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Irish Haiku features the literate and thoughtful prose of one of Ireland's critically acclaimed writers, the award-winning essayist, Chris Arthur. Arthur's writing blends the intensely personal with the abstractly philosophical in his explorations of the meaning of what happens, what has happened, and what may happen. His writing has been compared favorably with figures as diverse as Hubert Butler, Joseph Campbell, Seamus Heaney, C.S. Lewis and V.S. Naipaul. As he has done in previous collections, Irish Nocturnes and Irish Willow, in Irish Haiku Chris Arthur explores the world as it unfolds to his senses. As Arthur listens to, touches, watches, tastes, and thinks about his world we are invited to join him in his historical, cultural, natural, philosophical, scientific, sometimes humorous, and always intellectual ruminations.
Chris Arthur was born in Belfast and lived for many years in County Antrim. He worked as warden on a nature reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh before enrolling at the University of Edinburgh, where he took a First Class Honours degree followed by a PhD. He has been widely published as an essayist and poet on both sides of the Atlantic. His first essay collection, Irish Nocturnes, was published in 1999; his second collection, Irish Willow, was published in 2002. Chris Arthur was Gifford Fellow at the University of St. Andrews and is a winner of the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize, the Beverly Hayne Memorial Award for Young Writers, and the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award. He teaches at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
Instead of any words at all, I would rather start with a blackbird singing in a County Antrim garden. Whether at dawn or dusk is of no matter, so long as the light is minimal enough to veil the detail of the landscape, still the restless eye, so fixing attention on the liquid resonance of this clear-sung scale, letting it, if only for a moment, hold consciousness spellbound in delight at the pure perception of this ancient lilting music. Sounding such a tuning fork might help to counter the expectations that attend beginnings, those most artificial of literary devices. Beginnings promise the order and progression that we crave. Their wordy lifelines suggest the existence of sufficient anchorage to reel ourselves towards habitable meanings from whatever fixed points of apparent genesis they seem to offer. They give the impression that sentences can be so ordered as to still the oceans of complexity and mystery that underlie us, subduing them into linear solidity and the believable fiction of logical progression from A to Z. But language falls upon the waters like autumn leaves spangling the blackness of a miles-deep pool with a patina of reds and golds, creating only the illusion of a surface we might walk upon. The beginnings it can be used to craft provide no more than a film over what is fathomless; the appearance of dependable solidity is familiarity's trompe l'oeil. A blackbird's solitary singing should not create any expectations of what comes next, what went before. Like a clear bell in a meditation hall, it just punctuates the silence, focusing the mind on what passes before it now, this moment that will never come again.
But, in starting a book, as in setting out on a journey, most people like to have at least some sense of where they're going, rather than just listening to birdsong. Experienced readers are as adept at spotting signs bearing clues about the nature of a text as walkers are at picking out gradients, hidden turnings, main routes in whatever landscape they're traversing. Having taken in its title, scanned front and back covers, glanced at the contents page, perhaps flicked quickly through the chapters, the reading eye will already have begun the process of orientation that will fix Irish Haiku in some category, hedged with whatever expectations define it. Before this fixing sets rock hard and readers continue - or decide to abandon - their journey, it seems appropriate to interrupt my singing blackbird and try to say something more directly about the nature of the route. In so doing I'm mindful that authors and readers sometimes view the lie of the land quite differently and that, in any case, Forewords are often skipped over, or ignored, or only looked at last.
In the hope that this will not be the case with Irish Haiku, let me offer three points of orientation by which this book may be brought into focus. Remember, though, as you perform this conceptual triangulation and magic out of it the seeming coherence of design, intent, and style, that the blackbird (which John Moriarty refers to as "the Irish totemic bird") is still singing and that its unthought notes have more claim than any words to provide the prelude to what follows.
It's Summer 1968 and I'm in Donegal, the most northerly part of Ireland geographically, though politically it's in "the South," as we often refer to Eire or the Republic of Ireland. "We" refers to Northern Ireland's middle class Protestants, the tribe - or, rather, the sub-group within the tribe - into which I was born. We still favour Donegal as a holiday destination. Although we don't know it, things are set to change. The Troubles are just around the corner. Such a declaration of provenance, though not allegiance, is perhaps unwise at the start of a book. I know that many hold Ulster's Protestants in something close to opprobrium. People view us through the media stereotype of orange sash and ugly intransigence. We're seen as dour, pig-headed, humourless, bigoted prisoners of our own siege mentality. Some of us are. However, one of the paths I hope this book will offer leads around such damning clichés and opens up unexpected perspectives even in the hard-bitten, well-trodden ground of our preconceptions. Though I have, I hope, escaped the gridlock of my heritage, much of what I am was moulded by it. Whatever the strategic benefits of concealment, it would be disingenuous not to confess my origins, even though I now incline more to the Buddha than to Calvin, Knox or Luther and view myself as (Northern) Irish, not as British.
I'm with my father. We've been fishing on one of the tiny loughans that make up "the Rosses", that area of water-stippled bogland, a tarn at every turn, that stretches north from Dunglow (pronounced dun.low, the g is silent) on Donegal's west coast. We're walking home, tired but content, to the holiday cottage we've rented just outside the village. We take what we think is a short-cut and after tramping across a few hundred yards of rough ground dense with heather and gorse, find ourselves on one of those single-track Donegal roads that twist invitingly into the distance. Though we thought we knew the area, we're soon lost. Eventually we come to a cottage at a crossroads. Its elderly occupant is sitting on a wooden chair just outside his front door, smoking a pipe and enjoying the sunshine; a sheepdog is lying at his feet. He calls the dog back as it runs at us, and we stop and talk - about the weather, about fishing, about the beauty of the countryside hereabouts. "Which way is it to Dunglow?" my father asks. The man points to the left hand fork with the stem of his pipe. "How far?" "Sure it's not far at all, no more than a mile or so at most, and isn't it a grand day for walking?" We agree, bid him goodbye and continue on our way, our feet hot in waders, their thick rubber soles making a gentle bass drumbeat on the sun-warmed tar.
Two hours later, we see the village in the distance. "He must have meant an Irish mile," my father said wryly. Amusement, affection, and exasperation are mingled in his tone. He has enjoyed the walk. We're on holiday and not in any hurry to be anywhere. It has been a rare day of unbroken sunshine and it's a pleasure to be out, particularly amidst Donegal's spectacularly beautiful scenery. Even so, I can hear the note of criticism (and, if I'm honest, bigotry) in his voice. Though one side of his family is from Letterkenny, only twenty-five miles away, and though he was born and raised in Derry, less than double that distance (as the crow flies) from where we've been fishing, my father regards himself as firmly British, definitely not Irish. If he told someone "about a mile," it would be about a mile, no more, no less. An "Irish mile" identifies the mindset he associates with Catholics and the South - vague, unreliable, relaxed. Ireland is a foreign country to him and in his eyes an inferior one, where a lack of industry and exactitude make for a way of thinking very alien to his own. He approves of the linear, the logical, the alphabetical. He is not given to flights of imaginative fancy. In his firmament of values, self-discipline is one of the highest virtues. Although he fought them in the war, in many ways he feels closer to Germans than to Southerners (as he often refers to the Republic's citizens). Despite speaking the same language, despite being on the same island, Ulster and Eire are, in his mind, miles (indeed Irish miles) apart.
Moving to my second point of orientation requires the mind to perform one of those leaps that are accomplished with such ease we seldom notice how incredible they are. Instead of Ireland, Japan; instead of 1968, the seventeenth century, the time and place when Matsuo Basho, the great haiku-master, is developing and perfecting this pared-to-the-bone form of poetic vision. Haiku are slivers of verse traditionally arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables each. Heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on that most difficult of tasks, seeing what's here, right now, in front of us, haiku cut like scalpels to the heart of perception. They put us in touch with things in a way that seems electrified. Their few words come charged with a voltage that eludes longer compositions. Deft, economical, startling, exact, and with an austere beauty typical of Zen aesthetics, haiku seem imbued with that kind of super-density you sometimes read about in science fiction stories when a tiny fragment of alien rock, no more than a dust-speck, turns out to weigh more than an elephant. Haiku catch moments that have touched their writers deeply, skewering the experience on their tiny tridents of verse and offering them up so raw and freshly cut that it feels we can live them again. Their directness is striking.
Specific examples of the genre may not seem to wear such claims with any comfort. Indeed, viewed beside what is said about them, haiku may appear to some readers to be clad only in some version of the Emperor's New Clothes. Like all poetry, different haiku will touch different people in different ways. The same verse can appear profound or pretty close to pointless. Basho (1644-1694) is regarded as the originator of the modern haiku form. He struck the note followed and developed by others. Three names in particular are now associated with his, making up the quartet of Japan's greatest haiku poets: Buson (1715-1783), Issa (1763-1827), and Shiki (1867-1902). To give a single haiku from each one's extensive oeuvre is not meant to be representative, but will, I hope, offer some indication of the style of this type of writing. (The seventeen syllables of the original Japanese - that being thought the number that can be uttered in a single breath - are only rarely preserved in English translation.)
The old pond a frog jumps in the splash of water.-Basho
You can see the morning breeze blowing the hairs of the caterpillar.-Buson
The puppy asleep, pushing his feet against the willow tree.-Issa
The sparrow hops along the veranda with wet feet.-Shiki
I discovered haiku in my teens via a tattered paperback anthology found by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Belfast. It was the 1970s, and the city was tense with violence. I read this first book of haiku on a bright, breezy autumn day, sitting on a bench outside the City Hall. The words of these Japanese masters peppered my mind like curative shrapnel tearing at a scab. They pierced the crust of the familiar and made me look at ordinary things again. They prompted the realisation that there is much to wonder at, even in the most mundane of circumstances. The wind denting the plumage on the necks of the strutting city pigeons hunting for crumbs around my feet as I read, that momentary ruffle as the sleek smoothness of their feathers was flicked by the sharp but invisible fingers of the breeze, became imbued with an almost sacramental quality after reading Basho and looking where he pointed.
Haiku, says R.H. Blyth, the great (and greatly eccentric) authority on this form in English, are expressions of "a temporary enlightenment in which we see into the life of things." Haiku have much to do with clear seeing - recording it, promoting it, celebrating it and rejoicing in it. But the blind could write haiku; they're not confined to the merely visual. Though their point of departure is often something the eyes pick out, haiku are essentially about insight and realization, not just vision. They are pinpoints of intensity created when the astonishing fact of being leans its weight against the narrow shaft of a moment so that its point breaks through the skin of dullness and indifference that grows over our experience, and we realize again, in Issa's words:
What a strange thing to be thus alive beneath the cherry blossoms.
Putting these first two points of orientation together may seem to result in a contradiction in terms. If an Irish mile meanders far beyond any such measure, then surely an Irish haiku will so over-run the strict three line, seventeen syllable rule that it will be something else altogether. My intention in putting Irish and haiku together to create the book's title is to indicate two tendencies that inform and shape my writing (and perhaps also characterize the Irish-British traits warring in my Ulster psyche). That these tendencies flow in opposite stylistic directions may, of course, make for an unhappy outcome, with conflict and confusion rather than creative tension winning the day. But my hope is that I can forge them together, drawing on the strengths of each, so allowing for a swimming-against-the-tide of what's expected that may allow me to reach some interesting places. So, on the one hand, expect a meandering route that takes the long way round, that stops to muse on things found by the wayside, that isn't hurrying towards any particular destination. And, on the other, expect a focus on the moments that are here before us now, the haiku writer's search for an almost meditative insight into the depths of the ordinary, the thirst for that honed exactitude which can cut away our usual glosses and convey the fact that in the most everyday of circumstances, the mundane events and objects among which our lives are lived, there is sufficient pulse of mystery, if we can only learn to put our finger on it, to electrify mind and heart.
I know there are such things as Irish haiku in a much more literal sense than the one intended by this book's title. That is, short verses, in the tradition of Basho, written by Irish poets. Gabriel Rosenstock, for instance, is a regular contributor to Blithe Spirit (the journal of the British Haiku Society), providing English translations of his Irish haiku:
moillíon ar éigean
Rosenstock has also translated the prolific American haikuist James W. Hackett into Irish, has an international haiku column in a Belfast newspaper, and has made the link between early Irish lyric poetry and his own craft. The "compressed form" and "clear-eyed view of nature" evident in centuries old Irish verse, says Rosenstock, makes writing haiku in that language "the logical continuum of almost two thousand years of poetry." Drawing on the work of the Russian linguist Viktor Kalygin, Rosenstock traces the origin of the Irish word for poet, file, to the Indo-European wel, "to see," and remarks that "the art of the haiku teaches us to see."
Though there are Irish haiku in the literal sense of this term, this book does not attempt nor contain them (except for the few examples cited in this Foreword). This is less a comment on the possibilities they offer, which are considerable, than a reflection of my cast of mind. I am drawn, yes, to the way in which haiku can skim just a word or two across the surface of a moment and draw the eye far out across its depths. But I am equally attracted to more wordy attempts to plumb those same waters and to the music language makes as you raft a way on it down the rivers of experience, or submerge yourself miles deep in an idea, descending further and further by the careful taking on of verbal ballast. My Irish haiku, then, are substantial chunks of prose, not slivers of verse. Perhaps some readers will judge them harshly when set beside the spare elegance of Basho's poems. For them, "Irish" can take on the same kind of mocking, negative connotations that the word had for my father in his remark about an "Irish mile." Others, I hope, will find them more congenial and judge them less harshly. Basho once remarked, "he who creates three to five haiku poems during a lifetime is a haiku poet. He who attains to ten is a master." There are ten Irish haiku in this book. Perhaps they would allow me the status of a diligent apprentice working at his craft; they certainly would not sustain any claim to the kind of accomplishment, let alone mastery, exemplified by Basho.
My third point of orientation, to complete the triangulation that may help to bring the nature of this book into focus, is almost a denial of the other two. It comes from that great classic of creative non-fiction writing (if indeed you can categorize it in any genre), Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. At the outset of his extraordinary odyssey, Pirsig says, "what follows is based on actual occurrences." It must therefore "be regarded in its essence as fact." However, it should "in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles either." His book is about Zen and motorcycles (though both are frequently ignored) and about much more besides. Though I make no claim to travel in the same heady realms, or with the same wisdom and assurance as does the admirable Pirsig, there is a parallel sense in which Irish Haiku, whilst drawing on the mindsets behind both components of its title, is not always about Ireland and has often little directly to do with haiku. I hope it over-reaches both these markers at the same time as being born out of them. It is certainly "based on actual occurrences" and should "be regarded in its essence as fact."
Like its two predecessors, Irish Nocturnes and Irish Willow, Irish Haiku is a book of essays. Not that that gives much away (thus the need for triangulation) for, as Claire de Obaldia puts it, "the essay is an essentially ambulatory and fragmentary prose form," which is another way of saying that it doesn't really fit in anywhere. It is a mode of writing which can be made to wear the garb of genre only reluctantly, uncomfortably, and temporarily. "There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses," says E.B. White, and it is this versatile diversity that gives the form the strength and freedom it enjoys. Graham Good is right in noting how the essay "opposes doctrines and disciplines, the organizing structures of academic knowledge." This opposition and independence bear out Adorno's astute observation that "the essay's innermost formal law is heresy." Essentially a guerrilla genre (or, indeed, an anti-genre), where the right of self-determination is valued above serving any pre-set style or structure, where independence of mind commands greater loyalty than allegiance to any literary tradition, the essay seems curiously well-suited to the Blackmouth psyche (that is, the psyche of Ulster Presbyterianism - at least in its origins, if not in its present manifestations). Far from being a form of writing that is elitist or superior, as some people seem to think, I would agree with Graham Good that "anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed." I have tried to look attentively, think freely and write clearly in these pages. However, though such aspirations may sound straightforward, they are far from easy to fulfil.
Let me end this Foreword where I began it, with the singing of a County Antrim blackbird - so reiterating the fact that something wordless, ancient, hauntingly beautiful and mysterious inspires what's written here, rather than anything that can be easily categorized as "Irish," "haiku," or "essay." Seamus Heaney has commented on the haiku-like quality of early Irish nature poems. He talks about their "unique cleanliness of line," their "tang and clarity," the way they act as "little jabs of delight in the elemental," combining "suddenness and richness." A good example is the well-known anonymous poem, probably dating from the ninth century, called "The Blackbird of Belfast Lough:"
The small bird let a chirp from its beak: I heard woodnotes, whin-gold, sudden. The Lagan blackbird!
Heaney (who includes an intriguing haiku of his own, 1.1.87, in his collection Seeing Things) suggests that in its "precision and suggestiveness" this kind of verse is reminiscent of Japanese haiku. Indeed, "Basho's frog plopping into its pool in seventeenth century Japan makes no more durable or exact music than Belfast's blackbird clearing its throat over the Lough almost a thousand years earlier."
In the County Antrim garden, not far from the river Lagan, that formed so important a part of the world in which I grew up, blackbirds were common. We had several nests in the shrubs and hedges every year. Maybe they act as decoys, or as trial runs, or perhaps they are just mistakes but, as well as the nest actually occupied, laid in, used to rear a brood, the blackbirds often built several others. Sometimes these didn't amount to much, just a few twigs; sometimes they were pretty much full-scale replicas. They made finding the real nests more difficult. I hope there are no decoy nests in Irish Haiku. I've tried to choose only those forks in my experience that will safely harbour a clutch of words, but trying to make adequate receptacles in which meaning may be laid, nurtured, hatched is never easy. I can only hope that there will be no empty tangles of word-twigs got up to look as if they harbour something interesting, but that as readers reach into the nests I've variously constructed here, they will feel the smooth promise of eggs, or hear the tapping of tiny bills against confinement, or the cheep of scaldies (our word for fledglings) demanding to be fed.
Note: Essays have no truck with footnotes. These belong to the ritual intricacies of specialist scholarly writing. This book deliberately avoids them as an unnecessary encumbrance after this brief but dismissive nod in their direction. John Moriarty talks about blackbirds and other matters in Padraigín Clancy's Celtic Threads: Exploring the Wisdom of Our Heritage (Dublin. Veritas: 1999). Examples of haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and others, plus background and commentary, can be found in R.H. Blyth's monumental Haiku in Four Volumes (Tokyo. Hokuseido Press: 1952). Gabriel Rosenstock's "The Stairway of Surprise: Reflections on Poetry and Haiku" can be found in Blithe Spirit: Journal of the British Haiku Society, Vol.8 no.4 (1998), pp.21-25. Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values was first published in New York by William Morrow & Co in 1974. The four voices quoted on essay writing are those of Claire de Obaldia, The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism and the Essay (Oxford. Clarendon Press: 1995); E.B. White, Essays of E.B. White (New York. HarperCollins: 1977); Theodor Adorno, "The Essay as Form," translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor, in New German Critique, Vol.32 (1984), pp.151-171; and Graham Good, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (London. Routledge: 1988). Seamus Heaney's "The God in the Tree: Early Irish Nature Poetry," originally given as a talk on Radio Telefís Eireann in 1978, is reprinted in his Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London. Faber: 1980, pp. 181-189). It is often said that the term "Blackmouth" comes from the days of persecution when Presbyterians' mouths were stained from eating blackberries as they hid from their enemies in the Scottish mountains. John Barkley dismisses this derivation as entirely erroneous. According to him, "Presbyterians were disparagingly referred to as Blackmouths in Ireland in the final two decades of the eighteenth century. The term is Irish in origin and its connotation is political. It refers to those whose sympathies lay with the ideals of social polity and human rights in the American and French revolutions. Eventually the epithet came to be applied to the whole Presbyterian community." See John M. Barkely, Blackmouth and Dissenter (Belfast. White Row Press: 1991, p.10). "The radical stand of blackmouths against a despotic and sectarian state," says Barkley, "is still a worthy cause." I would not disagree. My father's use of the term "Irish mile" was used with derogatory rather than documentary intent. I doubt if he knew there was a possible historical reason behind what he took merely to be inaccuracy on the part of the man who gave us directions to Dunglow. Whereas a British (and American) mile equals 1,760 yards (or one thousand paces, going back to the Latin derivation, mille), the old Irish mile was reckoned at 2,240 yards. This measure, also found in Scotland, persisted, particularly in rural areas, well into the modern period. It was, of course, a great deal further even than this archaic Celtic mile to Dunglow.