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 his name a location (Cold Mountain is a place); 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;