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Cherry blossoms at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Welcome to DVerse, Poets! Frank Tassone here, your host for today’s Meet the Bar, where we experience the joy of poetic craft.

November is the beginning of winter in many traditional calendars. If you live in the northern hemisphere, look around outside, and it’s easy to see why. Many varieties of deciduous trees have lost their foliage. The days shorten; the temperatures drop. The harvests are over, and the Earth begins to slumber. This month is truly a testament to death.

What an auspicious time, then, to revisit the Jisei: the Japanese Death poem.

According to Wikipedia:

 The death poem is a genre of poetry that developed in the literary traditions of East Asian cultures—most prominently in Japan as well as certain periods of Chinese history and Joseon Korea. They tend to offer a reflection on death—both in general and concerning the imminent death of the author—that is often coupled with a meaningful observation on life. The practice of writing a death poem has its origins in Zen Buddhism. It is a concept or worldview derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically that the material world is transient and impermanent (無常, mujō), that attachment to it causes suffering (苦, ku), and ultimately all reality is an emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū). These poems became associated with the literate, spiritual, and ruling segments of society, as they were customarily composed by a poet, warrior, nobleman, or Buddhist monk.

Jisei were often written in waka (tanka) or haiku, but death poems are not restricted to those forms. What is essential is the expression of both imminent death and the significance of life in the face of it. In this sense, Jisei is the poetry of both memorial and celebration.

Consider some of these exemplars of the genre:

Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields


Oh young folk —
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once
you won’t die again.


Autumn wind of eve,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon’s pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That’s at least one point of view

(Hôjô Ujimasa)

Let us write our own Jisei. Write a haikai (haiku, senryu, tanka, kyoka, Gogyohka) or haikai-esque poem that reflects on imminent death—and the significance of life in light of it. If you are going for the haikai-esque, keep the lines brief (no more than 10) and use the aesthetics of haikai (simplicity, heartfulness, and pathos). If you feel daring, you can attempt the gembun—a one-sentence haibun, but otherwise, keep away from long forms.

New to dVerse? Here’s what you do:

  • Write a Jisei
  • Post it on your personal site/blog
  • Include a link back to dVerse in your post.
  • Copy your link onto the Mr. Linky
  • Remember to click the small checkbox about data protection.
  • Read and comment on some of your fellow poets’ work.
  • Like and leave a comment below if you choose to do so.

Have fun!