Written by Nathaniel Postell
We are obsessed with death – the great beyond, the next journey.
We all contemplate death – shook by a fear of the unknown.
Craving the knowledge of what is to come yet reluctant to pay the price of admission.
Death is inevitable.
Painted in that inescapable light, Japanese death poems should be a grim affair. However, this is not the case. Poetry has long held cultural significance in the east. Its historic impact can be charted through the course of time… used to exaggerate and draw the eye to certain elements while concealing others, much like the modern use of photoshop to remove undesirable details, entwined with historical events while capturing the essence of the writer or writer’s viewpoint. Japanese death poems take that personal connection with the writer a step further – thrusting the reader into the brain of the writer for one final reflection on the event they are rapidly approaching.
A broken dream –
where do they go
Many readers at this point may shudder with the concept of reading the final creative thoughts of another. In essence, capturing the final moments of the soul while it still resides firmly in its mortal coil. Delightful!.. However, our focus is on finding beauty and there is no purer form than figure. Aesthetic plays a significant part in the enjoyment of all things. Poems are no different.
A journey of no return:
the wanderer’s sack is
You may ask yourself what sexy delivery vessel can a death thought inhabit to possibly be considered beautiful? The universally recognizable haiku certain to brings back middle school memories for most. Three lines with seventeen on, similar to English syllables. That’s hot! Or perhaps the most common death poem format tickles your fancy. Jisei in waka form or tanka, composed of five lines with thirty-one on. Joking aside, the concise nature of these structures lends an impactful commentary on life’s fleeting nature.
At the crossroad
of my life and death
a cuckoo cries.
Ice in a hot world:
A concept inspired by Zen Buddhism (which originated in Japan) often exhibiting core concepts derived from the teachings of Buddha, who famously cast aside worldly concerns and pleasures, due to his belief in their futility. He taught of living in a transient world where connections to material items would incur only suffering.
Death was viewed as a time for tranquility…
A time of introspection, contemplating contributions, and declaring accountability for our actions. Death poems offer a unique outlet, allowing the writer to share their truth without pretense. There is beauty in immortalizing such a powerful moment!
In this delusive world
I viewed the moon
two years too long.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi included three death poems in his final letter to Imperial Headquarters (staring down certain defeat during the Battle of Iwo Jima, faced with imminent death). He took the time to apologize for his inability to triumph over invading forces. As the United States military marches toward him, he took the time to express the immense amount of pride he felt for those that stood next to him: fighting beyond exhaustion, unable to admit defeat. This powerful message will live for eternity! A statement of his fighting spirit! A lasting memory of a man dedicated to those around him!
Victors may write our history but General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s final truths will live on untouched. That is beautiful…
Cherry blossoms fall
on a half-eaten
Most Japanese death poems are accompanied by a moment of clarity – a final discovery that could only be revealed by the harsh light of an individual’s final moments. The poems operate as the vessel transporting these final epiphanies for all to partake.
Life is an ever-rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.
(Mumon Gensen, 1390)
Japanese death poems provide an interesting opportunity to present personal truth: tinted by the lens of the writer, infused by their beliefs and personality. My personal favorite example is composed by Zen Monk Toko:
are mere delusion.
Death is Death.
There is beauty in our connections to others – our shared experiences, battles won and lost. A beautiful tapestry of varying viewpoints. Japanese death poems capture the purest essence of character, belief, and Self. Our ability to empathize with the writer’s moment and thought without having to agree with the circumstance is beautiful. Achieving what so many have strived for in life, true equality. After all, the inevitability of death is a universal commonality.
People, when you see the smoke,
do not think
it is fields they are burning.
Ps. All haiku – from the book “Japanese Death Poems”.
Next post – “The Pearl Territory”, ch. 23 – Bruck #personaljournal