DEATH POEMS (JISEI)

There is another form of haiku that is special in Japan. Well-known haiku poets, the classic poets, and even modern day poets and haiku enthusiasts will produce one of these, sometimes there is some confusion and there may be 2 or 3 such haiku poems—-but the concept is that a person will only produce ‘one’ such poem in his or her lifetime.

 

I am talking about a jisei—a death poem. This is the final poem the artist produces when he knows death is inevitable and soon to be. Fortunately, I am not in that predicament so I will not be sharing my own Death Poem—nor do I even have my own Death Poem. Instead I will share some of the death poems of the classic masters. (These are from a book compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and therefore may be his translations, which I have kept unless I felt it could be translated better).

 

It is Spring now—but we just had a very cold weekend, and plenty of snow—so here are some winter jisei:

 

This one is by the poet Wakyu who died on November 10, 1759:

 

Tsui ni yuku

yuki fumiwakete

fude no michi

 

Heading to the end

treading through heavy snow

way of the brush

 

It doesn’t say heavy snow but that is implied—fumiwakete comes from the verb to step (fumu) and spread apart (wakeru), so it could also be translated as to plow through. The way of the brush, refers to the life of a poet. It implies that the life of a poet is a tough one, but he also suggests that the path he must now go on (death) is also a difficult one.

 

Here is the jisei of Wagin, who died on January 3, 1758:

 

kuse ni natte

nishi ogamikeri

hatsu ashita

 

Its become a habit

bowing to the West

New Year’s dawn

 

Based on Shinto traditions, the Japanese bow to the rising sun on the first morning of the New Years (hatsu ashita–first morning). The West is the direction of the land of the dead, and the Buddhist paradise. As a Buddhist Wagin had become used to bowing to the West. There is a saying in Japan that you are born Shinto and die Buddhist. This doesn’t mean you change religion—if you are born Japanese you are always Shinto, but you also traditionally follow Buddhism. But the Shinto ceremonies tend to be more for the beginning of life—such as numerous ceremonies you take part in at certain ages as a child, or marriage, for example. But a funeral, and the ceremonies on the anniversaries of one’s relative’s death are always a Buddhist affair. But Wagin suggests that he will not bow to the rising sun on New Year’s morning, because he is already ready for the next world.

 

Tojaku, November 8, 1799

 

Mu ni kaeru

mi zo

yuki shimo no itoi nashi

 

Returning to the void

this body!

no longer bothered by the snow and frost

 

A jisei does not neccesarily have to have a seasonal word like standard haiku. In fact it could be a tanka or another form of poem, though haiku are the most common. (I gave an example of a tanka in some of my earlier posts). Here is a haiku without a seasonal word by Toko who died on Feb 11, 1795:

 

jisei to wa

sunawachi mayoi

tada shinan

 

Death poems

are mere delusions.

there is only death

 

Sugetsu died on November 20, 1830:

 

tsumu toshi ni

tabiji e

yuki no kareno kana

 

The years have piled up

on my path

snow on the withered fields!

 

 

The famous Basho, died on October 20th, 1694:

 

tabi ni yande

yume wa kareno o

kakemeguru

 

fallen ill on a journey

my dreams

wander over withered fields

 

Basho’s death occurred after falling ill on one of his famous journeys–his last one—across Japan.

 

Another famous poet–Issho, died December 6, 1688. He was hoping to let Basho, who would soon be travelling through his village stay at his home, unfortunately he did not last that long:

 

kokoro kara

yuki utsukushi ya

nishi no kumo

 

From deep in my heart

the snow is beautiful!

clouds in the west.

 

 

The following Autumn, Basho wrote a haiku of sadness over Issho’s death:

 

tsuka mo ugoke

waga naku koe wa

aki no kaze

 

Move you tomb!

the sound of my weeping

the autumn wind

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4 thoughts on “DEATH POEMS (JISEI)

  1. Nice post … I have used a few of the deathpoems on my daily haiku meme http://chevrefeuillescarpediem.blogspot.com I hope you don’t mind.

  2. Dear David,
    My knowledge of Japanese (and certainly that of centuries past) is limited, but do you not believe that the translation of the last sentence of ‘jisei to wa/ sunawachi mayoi/ tada shinan’ is a very free interpretation? It could be that I cannot find the right translation of ‘shinan’. The only relevant translation I can find is that of nearly impossible task as in the expression ‘shinan no waza’. That could mean that Toko is not saying ‘death is just that: death’, but maybe that the dying by itself is already a difficult task, forget about something as frivolous as a poem. Interestingly ‘shinan’ can also mean ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’ for martial arts of other things. Maybe, he felt death was the last lesson . . .
    Best regards,
    Antoon Burgers

    • I am so sorry I did not see this sooner—I have been so busy I haven’t looked at my blogs much lately (apparently for over 6 months now…!). Haiku is very subjective, and the cool thing about it is that you can get many different meanings from it. It could be a wordplay having a second meaning on shinan as instruction. It can also mean to not die, and thus the last line would be, “There is only not-death.” Today standard Japanese would use, shinanai, as I am sure you are aware, though many dialects, such as Osaka-ben, Kyoto-ben, or Tosa-ben would say shinan.

      Though, I believe he was possibly using an archaic grammar, as haiku often uses somewhat archaic language. I do have several books on archaic Japanese. Unfortunately they are packed away right now (we had some flooding last spring and part of my library got packed away while we cleaned up the basement. I will have to check one of them when I get a chance.

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