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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death Awareness Poetry Launch

I am new to the blogging world, but I want to create a respectful forum where poets east and west can come to share their death awareness poetry--haiku, senryu, and tanka--on the subject of one's own mortality, not someone else's.

Thank you for taking the time to post your reflections or death awareness poems, which Yoel Hoffmann, editor of JAPANESE DEATH POEMS, describes as the essence of one's "spiritual legacy."

I have edited an anthology of contemporary death awareness poems entitled, DREAMS WANDER ON, which I hope will be out by the end of 2010. The title of the anthology as well as the blog was inspired by the last poem by Basho, the father of Japanese haiku:

sick on a sojourn
over fields of dried grass
dreams wander on

Robert Epstein

Strictly speaking, death poems can only be written by someone who is literally on the verge of death. These poems are known as jisei in Japanese. However, according to Hoffmann, Basho, the father of Japanese haiku and an informal student of Zen Buddhism, maintained that any of his poems could be considered death poems. In this spirit, one may legitimately write any number "death poems" if done so with one's own mortality in mind. However, I have taken to calling such poems "death awareness poems," since they are written when one is alive and well (though, of course, from a certain angle we are all "dying").

Another kind of death poem is known in Japanese as zekku. A zekku is a last poem written by a poet who didn't know he or she was going to die. If you don't want to risk having your last poem be your death poem, then you may want to consider writing death awareness poems along the way and designate one as your official death poem. This was sometimes done by Japanese poets, who didn't trust themselves to be lucid, coherent, or creative in their last moments.

death poem
turning me
inside out

death poem
watching it disappear
into mist

Writing death poems is NOT morbid! Death is not separate from life. They form a single whole. Thus, to write about death is to write about life. Contemplating one's own mortality is to put one in touch with what matters most in each and every moment. As haiku poet vincent tripi observed in Paperweight for Nothing, "We all pass never having spoken enough about death or about poetry." I agree. Let's change that.

death poem
not mine
not yours


  1. Robert, I am a great fan of your haiku, and want to congratulate you for starting this site!

    Stacy Taylor

  2. Death poems can have an important place and function in one's daily life. Unfortunately, here in the west, it is not the case. We need to, in my opinion, learn and adopt this practice. It would only benefit us. There's the inevitability that we will die and it by ignoring this fact, we perhaps miss out of much in life. By understanding death, we can appreciate life and life is about the now, not the future. When one focuses on the now, there is a clarity that allows us to become more aware and enables us to be insightful. This is the same for practicing haiku. So the impermanence theme enables us to see, appreciate, what we really have at that moment. Appreciation of life is what it's all truly about.....Robert, thank you for putting up this blog. a deep bow, stanford

  3. hey Roooooberrrrt! I made my 'comments' in reply to your email, so haven't a lot to say at present re: your blog site, other than it's a marvelous forum for interchange of ideas and reflections. All the best as you explore this new venue.

  4. Good idea, Rob!

    Not a poem, just a thought



  5. Dear Sheridan, Thank you very much for the reminder! Indeed, checkout time MAY be soon. We don't know. Without drawing in a gust of fear and dread, it is good to remember that, as someone once said, "this life is not a dress rehearsal." Actually, if I give it a moment's thought, I realize we only have this moment; I need to be ready to checkout NOW... over and over. Any other stance is pure supposition, otherwise known as trance.

  6. Robert, wow! Very nice site and blog; fine design also.

    I look forward to following your posts.

    in my fall--
    before I perish

    Andy (AKA Andrew Shattuck McBride)

  7. Where we were
    before we came here
    will we remember?

  8. Dear Marian, Thank you very much for posting your poem. To re-member is to make whole again. It occurs to me awareness is the thread that runs through life-and-death. Will we remember? We shall see. In the meantime, I am reminded of Basho's beautiful poem:

    the temple bell stops
    but the sound keeps coming
    out of the flowers

    Echoing Basho:

    old pond
    old frog
    still splashing