment
do things stand still; witness
color in the trees.
Seiju

Perhaps I like the following poem because I love the snow-capped mountains so much and because my hair is gradually, or not so gradually, turning white, for me a sure sign of my increasing wisdom, not a sign of decreasing testosterone.

Snow on the pines
thus breaks the power
that splits mountains.
Shiyo

Though all of these poems are obviously meant as guidance for life, not just how to attain the good death, the two following death poems offer particularly good advice on how to live your life in order to find true happiness.

Winter ice
melts into clear water ;
clear is my heart.
Hyakka

and

The truth is never taken
From another
One carries it always
By oneself.
Giko

How different is the poetry that results from Galway Kinnell’s awareness of death and the Zen poets’ contemplation of death, even though the Zen poets are contemplating their own immediate deaths, not the mere immediacy of Death to all our lives. Somehow there is something more comforting, though perhaps harder to attain, in the Zen poets’ acceptance of what is inevitable.

17 thoughts on “Japanese Death Poems

  1. your poems is cool. i like it and i was wondering if u can send me the poems cause it’s so cool.
    (ps. please send or e-mail it to me)

  2. Sorry, Josh, but I don’t send out copies of poems. There’s that copyright thing that I do believe in.

    Why don’t you see if your library has a copy.

    Or you can always order this book from Amazon.

  3. I think that these poems are a wonderful insight into the history of Japan and how it is still present today. They not only provide a glimpse of what the poet was thnikng at the time but teach you how to live your life so that your ‘heart may be pure’ thankyou for sharing these i really liked the Hyakka one.

  4. Yes, the Jisei poems are surely my favorites… they are music to my soul, something that fits so quickly into the mind by its small size but can be digested for eternity. I believe their infinite power comes from the fact that they were on deaths door, and decided to devote every scrap of themselves to a single finite moment knowing how few they would have left, and relating the deepest thing they felt… there for conecting with their soul and writing the most beautiful poetry possible, I am always looking for more Jisei, for every facet of my being.
    a good exercise is to sit down outside somewhere, center yourself rhythm your breathing, and then just focus on every one of yoursenses equally and know that this moment, compaired to nonexistence, is an infinite rarity, and wrrite a haiku on what is the most potent and deep hitting of experiences from that one moment. I call it contemplating the death of a rhythmic moment. cheers.

  5. Hello,

    I came across your site as I was looking for a Zen poem that would be apporpriate for the passing of an infant. My sister had twins on April 26th & one of them, Justin, passed away yesterday. She relates to Zen & Busddism & I have been searching for a quote for a webpage that I would like to dedicate to him. If you know if any that may be appropriate, or any online sources that I could look into, I would greatiy appreciate it. Unfortunaltely, I am very pressed for time, so if you could possibley get back to me tonight or tomorrow, I would be very, very grateful.

    Thank you,
    Marybeth

  6. I am looking for a poem. It was left anonymously at a memorial to a japanese musician who had recently died. It was read at the funeral of my girlfriend, but I did not hear the name. Can anyone help me?

  7. Emotion without
    Expression
    Is a word without definition.
    Never knowing,
    East from West,
    Driftwood floats in one direction.
    Only in a lonely net
    Can nothing be caught.
    Some words are merely poems
    This is food for thought :
    The only time i fast is when there is no food.
    A thirsty man drowns the quickest.

    Konopasek ( 1977 )

  8. I discovered the book “Japanese Death Poems” I think
    in the late 80’s.Beautiful,profound,&sad.
    A while later,I realized that the ending of “Blade
    Runner”,the ‘death’of Roy Batty is a Zen-death!
    He says the speech about what he’s seen,& that his
    experiences will disappear….then he ceases while
    sitting up,just like the Zen monks.

  9. Death lied dying on
    the steps one day,
    With nothing new, or old to say
    It vanished in a similar way,
    That shadows fall…
    Yet endless, stay.

What do you think?