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Japanese death poems = Jisei by Yoel…
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Japanese death poems = Jisei (original 1998; edition 1986)

by Yoel Hoffmann (Editor)

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435439,161 (3.89)1
"A wonderful introduction the Japanese tradition ofjisei, this volume is crammed with exquisite, spontaneous verse and pithy, often hilarious, descriptions of the eccentric and committed monastics who wrote the poems." --Tricycle: The Buddhist Review Although the consciousness of death is, in most cultures, very much a part of life, this is perhaps nowhere more true than in Japan, where the approach of death has given rise to a centuries-old tradition of writingjisei, or the "death poem." Such a poem is often written in the very last moments of the poet's life. Hundreds of Japanese death poems, many with a commentary describing the circumstances of the poet's death, have been translated into English here, the vast majority of them for the first time. Compiler Yoel Hoffmann explores the attitudes and customs surrounding death in historical and present-day Japan and gives examples of how these have been reflected in the nation's literature in general. The development of writingjisei is then examined--from the longing poems of the early nobility and the more "masculine" verses of the samurai to the satirical death poems of later centuries. Zen Buddhist ideas about death are also described as a preface to the collection of Chinese death poems by Zen monks that are also included. Finally, the last section contains three hundred twenty haiku, some of which have never been assembled before, in translated English and romanized Japanese.… (more)
Member:jpmuzzall
Title:Japanese death poems = Jisei
Authors:Yoel Hoffmann
Info:Rutland, Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1986.
Collections:Read in 2016
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Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death by Yoel Hoffmann (Editor) (1998)

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Yes, the title is accurate: this is an anthology of jisei: poems written by poets whose deaths were imminent. The book has three sections: an introduction to Japanese poetry and the tradition of writing death poems, Chinese death poems written by Zen monks, and Japanese death poems written by haiku poets. I thought the introduction was useful. I've read several haiku anthologies, but none of them had covered death poems, much less Japanese views on death, so the introduction helped orient me to this genre. The poetry sections are arranged alphabetically by the poets' names, and the collection ranges from the 13th century to the early 20th century. Hoffmann often includes notes about a poet, which helped me see them as people, and not just as a random name attached to a poem. (Also helpful for identifying which poets were women.) The book also has an index of poetic terms, which helps with remembering what the Japanese words mean and in locating which poems they were in.

This is a well-organized anthology. I wish that I'd liked more of the poems themselves, but many of them simply didn't appeal to me. A poem written shortly before dying isn't necessarily the poet's best work, although I'm mightily impressed that so many people over so many centuries managed it at all. Still, I liked this book and think this was a great idea for an anthology. ( )
1 vote Silvernfire | Jun 17, 2017 |
I confess I was intrigued by the title - “Japanese Death Poems”, subtitled “Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death”. It may seem morbid but there is something profound in reading these “last words” from enlightened men who lived centuries ago. The book treats their poems well; there is a lengthy introduction that covers the forms of the poetry as well as death in Japanese culture. The commentary interspersed throughout the book is also insightful.

There are a several “non-death” poems in the book that I liked; here are a few:

On friendship:
Within your life and mine
there lives
a cherry blossom.
- Basho (1643-1694)

On marriage:
Autumn evening:
“Isn’t it time,” she comes and asks,
“to light the lantern?”
- Ochi Etsujin (b. 1656)

On transience:
This world –
to what may I liken it?
To autumn fields
lit dimly in the dusk
by lightning flashes.
- Minamoto-no-Shitago (911-983),

Of course the main focus are the death poems; I start with my favorite:
On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.
- Basho (d. 1694 at the age of 51)

Stumble,
fall,
slide down the snow slope.
- Getsurei (d. 1919 at the age of 40)

Within the vast and empty
autumn night
dawn breaks.
- Kinko (d. 1860 at the age of 60)

Swear to me, pine,
for many years
to keep on young and green.
- Koseki (d. 1788 at an unknown age)

Fall, plum petals,
fall – and leave behind the memory
of scent.
- Minteisengan (d. 1844 at the age of 67)

One leaf lets go, and
then another takes
the wind.
- Ransetsu (d. 1707 at the age of 54)

A short night
wakes me from a dream
that seemed so long.
- Yayu (d. 1783 at the age of 82)

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 may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.
- Mumon Gensen (d. 1390 at the age of 68)

Lastly, the one by Shisui, who died in 1769 at the age of 44 after writing his death “poem”, a simple circle, indicating both the void and enlightenment. ( )
1 vote gbill | Nov 26, 2011 |
"If your time to die has come
and you die - very well!
If your time to die has come
and you don't -
all the better!
p.74 ( )
  MajorWes | Jun 26, 2011 |
"Japanese Death Poems" is a collection of just what the title suggests: death poems (jisei) written by Japanese throughout the centuries. Hoffman's discussion of the genre along with basic cultural background (some aspects of which are more solid than others) occupies the first third of the book; the second is composed of translations of jisei originally written in Classical Chinese; and the third and largest section contains haiku-style jisei along with romanizations of their original Japanese. It was this last aspect that convinced me to purchase the book, as Japanese poetry anthologies fail to include anything save the translation more often than not. The romanizations do help quite a bit, as they both allowed me to understand how the author arrived at her choices in translating and to formulate my own alternate translations when I disagreed with her choices. Another strength of Japanese Death Poems is to be found in the author's inclusion of biographical notes and death dates for the poems' authors, as well as explanations concerning the formalized symbolic imagery in the poems. The book's weaknesses are Hoffman's choice not to include the original characters for any of the poems; to not indicate vowel duration outside of the transliterations; her breakdown of the poems into "stanzas"; and her choice to organize the poems alphabetically by author instead of chronologically, thus destroying any opportunity to observe developments in language, expression, and symbolism within the form. Still, I recommend this book both for the uniqueness of its content and for the fact that it is more informative to the Japanese-speaker than other similar collections.
  Trismegistus | Dec 23, 2007 |
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O young folk-if you fear death, die now!
Having died once, you won't die again.
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The earliest know examples of Japanese lyric poetry are verses found in the first records of Japanese history, the Kojiki (Record of anciet matters), completed in 712 A.D.
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