Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields
© Basho (tr. Robert Hass)
‘Journey’ as a metaphor for life, would be considered a cliché today, but Basho did a lot of travelling. His life really was a series of journeys that he turned into art. He said he wanted to die travelling and he did. This is his death poem. Because he had fallen very badly ill, his students suggested that perhaps he should write a death poem and he refused, saying, ‘Any of my poems could be my death poem.’ But four days before he died, he called his students around him and wrote this last poem.
. . . . .
A number of poets wrote death poems while they were still healthy, saying that, given it is one of the main poems people remember, it had better be good. However when these (rather egotistical?) poets were close to death, they almost always wrote a true death poem and, as is the case with so much poetry, those written in the truth of the moment ring with it, have a poignancy, immediacy, and heart that is not present in the preempted poems.
But now I will present some of these desk-death-ku, to coin a phrase.
Here is one I could have written at age 17 (if I wrote haiku then) when I very nearly died of peritonitis from a burst appendix. I was in the old Townsville Hospital with a view across the water to Magnetic Island.
sea and sky
all of the space
that is blue
Or, should I die tonight, perhaps I am about to write my last poem. (And that, I suppose, is what Basho meant when he said, ‘Any of my poems could be my death poem.’)
my essence begins to seep
into the earth
. . . . .
Note: This post is inspired by Carpe Diem Haiku Kai. I chose Hass’s translation though, because I have been attached to it for years.
More translations here on page 7.