Spitting Blood: Rediscovering the Japanese Death Poem

On July 24th, 1927, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, considered to be one of the greatest modern writers of Japan, had his aunt deliver the following poem to the family doctor, who himself was a haiku poet:

One spot, alone,

left glowing in the dark

my snotty nose

That very night, propelled by “a vague sort of anxiety about [his] future”, he committed suicide by an overdose of Veronal. Though recognized primarily as a short story writer, Akutagawa had, shortly before his tragic death, contributed to a rich poetic tradition that remains essentially unrecognized in the West: the death poem.

The death poem is an historically vibrant Japanese poetic genre in which a jisei or “farewell poem to life” is composed on one’s deathbed. The genre is intimately linked to Zen Buddhism, often reflecting a serene yet realistic attitude toward death and the transitory nature of our phenomenal existence. These poems, deceptive in their simplicity, typically allude to death by means of metaphor, taking as their subject the objects and natural phenomena encountered in our everyday lives, as is illustrated in this death poem by haiku poet Saruo:

Cherry blossoms fall

on a half-eaten

dumpling

Or in this poem by the poet Rokushi:

I wake up

from a seventy-five-year dream

to millet porridge

Death poems had been composed for hundreds of years among the literate classes of Japan, however, the genre itself became widespread during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Though Shinto has certainly exerted aesthetic influence, the genre has been most deeply informed by Zen Buddhism. According to Buddhist ontology, there are three fundamental features characterizing the nature our entire phenomenal existence. These universal features, or marks, are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and anatta or the absence of an essential, abiding self. The three marks of existence are prevalent themes threading throughout death poetry. As such, flowers have come to be one of the most ubiquitous symbols of these qualities of our existence, as is seen in this poem by Shukyo:

Above the fence

the morning glory stretches

still unsatisfied

As well as this poem by Kin’u:

How leisurely the cherry

blossoms bloom this year, unhurried

by their doom

Autumn, dreams, moonlight, dew, and frost are other motifs reflecting a seemingly pessimistic approach to life that is uniquely Buddhist:

The night I understood

this is a world of dew,

I awoke from my sleep

-Retsuzan

 

I’m happy through and through

upon a throne

of frost

-Rifu

 

I am not worthy

of this crimson carpet:

autumn maple leaves

-Kyohaku

Despite this severity, a few death poems seek to be humorous, such as this one by Kyo’on:

A last fart:

are these the leaves

of my dream, vainly falling?

And some even ridicule the tradition itself:

Death poems

are mere delusion-

death is death

-Toko

These poems, as succinctly as possible, communicate something unique about both the cultural as well as individual attitudes towards life, death, and the impermanent nature of our ontology. They are stoic and sincere reflections from the vantage point of one’s deathbed, imbuing each poem with a serenely melancholic quality particular to Zen Buddhism. They serve to foster attitudes that recognize the unimportance and ephemeral nature of both our personal difficulties as well as our successes. They resist the instinct toward viewing ourselves and our world as eternal and unchanging. Most importantly, they acquaint us with the presence of death in our daily lives and inspire a certain peacefulness in the recognition of this fact.

Spitting blood

clears up reality

and dream alike

-Sunao

 Gabriel Toupin   Gabe Toupin

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