Whin-Gold Woodnotes

Our Shared Japan: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Irene de Angelis & Joseph Woods. Dedalus Press, 2007, 20 euros.

The word anthology means, literally, a “collection of flowers”. This one was launched to mark fifty years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan. The book contains many haiku and tanka, poems that need to be taken in sushi-type bites. Most of the contributors write using the five-seven-five syllable pattern, and Seamus Heaney’s is a fine example:

Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

In fact, modern haiku writers frequently use a shorter, sketchier style because the Japanese forms are based on sound-units that are more compact than our syllables.

Heaney has also provided “Petals on a Bough”, a provocative after-word. He finds an affinity between haiku, tanka and ancient Irish verse, a somewhat surprising claim for the garrulous Irish! Heaney, however, is convincing: “The hermit poets who wrote in Old Irish in the little monasteries were also masters of the precise and suggestive”; he quotes:

The small bird
let a chip
from its beak:
I heard
woodnotes, whin-
gold, sudden:
the Lagan
(ninth-century Irish)

He detects another quality the Old Irish poets share with their modern Japanese counterparts:

this worldness. … Both are alert to their physical surroundings yet possess a strong sense of another world to which poetry promises access. In each case, it’s as if the poet is caught between the delights of the contingent and the invitations of the transcendent.

Maurice Harmon’s “Afternoon Tea” has those very qualities.

The best haiku, although succinct, express a pregnant simplicity, and the first of Frank Ormsby’s “Six Haiku” is a perfect example:

The field full of snow
so much a field full of snow
it needs a blackbird.

Often, however, modern practitioners achieve the simplicity but I can detect no pregnancy. There is a “so what” effect, the poem resembling a mere message on a commercial greeting card. Two of my favourite poets in Our Shared Japan who avoid that result are Paul Muldoon and Gerry Murphy. Murphy’s “Haiku for Norman McCaig” is touching:

The bittern’s lament
recalling the giddy soul
to its loneliness.

Muldoon’s hybrid haiku introduce rhyme to the form with excellent results. Number XVII from his group, “Hopewell Haiku”, neatly turns an image on its head:

The finer the cloth
in your obi or waist piece,
the finer the moth.

His longer poem, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is superb.

There is an impressive group of haiku in both Irish and English by Gabriel Rosenstock and the poems from “Inchicore Haiku”, by Michael Hartnett, are nearly all worth thinking about; here is the opener:

Now, in Inchicore,
my cigarette-smoke rises—
like lonesome pub-talk.

Having recently read a translation of a Japanese book about the tea ceremony, I particularly enjoyed Sean Dunne’s “The Art of Tea” sequence.

I once heard Paul Durcan give an electrifying reading at the National Gallery in Canberra, but the examples of his work here seem too self-regarding, as did Patrick Cotter’s “A Richard Brautigan Moment”.

Our Shared Japan does not consist entirely of haiku and tanka; it is a varied, worthwhile collection and should attract lovers of the verse of the two cultures that it celebrates.

More of Suzanne Edgar’s poetry will be appearing in Quadrant shortly.

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