Tuesday, December 22, 2009


This book fell off the shelf into my hands this morning at the San Francisco library where I work. Glancing at the blurb on the back cover, I discovered the existence of a genre hitherto unknown to me:

"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."

Collected together in this chunky paperback are hundreds of examples translated into English. Reading through them, I caught hints of how wonderful the originals must be, but was at the same time frustrated by a familiar problem. To my ear even the finest translations of Japanese or Chinese poetry seem doomed in advance to sound clumsy and pretentious. Of course every translation is vulnerable to this complaint, no matter what languages are involved, but in the case of Asian poetry rendered as English poetry the barriers of language multiplied by the barriers of culture and aesthetic tradition conspire forcefully against success. On the other hand, the prose anecdotes that have come down along with some of the poems are more amenable to translation. The death poems are arranged in alphabetical order by author, meaning that poets might be placed side by side in the anthology even though they lived a thousand years apart in time. I quote one complete entry here, including the commentary of Yoel Hoffmann, the editor:


Died on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, 1791
at the age of sixty-nine

Family whispers
with the doctor
– winter showers
pass through their sleeves.

When Japanese told secrets, they used to raise the sleeves of their robes to the sides of their faces. The whispering voices passing through the sleeves are likened to the sound of a gusty winter shower. Jikko expressed his own opinion about death poems thus:

One evening a friend came to visit. We discussed haiku beside the stove and drank two or three cups of sake. We recalled the death poems of the old master poets, and tears streamed down our cheeks. We consoled ourselves, saying that even if the man dies, his death poem remains forever. For this reason there are men who prepare a death poem while still healthy. This may seem like exaggerated readiness, but fate plays tricks on us all, and we never know when it will ordain us to die. If death comes suddenly, we will have no time to say a word. It can therefore be understood why people prefer to write their death poem before their time. Some leave behind a distorted poem and claim there is no harm in that, because haiku poetry does not disdain popular speech. These people become the laughingstock of future generations. Great poets create outstanding death poems, and thus they show the strength of art, which fails not even in the hour of death. And so we continued well into the night ...

then "quotes" a death poem which he claims to have heard (it is likely that he wrote it himself). It is a poem in tanka form, and it reflects his opinion on death poetry:

Rather than leave behind me
that which everyone will laugh at,
I prepared my words beforehand.
Now, while dying,
I'm at peace.

It is interesting that the poem Jikko wrote before his death (the haiku at top) does not, in fact, seem to have been prepared in advance. Perhaps because he had already paid due respect to tradition by preparing a poem beforehand, he was able, without difficulty, to compose this descriptive image of his last hours.