Review: Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffman
“Famous last words” is a favourite topic for internet posts, and a quick search reveals dozens … hundreds … maybe hundreds of thousands of pages devoted to things people say shortly before they die.
Some are noble-sounding utterances ascribed to famous persons, probably intended to inspire us with their wisdom and virtue.
Others are more akin to the Urban Dictionary definition of famous last words: “things said by a person about to unwittingly cause his own death”. Phrases like: “don’t worry, it isn’t loaded”, “I’ve done this heaps of times before, it’s completely safe”, and yes, “hey, hold my beer”.
Note: caution is advised if you’re thinking of checking my references on the Urban Dictionary website, and you’re easily offended, because about 99% of the phrases defined there are utterly improbable obscenities (most of them read like they’ve were invented by 14 year olds for the sole purpose of listing them on Urban Dictionary).
Haiku poetry has its own version of famous last words called jisei or “death poems”, and many wonderful examples of these are compiled by Yoel Hoffmann in his book Japanese Death Poems.
Some haiku poets are said to have composed these jisei in their last day or so of life, or even in their last few moments. Others apparently prepared their jisei ahead of time, just in case they died suddenly.
Nights grow short:
a dream of fifty years
breaks off before it ends.Kafu
One thing I like about Hoffmann’s book is that many of the poems are presented with a brief passage of prose that gives some biographical details of the poet who wrote the haiku. The result is that many of sections of the book read a little like haibun (haibun, are haiku that are presented with a short section of prose, intended to be read together as a unit). Here’s an example:
One leaf lets go, and
then another takes
totsu hito-ha chiru
kaze no ue
Ransetsu was a pupil of Basho’s. Basho praised Ransetsu’s poetry, but the poet Kyoriku said it was “anaemic”, and compared it to someone “who invites guests to a feast and serves no more than a menu”.
Old sources say that Ransetsu’s first wife was a bathing-house prostitute. She died after giving birth to a son, where-upon Ransetsu took a geisha as his wife. The couple became converts to Zen Buddhism. It is further stated that during a certain period, Ransetsu lived in the poet Kikaku’s house, and that “he had not even a mat to lie on”.
The word totsu is an exclamation that is made by Zen monks when they achieve enlightenment.
This haiku of falling leaves by Ransetsu is one I recognised from other haiku collections. Another haiku that I recognised was this one by Basho:
On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.Basho
This is the last poem of one of the greatest haiku poets. Basho had fallen seriously ill on one of his travels. When his pupils hinted that he ought to leave a farewell poem, he replied that any of his poems could be his death poem. Nevertheless, on the eighth day of the tenth month, after gathering his pupils around his bead, he wrote this poem. He died four days later.
Some of the poems in Hoffmann’s collection seem mystical, but many of those I like the most are whimsical, or gently humorous, such as these:
Swear to me, pine,
for many years
to keep on young and green.Koseki
I cast the brush aside –
from here on I’ll speak to the moon
face to face.Koha
Give my dream back,
raven! The moon you woke me to
is misted over.Onitsura
What a lark!
Swinging my arms I set off:
a winter rainstorm.Osen
I borrow moonlight
for this journey of a
Whimsical, and gently humorous … such a different sensibility to our wise and virtuous quotes on one hand, and the coarse black humour of Urban Dictionary on the other.
Let me end with a shout out to the poet Senkei who died in 1775, who chose a plant close to my heart, the cactus or prickly-pear, as the topic for his jisei.
Somehow or other
even the cactus shows
Haōju , “king of plants,” is the name for the prickly-pear cactus. This plant is not common in Japan, and it is not much mentioned in haiku poetry. The cactus is a robust plant which does not change with the seasons as much as other plants.
Post script: as I was completing this post my daughter, Ida, came into the room. I told her what I was writing, and here is what she replied in the form of a haiku:
A funny idea -
staying alive to write
just three more lines. 🌵
Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann, Tuttle Publishing, 1986.
Urban Dictionary, urbandictionary.com