Squarings xxxvii

Heaney revealed his sudden ‘feeding-frenzy’ to DOD (p,325) : Shortly after I came home (from a trip to Rome in 1989), I was pouncing for twelve lines on all kinds of occasions, chance sentences from my reading, chance sightings of dictionary entries, chance visits to places that unlocked the word hoard. I wanted, if possible, something nonchalant yet definite. ‘Unfussy  and believable’, as I say in the section about Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain poems . 

Heaney offers his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the poems: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earth­ier and more obscure (DOD 320).

Shan’s Chinese poems from the first millennium (the sage Han Shan) reveal the subtleties of the Chinese language: a poet who shares name and location (Cold Mountain is a place) – not dissimilar to Heaney’s twentieth century sentiments – a man in his place, his place in him; poetry written in a language whose hieroglyphic patterns can be used to place different meanings on words or even a state of mind or, indeed, vary their meaning according to circumstances (different states of mind/ At different times).

Heaney has spotted a similarity between the Chinese verse he is reading and his current approach to his own work (One-off, impulsive).

The lines Heaney quotes provide insights into Han-Shan’s ingenious conjunction of time, place and self: he has spent a lifetime (twenty- nine years) studying a place that bears his name, in other words ‘himself’; he has discovered there is no easy way of getting to the ‘subtle principle of things’, not least the self (There is no path/ That goes all the way); Han Shan has created a poetry Heaney approves of (enviable stuff) not dissimilar to Patrick Heaney’s line (see Crossings xxxiii) in house design: unfussy and believable.

Han-Shan deserves more than a passing mention. Heaney quotes him in tribute to the merit of a purposeful, unwavering art that knows its mind. … ‘nonchalant yet definite’.

  • sage: deeply wise person;
  • Han Shan: a Chinese figure of legend (it was unknown for sure who he was, or when he lived and died) whose name translates literally as Cold Mountain; his poetry from the Tang Dynasty periodprobably c. 900 CE);
  • one-off: unique to itself;
  • impulsive: spontaneous;
  • enviable: admirable, inspiring;
  • unfussy: not overdone; simply effective;
  • virtue: integrity, dignity;
  • know (one’s own) mind: be decisive, certain;
  • HV 146 In Seeing Things almost every hieroglyph inscribes within itself its own annihilation: ‘The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last’ (xli). … In the light of such a passage, we can see that each hieroglyph is to ‘stand for its own idea’, and that abstraction itself, in these hieroglyphs, is a ‘rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit’. One could say that the hieroglyphic poems, in their plainness of diction (not necessarily accompanied by plainness of struc­ture or of imagination), represent an aesthetic of which Pat­rick Heaney might not be ashamed. Heaney aims at ‘an art that knows its mind’, ‘unfussy and believable’ (xxxvii)‘;
  • Gary Snyder (whom Heaney had met as early as 1970-71 when attending poetry readings whilst on a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley) wrote a preface to the Poems of Han-Shan translated by Lu Ch’iu-yin; the latter paints a picture of Han Shan that may have excited Heaney’s interest thanks to Snyder: … (Hanshan) looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets;
  • The 48 poems of the ‘Squarings’ sequences follow an identical format (12 lines in 4 triplets}; Heaney suggests the format just happened that way: ‘given, strange and unexpected’ … ‘I didn’t quite know where it came from but I knew immediately it was there to stay’) DOD 321;
  • 4 triplets; line length based around 10 syllables; two rhymes but no scheme;
  • 3-sentence structure: 1 the subtleties of the Chinese language;2 closer focus on the verse and its impact on him; positive appraisal;
  • personification: ‘art’ has a ‘mind’;
  • contrast: Heaney ‘s impression (rather than certainty: ‘can … different … seem … the kind of thing) versus a poetry that ‘knows its mind;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the first four lines are dominated by nasals [m] [n] alveolar plosives [t] [d], and sibilants [s][z] alongside front-of-mouth sounds [v] [f] [l],
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;