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Carole MacRury

Illustrations of
Death Poems

Simply Haiku
Sept./Oct. 2004
vol.2, no.4





Basho said that each verse he wrote was in effect his ‘death poem.'  This speaks to the practice of mindful living—a deep awareness of the transience of all things.  The moment we are born we begin our odyssey towards understanding the meaning of our lives in the hopes of coming to grips with the fact we must die. Ancient philosophers wrestled with this subject and we continue to seek answers about life and death to this day and no doubt always will.  Our western culture looks to relieve suffering at the time of death, and often our last days are spent in a drug-induced semiconscious state. Dying is a highly personal matter and we whisper the word to ourselves. This is in sharp contrast to the centuries old custom in Japan of writing a death poem, sometimes just moments before one’s last breath, surrounded by family and friends. Ancestors are revered in the Japanese culture as exhibited in ceremonies such as the Bon Festival.  [The 13th through 16th of August is called "bon" (o-bon) in Japan. O-bon is a Buddhist event and is one of the most important traditions for Japanese people. It is the period of praying for the repose of the souls of one's ancestors. Chochin (paper lanterns) are lit inside Japanese houses.] Not all death poems could be considered fully realized haiku, and this is natural considering the circumstances.  Many were poignant, full of wisdom, even wry humor and disdain towards writing a death poem. A few poets even practiced writing their death haiku years ahead of time!   

My interest in death has been expressed often in my poetry and in my photography.  It seemed natural to quote a death poem along with an appropriate photo with the hopes that each would compliment the other.  The poems in Yoel Hoffman's book are from the sixteenth century and onward. Most people are familiar with the death poems of Basho and Buson, so I have chosen the death poems of lesser known poets. I selected the five poets for their synergy with my photographs.  

For additional information on the poems shown with my photographs, consult “Japanese Death Poems" by Yoel Hoffmann.   It contains much more information on the cultural background of death poems than I have covered in this short introduction.

~ Carole MacRury

Carole has utilized as her primary source Yoel Hoffman's Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, 1986, Charles E. Tuttle, Co, . Boston, Massachusetts, ISBN 0-8048 1505-4. The book can be ordered from Amazon.Com. The five poems illustrated in the images are reprinted with permission.

A Canadian by birth, Carole MacRury lives with her husband on a small Washington peninsula bordering Canada. The Pacific Northwest has been a big source of inspiration for her poetry and photography. She enjoys boating and hiking in the San Juan Islands and bird watching in the nearby delta lands.

Recently she's been creating haiga images to illustrate the death haiku written by Japanese haiku masters.

Carole is an active contributor to the World Haiku Club's multimedia forum and her first haiga was recently published in the World Haiku Review.

Her poetry has been published in many online publications, the most recent being The Green Tricycle, Red River Review, Dragonfly Review, Mentress Moon. You can read her haiku in such journals as World Haiku Review, Treetops, Sakura (An Anthology), HaikuLog, Mainichi Haiku Column (Japan), Amaze: The Cinquain Journal, and The Hermitage: An Anthology.