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.


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

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.

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.

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.


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

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.

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