Hokusai’s death poem


(poetry diary 257 – 5/24/17) Yesterday I talked w/a friend who focuses on Japanese poetry. He told me about Japanese poets who spent their lives holed up in huts in the woods, writing poems. I told him that, when we’re old, if my beloved husband dies before me, I will hope to spend the rest of my days like that. My friend later sent me this lovely “death poem” by the famous painter Hokusai. (Hokusai is the artist who painted the Great Wave off Kanagawa.) 


as a spirit

I will stroll

through summer fields






hitodama de

yuku kisanji ya

natsu no hara


–          Hokusai

Later: I had a further discussion about this with the friend mentioned above, Tyler Lanigan, who hadn’t told me until I asked that he was the one who translated the poem above.  His translation is still rough, and he wrote me that

One thing I was considering is removing the word “I”. The pronoun is not found in the poem explicitly, and haiku are typically not personal. Also, there is the metaphysical question of whether anything resembling the “I” continues to persist after death. I think in my hasty translation I injected a bit of a westernized conception of the afterlife i.e. a soul that maintains some aspects of our individual living selves. As someone familiar with Greek/Roman mythology the imagery of summer  fields is strongly reminiscent of Elysium.   Given Hokusai’s Buddhist background I think it is more appropriate to remove the “I” from the poem to reflect the way that Buddhists yearn for the dissolution of the ego.  Furthermore, the second line definitely conveys the sense of spiritual dispersal – is spirit/breath/feeling and    literally means to disperse/scatter like leaves in the wind or in this case like the ego after death. In short, I would definitely revise my translation to convey more of the Buddhist concept of death. Although, translation is a tricky business and perhaps in doing so western readers may be alienated.


I’m using Tyler’s words here w/his permission. 🙂 The use of “I” in poetry is an interesting topic, esp. considering the emphasis on confessional-type poetry in the last few decades and the criticism of American poetry as being overly narcissistic.

I personally like the use of the “I” in the translation and don’t think I would relate to the poem as much without it, (as the use of “I” allows me to imagine myself as the person in the poem) but then again, I’m from the West.

It was also cool to hear from Tyler about how many Chinese and Japanese painters also wrote poetry and  included it in their paintings.


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