The Zen of Gaelic Nature Poetry

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Published by Michael Newton

Michael Newton was awarded a B.A. in Computer Science from the University of California (San Diego) in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1998. He is a leading authority on the literature and cultural legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in America. He has written several books and numerous articles on many aspects of Highland tradition and history, and has given lectures at venues such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Slighe nan Gaidheal in Seattle, and the Toronto Scottish Gaelic Learners' Association. He has also been creating digital content since the early 1980s in the form of computer games (having been on the FTL Games team that produced Dungeon Master in 1987), hypermedia (creating the Celtic History Museum in HyperCard in 1991), and on-line digital collaboratories (creating Finding the Celtic in 2008).

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  1. 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. 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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