Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: Seamus Heaney and His View of Haiku

                                                               Toronto snowstorm ...
                                                               writing haiku to escape
                                                               the fear of silence

                                                               for Seamus Heaney, Poet of "the Silent Things"  

The haiku form and the generally Japanese effect have been a constant feature of poetry in English. The names of Basho and Issa and Buson have found their way into our discourse to the extent that we in Ireland have learnt to recognise something Japanese in the earliest lyrics of the native tradition.

Seamus Heaney, The Guardian (24 November, 2007)

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013), who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, died yesterday at the age of 74. Outside the haiku poetry community, he was one of few Western poets who recognized and appreciated Japanese haiku's influence on English poetry. On 24 November, 2007, he published an article, titled "The Pathos of Things," in The Guardian. Below are two excerpts:
It seems to me that the scenes which inspired [Wordsworth's] most characteristic poetry could well have inspired many of the great masters of Japan. The English and Japanese sensibilities respond in similar ways to the natural world, and landscapes which brought out the best in Wordsworth could equally well have provided the setting for a haiku by Basho. Significantly also, the English poet's work abounds in phrases which could be used to describe the general emotional impact of a certain kind of Japanese lyric - as when he speaks of being "an inmate of this active universe", of being taught to feel "the self-sufficing power of solitude" or a something in nature which is "far more deeply interfused", and so on...

[Ezra Pound] had begun by composing a 30-line poem but had destroyed it because it didn't achieve a satisfactory intensity of expression; six months then passed and he wrote one half that length; and a year later he produced what he called a "hokku-like sentence":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

"I dare say it is meaningless," Pound concluded, "unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective."

The poem is far from meaningless, and it is largely thanks to its existence that readers (and writers) in English have drifted "into a certain vein of thought". Thanks to these 14 words, we are now well attuned to the Japanese effect, the evocation of that precise instant of perception, and are ready to grant such evocation of the instant a self-sufficiency of its own. We don't require any labouring of the point. We are happy if the image sets off its own echoes and associations, if it speaks indirectly, as Issa speaks in his haiku:

A good world --
dew drops fall
by ones by twos.
By ones, by twos, ripples pulsed out from the image poem, so it was inevitable, especially given Pound's capacities as an operator on the literary scene, that the new Japanese effect should be integrated into the history of poetry in English as "The imagist Movement"...

For curiosity, I went through the recently published New Penguin Book of English Verse in search of this effect in pre-imagist periods, but didn't discover anything. This is not to say, of course, that poetry in English is unaware or unexpressive of the underlife of feelings or the melancholy of things: since Anglo-Saxon times the elegiac mood has been a constant of the poetic literature. It's just that the means of expression are different. In 1869, for example, Matthew Arnold wrote this brief, untitled poem:

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel - below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel - there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

What the haiku/imagist form can do is to reach down into that noiseless, strong, obscure, deep central stream and give both poet and reader a sense of epiphany. It's worth noticing indeed that the word "epiphany" becomes available as a literary term around about the time when Pound is coining the term "imagism", James Joyce being the one who was responsible for this new extension and application of its meaning. In their different ways, Pound and Joyce felt a need to extend the alphabet of expressiveness, and found a way to articulate what TS Eliot would call "the notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing" - a thing which was also for Eliot inherent in certain "images": "I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images and cling."

In the years since these early developments, the haiku form and the generally Japanese effect have been a constant feature of poetry in English. The names of Basho and Issa and Buson have found their way into our discourse to the extent that we in Ireland have learnt to recognise something Japanese in the earliest lyrics of the native tradition... Read the full text here

Below are two haiku by Seamus Heaney:


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

Seeing Things, 1991

Springtime in Ulster:
aerials in hedges, squawk
of walkie-talkies

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, 2008

You can read his Tankas for Toraiwa  here

Updated, September 15, 2013: Two Haiku-like Poems

In the section, titled Heaney's Haiku Poetry, of Chapter One, titled Petals on Sandymount Strand: Seamus Heaney, of The Japanese Effect in Contemporary Irish Poetry, Irene De Angelis further discusses two other haiku (in my view, haiku-like poems that demonstrate haiku sensibility): their concision results from his effort to write by subtraction (p. 24)

For Bernard and Jane McCabe

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.

Us, listening to a river in the trees.

The Haw Lantern (1987)

The Strand

The dotted line my father's ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won't wash away.

The Spirit Level (1996)

Note:  The phrase "inner émigré" in the fifth tanka of my sequence, Politics and Poetics of Re-Homing, below comes from Seamus Heaney's work:

inner émigré
rolling off my tongue...
the professor's
right eye flickers
in a long shadow

Below is an excerpt from George Morgan's interview with Seamus Heaney :

— You once wrote of yourself as an “inner émigré,” a term that has been bandied about a lot since then. Do you still think of yourself in this way?

8As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term… And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space. In my case, I’ve been very lucky to have had a cottage in Wicklow where I am literally displaced from my usual Dublin suroundings and indeed Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988, thanks to the great kindness of Ann Saddlemyer, I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere. “Inner émigré” once had a specific meaning, of course, in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.


  1. For more information about Pound's "Metro Poem" (first English language haiku), see my following posts:

    To the Lighthouse: Haikuesque Reading of Ezra Pound’s “Metro Poem”

    Poetic Musings: Ezra Pound’s "Metro Poem" as a Yugen Haiku,

    To the Lighthouse: The Haiku as a Form of Super-Position

  2. I just published another 'Dark Wings of Night'post, titled 'Tankas for Toraiwa by Seamus Heaney,' accessed at

    1. Interesting, thank you! I love those lines:

      The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
      Petals on a wet, black bough.

    2. Hi! Michelle:

      Thanks for the read and for sharing your thought.

      Pound's 'Metro Poem' is the most-read and most-studied poem of the 20th century. I think the posts listed in my reply might interest you.


  3. Thanks so much, Chen-ou, for all the research on Seamus Heaney and especially for bringing his haiku here. Still I am dismayed that such a learned writer, still in 2008, was writing his haiku in 5,7,5 syllables and starting each poem with a capital letter. We still have so much to do in sharing haiku. Thanks for this site and may it prove to the breakthrough of others for better haiku.
    \o/ Jane

  4. Thank you for sharing this interesting article on Seamus Heaney, Chen-ou.

    I have known Heaney's poetry for many years, having studied his work at school here in Ireland. However, it was only after the publication of 'Bamboo Dreams', the first anthology of haiku by poets from Ireland, that I discovered he was interested in short form poetry, as his 'dangerous pavements' haiku you mentioned above features in foreword of this collection.

    This particular haiku really touched me when I first read it, as my father had passed away not long before and his walking stick still stood in my mother's porch. Interestingly, I hadn't realised it was 5-7-5 until I read Jane's comment. The 'springtime in Ulster' haiku, on the other hand, is noticeably adhering to that format and the punctuation really jumps out at me. However, anyone who has lived during The Troubles in Northern Ireland will immediately recognise the 'squawk of walkie-talkies' of the British Army as they patrolled the hedgerows here. An inspired choice of words!


  5. Jane and Marion:

    Thanks for the read and for sharing your thoughts.

    The use of a small letter to start each haiku is just a convention enforced by the ELH editors, gatekeepers of the genre, contradicting that of the mainstream English language poetry tradition. There is no aesthetic value embedded in using or not using a small letter to start each haiku.

    As for the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, there is nothing wrong with this traditional format as long as the haiku is not padded with superfluous words. Clearly, each and every word in Heaney's haiku is effectively utilized.

    However, I do think 'dangerous' in the first haiku is a little tell-y, and that it might be better to use 'slippery' to enhance the poem.

    Just some thoughts for your consideration.


  6. I was wondering if Heaney was alluding to The Troubles here in Northern Ireland when he used 'dangerous' because, at that time, the streets would have been a dangerous place.

    But if not, I guess slippery would indeed enhance it.


  7. Marion:

    Yes, you raised a good question. This haiku was included in Seeing Things, which was published in 1991, in the era of The Troubles.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful thought.


  8. Marion:

    I just checked out Seeing Things and found out there is a prefatory note (or title)added to the haiku: 1.1.87

    In The Japanese Effect in Contemporary Irish Poetry, Irene De Angelis gives the back story behind the poem (p. 30)

    Heaney wrote it after a small accident when he fell on a icy pavement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and hurt his knee.

    Interesting enough, Basho also wrote of his fall when crossing a mountain pass:

    Had I walked this slope
    tocking along with my stick
    not fall from a horse


  9. Ah, so it was not inspired by life in Northern Ireland at the time. What a shame! Thanks for sharing that. Now I agree with you that 'icy' rather than 'dangerous' would have enhanced it. :)

    I found Basho's very humorous!


  10. Chen-ou-Liu,
    I find this thread really interesting as I too am Irish and agree with Jane and Marion on Seamus Heaney's haiku. I feel the traditional haiku is fine but it is too telling and was written after a fall.
    I also have a cane which is very dear to me from a loved one who has passed on. I think the Irish like their canes (stick) LOL. Maire

  11. Marion:

    Glad you liked Basho's haiku.

    By the way, It's slippery not icy.


    Thanks for sharing your thought and life story.

    Heaney's use of my father’s stick adds emotional weight to the poem and enhances the sense of time's passing.


  12. Below is excerpted from Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll, pp. 212-3.

    Helicopters and roadblocks have appeared regularly in your poems, Were you especially aggrieved by British army patrols of that sort?

    One half of me would be saying, "They're only a bunch of squaddies doing their job; as individuals, they'd sooner be at home in Leeds or wherever -- they're here because of the IRA's threat to life and limb." But another half rebelled when I'd turn a corner and there were the armoured cars blocking the road, marksmen in the hedge, soldiers in warpaint manning the checkpoint. A lot depended on the manners of the individuals you were dealing with. But the truth of the matter was that they were deployed to keep you in your place, their comrades had shot down people in Derry and they could basically do what they liked. The disgrace of the army comes from the way the higher-ups protected the low-downs. leaving aside the scandal of Bloody Sunday, there were those cases where soldiers who'd shot innocent people and were found guilty of it got a token sentence and then were readmitted, smirking, to the ranks. In cases like that, the contempt for the nationalist people, the contempt for justice, told you what you were dealing with.

    At that point you just wanted to say, "To hell with them." And it wasn't the squaddies from Leeds you'd be thinking about, but the Loyalist element in the Scottish regiments and the blond-voiced top brass in the officers' mess. For twenty years and more, every time I drove up from Dublin into Tyrone and Derry, I always felt a kind of generalized menace on the lonelier bits of the roads: you knew the countryside was full of clandestine activity, not just by the paramilitaries on both sides, but by the undercover operations of groups like the SAS. I remember doing a haiku about it:

    Springtime in Ulster:
    aerials in hedges, squawk
    of walkie-talkies