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'Haiku Herman' takes break from Europe to launch book of poetry

EU President reveals a love of birdsong and trees in his first volume of work

As the first president of the EU, Herman Van Rompuy has struggled to make his voice heard on the world stage. But as "Haiku Herman", the writer of poetry covering topics from mating toads to birdsong, the understated Belgian's voice finally emerged yesterday with the launch of his first body of work to an expectant audience.

Mr Van Rompuy has for years published his Dutch-language poems on his website and public interest became so great that he was persuaded to present his work in a slender hardback volume. In a playful and laid-back mood, he told his audience at the book launch yesterday: "I know that I am the only poet among the 27 EU leaders. But I hope I won't just be remembered for being a poet."

Understated, slight and somewhat scruffy, the Belgian Prime Minister seemed like a spectacularly unremarkable choice when he was chosen to become the EU's first ever president last year. There was little about him to set him apart, with the exception, perhaps, of his love for poetry. When he emerged as favourite, journalists branded him "Haiku Herman" or the "Poet President" to inject some fizz into an otherwise dull presidential package.

Mr Van Rompuy said he became hooked on haiku in 2004, when a fellow-poet friend introduced him to the Japanese verse form that consists of three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively. "Since then I have not stopped writing. Not obsessively, but enthusiastically," he said, explaining that haiku were more in tune with his temperament. "Poetry is often about despair, a longing for paradise lost, whereas haiku are often happy, gleeful. The haiku poet does not venture further than melancholy."

The well-attended launch at the Belgian Parliament was a burst of light relief for Mr Van Rompuy, whose presidential term has been overshadowed by the deepening Greek debt crisis and tensions within Eurozone countries over whether to bail out Athens.

Outside of Europe, he is still struggling to assert his authority as the sole, albeit unelected, voice of the EU. This week, he failed to secure an audience with President Obama during a nuclear weapons summit in Washington, unlike high-profile colleagues such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But as he himself pointed out, "A haiku poet, in politics, cannot be super-vain. He should incorporate into his actions a sense of balance, the desire for simplicity and harmony, the feeling of being part of a larger part."

Veteran Belgian poet Bart Mesotten said: "Herman is a good poet but not a great poet, at least not yet. His vocation is politics. But he has a poetic nature, he uses his eyes, ears, nose and he contemplates. And those are essential qualities for a good politician."

Jorris Van Hulle, a literary critic who edited the volume, says he and Mr Van Rompuy belong to a circle of friends who meet regularly and talk culture. "We'll talk politics for perhaps around five minutes when he arrives, but then he'll quickly switch to talking about poems, culture and paintings."

Mr Van Rompuy is a man who loves nature and who shunned the Belgian prime ministerial residence in favour of his home in the leafy suburbs of Brussels. His haiku are an ode to the changing of the seasons, birdsong and trees – a pity, then, that they have been so clumsily translated into English.

Much of the dual-meaning of the originals has vanished, leaving him open to accusations of being a bad poet. But Mr Van Rompuy is likely to remain impervious to the criticism. "It's not about success. It's about my love of writing and of being read," he said.

The poet president: Herman's verse

* In the nearby ditch

toads mating passionately

inaugurate spring.

* When the storm subsides

the sea finds its usual calm.

Fire scorches forever.

* Are you mute forever?

Are flesh and blood now extinct?

I will be your grave.

* The storm subsided.

From a broken branch

I pick an apple.

* Airy flakes of snow

softly land on the branches.

Beauty in layers.

* Frost has now hardened

the folds of winter soil.

Tomorrow it will thaw.