Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death Poems

In Japanese culture it is customary for some Zen Monks, and other people, to write a poem before the moment of death. It was part of the ritual suicide, or Seppuku, where an aristocrat would write a small poem, a waka or haiku.

The idea behind a Death Poem is to reflect on life, death and the transition between the two states. Especially if you are writing it just before suffering execution. In away it is similar to the last statement that some prisoners get before the chemicals are pumped or the bullets splits the air.

According to this site: http://www.quietspaces.com/deathpoems.html they would be left as present to loved ones and students.

From the above site here are a couple of examples:

"Senryu, died September 23, 1790, at 73:

Bitter winds of winter --
but later, river willow,
open up your buds.

Hosshin, 13th century wrote:

Coming, all is clear, no
doubt about it. Going, all is
clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is all?

Kozan Ichikyo, died February 12, 1360, at 77. A few days before his death, he called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, forbidding them to hold services in his memory. After writing this poem on the morning of his death, he lay down his brush and died sitting upright.

Empty-handed I entered
the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Senryu, died June 2, 1827
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
I vanish."

The waka form of poetry, specifically the Tanka consists of a series of lines with restricted "sound phrases", if this is Anglicised then the sound phrases become syllables. The syllables are then arranged as: 5-7-5-7-7 in its most rudimentary form. So, you could change the numbers of syllables around I am sure. But like a haiku, or a Shakespearean/ Italian Sonnet I think the technique is the interesting barometer. As much as I love blank verse poetry which allows the author to throw anything at the page, I think the constraints can be interesting. I will endevour to get some of my own on here in due course.


  1. Here's a dog death poem -

    Killing a Beetle

    Gingerly she toys
    tortures many legged freak
    nudges it with care
    pounces when it tries to move
    Nothing safe from black death paws

  2. did the dog write that, if so it would be a dog death poem? but it is a poem about a death caused by a death... so i guess it works... Tis good and correct meter so well done you, coming on here to show me up.... how is the dog? as evil as a cat?

  3. the dog is crazy as a kitten... she'd be grand if it wasn't for the barking and the biting - she had great craic with a crawly thing this morning - thus the poem - I like that form I have to say... thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Tanka is a pretty useful form for English language poets. Japanese, between the writing, the reading and the speaking,is far more concentrated and allusive than English, which means that haiku is pretty difficult for us gaijin to pull off with any sort of intensity. Tanka, however, with that bit of a stretch in it, is admirably suited to making tiny universes, or multiple universes, in English. Have fun and remember t0 ignore all the protocols, except the 5-7-5-7-7, 'cos you are right there - it is surprising how creativity can be improved by a little constraint.

  5. Cheers Ross, I think that the constraints can sometimes focus the mind to, and I am loathe to use the phrase, get out of ones "comfort zone" and to think differently. This can be useful to get out of a rut or a dry spell.

  6. It's a bit like training too. If you kick the ball a lot on a Tuesday and Thursday, you'll be more likely to hit the net on Saturday. Just a thought. Also, you might write a good poem anyway. The best thing about tanka, though, as it's that bit longer, is that you don't have to do that faux intensity of haiku in English and you can just say what you have to say, in your voice. Especially if you go training Tuesdays and Thursdays.