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Hello fellow dVerse Poets!   This is Gayle from Bodhirose’s Blog. I’m delighted to be a guest hostess for you today and sharing with you my interest on Japanese Death Poems.

Have you ever contemplated what your last words might be immediately before your death? Will you speak of ‘things’ that you never possessed? Will you utter regret for some behavior or of coming up short in some capacity? Maybe you’ll feel complete peace or acceptance and welcome moving on and express contentment with profound gratitude. Perhaps humor will be shared.

In ancient Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures, a practice was used at the time of death to capture the last words spoken. This practice was called jisei (in Japan) or death poem and is the “farewell poem to life.” Jisei was written by monks, samurai, the literate and poets of these cultures. One of the earliest recorded jisei dates to 686 C.E. (Common Era) or in Christian terms, B.C. (before Christ) with the death of Prince Otsu who was the son of Emperor Temmu of Japan. The following is his death poem:

Today, taking my last sight of the mallards
Crying on the pond of Iware
Must I vanish into the clouds!

In the death poem, the essential idea was that at one’s final moment of life, one’s reflection on death (one’s own usually but also death in general) could be especially lucid and meaningful and therefore also constitute an important observation about life. The poem was considered a gift to one’s loved ones, students, and friends. The tradition began with Zen monks, but was also popular with poets whose poems were often just as solemn as those of monks, or entirely flippant and humorous. The poems are often full of symbols of death, such as the full moon, the western sky, the song of the cuckoo, and images of the season in which the writer died.


Photo Credit Public Domain: Here   From a print by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka dated about 1890. Samurai General Akashi Gidayu preparing to carry out seppuku (ritual suicide) after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He is depicted here writing his death poem before the act.   Follow this link to read some examples.

Jisei was written in kanshi, waka, and haiku. Not all death poems are haiku. However, they are all in the short poem style (tanka). Kanshi is the Japanese word for Chinese poetry. I’ll briefly describe haiku and tanka, for simplicity sake and to make for perhaps a more fluid, easier execution, you can do away with the exact counting of syllables if you so choose. I leave it up to you. There’s much controversy about strict counting (which I have done in my own haiku and tanka writing) but I believe a more relaxed angle may make this assignment a bit less formal and easier to perform but we will still want to adhere to keeping them concise.

Tanka Form: The Japanese tanka is a thirty-one-syllable poem, traditionally written in a single unbroken line. A form of waka, Japanese song or verse, tanka translates as “short song," and is better known in its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form. This latter description is one that I think most of us are more familiar with. (Note from Grace:   We will discuss this form with more depth in one of our MTB session.)

Haiku Form: Haiku is typically characterized by three qualities. Traditional haiku consists of 17syllables within three lines of 5/7/5. A kigo, or seasonal reference, is customary and third, and perhaps the most important aspect, is to have a kireji, or cutting word, which serves to lead your reader from one image or idea to another. This is the essence of haiku and if done well can elicit a strong, emotional feel to your work. The following is a collection of my own haiku and one tanka for illustration purposes:

The harsh, chilling freeze
slowly warms into the spring’s
first hint of dewdrops
left unfrozen upon the
daffodil, poppy and rose. (Tanka)

Peacock’s tail lightly
brushes the tall court yard wall
disturbing the ant’s march


Source:  Google Images, Public Domain

Leaves rustle gently
as the Trumpeting Swan glides
by without a sound

Old bamboo thicket
Red-Crowned Crane selects a mate
blustering wind sighs

Reflection of moon
shallow rainwater vision
mirrored at my feet


Source:  Google Images, Public Domain

I first became aware of this form through a group on Facebook. For today’s exercise, I’ve written several poems in haiku and tanka. And like I mentioned before, there seems to be a lot of leeway when writing these poems. Here is a book that kept being mentioned during my research that sounds very interesting if you’d like to further your exploration into this unique art form. This link is to Goodreads, “Japanese Death Poems” by Yoel Hoffman.

Our challenge:   To write in haiku or tanka style (without counting & observing the strict syllable count), to the theme of Jisei.

I hope you find this an interesting endeavor and that you have fun with it. Yes, fun with the imaginings of what your final words may be when the time comes. I would love to see some humor! And because of the brief nature of this format, please feel free to write several. Gayle ~

Here’s how to participate:

• Write a Japanese Death Poem/s;
• Post it on your blog or website;
• Click on Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post and enter your name and the       direct URL of your post.
• Come to the pub and visit other poets’ work. Take time to comment and return visits of your fellow poets.   
• Have fun!

About our guest blogger:   Gayle Walters Rose of Bodhirose’s Blog   has been writing about true life experiences, musings of the spirit, ashram life and the occasional fiction since August of 2010. In this short time, her sincerity and authenticity has earned her a loyal following to whom she is very grateful.