A time arrives (imperceptibly, it would seem) when one begins to exhibit an increased interest in poems about mortality. In due course, this interest may become more specific, more pressing. Thus, for instance, the ability of a poet to look certain facts in the face -- with equanimity and without bravado -- may suddenly begin to strike a nerve (something between a welcome sense of recognition and an urge to flee).
When it comes to equanimity without bravado, the Chinese and Japanese poets seem to have this mortality business well in hand. Whether this has something to do with Taoism and/or Buddhism, I am not competent to say. The following two poems by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) are, I think, fine examples of what I am trying to get at.
"The Burleigh Family Taking Tea At Wilbury Crescent, Hove" (1947)
Up After Illness
Old and sick here in spring mountains,
but the warm sun's just right for a skinny body.
I sweep the bedroom, put the bedding out to air,
peer into the garden, leaning on a cane.
Birds scold, as though resenting visitors;
blossoms are late -- it seems they've waited for me.
Trust to truth when you view the ten thousand phenomena
and heaven and earth become one bottle gourd.
Ishikawa Jozan, in Burton Watson (editor/translator), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).
Leaning on a Cane, Singing
Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky --
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.
Ibid. According to tradition, this was Ishikawa Jozan's final poem.