The Zen of Gaelic Nature Poetry

Although I’ve known about transcendental meditation since I was a teenager, it was only when I had a personal crisis at the age of 40 that I had cause to do a deep dive into the latest manifestations of these spiritual techniques. I took a Mindfulness course offered by an Integrated Medicine program at the University of North Carolina to deal with the stress and anxiety I was experiencing, negative feedback loops that drew me into a black hole. Rather than the usual approach of conventional psychotherapy – delving into the past to explore the root causes of one’s emotional traumas – my guide into mindfulness had us focus on seemingly trivial and mundane experiences: What does a raisin really taste like if you chew it slowly and perceptively? What is the quality of experience when we breath slowly and deliberately? What is it like to really live in the present moment, in all of its sensory profusion and grandeur, rather than allowing our minds to draw us constantly to some other place, some other time, some other purpose?

Although there are many definitions of “mindfulness,” that offered by the Greater Good Magazine is sufficient:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

I’m currently on holiday in Nova Scotia and holidays are meant to be relaxing by taking us out of our usual routine and allowing us to experience the sublime, or the exotic, or at least the non-habitual. And yet, I’m sure like many other people, my mind is constantly pulled (as it feels) by the things I should be doing to be “productive” (not least my secondary, non-paid career as a Gaelic scholar). And feeling this tugging while in the company of beloved Gaelic friends in Nova Scotia somehow reminded me of the debate over the meaning and quality of Gaelic poetry written about nature in past centuries.

Caveat: As I am on holiday and do not have access to my library and all of the dog-eared references I’ve accumulated in the past, I will not be able to cite references for the following discussion. I will be limited to my rather imprecise ability to recall … Please forgive any misattributions based on my imperfect memory.

If you’ve studied Gaelic poetry, you know that – at least from the viewpoint of a modern Anglophone – it can seem to get rather tedious. There is almost limitless attention to detail, catalogues of place names, flora, fauna, and phenomena, and onomatopoeic and anthropomorphized portrayal of the busy activities of ecosystems and their inhabitants. Probably the most celebrated poet whose output included many extended texts of this nature is Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (1724 – 1812).

This modality of poetry clashes with modern European literary ideals and caused many previous generations of literary scholars to dismiss the capacities and accomplishments of the Gaelic “eco-literary” tradition. One modern Gaelic scholar (I believe it was Derick Thomson in the ’70s) expressed his disappointment that Donnchadh Bàn’s poetry did not use nature as a vehicle for philosophizing about life or social issues, despite his tremendous command of the language and literary devices; in other words, Donnchadh Bàn was celebrating nature at great length simply for its own sake, not as an eloquent circumlocution to be applied to some other set of themes and topics.

You can probably see where I’m going with this …

Another Celtic scholar (John Carey, I think?) has compared the sophisticated detail and fractal-like reflections of the intricate depictions in Gaelic poetry to the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period and suggested that the latter may have formed a sort of spiritual devotion.chi_rho_bowl

So, rather than seeing the artistic skills and intellectual resources of the Gaelic literati as being “wasted” because they “failed” to leverage them for the literary equivalent of social engineering, we should instead see them as delightful celebrations of mindfulness, of taking joy in the wonder of being in the fecundity of nature and sharing that experiences and wonder with the rest of us.

Now that this blog is done, I need to be practicing mindfulness better myself.

PS. The great Gaelic scholar Meg Bateman also has an article about remnants of the female chthonic divine in Donnchadh Bàn’s nature poetry, but I must leave you to find this on your own: ‘The environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: pragmatic or mythic?’ Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing. Glasgow: 123–36.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Feàrnach says:

    Similar to the nature poetry of, say, Japan, rather than to the Roman tradition of using nature to comment obliquely on society (assuming absurdly, in the process, that nature somehow reflects society – a profoundly superstitious, anthropomorphic stance).

  2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Hi Michael,
    I am interested in this area. My early responses to Donnchadh Bàn chimed with those apparently of Derick Thomson. In later years I have in contrast enjoyed Zen descriptive poetry. No doubt Donnchadh Bàn well deserves a revisit from me. But I wonder also if “description” as such is perhaps not in fact the issue, but rather the poet’s investment in (or infusion of) the description.

    The following is far too long as a “comment”, I know, but I’ll go for it anyway. It is an extract from a related old article of my own. In a quote, Robert Aitken mentions “samadhi”. Let me say I am wary of different imports this term can have, as highlighted in an essay I am currently reading by J. Glenn Friesen regarding the thought of the late Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, in whom I have ongoing interest:

    “Dooyeweerd’s ‘cosmic consciousness’ should not be interpreted as a ‘nirvikalpa samadhi’, where there is no awareness of subject or object. It may perhaps be similar to ‘sahaja samadhi’, although further research needs to be done on this point.” (‘Enstasy, Ecstasy and Religious Self-reflection: A history of Dooyeweerd’s Ideas of pre-theoretical experience’ by J. Glenn Friesen, 2011).

    There follows below, with your indulgence, my bit of writing, which includes some examples of Early Gaelic and Zen poetry.

    Leis gach deagh dhùrachd,

    In passing, we might note the oft observed fact that the poetic rapport with nature evidenced by early Gaelic monks is very reminiscent of that of Zen monks. Seamus Heaney, for example, writes that:

    “In its precision and suggestiveness, this art has been compared with the art of the Japanese haiku, and the comparison is a good one. 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. Equally memorable, compact and concrete are the lines beginning ‘Scél lem duíb’, lines that have all the brightness and hardness of a raindrop winking on a thorn. The poem shows us how accurately Flann O’ Brien characterized early Irish verse-craft when he spoke of its ‘steel-pen exactness'” (Seamus Heaney, “The God in the Tree”, from ‘The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry’, Edited by Seán Mac Réamoinn, Allen Lane Penguin books 1982)

    There are many translations of Basho’s famous frog poem. Allen Ginsberg gives us:

    The old pond.
    A frog jumped in,

    While James Kirkup cuts to the chase:


    In his commentary on Basho’s original haiku, Robert Aitken says –

    “With the frog as our clue, we guess that it is twilight in late spring. This setting of time and place needs to be established, but there is more. ‘Old’ is a cue word of another sort. For a poet such as Bashô, an evening beside a mossy pond evoked the ancient. Bashô presents his own mind as this timeless, endless pond, serene and potent — a condition familiar to mature Zen students.

    “In one of his first talks in Hawai’i, Yamada Kôun Rôshi said: ‘When your consciousness has become ripe in true zazen — pure like clear water, like a serene mountain lake, not moved by any wind — then anything may serve as a medium for realization.’…

    “Tradition tells us that the Buddha was preoccupied with questions about suffering. The story of Zen is the story of men and women who were open to agonizing doubts about ultimate purpose and meaning. The entire teaching of Zen is framed by questions. Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. …

    “Samadhi means ‘absorption,’ but fundamentally it is unity with the whole universe. When you devote yourself to what you are doing, moment by moment — to your kôan when on your cushion in zazen, to your work, study, conversation, or whatever in daily life — that is samadhi. Do not suppose that samadhi is exclusively Zen Buddhist. Everything and everybody are in samadhi, even bugs, even people in mental hospitals.”
    (Robert Aitken, ‘A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen’, Shoemaker and Hoard, Washington DC)

    So here are the two early Gaelic poems extolled by Seamus Heaney. The original Gaelic is the poetry. My English translations are not the right noise. They are but clowns apeing kings. It must always be borne in mind, as Borges teaches us in one of his short stories, that a truly successful translation of Don Quixote would end up utterly indistinguishable from the original…

    (9th Century)
    Int én bec
    ro léic feit
    do rinn guip

    fo-ceird faíd
    ós Loch Laíg,
    lon do chraíb

    This little bird
    whose note is heard
    from tip of yellow-
    lustered beak:

    echoes its lay
    across the bay;
    blackbird on yellow-
    clustered peak. ]

    (9-10th Century)
    Scél lem dúib:
    Dordaid dam,
    snigid gaim,
    ro-fáith sam;

    Gáeth ard úar
    ísel grían,
    Gair a rith,
    ruirtheach rían;

    Rorúad rath,
    ro-cleth cruth,
    ro-gab gnáth
    gingrann guth;

    Ro-gab úacht
    etti én
    aigre ré:
    é mo scél.

    Brief account:
    Stag’s complaint.
    Cold front.
    Summer’s spent.

    High cold blow.
    Sun holds low.
    Short the day.
    Sea just spray.

    Bracken brown,
    Broken down.
    Geese all mouth,
    Heading south.

    Chilled each quill.
    Feathers’ flurry.
    Weather’s hoary.
    End of story!]

    And just for the fun of it, I will include here a lovely Chinese poem. We have already met the famous Li Bai and Wang Wei. But I really must introduce you to Yang Wanli (1127-1206), concerning whom Peter Harris has this to say:

    “As well as its other influences, Zen had an important formative influence on the way many Chinese and Japanese poets thought about writing poetry. The Chinese poet Yang Wanli, for example, believed that there was a strong connection between the sudden enlightenment of Zen as he understood it and a sudden awakening of the poet to the true art of poetry. Yang wrote his own best poems – few of them explicitly associated with Zen, but many of them paradoxical or slightly bizarre – after experiencing just such an awakening.” (Peter Harris, Foreword, ‘Zen Poems’, Selected and Edited by Peter Harris, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, David Campbell Publishers Ltd 1999)

    Yang Wanli’s poem is as follows –

    (12th Century)
    Today there is no wind on the Yangtze;
    the water is calm and green
    with no waves or ripples.
    All around the boat
    light floats in the air
    over a thousand acres of smooth, lustrous jade.

    One of the boatmen wants to break the silence.
    High on wine, he picks up his flute
    and plays into the mist.
    The clear music rises to the sky –
    an ape in the mountains
    screaming at the moon;
    a creek rushing through a gully.
    Someone accompanies on the sheepskin drum,
    his head held steady as a peak,
    his fingers beating like raindrops.

    A fish breaks the crystal surface of the water
    and leaps ten feet into the air.

    (Translated by Jonathan Chaves)

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