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John Lundberg

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Meet Haiku Herman--Europe's New Poet President

Posted: 11/29/09 11:39 AM ET

On November 19th, Herman Van Rompuy was elected the first permanent president of the European Council, the powerful body that provides direction to the European Union. The (soon to be former) Prime Minister of Belgium was reportedly the only candidate no one objected to, no doubt succeeding, in part, because he is a relative unknown on the international stage.

But Van Rompuy is quickly becoming known throughout the continent for his passion for writing poetry. Dubbed "Haiku Herman" by the British press, he is said to regularly compose haikus during his daily meetings, which he then publishes in a leading Belgian newspaper.

Van Rompuy's new appointment has brought a great deal more attention to his verse. Britain's former poet laureate Andrew Motion dedicated an entire column in the Guardian to reviewing Van Rompuy's haikus. After opining that "There is, I'm afraid, a touch of the Basil Fotherington-Thomas in some of his work"--Say it ain't so, Andrew!--he criticized it as grandiose and cliched.

Motion did like a poem called "Water,"

Puddles wait
for warmth to evaporate
Water becomes a cloud

Motion wrote that Van Rompuy "captures an idea of transience here, and of cyclical return - ideas which are central to the tradition of haikus. It is a scene of quietness, but there is threat in it." A threat in it? I dare say that comment has a touch of the Basil Fotherington-Thomas itself.

Motion's review did include a few more haikus in English (Van Rompuy usually writes in Flemish), offering us a glimpse of the Prime Minister's talents:

Light on the sea is
brighter than on land.
Heaven is breathing

Life is sailing
on the sea of time but
only the sea remains

A palace arises
on the mountain, full of light and green.
In full glory.

And while most of Van Rompuy's haikus celebrate nature and inner peace (true to the form's traditions), he occasionally shows off his keen sense of humor:

Hair blows in the wind
after years there is still wind
sadly no more hair


Whatever you think of his poetry (I happen to like it), Van Rompuy is widely admired in Belgium as an adroit politician, having pulled the country back from the brink of splitting in two a few years ago. And those close to Van Rompuy stress that the man often described as diminutive can surprise with a "furious intelligence." As an example, when a member of parliament saluted Van Rompuy's recent success with some Flemish verse, the Prime Minister completed the poem by memory. Basil Fotherington -Thomas couldn't have done that.