Book Review: Japanese Death Poems

Japanese Death Poems, compiled and with an introduction by Yoel Hoffman

From childhood I have written and enjoyed reading sort Japanese poems like the haiku and tanka, of which this collection is chiefly composed.  In contrast to many Western poems, the focus is not on either rhyme or meter but rather on counting syllables, a haiku being composed of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and a tanka having a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, allowing for a slightly more expansive treatment of material.  This particular collection of poems, a diverse one in terms of the approaches taken by the poem, is nevertheless thematically connected by the way that all of these poets reflect on death.  As someone more than a little bit interested in the Japanese (and larger Buddhist) view of death [1], this book offered me with a series of models for death poems, and that is always something I appreciate as a gloomy soul.  Although I have already written my epitaph, I could certainly see myself writing a death haiku or tanka, and certainly there were many such efforts in these pages to appreciate, despite my unfamiliarity with the writers included in this book as a whole.

This book consists of two parts with supporting material.  A long introduction by the book’s editor shows the editor to be familiar with the complicated cross-currents of views of death in Japanese society, and far more fond of Buddhism than I happen to be.  Then the first part of the book looks at the death poems of various Zen monks who comment about the passing and evanescent nature of life.  The second part of the book, and longer, also organized in a chronological fashion by the author of the poem, contains the death poems–some of them haiku, some tanka, and some translated Chinese poems among the more erudite writers along with some biographical information about the author like their time of death or their age at death or the circumstances of their death.  There are some patterns that may be determined, including the striking observation that many of the poets were very observant of the flora that was in bloom during the time of their death and were very concerned to place the timing of their death within the cycles of religion and nature.  Even in translation there is a striking degree of elegance and beauty about the poems, making them worthwhile to read even for those whose knowledge of the Japanese language is nonexistent.

This is not a book that is for everyone.  There are some people for whom reading a book about death poems would likely bore them to death before they were inspired to take after the examples provided here.  There are others who will find no interest in Japanese traditional culture and would find the book’s sympathetic portrayal of Buddhism to be deeply unacceptable.  I found the book highly paradoxical myself, in that the book was a product of a culture that ostensibly believes that this world and its fame are mere illusions but still seeks to gain immortal fame through clever and well-spoken death poems.  Likewise, many of the poems themselves have a paradoxical air in that they speak of life even as they look forward to their impending deaths.  Here is but one example, taken at random, from a man who died at the age of thirty-six:  “My body in its autumn:/ a ragbag as rough / as gourdskin.”  No doubt many of us could give similar sentiments about death, although it is quite an achievement to be able to sum up one’s thoughts about dying as one’s death approaches in short and enigmatic verses.  This book presents precisely the sort of challenge that someone like me would relish, both for its nobility and gloominess.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Japanese Death Poems

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Vanishing Tibet | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 2 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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