Japanese Death Poems
December 17, 2004 7:22 AM   Subscribe

My coming My going, Two simple happenings that got entangled... Japanese Death Poems. Small beautiful simple poems written before death. I just discovered them and thought I would share. A few more here
posted by mrs.pants (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How unbearably sad and beautiful these are. So full of resignation and regret, yet accepting as well. Hard to read. There's more about japanese death poems here, along with several more poems.

Like a fossil tree
From which we gather no flowers
Sad has been my life
Fated no fruit to produce.

Thanks for sharing.
posted by iconomy at 7:58 AM on December 17, 2004

I have the Hoffman book mentioned in the 2nd FP link (which you can browse via Amazon's Inside this Book), and what struck me was not only the sadness and poignancy of the poems, but their humor, too. Particularly, I remember Shiki's epitaph:

Salary: thirty-five yen.
posted by steef at 8:05 AM on December 17, 2004

Very lovely, mrs.pants. Thanks for that.

For the last week, I've been reading and rereading the final poem written by a 20th century American poet, the brilliant and underrated poet's poet Robert Duncan, who died of kidney failure. Like these beautiful Zen poems, his last words are a report from the frontier of non-existence. His last poem, in the book Ground Work: In the Dark, ends like this:

...The imagination alone knows this condition.
As if this were before the War, before
           What Is,   in the dark this state
that knows nor sleep nor waking, nor dream
            — an eternal arrest.

posted by digaman at 8:15 AM on December 17, 2004

Like a lot of "famous last words," these were probably composed much longer before the individual's death than the anecdotes about them would suggest. I mean, all that stuff about these "holy men" penning a final poem, or drawing a circle, and then quietly expiring while sitting upright, etc., is the most bogus kind of Zen kitsch. If you read a similar story about a Christian saint uttering some profundity and then dropping dead with theatrical appropriateness, you'd laugh your head off. People at the point of death are... well, they're not writing poetry.
posted by Faze at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2004

Faze, while it may be true that the majority of those on the verge of death are not writing poetry, it is not entirely impossible to believe that in a culture where poetry is held in such high esteem, particularly 'death poems', such poetry was written.

The 'stink of zen' is prevalent in many of the stories we here about the 'purity' of such masters, however I believe many of these poems and their history to be legitimate.
posted by lyam at 9:37 AM on December 17, 2004

I beg to differ, Faze. Buddhism is ALL about preparation for death. These monks and "holy men" may not have died at the exact moment of creating these words, but their intention is to look directly at their own impermanence. On preview, what lyam said.
posted by gingembre at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2004

Stunning, heartbreaking, beautiful, gentle, timeless...
posted by Beansidhe at 10:21 AM on December 17, 2004

I love these poems, and I'm kicking myself for not picking up the Hoffman book. They really are extraordinary considering the motif, and I hope I can welcome death with such apparent calm. And Faze, considering how some Buddhists commit suicide, I have to agree with lyam and gingembre.
posted by malaprohibita at 10:38 AM on December 17, 2004

Buddhism is ALL about preparation for death.

That's the joke that the Zen-onians don't get, gingembre. There is no preparation for death. Death is defined by the fact that it is wholly unlike life. Our minds are not structured to apprehend such a thing. It can only be known as it is undergone. And guess what -- the odds are that it is no more like what these Zen-sters anticipate than it will be like whatever Jerry Falwell and (name your favorite hated Christian evangelist) claims it will be like. Death happens, and no one reports back. So as far as we know, preparing for death by masturbating 12-hours a day, or shopping for expensive clothes, or playing video games, is probably just as legitimate as any Zen-o-maniac's culturally determined preparations for death.
posted by Faze at 10:40 AM on December 17, 2004

Many who practice Zen do, in fact, get the joke but the joke is not that preparation for death is masturbation. The joke is that preparation for death, done in a way that Zen proposes, is actually training for living life to the fullest. Zennists get the joke so well, that for them, death might as well be life and life might as well be death.

It is well known that contemplation of paradox leads to a tension that is only broken by cessation of thought. This in turn leads to an unencumbered perception of the world around you and the self that inhabits it.
posted by lyam at 10:55 AM on December 17, 2004

these are so beautiful.... thanks for the post!
posted by modernsquid at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2004

lyam -- I appreciate your comments. Well said.
posted by Faze at 12:45 PM on December 17, 2004

Faze, thanks for the opportunity to discuss these things. In actuality I think that many 'Zennists' would probably agree with your 1:40 post.
posted by lyam at 1:12 PM on December 17, 2004

Exquisite and moving. Thank you, mrs.pants.
posted by lobakgo at 7:20 PM on December 17, 2004

Unspeakably gorgeous.
posted by squirrel at 8:09 AM on December 18, 2004

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