Showing vs. Telling: A constant tension
Balancing the two narrative lines [of the film under review] is difficult enough, but the real challenge for Khyentse Norbu is how to create a film that is deeply & openly spiritual without, by that fact alone, becoming preachy. It’s a distinction that Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes in the title essay of her new book, Blue Studios, between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it, “thinking hard for all of us”) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process (DuPlessis herself is a great example of the latter, as are, say, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & Barrett Watten).
The key phrase that I want to riff on here is this, I think: the distinction [between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it . . .) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process. Poems that think for you, and poems that model what thinking is actually like (by demonstration), and thus encourage you to think for yourself. Poems that hand you conclusions on a sliver platter, and poems that encourage you to make your own conclusions, as a reader. Poems that preach at you, and poems that pull you in by resonating with your own experience.
Nor is such resonance limited to purely mundane details, moments from daily life that readers might be expected to share with the poet. If we assume that, then all we have left is confessional poetry. All we can write about is our cats, our children, and our sex lives. (Thank you, Robert Lowell and the other so-called confessional poets, for opening wide this door, that eventually leads us to collections of egregious pseudo-poems such as Hal Sirowitz' "My Therapist Said.")
If resonance goes beyond the mundane, which I think it does, it can also include poems that embody deep spiritual, philosophical, and even religious truths (as opposed to truisms), such as what might be the key phrase of dialogue in Khyentse Norbu's film: "the Buddha says hope causes suffering." The film demonstrates this truth not by baldly stating it as a truism, but by demonstrating it again and again through narrative action, fable, and thoughtful character moments. One of my all-time favorite films, which achieves a high level of non-narrative, non-dialogic resonance, is Ron Fricke's "Baraka." (Fricke was also the cinematographer for Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films beginning with "Koyaanisqatsi.")
If film can do this, so can poetry. Perhaps we can develop a style of what we might call cinematic poetry, which presents imagery without (surface) explanation, in sequential presentation out of which meaning arises organically. This is in fact something I've been wroking at for some years now, with occasionally successful individual poems, although my attempts often get dismissed a priori as experimental or avant-garde: superficial dismissals usually based on misreadings. (Of course, lots of poets make that same claim, including poets working in poetic movements and -isms that I disdain. So, let's be clear on the distinction between superficial opinion and critique based on close reading.)
This gets at the very root of a common problem with many contemporary poems, in that they tell you what's going on, rather than showing you. The distinction is often expressed, in criticism, as abstract/philosophical vs. concrete/imagistic. The problem is that telling the reader what's going on is perilously close to telling the reader what to think, and what to conclude (the chief reason why most political poetry is preachy rather than engaging).
Without making any value judgments about which route is superior as a style of "pure" poetry, if there is such a thing, which I doubt, I will nevertheless make a personal (philosophical? moral? ethical?) judgment about which is more fun for me to read, and about which I strive to write: namely, the showing rather than the telling poem. I prefer poetry that engages not only the mind but also the body: the gut emotions, the somatic sense of kinesthetic prioperception, poems that pull the reader inside the experience of the poem (rather than simply describing that experience to you, or telling you what it was). Poems that are experiential rather than reportorial. Poems of the manifest world, rather than poems that exist only in the mind, or only on the page. Poems that can be simply a presentation of images and events, out of which meaning arises on its own, without pedantic aide. Poetry that depicts, even interprets, the world, without over-explaining it.
If it seems as though I keep returning to this topic (embodiment rather than disembodiment) in various essays it's because I think it's so very very important, and because it's no very very inevident in much of contemporary poetry. I see very little showing, and a lot more raw telling, in contemporary poetry, especially in poetry that attempts to divorce thought from soma. I think it's a problem on the level of getting fish to see that they're breathing water: overlooked because inherent; unseen because, duh, taken for normal.
I admit to being drawn to haiku and its related forms in part because the classical Japanese tradition emphasizes concreteness and imagery over overt philosophical statement: letting the meaning arise from the images and the described moment, rather than telling the reader what the meaning is, explicitly and directly. There is a certain obliqueness and indirectness to this approach, relative to much other poetic literature, that I appreciate: even while the poem itself is direct, concrete, and physical, it contains layers and depths of resonant meaning. In haiku much of that is generated by allusion rather than metaphor, which is possible within a shared literary tradition, if most readers have read the same sets of classic texts—the advantage of a shared tradition.
It's possible, I believe, although I'm not always sure what it would look like, to have a poetry of embodiment out of which also arises engagement, empathy, and shared experience, and even spritual and philosophical truth (again, demonstrated by example, rather than simply restating a truism). I suspect this was the original appeal of much Zen-inspired Beat poetry, no matter how quickly the original impulse devolved into mannerism and imitated trope (which is very much how I view many post-Beat poets of lesser gifts, not excluding McClure). Of that group, I tend to view Gary Snyder as having had the longest string of successful examples of embodied philosophy in his poems. I confess to a possible bias, here, as my own concerns and experience and interests are closer to Snyder's than to many others of that group. (Though, as a gay poet/artist myself, I have always found fellow-feeling in much of Ginsberg's explicitly homoerotic poems, even though much of them are of overall lesser purely artistic merit than his more broadly-ranging poems.)
Cinema is narrative and non-narrative, of course, sometimes simultaneously. I think poetry can be, too. So, it's nice to encounter artistic products, be they film or poem, that seem to move in this direction, of embodied philosophy, enacted truth, demonstrated-by-example thinking, rather than telling and preaching and pedantry. Such examples of what is possible, along these lines, are always appreciated.
I think great artworks have a lot more in common with other great artworks, even across superficially disparate genres, than they do with, say, lesser artworks in their same genre. A great narrative poem leaves the reader feeling hungry for more, just as does a great narrative film.
I do think we're verging, here, on that terrain where words fail, and other, non-verbal artforms, really do have an advantage over pure poetry. I'd hardly call dance more abstract than poetry, because dance is kinesthetic, whereas poetry can be all in the mind. I'm using the word "abstract" to refer to disembodiment, I realize, but that's intentional, because that usage of "abstract" arises from the history of Western philosophy, religious thought, including theology, and, therfore, its parallel usage in Western art criticism. If that wasn't explicit before, let it be so now.