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  • Haiku Aesthetics and Grassroots Internationalization:Japan in Irish Poetry
  • Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (bio)

In November 2000, a reading in Dublin featured Irish poetry exhibiting what Seamus Heaney termed, in his introduction to the event, "the Japanese effect" ("Petals" 215). Published seven years later, an anthology entitled Our Shared Japan makes clear the staggering number of Irish poets since Yeats—eighty-five between its covers—who have been influenced by encounters with Japan and its artistic traditions. 1 Although some of these poets have lived in Japan or visited to give lectures or readings, others have encountered the country solely through the global spread of Japanese cultural forms, particularly English translations of haiku. Their anthologized poems furnish a virtual catalogue of what those from outside Japan would expect to find there: bonsai trees, cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, geisha, haiku, Hokusai prints, kabuki, kimono, Noh theater, origami, sake, samurai, sushi, tea ceremonies, and Zen. Writers from Ireland have by no means monopolized Japan's influence on postwar English-language poetry: witness American poets such as Gary Snyder and Robert Hass or British poets such as Anthony [End Page 245] Thwaite and Peter Robinson. Our Shared Japan does, however, reveal a particular tradition of Irish poets engaging with Japan—a tradition founded a century ago on professed affinities between "Celts" and "the Orient," reinforced by perceived parallels between Old Irish poetry and haiku, maintained by strong Japanese interest in Irish literature, and most recently renovated as a result of the country's success at attracting Irish university graduates as language teachers.

In charting Irish writers' encounters with Japan from Lafcadio Hearn on, I focus on two broadly defined generations of Irish poets. First are those with established reputations, who have tended to visit Japan, if at all, as cultural diplomats—their encounters with Japan often strongly mediated by prior exposure to Japanese aesthetic forms. Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and Ciaran Carson, for instance, have fashioned memorable poems out of Japanese materials. The other generation consists of younger writers who have established poetic reputations while earning a living in Japan. Of these, I concentrate on Joseph Woods and Sinéad Morrissey, each of whom taught English in Japan for two years in the 1990s. To begin with, I show that even as poets have begun to travel more frequently between the Irish and Japanese islands during the last twenty-five years, throughout the twentieth century established Irish poets have persisted in associating Japan with a particular aesthetic derived from woodblock prints and translations of haiku. I argue that the younger poets' more extended sojourns in Japan have led them away from this vision of an essentially aesthetic Japanese culture toward an emphasis, instead, on their own experiences of negotiating cultural dislocation and estrangement.

What's at stake in this particular story of transnational literary engagement is, in the first place, a wider-reaching account of Ireland's relation to the world. Although Irish Studies routinely pays attention to literary traffic across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic, too little criticism acknowledges more surprising links such as those between Ireland and Japan. 2 Narratives of Japanese influence on literature in English, moreover, have tended to treat Irish writers like [End Page 246] Wilde and Yeats simply as part of "British" literature. 3 At stake, likewise, is an account of how Irish writers' imaginative work relates to a material world of academic associations, government initiatives, and travel grants. Given that recent Irish poets' encounters with Japan are not purely imaginary, how have their real-world itineraries enabled and inflected their aesthetic routes?

Celts in the Orient, Haiku in the West

Japan's most famous English-language interpreter around the turn of the twentieth century was Lafcadio Hearn, whose books about the country and its folklore helped to crystallize Irish interest in Japanese culture and Japanese interest in Irish writing. Born in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish father who was posted in Greece with the British Army, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, as he was initially named, was raised in Ireland before being educated at a Catholic boarding school in England. After making himself into a writer in the United States, he moved in 1890 to...


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