What Are Japanese Death Poems?

“In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, it has become customary to write a will in preparation for one’s death. But Japanese culture is probably the only one in the world in which, in addition to leaving a will, a tradition of writing a “farewell poem to life” (jisei) took root and became widespread. If we examine the wills left by the Japanese throughout their history, we occasionally find instructions and appeals to survivors concerning their moral or social conduct; usually, however, wills deal only with the division of property. It has been suggested, then, that the death poem is perhaps a kind of salutation. The Japanese learn hundreds of polite forms of address so as to be prepared for every possible social situation, and status and prestige are measured, to a great extent, by one’s ability to find the greeting most appropriate to the circumstances. Should we then regard death poems as a final salute to those who remain alive, the last act of politeness? In fact, death poems reveal that before death, the Japanese tend rather to break the restraints of politeness that hold them back during their lifetime; we must comb through hundreds of death poems in order to find one or two written in the style customary for polite greetings. Neither material nor social concerns come to the fore. Death poems seem to reflect, more than anything else, the spiritual legacy of the Japanese.

Dokyo Etan (道鏡慧端) – Japanese Death Poem

Dokyo, also known as Shoju Ronin, lived most of his life in a hut and refused to join the large monasteries. He saw in zazen, Zen meditation, the essence of the Zen way and used to deal harshly with believers who sought him out to hear so-called Zen doctrine. He would occasionally even draw his sword on them and drive them away, in keeping perhaps with his samurai origin. He is said to have once pushed the Zen master Hakuin from the pulpit when the latter rose to speak, whereupon Hakuin fainted from the force of the blow. For as long as Hakuin dwelt with him, Dokyo showed him no preference, and made him beg from door to door for his portion of rice like the other monks.

Dokyo wrote his last words while seated in the upright Zen position. Then he put down his brush, hummed “an ancient song” to himself, suddenly laughed out loud, and died.

Died on the sixth day of the tenth month, 1721 at the age of eighty.

Here in the shadow of death it is hard
To utter the final word.
I’ll only say, then,
“Without saying.”
Nothing more,
Nothing more.

Sources: Japanese Death Poems

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today in Literary History —> Today we remember French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who passed away in an avitation accident on this day in 1944. Best remembered for his Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry became a laureate of several of France’s highest literary awards and also won the U.S. National Book Award. Today his Le Petit Prince is among the most translated books in the world.

Death and the Lady

This ballad is structured as a dialogue between Death and a woman, and is clearly intended for moral instruction. The implication is that the woman has led an extravagant, sinful life, and death has caught her before she has had the chance to reflect and pursue a more Christian lifestyle. The fact that this heavy-handed lesson is aimed specifically at women illustrates the Calvinist, paternalistic, sometimes misogynistic moral codes that prevailed in Scottish society of the time.

Early ballads were dramatic or humorous narrative songs derived from folk culture that predated printing. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, many ballads survive because they were recorded on broadsides. Musical notation was rarely printed, as tunes were usually established favourites. The term ‘ballad’ eventually applied more broadly to any kind of topical or popular verse.

This ballad was printed by J. Deacon sometime between 1683 and 1700. It was printed as The Great Messenger of Mortality, or a Dialogue betwixt Death and a Lady. The The Dance of Death (conversations between Death and his victims) was a popular theme throughout the 14th and 15th centuries and again in the 18th century.

Death:

‘Fair Lady, throw those costly robes aside,
No longer may you glory in your pride;
Take leave of all your carnal vain delight,
I’m come to summon you away this night.’

Lady:

What bold attempt is this? Pray let me know
From whence you come, and whither I must go.
Shall I, who am a lady, stoop or bow
To such a pale-faced visage? Who art thou?’

Death:

Do you not know me? I will tell you then:
I am he that conquers all the sons of men,
No pitch of honour from my dart is free,
My name is Death! Have you not heard of me?’

Lady:

‘Yes; I have heard of thee, time after time;
But, being in the glory of my prime,
I did not think you would have come so soon;
Why must my morning sun go down at noon?’

Death:

‘Talk not of noon! you may as well be mute;
There is no time at all for vain dispute,
Your riches, gold, and garments,jewels bright,
Your house, and land, must on new owners light.’

Lady:

‘My heart is cold; it trembles at such news!
Here’s bags of gold, if you will me excuse
And seize on those; and finish thou their strife,
Who wretched are, and weary of their life.

Are there not many bound in prison strong
In bitter grief? and souls that languish long,
Who could but find the grave a place of rest
From all their grief; by which they are opprest.

Besides there’s many with a hoary head
And palsied joints; from whom all joy is fled
Release thou them whose sorrows are so great,
And spare my life until a later date!’

Death:

‘Though thy vain heart to riches is inclined
Yet thou must die and leave them all behind.
I come to none before their warrant’s sealed,
And, when it is, they must submit, and yield.

Though some by age be full of grief and pain,
Till their appointed time they must remain;
I take no bribe, believe me,this is true.
Prepare yourself to go; I’m come for you.’

Lady:

‘But if, oh! if you could for me obtain
A freedom, and a longer life to reign,
Fain would I stay, if thou my life wouldst spare.
I have a daughter, beautiful and fair,
I wish to see her wed, whom I adore;
Grant me but this, and I will ask no more?’

Death:

‘This is a slender frivolous excuse!
I have you fast! I will not let you loose!
Leave her to Providence, for you must go
Along with me, whether you will or no!

If Death commands the King to leave his crown
He at my feet must lay his sceptre down;
Then, if to Kings I do not favour give
But cut them off, can you expect to live
Beyond the limits of your time and space?
No! I must send you to another place.’

Lady:

‘Ye learned doctors, now exert your skill,
And let not Death on me obtain his will!
Prepare your cordials, let me comfort find,
My gold shall fly like chaff before the wind!’

Death:

‘Forbear to call! that skill will never do;
They are but mortals here as well as you.
I give the fatal wound, my dart is sure,
And far beyond the doctors’ skill to cure.

Flow freely you can let your riches fly
To purchase life, rather than yield and die!
But,while you flourished here with all your store,
You would not give one penny to the poor.

Though in God’s name they sue to you did make
You would not spare one penny for His sake.
My Lord beheld wherein you did amiss,
And calls you hence, to give account of this!’

Lady:

‘Oh! heavy news! must I no longer stay?
How shall I stand at the great Judgement Day?’
Down from her eyes the crystal tears did flow,
She says, ‘None knows what I now undergo!

Upon my bed of sorrow here I lie!
My selfish life makes me afraid to die!
My sins are great, and manifold,and foul;
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul!

Alas! I do deserve a righteous frown!
Yet pardon, Lord, and pour a blessing down!’
Then with a dying sigh her heart did break,
And did the pleasures of this world forsake.

Thus may we see the mighty rise and fall,
For cruel Death shews no respect at all
To those of either high or low degree.
The great submit to Death as well as we.

Though they are gay, their life is but a span,
A lump of clay, so vile a creature’s Man!
Then happy they whom God hath made his care,
And die in God, and ever happy are!

The grave’s the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great;
If life were merchandise, that gold could buy,
The rich would live — only the poor would die.

Nobody-But-Yourself – e.e. cummings

“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

~ e.e. cummings

Rosetta Stone Discovered

Today in Egyptian history —> On this day in 1799, French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone in an Egyptian village. The stone was inscribed with hieroglyphics, demotic script and Greek script in 196 BC but was lost during the Medieval period. After its rediscovery, it prompted widespread excitement as scientists raced to be the first to decipher the ancient text. It was eventually translated by Jean-François Champollion, a French scholar, in 1822!

The inscription, by the way, is about the divine status of Ptolemy V.

The Egyptians want it returned for their new Grand Egyptian Museum (opening later this year), but the British Museum says no as it’s the most visited artifact in the museum.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Emancipation From Domesticity

In 1792, with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft fired a powerful early salvo in the battle for female emancipation from domesticity. She wrote her feminist polemic in response to 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, such as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did not extend their ideas of liberalism to women. She criticizes the injustice and inconsistency of such men calling for freedom yet still subjugating women. She also rejects the contemporary perception that women were less rational.

“Who made man the exclusive judge?” she demands. Women, she writes, might be weaker physically, but are just as capable of rational thought as men.

Wollstonecraft maintains that women remained inferior because they were kept in the domestic sphere, forced to be men’s “toys and playthings.” Society taught them that looks, male opinion, and marriage were more important than intellectual and personal fulfilment. Sculpted by a gender stereotype that their mothers reinforced, girls were brought up to exploit their looks in order to find a man who would support and protect them.

Wollstonecraft was the first feminist to describe “marriage for support” as a form of prostitution— a shocking assertion for the time. A lack of means often compelled women to marry. Degraded by their dependency on male approval, they effectively became men’s slaves. She felt that such a restricted life, limited by domestic trivia, could also wreak psychological damage.

To restore women’s dignity, Wollstonecraft recommends “a revolution in female manners.” She believed women and men should be educated equally, even suggesting a coeducational system. Women, she believed, should be in the public sphere and should be trained for work outside the home, in areas such as medicine, midwifery, and business. She urges an end to the social distinction between the sexes and calls for equal rights for women to enable them to take control of their lives.
Mixed reactions

Vindication was well received, particularly in intellectual circles. A hostile press, however, described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats” for both her book and her unorthodox lifestyle. The book was not reprinted until the mid-19th century, when it was admired by figures such as British suffragist Millicent Fawcett and American activist Lucretia Mott. Wollstonecraft’s advanced ideas would be echoed in the works of feminists from Barbara Bodichon to Simone de Beauvoir”

Sources: The Feminism Book (DK)

Alone – by Maya Angelou

Alone

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

~ Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Lowell’s book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.

The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.

The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.

One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is “Daddy” by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman’s own life and traumas, such as his father’s suicide. Below is an excerpt from “Dream Song 1”:

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day.

Sources: Poets.org

Mad Poet’s Society: McLean Hospital, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton

In suburban Massachusetts, on 240 acres of peaceful grounds, is a literary legend—of sorts. McLean Hospital, with its long history of treating the blue bloods of Boston, has become an unlikely poetry landmark after providing both recuperation and inspiration to Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

Plath was the first of the three to stay at McLean. In 1953, during a summer at home before her senior year in college, Plath swallowed a bottle of pills and crawled beneath her house. Her failed suicide attempt led to months of treatment at McLean and began her long relationship with the psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse. While there, Plath received insulin-shock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, and ultimately electroshock therapy. The experience surfaced years later in her poem, “The Hanging Man,” which begins, “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.”

Lowell was admitted to McLean in 1958, though his infamous manic outbursts had already resulted in numerous stays at other mental institutions. Over eight years, he stayed there four times, correspondeding frequently from his hospital address, and sending letters to Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and even Jackie Kennedy. Written about his first stay at McLean, his poem “Waking in the Blue” mentions Bowditch Hall and was pasted on the wall of the nurse’s station there for years.

Highly competitive with Plath, Sexton tried for years to be admitted to McLean, but her therapist, aware of the high cost, refused to admit her. Sexton first entered McLean as a teacher. In 1968, she was invited to lead a weekly poetry seminar in the hospital, providing Sexton with her first teaching experience, after which she became a professor at Boston University. In 1973, a year before her death by suicide, Sexton achieved her wish and was admitted to McLean for a five-day examination.

Plath and Sexton both attended a poetry seminar taught by Lowell at Boston University in 1959. They were each inspired by his confessional poetry and the appreciation for madness that he cultivated. In “Elegy in the Classroom,” Sexton wrote about Lowell: “I must admire your skill. / You are so gracefully insane.” Through his encouragement, they began to turn their personal experiences into verse—a quality that would mark their later work.

Plath discovered she could mine her McLean experiences for literary inspiration. She wrote in her journal, “There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, recreate it.” Thus she began her famous novel, The Bell Jar. Years later, in his introduction to Plath’s posthumous poetry collection Ariel, Lowell said, “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of fever.”

Source: poets.org