Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Leaning On A Cane"

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.

                                                C. H. H. Burleigh
      "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).

               Osmund Caine (1914-2004), "Washing at No. 25, Kingston"

       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.

                                   Gilbert Spencer, "The Terrace" (1927)


Merisi said...

Thank you for the beautiful poems and images to which you have introduced me here!

I believe that the earlier one confronts mortality, the better to live life to its fullest, early on.

Fred said...


Yes, the second poem does sound like a death poem or at least one written near the end--a summing up perhaps.

It reminds me of the following haiku which is a Death Song:

I have known lovers ...
Cherry bloom ...the nightingale ...
I will sleep content...
-- Anon --

A summing up and acceptance of all that life brings.

Stephen Pentz said...

Merisi: I greatly appreciate your comments. I'm pleased that you found your way here.

I agree with your thoughts on mortality -- it is a good way to be more appreciative of what we have.

By the way, your blog is lovely. It brings back memories of a week-long stay that I once had in Vienna -- I hope that I can return some day!

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you very much for the wonderful poem. It does go very well with Ishikawa Jozan's poem, doesn't it? There is an anthology titled "Japanese Death Poems" that I have been meaning to track down, and you have now prompted me to do so.

As always, it's good to hear from you.

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Shelley said...

I'm emailing that poem to my dad.


Fred said...


I hadn't known that there was a collection of Death Songs. That sounds interesting. Thanks for the information.

Stephen Pentz said...
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Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: as always, thank you for stopping by. I'm glad that you like the poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

You're welcome, Fred.

The full title is: Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death (that's a mouthful!). It is edited by Yoel Hoffman, and published by Tuttle.

Fred said...


Thanks. I shall look around for it. I've seen a number of them in various haiku collections that I have, but I haven't come across a collection that focused on death songs.

The title reads as though it comes from the 18th century.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I've been looking at excerpts from the book on Amazon, and it looks very good. I'm not certain if Hoffmann does the translations, or if it is a compilation of versions by various translators. Either way, it looks good.

Thanks again.