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Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
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Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death

4.26  ·  Rating Details ·  1,010 Ratings  ·  71 Reviews
"A wonderful introduction the Japanese tradition of jisei, this volume is crammed with exquisite, spontaneous verse and pity, 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
Paperback, 368 pages
Published April 15th 1998 by Tuttle Publishing (first published 1985)
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Japanese Death Poems by Yoel HoffmannThe Haiku Anthology by Cor van den HeuvelBook of Haikus by Jack KerouacThe Essential Haiku by Robert HassHaiku, Volume 1 by R.H. Blyth
Introduction to Haiku
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Taboo by P BaylissHaiku Is the Spice of Life by Ginny Tata-PhillipsThree Breaths by Nancy BradyOhayo Haiku by Nancy BradyThe Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Bashō Matsuo
58 books — 25 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Yakuo Tokuken wrote, "The words of a man before he dies are no small matter. This is a barrier that all must pass through." Ryuho also said that Only a man's years can teach him the art of detachment and ultimate departure.
Apt words. Apt words indeed. I think that's the main idea of this book, detachment and the enlightenment of 'ultimate departure.' So much dread and despair and uncertainty hangs around the notion of death that it's paralyzing. This book demystifies death, it's a journey. Are t
Robert Bickers
Nov 17, 2011 Robert Bickers rated it it was amazing
(This is my favorite poetry collection, eclipsing even Uncle Shelby. Yes, they are different in style and purpose, but the vessel is the same.)

More than a book of tanka, Hoffman's collection informs the reader about both the writers of the poems and the philosophical world they inhabit. (Since they are overwhelmingly Zen, I'll stick with the present tense.) JDP begins with an overview of the wide variety of Zen poetry and the Zen understanding of enlightenment. This includes examples from both f
Jun 30, 2013 Theresa rated it it was amazing
In my line of work I meet a lot of people who are close to death. In some cases, they have been in a state of declining health for years, yet in all that time they have not confronted the reality of the end of life, either within themselves or with their loved ones. In an antidote to the American habit of denying death, Yoel Hoffman has compiled a collection of Japanese poetry written by monks and haiku artists at the end of their lives, a reflection of a non-Western culture in which death is ac ...more
Feb 03, 2016 Melissa rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry-and-plays
I love poetry but haiku poems I never really enjoyed. Though this book sounded interesting the fact I would be reading over 300 pages of haiku poems did make wonder if it would be worth it. Well it was worth it. The introduction helped explained the poetry and the history while also discussing Japanese history, beliefs, customs, and death rites. Then there was the chapter on haiku poems by Zen monks and on many he discusses the life and death of the monk and what the poem means. My favorite sect ...more
Jan 20, 2008 Caroline rated it it was amazing
First read this a couple years ago, and since then I regularly pick it up. The history of Death Poetry is fascinating--do not skip the Introduction! The tanka form, for me, is particularly addictive.
All last words should be poetry...
4.5/5 stars

The book is exactly what it sounds like; a thorough study of the traditional Japanese practice of composing a 'death poem' (which the author Yoel Hoffmann points out is different than a 'final poem') in the last hours of one's life. The book has a short introduction and history of the act of death poems going back to pre-medieval Japan and continuing through the early part of the twentieth century. He looks at the practices of monks and samurai before beginning the bulk of the text.

Rhys Parry
Jan 26, 2014 Rhys Parry rated it liked it
I feel as if I should explain why I gave this book a 3/5 rather than a 4 or 5. Hoffmann's 90 something page introduction is somewhat dense but really goes a long way in giving the reader an understanding how death is perceived in Japanese culture. He even does justice to the philosophy of Zen teachings concerned with death and explains the history of the jisei.

With that in mind [most] of the poems failed to resonate with me. This is probably a failing on my part. I was brimming with frustration
Ruhat alp
Mar 10, 2014 Ruhat alp rated it it was amazing
Coming, all is clear, no
doubt about it. Going, all is
clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is all?

13th century

Herşey nedir,hayat ne,zaman neden var?.
O geliyor hiç şüphesiz.O halde başlangıçlar,gülüşler,vazgeçişler nedir neden varlar?
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch
Mar 12, 2008 Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch rated it really liked it
Shelves: verse

Where did that dog
that used to be here go?
I thought about him
once again tonight
before I went to bed.

Shimaki Akahiko
(1876 - 1926)

Calvin Campbell
Feb 17, 2014 Calvin Campbell rated it liked it
This was a gift.
What the hell?
I'm very much alive.
Nathan Albright
Jul 14, 2017 Nathan Albright rated it it was amazing
Shelves: challenge2017
From childhood I have written and enjoyed reading sort Japanese poems like the haiku and tanka, of which this collection is chiefly composed.  In contrast to many Western poems, the focus is not on either rhyme or meter but rather on counting syllables, a haiku being composed of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and a tanka having a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, allowing for a slightly more expansive treatment of material.  This particular collection of poems, a diverse one in terms of the approac ...more
Jun 17, 2017 Elizabeth rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry, death
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 ...more
Jul 20, 2017 Anastasia rated it really liked it
A wonderful glimpse into lives (deaths) of the past. Many of these poems are quite beautiful, and I love the notes associated with the poems reflecting on the monks' lives and the translator's word choice and translation decisions. Also curious seeing the themes and commonalities in the poems, reflecting either their secluded and almost mono-thought culture or maybe just a similarity in personality.
May 19, 2017 Sarah rated it it was ok
Shelves: dnf
I was hoping to squeeze this in in the "Japanese philosophy" category. There aren't too many books at my library exclusively on that topic.

This is super cool but not a great fit: a significant portion of the book talks about the history of death poetry before the poems are included. Each poem is then followed by up to several paragraphs of commentary or explanation.
May 24, 2017 Ainslie rated it really liked it
The historical perspective on the poems is very interesting as well as little blurbs on the authors of a good number of the poems.
Jun 02, 2017 J L rated it really liked it
Read this in my 30s right when it truly sunk in I wont be around forever. Powerful collection.
Jan 23, 2015 Ralph rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: anthology, poetry
Death is, for all of us, the undiscovered country, as Shakespeare termed it. Despite all concepts and notions, all of which require mountains of faith, we are faced with a land without tale or measure, a dimension “from whose bourn No Traveler returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have.” Because of that uncertainty most of us choose to remain in the land of the living as long as possible, accepting known evils and “seas of misfortune” over the unknown. Generally speak ...more
Jul 21, 2008 Richard rated it it was amazing
I'm reading this piece by piece, as would anyone of sound mind and body. So far, really amazing poems, and an intro that's a good review of tanka and haiku. This is a long-term read, and I don't expect to ever exhaust its contents. I picked it up in Manzanita, Oregon, at the fabulous, great and quirky Cloud and Leaf bookstore. If you're ever in Manzatina, go to the Cloud and Leaf and spend lots of money. Definition of a great book store: always a surprise waiting on one or more of the shelves.

Adam Sprague
Jun 15, 2009 Adam Sprague rated it liked it
Beautiful and calming at times -- at others frustrating.

I'd have to agree that the biggest thing that plagues this collection of poetry is the ridiculous amount of prose Hoffman lays on the reader in regards to each poem. Then the poems I really loved had no additional info at all...

The thing about poems is they mean different things to each reader, and the prescriptive nature of Hoffman's comments, that is, telling us how to feel detracted from the poetry.

The introduction would have sufficed.

Ad Blankestijn
Interesting collection of “leaving the world” haiku by Zen masters. It takes much training and discipline to be able to produce poetry at the final moment, but there existed a centuries-old tradition of writing death poems in Japan. Interestingly, as Yoell Hoffmann, the translator of this volume of mortuary verse, writes, instead of saying politely farewell to those left behind, in their last moments the writers would remove their mask and bare their soul, freed from social restraints. While sam ...more
Kristen Darienzo
Apr 12, 2017 Kristen Darienzo rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel-asia
"The world is like a dream."

This is one of my favorite collections of poetry. Hoffman has compiled a simply beautiful collections of haikus from individuals at the end of the their lives. The poems are accompanied by information about it's author and the circumstances surrounding when it was written. The first time I read this, I skipped he introduction, but by the end of the book I was so in love I went back and read that, as well. Don't skip it! The history contained therein is extremely fasci
May 08, 2016 Rachelle rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, which is always a pleasant reading experienced. What I loved was that the author gives an i production into Japanese poetry and death culture, giving me a greater understanding and appreciation of the tanka and haiku forms, which I realized I hadn't had a proper understanding before. Many of the poems are followed by brief commentary, and some explanation of the subtitles of the Japanese version that are hard to convey in the translation. Ea ...more
Apr 12, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it
This book is full of poems about death or written just before someone's death. Sometimes they are funny or witty, some grim and solemn, but they are all interesting. Make sure you read the introduction, it explains the practice and the context as well as form and style differences between the poems. These poems are brief (many of them Haiku) and I tend to like longer poems. But that is a personal preference. This book is a good gateway to reflecting upon a topic we might be hesitant to reflect o ...more
Amanda Butler
Sep 10, 2013 Amanda Butler rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, poetry, haiku
Assorted into two sections alphabetically, by Zen monks and poets, this book is a work of art in itself.

The beauty of haiku is mostly in the craftsmanship. In the practice of haiku, there exist season words, such as moon, lotus, or cricket. The beauty in this book, therefore, is that each haiku represents an individual's life and last words, and ultimately, their soul.

Both solemn and calming, this collection of death haiku (jisei) is a literary cemetery spanning centuries.
Evan Backer
Jul 28, 2011 Evan Backer rated it it was amazing
This is a very interesting book involving the origination of the jisei, or death poems of Japan. Hoffmann explains generally the history of poetry in Japan, and how the jisei developed. He then goes on to provide many examples of jisei -- some of them very old -- with explanations. A very good read if you're interested in Japanese culture, history, and art. Also a good read for those interested in the cultural aspects of Zen Buddhism.
C.W. Hawes
Mar 30, 2015 C.W. Hawes rated it it was amazing
Hoffman's translations aren't literal, nevertheless they translate, I think, the poem's intended meaning to an English-speaking audience.

I found the poems to contain some of the best life philosophy one could ask for and the book is one of my favorites.

A superb volume, the little nuggets should be read just a few a day for maximum effect. Death is ever present and these gems remind us of that presence and by so doing of life as well.
Melissa Carpentier
Feb 26, 2014 Melissa Carpentier rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, poetry
A very unique collection and very interesting/thought provoking to read. I noticed that some of the reviews mentioned that the commentary along with each haiku is annoying and this is true to a degree but I'm actually glad that the story (as much as possible) for each haiku is included. It adds insight. I find any commentary along with poetry to be very annoying because it often seems to tell you what to think of the poem but in this instance it was well warranted and helpful.
Jun 10, 2007 Bobby rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, reviewed
Prior to this book, like many (most?) haiku fans, I was pretty much only familiar with works of Basho and Issa. This book does a nice job of changing that. With ~350 haikus, this is a decent size, but not an overwhelming, collection. Though some people may find the subject morbid, I thought there was much beauty in the last words of these poets.
Jan 27, 2016 GONZA rated it liked it
Shelves: biblioteca
Beautiful and delicate, but I have to admit that I haven't notice such a big difference between the poetry of the zen Monks and the haiku of the "real" poet.

Molto belli e delicati, anche se non sono riuscita a cogliere grandi differenze tra le poesie dei monaci buddisti e gli haiku dei "poeti veri"
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