Thursday, March 30, 2006

Japanese Death Poems

As much as I like poetry, I rarely buy one book by one author. The exceptions would be poets I really like. For the most part, my poetry library is made up of thematic collections: Poetry for Men, Poetry for Troubled Times, Spiritual Poems. Poets in these books are usually heavy hitters like Shakespeare, Yeats, Whitman, Hughes.

I have been browsing this one book called Japanese Death Poems this week. I know, it ha a pretty dismal title. But its tradition is in Zen. jisei is the tradition where a poet records his observation of his last moment on earth. A jisei is very short, not constrained by form, and usually taken down by a witness while the poet dictated. This all makes sense considering the circumstances.

I think, in The Last Samurai, that final utterance by the guy who actually was the last samurai, was supposed to be his jisei.

Of course, if any of the other samurai had their own jisei, we didn't get to hear any of them. Not over the sounds of the Howitzers.

If you want to go to a webpage about this, here it is (that is, if I actually do this right):

OK. It didn't work.

Part of the book is made up of death poems by Buddhist monks. One of them, Goku Kyonen, tapped his stick on the temple floor and wrote

The truth embodied in the Buddhas
Of future, present, and past;
The teaching we received from the
Fathers of our faith
Can all be found at the tip of my stick.

He tapped his stick again, shouting "See! See!" and died.

The other part is made up of death poems from the haiku poets of Japan, including Basho, who wrote

On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.

Yes, Orson Scott Card, I know it's in translation.

This one guy, Mumon Gensen, a monk, wrote two:

Life is an ever-rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow


Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they have
You'll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.

I like them both. But how can one guy have two death poems? Wouldn't the last one be the death poem and the other just be the second-to-last poem he ever wrote? Couldn't he make up his mind?

Anyway, I admire that people who choose to make their final act one of creation. I know that for people like Warren Zevon and George Harrison, that final creation probably also gave them something to live for as their bodies were ravaged by cancer. But I think it also speaks of their strength to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

By the way, the first edition of William Butler Yeats final poems ends with a really long poem entitled "Under Ben Bulben." This apparently was insisted upon by Mrs. Yeats.

A few weeks before his death, Yeats had arranged these poems in the order he would have liked to seem them appear in this book. This, while not his jisei, was the poem Yeats wanted at the end.


`In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in
political terms' - Thomas Mann

HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!


vivage said...

Well apparently it's true one never does lament the fact that they should have spent more time at work.

btw, your link does not show up.

Donita said...

Thank you for sharing these. They gave me a lift.

Brother Atom Bomb of Reflection said...

Why can't I get the link to work?

vivage said...

What is the link? Can you copy and paste it here? I can figure out the code to make it linkable for you.

vivage said...

I sent you the code to make a linkable link. Go check your email.