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Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

Tracks in the Sand: Death Haiku
A column by George Swede

(Based on part of a talk given at HNA 2007, August 15-19, Winston-Salem, NC)

Western Death Haiku

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 favoring 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 organized 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:

spring evening
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:

No destination
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 amebic dysentery-plagued last 18 months of his life.

the last ember dies                              end of a long day
a chill takes the house                         the old bartender's feet
by moonlight                                       take the floorboards home

          Marianne Bluger                                  Jerry Kilbride
          (died 2005, age 60)                              (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 prior to 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.

                                                  suicide haiku
                                                  tossing it from the bridge

                                                  (Larry Gross)

               I re-read                                                           I awake before
               my brother's                                                     hitting the ground
               suicide note--                                                   the clock's dial glows
               tomatoes ripen
               on the sill
                    (George Swede)                                                   (George Swede)

Old Age

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 humor, 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.

                                                  Death Haiku

                                                  In a split second
                                                  during a long thoughtful breath
                                                  I inhale a bug

                                                            Michael Rehling
                                                            (age 61)

                    bury me                                                       I would die standing,
                    next to friendly people                      like smoke when it is transformed
                    I like to talk a lot                              not even knowing
                              Hal Kaplan                                                    Agusti Bartra
                              (age 60)                                                        (died 1982, age 74)

                                                  DEATH WATCH
                                                  ONE THREAD

                                                            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 Tuscon 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                              Remembering Elizabeth Searle Lamb
                    (1962-2002)                                                            (1917-2005)

          a wrenching in my chest-                                              a spring flurry
          the white peony                                                crows large as ravens
          pulled from the garden                                       move tree to tree

                    Michael Dylan Welch                                        William J. Higginson

          Remembering Francine Porad                                 In Memory of Robert Paynter
                         (1929-2006)                                                            (1958-1984)

          rereading the renga                                                the family gathered
          we wrote a decade ago . . .                                     a tear of embalming fluid runs
          my name: her name                                               from my brother's eye

                    Lenard D. Moore                                                       George Swede

A Possible Western Precursor To Death Haiku: The Epitaph

The word epitaph in ancient Greek literally means "on the gravestone." Such text honoring 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                              For Edgar Allan Poe

                    Cast a cold eye                              Fly
                    On life, on death                             Quoth the Raven
                    Horseman, pass by!                        "Nevermore."

               For Werner Heisenberg                         For Spike Milligan

               I lie somewhere over here.                     I told you I was ill.

                                                            For Mel Blanc

                                                            That's all folks!




Hoffman, Y. (ed.). Japanese Death Poems. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986.

Battlefield haiku:

Anakiev, D. Re: Shiki polemics in haiku & shelter haiku. [Web site] Accessed 19 July 07.

Hoy, M. Short Stories About My Experiences In A Thailand Prison: My Death Haiku [Web site] Accessed 21 July 07.

Illness haiku:

Bluger, M. In Memory. Haiku Canada Newsletter, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 2006.

Kilbride, J. Death Poems. [Web site] Accessed 14 July 07.

Wright, R. Haiku: This Other World. NY: Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Suicide Haiku:

Gross, L. Shiki instead [Web site] Accessed 23 July 07.

Swede, G. First Light, First Shadows. Liverpool, UK: Snapshot Press
Swede, G. Almost Unseen. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books, 2000.

Old age haiku:

Rehling, M. Post Poems [Web Site] Accessed 18 July 07.

Kaplan, H. Shiki Death Haiku [web site] Accessed 7 July 07.

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 [Web site] Accessed 9 July 07.

Reichhold, J. Death Haiku [Web site] Accessed 18 July 07.

Memorial haiku:

Welch, M.D. In Memory of Keiko Imaoka (Web site] Accessed
9 July 07.

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 [Web site] Accessed 14 July 07.