The Poetry of Death

Wednesday September 24, 2008


It’s been a week of epitaphs. Last Sunday we were up in the village of Heptonstall in Yorkshire with a friend from Turkey. We were up there to visit some friends, but as we arrived a little early, we wandered with our visitor into the ruins of the old church of Thomas à Becket and admired the inscriptions on the stones beneath our feet. And then yesterday I was down here in Leicester for my first session teaching at De Montfort University, a session during which we were encouraging new students (just in case…) to explore the epitaph as a literary form and then to write their own epitaphs. And as I am the newest member of staff, my colleagues inveigled me into writing my own. So I decided to do so in the style of a Japanese jisei or “farewell poem to life”. Yoel Hoffmann has edited a magnificent collection of these , a curious literary form in that the poems are ideally written the moment before one dies. Here are a few examples:

Since I was born
I have to die
and so…
      Kisei (1764)

Oh I don’t care
where the autumn clouds
are drifting to
      Bufu (1792)

Death poems
are mere delusion –
death is death
       Toko (1795)

It is, alas, bad form to write them in advance (and thus it is also awkward if, feeling the hem of death’s robe brushing against the back of your neck, you quickly scribble down a death poem only to find to your embarrassment that you don’t, in fact, die, but that’s another matter…). Bad form though it may be, I sat down to write my own jisei. I came up with the following.

Where there is a Will
there is a Way – but now
no Will, no Way.

But I think that the prize for the best Zen death poem must go to a Frenchman, and that is the old trickster and chess grand-master, Marcel Duchamp. In French it goes like this:

c’est toujours les autres qui meurent.

Or, in rough translation:

it’s always other people who die.

# · Peter Clothier

An alternative translation:

it’s always other
people who die.

I like the extra line break, which adds a bit of ambiguity and surprise in English. Thanks for the reminder!

# · Matthew

I like both yours and Marcel Duchamps. You easily beat the dead ones.
But, you are on the other hand still alive… :)

# · Michael Schaefer

I LOVE Toko’s death poem, and that’s what lead me to your site. I think yours rivals it, though. May I compose an equally apt jisei with perfect timing!

I had never heard of Duchamps death poem. Was he aware of the jisei tradition and trying to imitate it, or is this just a particularly pithy quote from him.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles