Life’s lessons through classical poetry

Did you know that there was a practice in old Japan to write a poem prior to your life’s end, culminating your knowledge?

Two of my favorites, taken from Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffmann:

My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo –
The blade is broken –

- by Dairin Soto, died in the year 1568 at the age of 89

It lights up
As lightly as it fades:
A firefly.

- by Chine, died in the year 1688 around the age of 28

Over the years, I’ve given many presentations on multicultural poetry, and these two generated quite a bit of discussion.

I often wonder what Dairin Soto would think of my grandfather’s practice of sharpening his own knives – even butter knives would cut steak. In fact, there were a few of Grandpa’s knives that he had for so many years that he’d sharpened them down to a third of their original size. Ironic, no?

For further reading:

Looking for other great classical poetry collections? Some of my favorites:

100 Poems from Tang and Song Dynasties, by my dear friend, Qiu Xiaolong, poet and novelist

Selected Poems of Su Tung-Po, translated by the phenomenal Burton Watson

Hidden Music: Rumi, translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin

Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu – I particularly like the illustrated edition translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Haas

Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature, edited by Michael Hutt – Be forewarned: much of this collection is not translated into English, but it does contain one of Nepal’s greatest poems, Muna Madan. Beautiful. (And yes, translated into English.)


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