Unlike the visual arts, which were transmitted to the West quite quickly, the literary arts of Japan took much longer to get through. It has not been much more than a century since the first translations began to be made, and understanding has come slowly. This is especially true of poetry, where the distinction between different forms was not at first perceived.
An awareness of brevity fed into the reforms of the Imagist movement quite early on. Postwar interest in Zen has since profoundly affected the widespread “haiku movement” overseas, as serious practitioners will readily avow. Yet poets outside of this movement still make their own responses in a variety of ways. There is, too, the different flavor that each country brings to the process of adaptation.
Paul Muldoon (born 1951) and Derek Mahon (born 1941) are two of the most distinguished contemporary Irish poets. Both work mainly in traditional forms, which they have sometimes stretched to suit their own requirements. Both come originally from the north of Ireland, but are widely read and traveled. Muldoon has now settled permanently in the United States.
“Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore” is the third sequence Muldoon has written in the 17-syllable form of haiku. The first, of 90 verses, appeared in his collection “Hay” (1998), and the second, of only 19 verses, in “Moy Sand and Gravel” (2002), which won a Pulitzer prize. Muldoon keeps strictly to the 5-7-5 pattern of Japanese, though his long sequences diverge considerably from what many contemporary readers expect of haiku. For one thing, they rhyme, and in a complex pattern too.
The intricate chain of rhyme, that links to verses further on and back again at the end, is less difficult to grasp than some of the references. Ostensibly, these verses record a visit to Bermuda:
Hamilton. Tweeds? Tux?
Flux, Tom, constant flux.
In the capital, Hamilton, the poet is uncertain of his attire, and the hesitation characteristically complicates the issue. But what exactly is the issue?
There is an adumbration of this sequence in Muldoon’s earlier long poem, “Madoc: A Mystery” (1990), where he quotes the Irish romantic poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Two hundred years ago Moore lived in Bermuda, then as now a British colony, and held a government post. He visited mainland America too, and left a record of his travels in verse. Muldoon nicely describes the scene today:
Good Friday. We fly
a kite over Bermuda.
Our cross in the sky.
But there is much more behind these messages than merely picture postcards. On the one hand, there is the historical perspective: Like Northern Ireland, the island colony uneasily retains its connection with the mother country, Britain. On the other hand, there is the geographic angle, from which the poet reconsiders his removal. Muldoon, now an American citizen, positions himself here at a distance from his adopted country. We discover that one of the islands of Bermuda is called Ireland.
Like this unvoiced connection, there is much else waiting to be revealed in these occasionally perplexing poems. At one level, any reader can enjoy the play of words, the rueful sense of humor:
The worm that attacks
my large intestine has cut
me a little slack.
Once a lichened breast
turning from lake to lilac
was the litmus test.
Beyond the musical language and the whimsical jokes, however, the inquiring reader will find much to enlarge the meaning of other books by this highly self-referential poet.
A poem about the 17th-century haiku poet Basho lent its title to an early collection of poems by Derek Mahon called “The Snow Party” (1975). The poem was really much more a comment on the history of Ireland than it was about the poet it described. In his latest collection, “Harbour Lights,” the poet revisits this material with a sequence of rhymed 17-syllable verses called “Basho in Kinsale.”
Arguably these verses are a response to Muldoon’s use of a rhyming haiku form. Irish poets, being relatively few in number, often converse with one another in this manner. Here Mahon draws directly on a verse by Basho about the Milky Way:
Rough sea after dark;
Blazing over the harbour
The fierce zodiac
It is a small moment, but a large scene, in a really wonderful collection.
Both these slim volumes are beautifully designed. The gold cover of Mahon’s carries a color reproduction of a painting by an Irish artist. The one by Muldoon is printed in two colors on fine paper, and has two of the poems embossed on the dark blue cover in Morse code. The reader will find rich rewards in either book.