On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.
– Japanese poet Bashō (1644-1694) renown for his haiku, haibun and extended haibun, studied haikai no renga with Kigin, a distinguished poet living in the same region as Bashō. This haiku is alleged by many to be Bashō’s “death poem.”*
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“farewell to life”
Yoel Hoffmann’s Japanese Death Poems is an introduction to an honored Japanese tradition. It includes poems that are pithy and reverent or sometimes quite irreverent, and background on many of the poets, mostly Buddhist monastics.
A tradition among educated Japanese was to write jisei (death poems). These were spontaneously written during the process of dying. In part, it seems they were a kind of courtesy, a final farewell. It was also thought that at the moment of death some insight – perhaps enlightenment – was achieved and could be shared. Philosophically the poems where in accord with Buddhist or Shinto beliefs.
The tradition caught Western attention when Japan’s WW II suicidal warriors wrote them before a mission. More recently – 1970 – the well-known Japanese writer – famously and fiercely anti-marxist – Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) wrote the following before committing seppuku:
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate
Some death poems are profound. Some are humorous or ironic:
are mere delusion —
death is death.
– Tokō (1710–1795)
I suspect this tradition – practiced by Buddhists in China and Korea as well – could only have grown out of Buddhism with its central tenets: impermanence and an acceptance of life as it is, which includes death.
The jisei of Kuroki Hiroshi, a Japanese sailor who died in a Kaiten suicide torpedo accident on September 7, 1944. “This brave man, so filled with love for his country that he finds it difficult to die, is calling out to his friends and about to die” Courtesy of Wikipedia and Kuroko Hiroshi page
As far as I know, neither death nor enlightenment are imminent in my life. I merely happened upon Hoffman’s book, which inspired to try my hand at writing my own death poem, though not in the Japanese style.
Gratitude for seas, skies, and mountains,
for Earth’s jeté entrelacé through space.
Luminous, my grand coda with the stars
© 2019, Jamie Dedes; Bashō illustration is in the public domain; photo of Kuroki Hiroshi poem is in the public domain, ballerina is courtesy of PD Clipart.
*The poem that is said to be Bashō’s death poem is actually not. According to Yoel Hoffmann in Japanese Death Poems, at the time of his death Bashō refused to write a death poem claiming that any of his poems could be considered death poems.