We’ve all had the experience of wandering through a graveyard, wondering about all the names we see, the stories behind each set of dates. Entire lives seem to be reduced to a pair of dates, and yet we contemplate the dash that separates those dates, the life that was lived in between. Yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not the length of life, but the depth.” These speculations have often been a topic for poetry, including haiku and longer poetry, producing varied yet similar moments of reflection.
I first began thinking about this topic when I published “The Dash,” by Steve Sanfield, in my journal Tundra, #1, 1999, page 87. A note with the poem says it arose “from an interview with a convicted rapist who was once the heavyweight champion of the world.”
When you die
nothing matters but the dash.
On your tombstone it says
1933 – 2025
or something like that.
The only thing that matters
is that dash.
That dash is your life.
How you live it
and were you happy
with the way you lived it.
That’s your life.
That’s what matters—
Another poem like this is by Linda Ellis, and it’s more famous. It has the same title as Sanfield’s poem, “The Dash,” and it appears in her book Live Your Dash (New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011). The poem even has its own website, and has appeared as a picture book (for example, see Amazon). The poem was originally written in 1996, and has been anthologized and shared widely, and as a result it appears in several slightly different versions.
I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth
and now only those who love them
know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars . . . the house . . . the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.
To be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile . . .
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you lived your dash?
It’s easy to relate to the sentiments of this popular poem. Here are a few additional poems on the same subject, one tanka and six haiku, arranged in order of publication. They all speak of the same moment, of noticing that dash. The first is by Larry Kimmel, from Bottle Rockets #9, 5:1, August 2003, page 36:
a name and an epitaph
blurred by green moss
life in the end
little more than a dash
between two dates
Kimmel is not diminishing the life he is referring to, but observing that it may seem diminished by the dash, but presumably shouldn’t be. And yet he recognizes the ephemerality of life, that it’s all one mad dash from birth to death. Here I think of what may have been Issa’s death poem, as translated by Robert Hass:
A bath when you’re born,
a bath when you die,
Harold Stewart’s two-line rhyming version of the same poem is as follows:
Between the washing-bowls at birth and death,
All that I uttered: what a waste of breath!
And yet, all is not futility for those who wish to be positive, making the most of that dash between the beginning and the end. Here’s another Issa poem, written on the death of his daughter:
this world of dew
is but a world of dew
and yet, and yet . . .
Next is a haiku by Yvonne Cabalona, from Feel of the Handrail, an anthology she edited with W. F. Owen, Modesto, California: Leaning Bamboo Press, 2005, page 7.
all of those dashes
between life and death
Cabalona notes not just the dashes but how many she sees in this old cemetery. We cannot help but feel a moment of awe and respect. She also suggests that perhaps we spend our lives “dashing,” in too much of a frenzy, seldom slowing down enough to smell the roses, to make the most of life on our own terms.
A soldier’s headstone—
between one date and another
so short a line
The preceding poem is by Sylvia Forges-Ryan. It appeared in The Sixth Annual ukiaHaiku Festival Winning Entries, Ukiah, California: Ukiah Haiku Festival, 2008, page 17. Jane Reichhold was the contest judge, and this poem was the first-place winner in the “adult contemporary” category. The poem also appeared in Dandelion Clocks: Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology 2008, New York: Haiku Society of America, 2008, page 30. This time the focus is on the deaths of soldiers, with this one headstone implying others, and how they died young—and perhaps also shared similar death dates in service to their countries.
hyphen between dates
my father’s life
James Martin, in the preceding poem, also moves from many gravestones to just one—his father’s. This poem is from Frogpond 32:2, Spring/Summer 2009, page 12. The abstraction of the “father’s life” carries the weight of every story and memory that filled it. Also, we cannot help but feel that the poet is contemplating his own life, the quality of the dash that will appear on his own gravestone.
Reading a tombstone.
The hyphen between the years
tells many stories.
This poem by Jermaine Williams appeared in Pebbles 25:2, October 2012, page 9. The last line is more explanatory compared with the same implication present in other haiku shared here, but it’s ultimately the point of each poem—that each tombstone tells a story. Or, in reality, it doesn’t, but we are left to wonder about each of the stories suggested by the dash.
the dates on Dad’s gravestone
what matters is the hyphen
The preceding poem by Frank Judge was published in Last Ginkgo Leaf: Rochester Area Haiku Group 10th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by Michael Ketchek and Carolyn Coit Dancy, Rochester, New York: Rochester Area Haiku Group, 2015, page 16. It previously appeared in Brass Bell, September 2014. Whether a dash or a hyphen, yes, what matters is the life it represents.
between two dates
the length of life
This poem, by Kwaku Feni Adow, is from his book Between Two Dates, Kumasi, Ghana: Mamba Africa Press, 2020, page 17. He means not just the length but the quality of that life. What do we do, during the length of our lives, between the two dates each of us are given? That, as with all the other examples, is the question these poems raise, an introspective challenge to improve ourselves.
The shared observation in these independently written poems is one to be celebrated. As we remember those who have died before us, and think about their lives, represented by that simple dash on their gravestones, we may all be inspired to deepen the quality of our lives. We might do that, in fact, by writing haiku.