Western Death Haiku
by George Swede
Like others growing old, I’ve had to cope with the death of friends, relatives, colleagues and various cultural icons. Thus, learning how to deal with the final passage – one’s own as well as that of others has evolved into something of great interest.
One intriguing source of information was Yoel Hoffman’s Japanese Death Poems in which he lucidly describes Japanese ideas about the afterlife as well as the long tradition of writing a farewell haiku or tanka. I began to wonder how many Western writers were exploring this aspect of Japanese short-form poetry. It turns out that a surprising number are involved, and favouring the haiku form over the tanka.
Of course, death occurs in a wide range of circumstances. To more easily discuss the diversity of associated poems, I have organised them into five categories: Battlefield, illness, suicide, old age, and memorial. At the end, I speculate that the epitaph might be a Western precursor to the haiku.
Hoffman’s book has examples of haiku found on samurai who died on the battlefield or shortly after. In most cases, the haiku were obviously completed before the battle had begun. In a few instances, however, Hoffman is not clear about when the haiku were composed and it is possible that some were noted down during the time between the fatal sword thrust or gunshot and the actual death. Western death haiku recorded by real combatants were hard to find. Closest in spirit, even though it involves an animal, is this one by Serbian Dimitar Anakiev about the brutal wars in southeastern Europe:
the wheel of a troop carrier
crushes a lizard
The next one by Marc Hoy describes his near-death state of mind while being held in a northern Thailand prison for five years. While not in a conventional war situation, he was in a battle nevertheless, undergoing torture and starvation and finally convinced that the end was imminent. At the last moment he was rescued by a US Consul, only to end up continuing his time in an Arizona prison, from where he recalled his Thai experience:
Is reached by clouds in the sky
Only endless change.
Hoffman includes a number of haiku written by Japanese masters when they were ill and dying. Western equivalents were not hard to find. Both Marianne Bluger, a well-known Canadian poet who lived in Ottawa, and Jerry Kilbride, who for decades tended bar in a posh San Francisco private club, succumbed after long struggles with cancer. A famous novelist, Richard Wright surprised the world with his collection Haiku: This Other World culled from over 4000 haiku he wrote in France during the amoebic dysentery-plagued last 18 months of his life.
the last ember dies
a chill takes the house
Marianne Bluger, died 2005, age 60)
end of a long day
the old bartender’s feet
take the floorboards home
Jerry Kilbride, died 2005, age 75
An empty sickbed:
An indented white pillow
In weak winter sun.
Richard Wright, died 1960, age 52
As Hoffman’s book vividly describes, suicide, often via seppuku, was common in Japanese history and so too a haiku composed before the act. While some persons in the West also choose to end life in this manner, I could find no haiku or tanka that were written beforehand. Nevertheless, some do deal with the topic from other perspectives. To the best of my knowledge, Larry Gross is still alive in Tallahassee and editing three poetry magazines: HWUP, The Top and Sijo West. My tanka (and I am also still alive) was the result of my half-brother’s suicide and the haiku was inspired by a dream.
tossing it from the bridge
suicide note –
on the sill
I awake before
hitting the ground
the clock’s dial glows
In Hoffman’s book, poems anticipating death from old age are the most prevalent and this seems to be the case in the West as well. Presumably, Michigan’s Michael Rehling, the owner of the internet site Haiku Hut, wants this to be his death poem a la Japanese writers; likewise, but with humour, North Carolina heart specialist Hal Kaplan. Well-known Catalan poet Agusti Bartra penned this haiku on his deathbed. The poem by Jane Reichhold, one of the haiku world’s household names, varies from the rest because it looks at another’s impending death, in this case one of her terminally ill parents.
In a split second
during a long thoughtful breath
I inhale a bug
Michael Rehling, age 61
next to friendly people
I like to talk a lot
Hal Kaplan, age 60
I would die standing,
like smoke when it is transformed
not even knowing
Agusti Bartra, died 1982, age 74
Jane Reichhold, age 70
As in Japan, memorials abound in the West. Each year certain periodicals, as well as conferences, feature tributes to haiku poets who have recently died. Osaka-born Keiko Imaoka, a longtime American resident, as well as haiku poet, committed suicide. Santa Fe’s Elizabeth Lamb was a pillar of the Western haiku community and first Honorary Curator of the American Haiku Archives. Another eminent haiku personage, Washington’s Francine Porad was a poet, painter and editor. The last memorial is for my half-brother, mentioned in the section on suicide.
In Memory Of Keiko Imaoka (1962-2002)
a wrenching in my chest –
the white peony
pulled from the garden
Michael Dylan Welch
Remembering Elizabeth Searle Lamb (1917-2005)
a spring flurry
crows large as ravens
move tree to tree
William J. Higginson
Remembering Francine Porad (1929-2006)
rereading the renga
we wrote a decade ago . . .
my name: her name
Lenard D. Moore
In Memory of Robert Paynter (1958-1984)
the family gathered
a tear of embalming fluid runs
from my brother’s eye
A Possible Western Precursor To Death Haiku: The Epitaph
The word epitaph in ancient Greek literally means “on the gravestone”. Such text honouring the deceased is usually brief because of space limitations on most tombstones or plaques. I’ve chosen a few pithy ones that are haiku- or senryu-like.
The epitaph for Irish poet Yeats has meaning independent of our knowledge about the person – that is, it can be fully appreciated on its own. The others depend more on knowing who the individuals were. Poe is the American author of the great poem The Raven (and many other works of poetry and prose). A Nobel Laureate for Physics, the German Heisenberg is famous for his idea of “the uncertainty principle”. Irish playwright, comedian and musician Milligan is best remembered for being the founder and principal writer/performer of the British radio comedy series, The Goon Show. Likely, only younger readers need to be told about American voice actor Blanc’s renditions of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and others in hundreds of animated cartoons.
For W.B. Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
For Edgar Allan Poe
Quoth the Raven
For Werner Heisenberg
I lie somewhere over here.
For Spike Milligan
I told you I was ill.
For Mel Blanc
That’s all folks!
Hoffman, Y. (ed.). Japanese Death Poems. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986.
Anakiev, D. Re: Shiki polemics in haiku & shelter haiku.
Hoy, M. Short Stories About My Experiences In A Thailand Prison: My Death Haiku
Bluger, M. In Memory. Haiku Canada Newsletter, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 2006.
Kilbride, J. Death Poems
Wright, R. Haiku: This Other World. NY: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Gross, L. Shiki Death Haiku (weblink no longer available).
Swede, G. First Light, First Shadows. Liverpool, UK: Snapshot Press, 2006.
Swede, G. Almost Unseen. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books, 2000.
Old age haiku:
Rehling, M. Post Poems (weblink no longer available).
Kaplan, H. Shiki Death Haiku (weblink no longer available).
Bartra, A. in a review of his Last Poems by R.D.Wilson in Simply Haiku: A Quarterly of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Vol. 5, No. 2.
Reichhold, J. Death Haiku (weblink no longer available).
Welch, M.D. In Memory of Keiko Imaoka.
Higginson, W.J. Remembering Elizabeth Searle Lamb. The Heron’s Nest, 2005, Vol. 7.
Moore, L.D. Remembering Francine Joy Porad. The Heron’s Nest, 2006, Vol. 8.
Swede, G. Almost Unseen. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books, 2000.
All from Wikipedia.
Editor’s note: This article is based on part of a talk given at Haiku North America in 2007, and originally appeared on Simply Haiku in the winter 2007 issue. It appears here with the kind permission of its author.
Co-founder of Haiku Canada in 1977, George Swede is a past editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America. In 2006, he retired as a university teacher of psychology and in 2007 was awarded Honorary Life Membership by the Canadian Psychological Association. He was Honorary Curator of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, California from 2008-09, and in 2007 was awarded Honorary Life Membership of Haiku Canada. George lives in Toronto with his wife, Anita Krumins.