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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 of 5 stars 4.26  ·  rating details  ·  756 ratings  ·  45 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
Paperback, 368 pages
Published April 15th 1998 by Tuttle Publishing (first published December 15th 1989)
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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
1st out of 24 books — 12 voters
Haiku Is the Spice of Life by Ginny Tata-PhillipsThe Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo BashōRESKU by Ginny Tata-PhillipsJapanese Death Poems by Yoel HoffmannBIRDKU by Ginny Tata-Phillips
3rd out of 47 books — 9 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,014)
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Robert Bickers
(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
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
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
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?
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
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.
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

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
This was a gift.
What the hell?
I'm very much alive.
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.

Angela Wade
I needed the poems to be presented on their own, without the massive amounts of historical text in between. The introduction was okay (it reads like a college thesis), but the bios should have appeared elsewhere in the text, rather than accompanying the poems. They killed my enjoyment of poetry as an art form.
Adam Sprague
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.

Amy Lillis
Morbid curiosity

I enjoyed reading the transcendent death poems. I admit I did not read every monk's life notes written by the author. The ones I did read were very interesting. And I look forward to rereading the haikus. The fact the poets were looking into Death's eyes made the haiku even more revealing.
Lola Koundakjian
Sad longing heartwrentching
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
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
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.
This book is an excellent collection of Japanese poetry. It begins with a very clear discussion of the evolution of Japanese poetry and jisei (Death Poetry). It then has an excellent selection of actual poems with discussions of the authors and the folklore that exists around them. If you enjoy the simple beauty of Japanese poetry, I highly recommend this book.
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.
Doug Hagler
If you like haiku and Japanese poetry in general, or Zen Buddhism, or death, or life, you will probably like this book. The poems come in many shapes and sizes, though some form of haiku is most prominent, and death is dealt with in every conceivable way - passion, rage, humor, despair, acceptance, and so on.
Therese Fisher
I am a volunteer with Hospice and to have a collection of literally hundreds of insights into death and perspectives on the experience of it in one book is a huge gift to my life, my work and to all of beings who will someday experience this phenomena for themselves.
A nice overview of both zen monks and haiku writers' death poems. Many of the so-called "death poems" are not very memorable. Other ones will make you want to search out other writings. Give it a try. You will not be disappointed!
An excellent collection of death poems, particularly haiku, in the Japanese tradition. I especially like this edition because it has Roman alphabet transcripts of poems in the original Japanese.
This is a book that should be read for anyone interested in traditional Japanese martial arts. It serves as a great reference when learning more about the concepts behind traditional teachings.
helped me to understand that the body is a storehouse with the intellegent capacity of everything possible in the universe.... and learning lies in coming to peace with our imperminance in it.
I had to put this one down halfway through, as the haiku poems were getting repetitive, despite their varied authors. The commentary on the zen death poems was valuable and interesting.
Really interesting. I usually stick with Brit lit and Am. lit, but glad I made an exception for this. I loved the selection, and the explenations that came with some of the poems.
Katische Haberfield
Very interesting and informative. I have never read any death poetry before and some of these entries were beautiful. An interesting history.
An inspiring book. Japanese haiku poets have a tradition of writing a haiku on their death bed. This book has collected many of these haiku.
Only one complaint: I wish more of the poems were accompanied by their original Japanese text. Still though, damn fine!
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