Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Late Night Haiku

Some nights I have insomnia. It's usually related to stress-levels, and worry. I can't shut off the monkey-mind, which keeps chattering. There are few things I can do to relieve this, when it happens, but the worst thing to do is lie there in bed, tossing and turning, gradually getting more frustrated and tense. I learned years ago to get up and do something: read; make something, a piece of art, or a quickie font; a poem.

Last night I pulled out one of my Japanese brush calligraphy pens—don't have to grind the ink on the stone first, don't have to set up the brushes, they fit in the pocket like regular pens, and my favorite one even uses replaceable ink cartridges—and got to writing. I wrote 8 or 9 haiku, and a haiga.

I wrote about the memories and dreams that were in my mind. I wrote about the brush itself. I wrote memories of camping in my tent, and anticipations of my next road journey. I wrote till the words stopped spilling out of me, as they had apparently wanted to do. I wrote till the tidal push was over, and the pressure was off, then I could fall asleep peacefully, my whirling mind calmed and settled. I awoke feeling calm and refreshed, with a mind of quietness, more at peace than ever in the past few weeks.

why do you give me
this brush made of black
bear's pubic hairs?

mountain village clinging
to the redwood cliffs—
highway cut through shadows

Zen mind, brush mind—
a thousand tiny leaves
make one hairy bristle

little lantern
to write by at midnight—
tent satori

brush in hand, mind
unsettled, sleepless, worried:
late night calligraphy

camping on the floor
of a room that is not home—
not even a cricket

snow and ice on tentflap,
camp stove glowing cherry red—
steam hissing in the pipe

frigid Taos nights
sleeping in the idling truck—
homeless traveller

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Slow gods moving between trees, gathering

Deer move, nosing along the banks across the river in fading afternoon light.
Perhaps searching for a place to cross over.
They are safer in there, in that floodplain,
than they can be on this inhabited side of the stream.
The deer speculate about the theology of water, and turn inland,
having come to no certain conclusions.

Moonrise red-amber through naked lightning-branched oak and fisted maple.
Wild turkeys roost, hop flying branch to higher branch, settling in
under moonlight and fading purple skies for sleep.
Moon rising, turning silver, as the large ungainly birds fly high across the yard
from tree to opposing tree, before becoming still for the night hours.
As it darkens, illuminating things you can only see without eyes.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Publication News

I don't usually trumpet this sort of thing about, but just this once I shall:

I have nine images (they're calling them photomontages there) from my series Spiral Dance on display at the new issue of Unlikely. It's an interesting, lively place, well worth a visit and a browse.

Also, my poem after elegies has just been published in the Sunday Book Section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many thanks to Frank Wilson and the Philly Inq.

It's nice to be published, whenever it happens. I've been getting poems and bits and pieces of my artwork published since the early 1980s, but it remains a thrill. Too young at heart to become jaded? Or just too naive, maybe.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Beneath a Single Moon 4: Cultural Translation

The question is asked:

As English-speaking poets, we write in English, a poetic tradition grounded in the West. When we adopt a form such as haiku from another language, do we also adopt the aesthetics, philosophy and religion behind it, or do we adapt it to our Greco-Roman, Judao-Christian, Western tradition? The sonnet is a classic case of migration through cultures; how does the history of the sonnet's assimilation augur for Eastern forms in Western languages?

These questions lie at the heart of any attempt to move a poetic form from one cultural context, and language, to another. They are relevant questions for translation, in general, between language and culture. Isn't adopting a poetic form that's originally from another culture itself an act of translation? Ceratinly.

Yet I don't think it's required, in any rigid way, to either adopt the philosophy or belief system of the original, or to abandon it entirely. I think one can do a "both/and" here and include the original's aesthetic—gods know, we see plenty of critical ink regarding English haiku discussing the haiku aesthetic, tone, and technical aspects that pertain to aesthetic, such as kigo (season word)—and also reflect the subject matter and tone of one's birth culture too. A lot of the better new haiku and tanka I see in English do just that.

I think there's room in English haiku to do everything from explicit imitation of tone, subject matter, setting, and philosophy—Zen and Buddhism have found fertile ground in the West, I don't think one can argue with the fact of its happening, even if one wants to argue about the why or wherefores of it—all the way to "purely" American poems on American themes such as baseball and apple pie, with American colloquial speech and attitudes. Examples abound in published English haiku journals and anthologies of this whole broad spectrum.

It's how good the poem is, not imitative it is, that matters in the end. A great poem will often break at least as many poetic "rules" as it follows.

So, I think both adoption or acceptance of the original aesthetic, and adaptation or assimilation of the borrowed form to the borrower's cultural tropes, are both legitimate approaches, and both certainly occur. One must remember, whenever one is dealing with translation, that poetry functions on a universal (archetypal) level, too, regardless of its contextual critical theory and linguistic patterns and tropes: that universal level is the shared human experience of life, death, love, loss, mourning, and other experiences, expressed poetically. The root of borrowing a poetic form must lie, in part, in a recognition that other humans made this form, and since we are still human together, we can understand it and assimilate it, even if it is otherwise a completely foreign mindset and attitude. The range of human mythopoetic expression is diverse and broad, stunningly so; but it is all still human, so far. It's a bit of a paradox, but it's a rich paradox to contemplate.

There is room, at another corner of the matrix, for avant-garde experimentation, even when it breaks poetic and philsophical "rules." After all, most things stated in literary criticism (not only re: haiku) as rules are rather closer to personal opinions; as things get translated, one notices the filtering effect of people paying closer attention to what appeals to their own personalities, amidst the accrued constellations of existing meanings available for the adopting. Thus, you can get different people sorting and emphasizing different rule-sets from the same source material; and who is to say which is the more "correct"? No one: they are equally valid, and equally arbitrary, too. One can see just this process occurring in English-language haiku, depending on what sourcebook one wants to follow, which educator, which period of influx, and which matter of taste. I think the fact that there is no One True Way, in this regard, is a healthy state of affairs; all the gods forbid we should have to write within an autocratic totalitarian rule-set that left no room to breathe; that's sets up a perfect pre-condition for artistic revolution.

The migration of the sonnet is not a parallel example, really, because the sonnet migrated within European cuitures, within European languages, all of whom have ultimately the same cultural and historical roots, the same Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman (and Egyptian) symbol-sets, and all of whom have rather similar worldviews. Furthermore, the sonnet migration that occurred in Europe stayed within the same linguistic group, the family of Indo-European languages of Latinate and Germanic descent. This can hardly be compared to the haiku's migration across language root-groups, from the non-Indo-European Japanese, into the Indo-European. The sonnet has not really migrated outside its root culture, and when it has, it has often brought both its symbol-set and worldview with it; thus, the variances are relatively small. As far as I know, there has not been a parallel adoption of the sonnet form by as many international writers as there has been the haiku; and if there has been, it has still largely remained within the Indo-European language group. Do Japanese second-graders write sonnets in a parallel way to the way American second-graders write haiku? Nope; they too write haiku.

Therefore, I don't think the history of the sonnet's migration augurs anything at all with regard to the adoption within Western poetry of originally Eastern forms. This is an unprecedented occurrence, a peri-phenomenon of the shrinking global village, and could not really have happened before in history. The interest in haiku overseas occurred almost simultaneously with Shiki's revival in Japan, and for some similar reasons: looking elsewhere for the revivification of stagnant creativity. "Elsewhere" can be one's own past as readily as it can be a foreign place. (There's a marvelous book collection of anthropological essays on just this topic, The Past is a Foriegn Country, by David Lowenthal.) Two of the first experimenters in haiku forms in European languages were Blaise Cendrars and Paul Celan, and they were part of that whole wave of Western artists who discovered a new world within the newly-available materials from Asian cultures, as they were first becoming known in Europe in the late 19th century.

The trans-location of haiku remains a work in progress. It seems to me that haiku and its related forms have taken root in Western culture, in a way parallel to the rooting of Buddhism in America, wherein there are still many versions of Zen floating around, as Alan Watts so brilliantly outlined in his classic essay, Beat Zen, Square Zen, Zen. There is a parallel pattern in haiku studies of the form being at first only dimly understood, with successive waves of teaching refining and re-balancing the material. I think that's an ongoing process, and may continue for some time.

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Beneath a Single Moon 3: Mindfulness, not Religiosity

A little later on, we're going into the influence of Buddhism and Zen on the Beats in the 1950s. But for now, let's mention a historical note that many writers at that time were reading R.H. Blyth and D.T. Suzuki, especially on haiku and poetry. Though most of the Beats never produced haiku in the "pure" or aesthetically formal sense, they were deeply influenced by the focus and attention involved in creating haiku. This focus and attention is no doubt from Zen: the moment of epiphany, the ecstatic ordinary, mindfulness in everyday existence.

R.H. Blyth was not a literalist about Zen. He expanded his definitions of Zen, in his major work on the topic, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, to claim that art is frozen Zen, and all of Thoreau is a haiku. (The overlap in subject matter and style between Thoreau and Basho has been remarked on before.)

I read Blyth early on, in my teens. I think his loose definition makes some people grind their teeth in a most un-Zen-like manner, but overall I think his intention was to point towards practicing mindfulness in all things, especially in the arts and in writing. Zen is, in Blyth's conception, a way of looking at the world with focused attention and total mindfulness. It is a Poet's Way.

It's wise to remember, here, that Blyth was one of the very first Western authors who became widely read on Zen by other Westerners, so his early literary influence was extensive; he was one of the first conduits for Zen studies between East and West. Does his brand of Zen still hold up, nowadays, with so much more Zen teaching now available in translation? I think it does, in terms of his basic conception, if not his specific liss of what is Zen and what is not. I think he was correct about Thoreau, who really was in some ways the one writer of his circle (the Concord Transcendentalists) who really "got it." Other Zen scholars since Blyth have tacitly agreed with Blyth's assessment of Thoreau, if not literally, than in spirit. Still, there was little else available when Blyth first published his works. Blyth was scholarly in that he quoted sources in their orginal languages. He was a learned and well-read man, with a solid poetic and philosophical standing.

I think Blyth's way is a valid way of looking at "open-field" Zen; not everyone has the time or inclination to sit zazen for many hours, or to be able to get away from life to do a long sesshin (a several-days long practice wherein people spend days in zazen and walking meditation), or become a full-time monk or priest. For the average lay practitioner, open-field Zen is a useful daily reminder to live life with mindfulness, and help one focus on what one is doing, right now, this moment, rather than letting the monkey mind chatter on endlessly about zillions of other things, as it is prone to do.

Traditional monastic Zen has many rules, formulations, and tropes of practice and technique. Open-field Zen, which is more what Blyth was promoting, is total mindfulness, all the time.Peeling an orange with mindfulness is the same path as chanting the Buddha's name. Anyone can practice this; you don't have to be a monk or priest, or take refuge in the Dharma (i.e. be specifically initiated into Buddhist practice), you don't have to live anywhere special, or do anything special. It's a mindset and worldview, and can be undertaken in parallel with any other activity.

The Japanese Zen scholar who is largely credited with introducing Zen to the West, D.T. Suzuki was a great teacher of Zen in America, but he was also of the "square Zen" or traditional and academic school. He wrote brilliantly about Zen, and was responsible for teaching artists like John Cage and others in New York, with the cultural ripple effects that spread out from there. Suzuki is also directly responsible for Thomas Merton's encounters with both Zen and Meister Eckhart; this is the encounter that woke Merton up, to become the mature mystic he later became. (Prior to that, he was a bit dry and classical and dogmatic.) But it's always necessary I think to remember that Suzuki came from academic studies, a professorial background which affected his approach to teaching. Within that, however, he managed to practice a Zen style of teaching that could bring his students towards satori while lectured: a dry-speaking imp, at times.

The argument is made that attaching Zen to haiku is like saying all Western poetry is based on Christianity. The argument is then made that poetry is words and images, not religion or belief-systems.

But one cannot divorce artistic product from the cultural context in which it is produced. (If an atheist wrote a poem about a girl and an apple, many people would still think about Eve in the Garden.) One cannot avoid the influence of "religion" in Japanese poetry—by "religion," we mean spiritual cultural context—whether one writes poetry influenced by Taoism, Zen, or Shinto, or the more esoteric Japanese Tantric sects. While there may be a reductionism in claiming that all haiku is zen, there is a similar reductionism in too absolutely claiming that all haiku is not Zen, either.

Zen in this broad (Blythian) sense mean mindfulness in general, and haiku is the poetic form that best captures that sensibility. You don't have to be a practitioner of Buddhism to realize that the Zen influence adds zing to haiku.

Furthermore, no-one said all Western poetry was influenced by Christianity—but only someone ignorant of the history of ideas would deny the fact that a great deal of it was. A great deal of Western poetry was also influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman gods, cults, and religions; the Renaissance revival of Hellenism was a secular revolt against Medieval Christianity, in some ways, but it had the side-effect of reintroducing so-called paganism back into the cultural mainstream. One can make a strong case for the influence of both Christianity and the Greeks to be the strongest threads influencing Western art and literature throughout their history. Throwing that all away is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Similarly, no-one said all haiku was inflluenced by Zen; nor did I ever state that Zen was the only influence on haiku. But I do maintain that Zen was present there at haiku's inception, and that some of haiku therefore must have been influenced by it. The fact is, Buddhism and literature were blended together at that time, nad had been for centuries. I genuinely wonder if Basho would have made any distinction; I'd require some compelling evidence to be convinced that he might have. His travel journals are filled with references to, and haiku and haibun located at, numerous shrines, temples, and sacred pilgrimage sites, that he often went far out of his way to visit while on his journeys. That alone might indicate there was some involvement with Buddhism (and Shinto) going on, on Basho's part. By the time of Shiki's haiku revival some centuries after Basho, by that time there were no doubt other streams, including "purely aesthetic" or "purely literary" and non-Zen streams.

We're talking about historical influences here, not absolutes. Whatever haiku has become now, and whatever it will become, erasing its origins is reductionist, with far less evidence to back up the argument.

No one has to be religious to write poetry. I guess that needs to be said again: No one has to be religious to write poetry. I'm not religious myself, in any conventional sense of the word. But neither do I choose to ignore the history of literature, and pretend that literature has no history.

And, Zen is all about imagery and words. It's also about action, and reflection. It's about "the mind of poetry." Zen is all about seeing what's there right in front of you, unclouded by judgment or prejudice, and describing it, just as it is, without mental clutter.

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Beneath a Single Moon 2: Zen influence on Haiku

A comment on the lineage of haiku and tanka poetry associated with Zen practice and studies:

It can be argued that Zen-haiku are not "pure haiku," for various reasons, fitting various criteria by which we judge whether a poem is a haiku or not. I could point out that Issa wrote several powerful Zen poems in haiku form. (I revere Basho, and I study his work; in spirit, though, I feel closer to Issa. I feel no connection at all to Buson; I never have, so far. To Shiki, I feel some connection, and a lot of gratitude for his work to revitalize haiku writing in the modern era. Similarly, I've been influenced by Gary Snyder, and his encounters with this subject.) So there is precedent. Perhaps, though, a justification is unnecessary, and misses the point.

To make a clear distinction, I've heard people use the term "zenku" rather than haiku. Zen poems in haiku form? Senryu? But then again, Basho, the principal originator of haiku, was a Zen student, and infused a great deal of Zen influence into his teachings on haiku, into his thinking on wabi-sabi, and into his aesthetics. The argument could be made, therefore, that haiku would not exist, or have been developed, without Zen.

There is a long, long lineage of Zen poetry in China and Japan. I originally approached haiku-writing from this Zen-literary direction, rather than the pure aesthete's direction. The tradition of Zen poetry in Japan encompasses the waka/tanka and haiku and haibun forms, all of which have been used in Zen poetry, along with the more formally Chinese-derived forms. Zen masters, students, lay persons, religious, monks, and dabblers, have all used the waka, haiku, and their related forms for generations to express Zen ideas, kensho, satori, and koan. The tradition of the enlightenment poem is part of this tapestry, as is the Buddhist death-poem. The sense of aware, wabi, and sabi, considered so intrinsic to the Japanese literary aesthetic, are all profoundly Buddhist intuitions. The death-poem and the Zen enlightenment-poem are long-standing traditions within this overall tradition. Masters of this tradition have included Ryokan, Saigyo, Ikkyu, and several others less-famous outside strictly Zen circles. Some of the impetus for compression, elegance, simplicity, evocativeness, lightness, and openness in haiku comes from Zen.

I find it problematic when all we focus on, in English-language haiku, is the "pure form" of the poetic (aesthetic) haiku, and set aside the infused spirit, and the history of the form, bound up as it genuinely is with Buddhism and Zen. You don't have to study Zen to write haiku, of course; but to ignore their intertwined histories can skew one's interpretation of haiku towards the merely surface-oriented presentation. It's like divorcing the spiritual content of Bach's texts from his musical settings; lots of people do that, of course, but they miss out on something when they do. One doesn't have to believe in anything to write haiku, or be "religious," or "spiritual"—that's not what I'm saying—yet if one does not at least recognize that Basho was a Zen student, and that Zen very much influenced his development of the haiku form as we know it today, one is looking at the trees and missing the forest.

So, the lineage of Zen-influenced poetry, of which haiku is one stream, is the origin of zenku. Again, I don't claim that zenku are "pure haiku," but I do claim a precedent equally strong. There are numerous collections of Zen poetry available in translation, in which one will note the prevalence, early on, of Chinese forms, and later in time, waka and haiku forms becoming the dominant forms used.

Towards a Bibliography:

Here are some notable anthologies and translations of this poetry, which have no doubt left their mark on me, since I've been reading them since I was in my early teens, when I discovered all this wonderful stuff:

The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. Translated by Lucien Stryk and edited by Shinkichi Takahashi

Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill. Translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews. Translations by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter. Translated by Lucien Stryk and Takahashi Ikemoto

A Zen Wave:  Basho's Haiku and Zen. By Robert Aitken

Zen and Japanese Culture. By Daisetz T. Suzuki

Zen and Zen Classics. By R. H. Blyth

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. Compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Translated by John Stevens

One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg. By Hiroaki Sato

Japanese Death Poems. Written by Zen monks and haiku poets on the verge of death. Complied with an  introduction by Yoel Hoffmann

Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu. Translated by John Stevens

Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan. By John Stevens

Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T'ang poet Han-shan. Translated by Burton Watson

Afterimages: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. Translated by Shinkichi Takahashi, Lucien Stryk

The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Translated by Steven Heine

For modern American poets profoundly influenced by Zen, I refer you to this anthology:

Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich

Also essential are writings by: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, Sam Hamill, John Cage, Lucien Stryk, Jane Hirshfield, Natalie Goldberg, etc.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Beneath a Single Moon 1: Language Awakened

Buddhism in contemporary American poetry is a topic I've been interested in for decades. I've studied Buddhism, especially Zen and Tantric Buddhism, for those same decades; I've practiced zazen, sitting meditation, on and off, for a long time, although I would hardly consider myself a dedicated or honorable student. Like Jim Harrison says, I don't sit well or often to get much benefit from it, but it's good when I do. So, I'm a sometimes Buddhist; it is an important thread of my personal spirituality, but not the only thread, and not always the dominant thread.

Nevertheless, sometimes I feel as if English-language poets who allow Buddhism (particularly Zen) to infuse their poetry have something special going on, even if it's just a unique take on experience: one that many traditional Western lyric poets often miss entirely, in their dedication to endlessly depicting personal mental and emotional states. It comes down to worldview. It might even come down to East versus West, with Western poetry leaning from lyricism to ultimate self-absorption and solipsism, and Eastern poetry leading away from personal-ego to tranquil, egoless transcendence. The basic assumption about the nature of reality in the East: that it is conditional, relativistic (even in Einstein's most profound sense), mysterious, unknowable, subject to constant change, and impersonal, even transpersonal. Well, I grew up in India, and I've always held that kind of view about the nature of reality, and make no apologies for it. I find the Eastern worldview congenial.

I feel very much a student of Basho and Issa, the two greatest haiku poets, both of them strongly and overtly Buddhist in their poetry. I subscribe to Basho’s direction to his students: Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought. I feel connected to Issa’s light touch about life on this earth, even at its most difficult. Upon the death of his young daughter, he wrote one my favorite haiku:

This world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . oh and yet . . . .

Tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara

It breaks many of the “rules” of haiku—two images juxtaposed, concrete rather than philosophical, season-word (kigo, which marks what season of year the haiku is set in)—and yet it is a most successful, memorable, genuine haiku.

One thing I often notice, in discussions about “the mind of poetry” with other American poets, is how often Western-mindset poets get stuck in conflating mind with merely intellect and ego. They entirely miss the point that removing the ego is not mindlessness, but mindfulness. They tend to think that meditation is simply passive quietude, rather than the active attention it is. They get stuck on analysis, too, and neglect appreciation. Poetry becomes an intellectual sport, and the soul of poetry goes out the window.

By contrast, Zen-influenced poets seem to remain mindful of the mysterious quality of mind that is not subject to ego-directed interpretation or analysis. The classic Zen question posed by a long-dead master, who raised his hand to point at the moon overhead and asked his students: Is this the moon, or the finger pointing at the moon? Zen poets remember, it seems to me, that the language we use to construct our art is never more than the finger pointing at the moon, and never the actual moon. As Alan Watts said, The word “water” cannot make you wet.

Jane Hirshfield writes, in her essay Poetry and the Mind of Concentration, in her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections—language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors or perception open; James Joyce called in epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought "too deep for tears." Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person's every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be place into things—it radiates undimmed from Vermeer's paintings, form the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl—and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the whole-heartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

A request for concentration isn't always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. A ninth-century Zen monk, Zuigan, could be heard talking to himself rather sternly each morning: "Master Zuigan!" he would call out. "Yes?" “Are you here?" “Yes!" Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest and boredom.

Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as add a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples. Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry, as Adam Zagajewski points out in "A River": "Poems from poems, songs / from songs, paintings from paintings." Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as "flow" and Zen calls "effortless effort." At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something "breathed in." We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery as revelation. And however much we may come to believe that "the real" is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if "truth" is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.
(p. 3-5)

Poets could learn a lot more from musicians and dancers than they usually allow themselves to. Too many poets forget they actually have bodies, and spend all their time in their heads, with their mouths jawing away. Too few stop and listen, silently, to rises from within; and then begin to move in the silence, as in Yeats' poem Long-legged Fly.

The Western lyrical poet might raise the objection here: What about a poem being an earthy thing? Isn’t Hirshfield’s approach too elaborate? dare one say it, too mystical?

I do find it amusing that so many Western poets, having bought into the worldview of their birth culture, immediately throw the accusation of "mystical" at anything that even hints at non-rational, non-left brain consciousness, as though irrationality were somehow a greater sin. Such poets dominate academic literary criticism, and have been suckered into thinking that scientific rationalism is the appropriate tool for undertaking their critical tasks. (As if the arts were ever only rational.) This dominance of rationalism, to the exclusion of everything else, is of course where our culture currently sits—it is our cultural paradigm, our dominant worldview, and it has been pointed out by far more erudite minds than myself that scientific rationalism is in many ways the new religion, and as such can be as intolerant of any competing viewpoints as some religions can be. Perhaps this is also why contemporary poetry is so dry, so lacking in heart; or, mired in its own shadow, is so mindlessly sentimental, so narcissistically self-reflexive. Poets forget there are other options, or perhaps they don't want to know.

In fact, Hirshfield’s description, saturated as it is with her own many years of sitting Zen meditation practice, is a completely embodied practice, and not at all intellectual. It is a practice of a life: the Way of Poetry.

When Hirshfield says concentration, it is another term for mindfulness. Mindfulness, in Zen, is the root practice of Paying Attention to everything that is going on, including one’s own state of mind. The Western mind might see this as complicated or elaborate—but it only appears to complicate if you focus on the details of process. The rituals of preparation for writers that Hirshfield describes are rituals of preparation, of awareness: they are functionally the same as zazen. They are not even done for purpose, but done for their own sake. The Zen saying goes, Don’t sit to achieve enlightenment. Sit to sit.

Of course these words fail miserably at capturing the essence, and all Zen students will shake their heads and smile at my inadequate description. This mysterious, “mystical” viewpoint is unsettling to the rational mind that believes all questions have logical, discoverable answers.

An awakened language might be a language that poets and physicists can converse in, that stops and appreciates both the fleeting beauty of a falling leaf and its implications of eros and ekstasis. Poetry is heightened language: it is neither prose nor essay.

In another part of Nine Gates, Hirshfield writes:

Not for poetry the head-on meeting of inquiry and object found in the essay, the debate or the letter to the editor. A poem circles its content, calls to it from afar, looks for the hidden, tangential approach, the truth that grows apparent only by means of exile's wanderings, cunning's imagination, and a wide-case, attentive silence. Poems do not make appointments with their subjects—they stalk them, keeping their distance, looking slightly off to one side. And when at last the leap comes, it is most often also from the side, the rear, an overhead perch; from some word-blind woven of brush or shadow or fire. (from the essay Poetry and the Mind of Indirection)

Towards a Further Reading List:

Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, ed. by Kent John and Craig Paulenich. (Shambhala, 1991)

Jane Hirshfield: Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. (HarperCollins, 1997)

The Essential Basho. trans. by Sam Hamill. (Shambhala, 1999)

Kobayashi Issa: The Spring of My Life, and Selected Haiku, trans. by Sam Hamill. (Shambhala, 1997)

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. ed. by Robert Hass. (The Ecco Press, 1994)

Sam Hamill: A Poet’s Work: The Other Side of Poetry. (Broken Moon Press, 1990)

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Prose-Poetry: Practically Perfect, As Is

There's a secret to writing prose-poems that I'm going to reveal right now:

When you set down to write a poem, and you get into that mindset you use to write a poem, just let the lines become so long that they wrap around. Basically, the only thing you're giving up from writing a "pure" poem is enjambment: everything else stays the same.

That's it: that's the whole secret.

When I write a poem, I do my best to always start from what one might call haiku mind: one gets oneself into an almost-meditative place, a place of inner quiet where any outer noises just falls away into silence. The world becomes vivid, and one notices details and patterns and juxtapositions of images that one might normally overlook. Sometimes I sit quietly, eyes closed, and wait till I settle down, calm down, sink and cool. When I open my eyes, the world seems incredibly vivid and bright, everything as crystal-clear as an October sky.

A lot of my best writing is done right before bed, or right after I wake up, before I do anything else for the day, when I am still in that twilight mind between waking and sleeping, before the logical-rational mind kicks in, and I have to put clothes on and address the mundane tasks of food and shelter. This method has worked for me for several years. I can also get into this mindset on long drives across the open countryside. Music can also put me there, especially classical music, ancient and modern: John Dowland, Henryk Gorecki, John Cage, Bach, Jan Garbarek.

My poetry tends to be compressed and haiku-like. Even my prose style tends to be poetic. But because we're seeking to write a prose-poem, we have the leeway within the form to use several different styles of prose as we choose, from grammatically-correct full sentences, to sentence fragments, to poetic syntax, internal rhyme, to making each sentence into a strict haiku; and many other options. In other words, we can look at prose-poetry as a broadened palette of choices, rather than a constraining one. Whatever style works to convey the poem's moment is fair game.

When I write a haibun, which is essentially dense poetic prose interlaced with haiku, this is also what I do. Haibun can be thought of as prose-poems-with-haiku.

I'm at the point-of-experience in my own prose-poem writing where I no longer feel the tidal pull of required enjambment: that is, I can write the poetic stream without feeling the necessity to break it into lines. (I also write enjambed poetry, too; this isn't an either/or situation, but a both/and process. Prose-poems by their very definition are both/and rather than either/or, conceptually speaking.) Each piece I write tends to organically structure itself as it goes, and I often just follow where it feels like it's going; as in Japanese zuihitsu style writing, one "follows the brush" through apparently random compositions that link up on a higher conceptual level. Sometimes, the fox leads you into enjambed lines, sometimes the flower leads you into a haiku, sometimes the colors of the sunset lead you into prose-poems.

Structure in prose-poems may be more complex than we imagine, on first glance.

A related style of prose is what Amy Lowell termed polyphonic prose. I found this entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica: a freely rhythmical form of prose that employs characteristic devices of verse other than strict metre (such as alliteration, assonance, or rhyme). The form was developed in the early 20th century by Amy Lowell, who demonstrated its techniques in her book Can Grande's Castle(1918). Gertrude Stein also generated some exquisite prose-poetry, although she called it something other.

I don't like the word "polyphonic" in Lowell's usage, being the musician that I am, because polyphony in music is a word referring to melodic structure, two or more voices in counterpoint, and interwoven harmonies and melodies. I don't see any of the musicality of the original meaning in the encyclopedia definition above, and I suspect Ms. Lowell may not have beenexpert in music when she borrowed the word.

In prose-poems pretty much all rhymes are internal rhymes, since one doesn't have end-rhymes in a non-lined text. Alliteration, poetical syntax, assonance, those all work the same as in enjambed poems. The sheer sound of the words to me is interesting in prose-poems, as, to my ear, a lot of contemporary poetry sounds just like prose anyway, when read aloud—proving the point that a lot of published poetry these days is just poetical prose arranged in semi-arbitrary lines on the page. Since so much contemporary poetry sounds like prose, why arrange it on the page? (No doubt the neo-formalist zealots will try to justify their position on this point; nonetheless, one must ask questions of poets about their typography, since published poetry does have a visual element.) Why not leave it on the page as prose? I'm hardly the first to have this insight, and one sees several "name" poets occasionally exploring this same idea, whenever they publish prose-poems.

So, what makes it a prose-poem? I think it's the heightened speech, the condensed phrase, the musical phrase, the poetic image—which, if it appeared in a paragraph in a novel, we would call "poetic prose." (The "Sirens" chapter in Joyce's Ulysses is some of the most musical prose in recent memory, and it is structured musically, with an overture, and an actual use of polyphony in thematic content. "Bronze by gold . . .") There is a thin and permeable borderline separating "poetic prose" and "prose-poem," yet one element of poetry that makes a piece a prose-poem is that the language is exalted, heightened, has the same grip on you as a good poem does. That immersion into another world, that complete absorption into the mystery of the poem.

As an exercise, one might take an enjambed poem and make it a long paragraph. The pauses in recitation can be marked by punctuation. These stop us, slow us down. So, if one reason to enjamb some lines is purely about breath-marks and pauses, there are other ways to notate those. I use the word "notate" deliberately, as it refers to the process of a composer putting down musical notes onto a page. One can notate a poem's performance, using the tools of writing such as punctuation, very much the same way a composer uses rests to indicate pauses, breaths, and so forth. Try the exercise of writing out your piece as long paragraphs, and notate your performance indications this way.

This is also an interesting litmus test for what makes a poem a poem. If a poem can be arranged on the page as a paragraph without essentially changing it, and if it reads now more like prose than like a poem, perhaps it never was a poem to begin with. As much as I often criticize the Language Poets for being interested in surface over depth, at least most language-poems would pass this litmus test: even arranged in paragraphs, they sound more like poetry than like prose.

One could short-line-enjamb a successful prose-poem ifo ne wanted to, but it doesn't intrinsically need to be short-lined to sound like a poem. Why do we always assume that poetry must be enjambed? Habit of style? Habit of format? To make it look like everything else we've done to which we might say, "This is a poem"? I don't require an answer, but I find the questions interesting.

Here is a prose-poem of mine, originally written in 1985, revised somewhat in 2005:

into the light

I should be climbing the mountain, climbing into the cold thin light and whipping air, staring into the volcano’s heart, the glowing stone and rising vapor, should be moving to birth the new life, clean and strong and free; be above the world, bathing like an eagle in the sun, an unbroken cry relieved by fast-moving white clouds, breaking out of the chrysalis of waiting, rising from the earth to fly into the sunlight, the day breaks, you shatter into a million lives: an embryo, a child, a boy running in the dayshine streaming in an open window, dark wood of the interior, the young man lost in dreams, the old man dreaming of what is lost, the man in the middle an infinite row of changed faces, masks set outward into the heart of light. I should be climbing the mountain, mounting breathlessly ever higher and brighter; to never reach the peaks, to stand and speak the first word of living; to always climb, until my bones are bleached and stonelike in the flesh-ripping wind and sun. In the cold and the heavy light, to break free of past and present and future, to exist only as a break in the wind, a point of flame on the side of the mountain, a quiver in the mind of the stone, a wave in the downflowing stream. I should be the tree tossing in the wind, the green soul of leaves with silver highlights like water in the sunlight; the bear fishing in the icy mountain river, turning and lifting its head to sniff the air and stare towards the high peak, and leave its familiar range, and climb; the leopard frozen on the mountain ridge, the edge of the light, how it got there no one knows, or why. A tatter of wind in the sunlight, walking up the mountainside. I go up the mountain. I go up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go up the mountain.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

The Uses of Language

At various times in my life, I have achieved some fluency in more than foreign language (i.e. non-English language). I have been, one time or another, fluent in French and Indonesian/Malay, and have achieved some level of comprehension of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German; I often understand them, but can't formulate a reply. I have smatterings of vocabulary in Japanese, Russian, Javanese and Sundanese. Technical words in a few others, a smattering of named concepts; you can't study comparative religion without picking up a bit of Latin and Sanskrit. I have studied Navajo, but wouldn't pretend to know a damn thing about it; I respect it too much to be anything more than humble. I don't feel fluent in any of these languages, at this point, mostly because fluency for me means the ability to carry on a conversation about more than the weather or traffic, and maybe be able to read and understand a poem in its original tongue. I make no claims to being a prodigy in language, but I do seem to have a knack for it.

My knack comes from music, though: I learn languages most readily by listening to the music of their speech, and learning how things are phrases, pitched, and the natural rhythms of speech. I was pretty good in spoken Indonesian, but when it came to an advanced class that was mostly reading short stories with a slew of new vocabulary, I failed. The words on the page mean something, but they mean more when they are alive to my ear.

In the past few years, I've been exposed to a great deal of pain, suffering, death, change, and difficulty. It often seems to me that our vocabulary is pathetically inadequate to the task of explaining complex, deep emotions. Sometimes, in the face of a personal crisis, or sitting with a sick friend or family member, it seems like silence is the only appropriate thing. Even silence has its nuances. Perhaps no language has enough power to say certain things—and that is one reason we have art and music.

Of course, the inadequacy of expression may be in the person, or the situation, not the speaker. Some things really are too hard for words. Others can be put into words, perhaps, but it might require more effort.

I have often felt, when studying other languages, that each language seems to have the ability to say some things that the others don't. Some specific way of phrasing a moment or emotion that is exiquisite in its precision and aptness. Perhaps every language has something to say that is unique to that language, and cannot really be translated. Yet we are all human, at core: we all share the same deep experiences of living, dying, joy, and suffering, all the rest. So, translation is possible and essential, since it is based on shared human experience. And of course it is also in how we say it, that the unspoken meaning gets through. The look in the eyes, the tone of voice, the body posture, the lines of the face.

Languages have many words for what is important to the people who speak them. It perhaps speaks poorly for we English-speakers that we only have the one word "love" when there are several words in Greek for different kinds of love (agape, storge, philokalia, eros, mania, etc.). The famous story from the history of languages is that languages spoken by those who dwell in the desert have a finely-discriminated set of words for "water" and "rain;" there is also the case of the Inuit language having many words for "snow." Sometimes we must borrow from another language, because it says it so much more accurately and evocatively than English. The phrase I feel sorry for you seems light compared to the weightiness of Je suis desolée. Indonesian and Javanese are languages that emphasize the relationships between people; thus, there are two words for "we," one that includes the person being spoken to, and one that does not.

So: Is it fair to say that other languages help us expand our understanding of the human condition? Might we include poetry in this, in its capacity as heightened speech, dense and compressed expression—particular and sometimes peculiar usages of language—in ourattempt to open up what seems to be a very limited—mad, sad, glad—vocabulary for discussing emotions, and states of being, in English?

Two thoughts in answer to these questions:

1. Yes, many languages do delineate things that in their worldview that are important, which might not be so carefully expressed elsewhere. I do believe, having studied multiple languages, even if never having achieved fluency in many of them, that there are some things that can best be said in Language X, and which are not really translatable. This is because languages do create worldviews, in that languages express cultural assumptions about the nature of reality. (Quantum physics views of spacetime are quite easily delinated and described in Hopi; much less so in English.) Many Sanskrit-derived languages describe spacetime very differently than does English, or the Latin-derived languages. (One wonders at times if this isn't at the root of some of the basic differences in worldview betseen East and West.)

The beauty here is that learning a new language gives a new way to perceive reality, which can only be good for an artist, to get outside the box, to think in new ways, to perceive the Universe with a surprise and an Aha!

2. But I also think of the arrogance of poets: namely, the belief that words can ever get at the truth, even remotely, or do anything but inadequately describe, or signify, the true nature of reality.

The Buddhist comment that the finger pointing at the moon is not itself the moon, comes into play here. The signifier is not what it signifies. The label (the noun) is the not the thing it names; they are linked only conceptually, by arbitrary social convention tied to the historical development of any given language. (Thus, translation is the art of conveying new labels onto existing objects, experiences, and archetypes.) As Alan Watts once said, The word "water" cannot get you wet. We use nouns to label and categorize, but they cannot take the place of the things they name.

The arrogance aforementioned is the assumption I see many poets make, without thinking about it too deeply, that their words have innate meaning, and innate signification. They do—but only within shared cultural contexts. Add to that the idea, also aforementioned, that some experiences are best conveyed in other languages, and you get a complicated mix of assumptions about what can be described, and what cannot. The problem of arrogance comes in primarily when we start making assumptions about meaning as being in some way fixed and universal—when cross-cultural experience shows us that that is a false assumption, and easily disproven.

Thus: wordlessness, silence. The Buddha's Flower Sermon, in which he silently held up a single flower, saying nothing, and noted which one of his disciples "got it," and thus began the thread of the dharma-transmission. The Zen emphasis on non-verbal transmission—because words can tie us deceptive logical knots, and we lose sight of the goal while sifting through the chaff of meanings attached to words. Abandoning all words. The emptiness of words. Mu.

At that place where poetry, music, and silence converge:

(          )

On the plus side: I should certainly hope that poetry never loses its ambiguity or mysteriousness, and never becomes a mechanical system of controlled meaning(s), because in poetry's (and language's) very ambiguity lies its ability to leap in new directions, make new connections, and resonate with the reader's own life.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

What Words Sound

The question is asked: What are some favorite words you have that sound poetic?

My first thought is: The very last thing a poet should do is go in search of words that "sound poetic." The thing a poet should go in search of is the perfect, most apt word, for any idea or emotion they are trying to represent in writing. Poetry is nothing to do with "poetic words," but with stringing together poetic and unpoetic words so that they ignite poetry in the reader and/or listener.

A word "sounds poetic" if it's the right word for the moment, used in the right way, in the context of the poem. Even the plainest, most ordinary, everyday language can, in the context of a poem, become heightened, liminal, numinous, exalted. (Go ahead, look those words up.)

There are no shortcuts. Reading lots of poetry, and, frankly, reading dictionaries, is the only way to go about it. The language is full of fabulous, bizarre, ostentatious, mellifluous words, and it's a joy to discover them. The trick, if it is a trick, is to learn how to use the words correctly and intuitively, with their meanings clear and their usage intentional.

I get questioned, in some of my poems, about language I sometimes borrow from physics and geology; having studied both of those disciplines, I know how to use the word correctly, with its proper meaning and context, and in the context of a phrase in a poem. But it works because I've studied physics and geology, not because I just threw in the word for fun. It also works because of the layered meanings, not because it's specialized jargon.

If one goes about looking for poetic-sounding words, the end result is often that the poem sounds very self-consciously "poetic" and doesn't come over as natural or authentic, but rather as artificial and forced. I have to ask at that point if the word is serving the poem, or killing it.

Sounding self-consciously poetic often involves sounding anachronistic, like an imitation 18th or 19th century poet; which might be acceptable under certain conditions, with certain intentions for the poem; for example, in parody. But I find it difficult to relate to a poem that's talking about a contemporary subject as though Andrew Marvell had written about it; it just rarely works, and it's really hard to pull off. It can be done, but it's rare. Lots of beginners think if they just try to sound like their favorite 19th century poet, then they've pulled A Great Poem; this is one of the classic beginner's mistakes. What young poets don't realize, when they do that, is how they come across is derivative, cliched, mannered, and self-conscious.

Poetry is a subtle art: it's language, yes, but it's heightened, non-ordinary language, it's more-than-speech. It's condensed speech, compressed, intensified language. Imitation is a great way to learn how to write poems, at the start of a career, but at some point you have to give over imitating your poetic idols, and start writing in your own voice.

About dictionaries and thesauri:

I'm geeky enough to have read them for fun, early on. I spent most of the 5th and 6th grades reading dictionaries for the pleasure of learning new words; thanks to a pretty good memory, nowadays I rarely need to look things up.

Having said that, I do occasionally find terrific old dictionaries and thesauri in thrift stores and Goodwill for next to nothing. A buck or two for a tome that you could stun an ox with. I especially enjoy unabridged dictionaries published before 1960; I have three or four of them, all found for a couple bucks apiece. They're great to have on hand. I also have some big dictionary-organized books of quotations, found in similar ways.

My advice to any young poet:

Discover the love of words. Get geeky. Enjoy learning about words for their own sake, for no other purpose. Then, and only othen, you will be ready to write poetry.

If you're looking to increase your historical knowledge of words, I recommend "Merriam Webster's Vocabulary Builder." This book presents a creative way to expand your vocabulary, while also picking up a lot of other stuff along the way. Learning a foreign language is a terrific way to get more into words; you'll find your knowledge of your own native language increasing exponentially as you go about the process.

I can't really provide a list of my own favorite words, because most of them you would really have to strain to use in a poem, without sounding mannered or ridiculous. I like these words simply for their sound and sense, in themselves:


Write your own list. You may never use any of the words in a poem, but they contain pleasures in themselves.

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Consistency (and chaos theory) (and haiku)

I've been reading a book collection of physicists writing about metaphysics and mysticism: Quantum Questions, edited by Ken Wilber. It contains excerpts from the writings of Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Einstein, Pauli, Eddinger, and several other key thinkers in the development of modern theoretical physics. The book sets out explicitly to debunk the idea, taken over and run with by the New Age, that quantum physics affirms traditional mysticism. Ideas such as "belief creates reality," and so forth. While the book shows where the muddle-headed newagers missed the point, it does not succeed in its premise of debunking the connection. Paradox. Schrodinger and Eddinger and Einstein all stated, in various ways, that spirituality and physics are not actually in conflict. A lot of the misreadings, such as the idea that science and religion must be in conflict (world without end, amen!) are shown to be errors of interpretation. What I get out of the book is a sense of the paradoxes inherent in both quantum physics and mysticism. The book ends by proving its own premise wrong, at least for this reader.

This seems impossible, inconsistent, but it's only so on a superficial level. One must look deeper, and higher, in order to locate what's really going on. Paradox always breaks us out of the everyday assumptions we carry around. This is the power of the koan: to break us out of rational dialectic.

This led me to think about a comment made on a recent poem of mine, where the critique demanded that I keep past and present action in the poem self-consistent. This in turn led me to think of those poems I've done in the past (or present) wherein I've deliberately played with time in the poem, and with tenses, in order to move the poem up to that visionary level were everything is happening at the same time, in the Now. When this works, you realize that the apparent inconsistency of tenses is in fact consistent with a higher assumption about the nature of time and consciousness. A higher-order consistency that supracedes apparent paradox.

One of the key ideas mentioned in the new physics, and underlined in another book I've been re-reading, John Cage's A Year from Monday, is that everything is all happening right now. Our consensus consciousness, for the sake of convenience, makes it look like time happens in a linear fashion, with past, present, future separated in a logical, orderly manner. Consciousness binds time into something we can comprehend from our limited viewpoint. In fact—and this is where ancient texts of Eastern religion and some of the ideas of quantum physics do concur—in fact everything is always happening at the same time, all at once, right Now. Thus, it is as possible to redact one's past biography as it is to choose differently for the future; past-memory is as malleable as ahead-memory. We can go back, in effect, and "make it never happened." (I confuse the tenses deliberately.) This is the essence of shamanism, to redact "reality," and shamanic poetry doesn't have to read like a linear narrative; in fact, it probably oughtn't. I find I have no problem blurring the tenses, in my more visionary and shamanic creative writing. I also find I have no problem tracking it when other writers also blur them; so, this is learned skill.

So, where lies inconsistency? It's a vapor of tissue blown in the breeze. It's only an apparent inconsistency. (A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. —Emerson)

I propose, as in chaos theory where apparent chaos can be shown to contain higher magnitudes of order, that higher-order consistency supracedes apparent paradox. You don't resolve paradox by resolving the antinomy or contradiction: but by stepping back, stepping aside, going up a level, looking at it from another perspective.

Most people think being consistent means always doing the same thing, in the same mode, all the time. But that's superficial consistency only. There is a higher level of consistency, in behavior, in writing, that while apparently paradoxical and contradictory, is in fact consistent to a different, higher standard. Our ancestors knew this, and respected its dynamic. Thus, we get Trickster tales, Coyote, Raven, the Silly Mullah in the Sufi stories, the Zen master tales of almost Dada meaningful/random action. It's all to make a point: breaking down the conventional rules of thinking, so that consciousness can break through to a higher, freer, more open level. That these dynamically equilibrated paradoxes keep recurring in all cultures, in all times, indicates that we're dealing with something archetypal here; and our awareness keeps circling back around these ideas, like a strange attractor: never exactly repeating, but creating a noticeable pattern of recurrences. Circular reasoning (in two dimentions) is actually spiral reasoning (in three dimensions), and strange attractor reasoning (in n-dimensional phase space).

The apparent contradictions between physics and metaphysics seem to resolve when one peers through a higher lens. The ideas behind chaos theory, fractals, non-linear dynamics, and their related seem conceptions, seem to actually describe nature with more accuracy than their Euclidean counterparts.

What I write has to reflect how I see the universe, as it must for every artist: recursive structuring; self-similarity on different scales; patterning. We all do this sort of thing, of course: language structures reality, which structures language, which structures reality, etc. It's a feedback loop in a non-linear dynamically-equilibrated system.
Strange attractors occur on all levels of experience. So, when I do the "everything happens at once" writing (as Marshall McLuhan put it), it's an attempt to make a poem into a gestalt, some unitary thing that is apprehended all at once, superceding narrative, superceding the time it takes to read a longish poem, superceding the analytical mind and going for direct perception. Obviously, there's a Zen or Taoist element to this, too, in those areas Zen is descriptive of the way consciousness actually works.

This must be why I seem to be an avant-garde artist, because I am interested in exactly that arena in which consciousness and linguistic evolution occur. I often find myself on the bleeding edge, and spend a lot of time "educating the audience." (Which gets tiring.)

What I find intriguing is how all these apparently divergent ideas converge towards a unified field theory. Ideas we keep discovering. A pattern emerges, or re-emerges, or recurs. John Cage was writing about these same ideas in 1965, for example, and McLuhan before that, and Buckminster Fuller, too.

So, how does one resolve the paradox being an avant-garde writer with a strong interest in traditional haiku forms?

I don't think you have to resolve it, or worry about it. As far as I'm concerned, Rule No. 2 for inexperienced poets is: Don't overthink it; don't overanalyze it; don't worry about it; just do it. There ain't no right or wrong way, and despite what some folks will try to tell you, no Absolute Rules about anything having to do with poetry. You already know this, although we all need to hear it again sometimes.

Rule No. 1 of course is: read, read, read. One of the virtues of an academic education is knowing how to research well, so that one can discover what one wants to read. That library bibliography class I suffered through in grad school turned out to be the progenitor of a most useful skillset.

As to haiku: it's one of a very small number of existing poetic forms I write in, along with its related forms; the rest of what i do is open-ended, emergent and unpredictable. Having been influenced by Japanese culture, music, arts, literature, philosophy, Zen, Shinto, martial arts, etc., for going on 30 years at this point (I started young), it seems like a natural no-brainer to me. I don't even try to reconcile it with the rest of my tendencies towards post-Cage, post-Brown, post-McLuhan anarchist Dada avant-garde art-making. In some way, haiku remain a very avant-garde form, even a radical one, because it demands so much more; the traditional Western confessional lyric can seem lazy and sloppy by comparison.

I'm drawn to ancient things. My art is so avant-garde it's paleolithic. I agree with Gary Snyder when he said, "As a poet, I hold the most ancient values on earth." 

This is not just respect for the past, for tradition, for history. I have that, but it doesn't rule my approach, which is fundamentally pragmatic: I do what I do because it works for me. The day it stops working for me, I'll do something else. I like ancient artforms because there's too much baggage attached to what most poets have come to believe is natural and normal, derived as it is from the art of the past mere couple of centuries. Look further. Look further geographically, not just temporally, for that matter. Look outside ourselves, at what is there. From that rich tapestry, I don't pick and choose intellectually, but rather intuitively, which, for me at any rate, is a deeper, more meaningful choosing.

Haiku requires an openness and egolessness, on the part of both writer and reader, that is rare in the Western tradition of lyric. Most contemporary poetry remains centered on the "I" as its subject and object. (Discussed here in the series Notes towards an egoless poetry.) Much personal lyric poetry is "I"-inflating, ego-enforcing, reinforcing, and props up the person's sense of self, in place and time. How many more therapy-poems do we need?

Haiku requires the reader to enter into the poem, to re-experience the haiku moment, which at its best is a moment of epiphany. Haiku is a Way, a spiritual practice—not a formal, delineated, institutionalized religion, but a practice of spritual technology. What we experience in the best haiku is satori: a sense of Waking Up, wherein we experience the is-ness of the world. Like sitting practice, calligraphy, martial arts, the tea ceremony, haiku is a Way.

So haiku, in the West, remains radical. It insists on the vitality of language, silence, and being—and the ability of words to connect to us to the wordless moment in which we experience the center. This is how it is a Way.

At the same time, a great deal of contemporary haiku in English is predictably reminiscent of lyric poetry. A lot of it is composed of predictable tropes, with little satori. And haibun, like prose-poetry, defies genre expectations, and thus is very hard to place. One feels a shiver of astonishment that in old Japan it was considered the normative mode of writing.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

after elegies

This has been a year of big changes, in the lives of those I love, and my own. Illness, death, danger, initiation, rites of passage. Some days it's hard to want to be inspiring, be true, keep your chin up, want to go on. Sometimes it's reduced to simple endurance: get through the day, and the night, knowing only that tomorrow it will be different. Not necessarily better or worse: just different. We push at what we have to do, hoping to have enough energy left over to do what we desire.

I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on. —Samuel Beckett

In the light of recent losses of friends, family members at risk from illness and surgery, and my own uncertainties about who to be next, I re-read through some older poems, and come across one I originally wrote in 1984 or so, which has been given to more than one grieving friend, and otherwise used in times of sorrow or grief. What good is poetry if it's not useful, at least sometimes?

after elegies

we move normally, as though
nothing were changed.
but the lie is made by the hands
that, filling a glass,
slow and become still,
as though remembering.
and we move quietly, just as if
you were sleeping in the
next room. give us time;

"now, it will take some time,"
they said. but i still
pause in moving, as though
you had just spoken a word,
stepping out of the bedroom,
into the light,
into me.


Prose-Poetry 101

The prose-poem, like the haibun, is a form I like to use a lot, because it blends poetry and prose, without being purist about either. Still a controversial form, that some poets will even deny exists, 150 years after it's origin in the prose-poems of Bertrand and Lautremont and Baudelaire, it can do things with words that more boxed-in forms cannot. One can move between poetic syntax and tone, into more prose-like sections, and back again, at will. I like haibun, as I have said, because of its use of dense poetic prose combined with haiku. Leave off the haiku, and you have a prose-poem.

A little history, to start us off:

The earliest writer credited with writing prose-poems, as a distinct genre, is Aloysius Bertrand, whose collection of prose poetry, Gaspard de la Nuit, was published in 1842. The prose-poem emerged in part as a reaction against the strict rules and conventions, and definitions, of French Neoclassicism. Originally the idea was to write in a poetic prose using elements of language considered more typical of pure poetry: rhythm, metaphor, surprising imagery, rhyme, musical form. But it was Charles Baudelaire who gave the form its characteristic shape and definition, when he introduced his collection of prose-poems, Paris Spleen, by asking: Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough to adapt itself to the impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?

Paris Spleen was published in 1869, two years after Baudelaire died. Only two years later, Artur Rimbaud, then 17, was trying his hand at the form. (His seminal book of prose-poems, Illuminations, was published in 1886, by which time Rimbaud had long since given up poetry.) We have a clue to what Rimbaud was thinking from letters he wrote in may of 1871, excerpted here:

To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that is the point. The sufferings will be tremendous, but one must be strong, to be born a poet: it is no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought. . . .

He [the poet] searches his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he cultivates it: it seems simple: in every brain a natural development is accomplished. . . . The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.

After these beginnings, the prose-poem explodes. It seems to be a form many poets find congenial precisely because it allows them to say things not possible in the more constricted conventions of traditional verse. It expands both mind and perception, as Rimbaud intimated, and allows one to view life from new and different angles. Under Modernism, the prose-poem becomes more explicitly anti-authoritarian again, because it is flexible enough to transcend convention. Even a partial list of poets who have tried their hands at the prose-poem can make up a list of some of the greatest writers of the past 150 years: Stephane Mallarme, Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Andre Breton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rene Char, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrene Durrell, Oscar Wilde, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Italo Calvino, James Wright, Robert Bly—to name only a few.

Not too long ago there came into my possession an anthology of the prose-poem that attempts to trace its history as well as providing a sample of more contemporary pieces. It's one flaw is that it's too short an anthology, and only a few pieces by each writer are included; this is done to highlight the prose-poem's variety and history, so rather than getting many pieces by the most important prose-poem writers, we get a few by very many writers. The anthology is:

Models of the Universe: An anthology of the prose poem. Edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, Field Editions. 1995.

An excerpt from the editors' introduction:

The prose poem is a very special invention, like a chair that flies or a small dish that produces food for forty people. In turning to it the poet seems to put aside the discreet or flamboyant costume of poetic identity and, in a swift and unpredictable gesture, raid the other world, the world of prose, subverting categories and definitions, defying the drag of the prosaic, turning everything inside out for a moment.

It shouldn't happen, this gesture; it upsets the makers of categories and the givers and second-guessers of prizes. If poets don't even stay where we put them, among their lines, then there is no way to account for and contain their doubtful magic, their darting forays into the language whose meanings and habits we work so hard to categorize and make stable.

Poetic innovators and explorers write prose-poems, because adventurers and innovators also tend to ignore the rigid boundaries of categories and rules. (Innovation almost always comes from the margins, the yawping barbarians at the gates, not from the center of the mainstream.) Indeed, these works "upset the makers of categories." But if there is an upset here, the problem is not with the prose-poem as a form, but rather with too-rigid definitions of what poetry is or isn't.

When I encounter a category that is too rigid, a boundary that is too fixed, I feel the grip of death around my throat, around the singer's throat, the lark's throat. I want to ask, what is the maker of such a rigid boundary afraid of? For fear is at the root of such rigidity, always. The usual dictatorial regime that would try to dismiss, diminish or deride the makers of prose-poems is a regime based on fear of change, fear of difference, fear of (ultimately) wildness. In the end, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." That means inner wildness, too, not only the national parks. Real poetry is not tame, polite, mannered, or snivellized. That's a battle we still fight against the forces of entropy. Prose-poetry is a tactic of real poetry, then.

This wildness is aptly summarized by the editors of Models of the Universe, vis:

That prose poems still provoke snarls and yelps is an excellent sign of their fundamental health and success. We are identifying a tradition that is not only fun to review as history but alive and well and trying on disguises at Woolworth's at this very moment.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Notes on Experimentation: Stream of Consciousness

Reading one of Dave Mehler's poems recently, I was reminded of the technique of stream of consciousness (SOC), and its place in experimental poetry. Here is an excerpt from the poem's opening, reprinted with permission:

Fueling at the Pilot on Steele St., Denver, CO

Remembrance sweet routines early morning routine I must have performed a thousand
rituals thousands of times fuel up at the Pilot truckstop

Hook up or hooked up drive the couple blocks from the terminal steering pulling swing
low swing wide sweet chariot into any open bay

Inserting the card magnetic strip up put on gloves stained soaked unscrew the cap lifting
the nozzle off and place into the tank

Squeeze the handle lock it up hear watch the fuel gush release the rubber strap securing
driver side of the hood walk around the front undo the strap on the passenger side

Lift the nozzle from the satellite pump unscrew the cap so dirty so covered with diesel
road grime oily dirt grasp the pump nozzle in the right gloved hand

Grey leather blackened shiny on fingers back of the glove canvas pin-striped white and
blue and thin red—smell of diesel raw fuel pouring in a rush and gush by gallons

Smell of twin-stacked exhaust filling lungs waking me the jolt up ritual two-thirty
Ogalala or Casper four am Ft. Morgan Sterling . . . .

Dave has presented this poem using a couple of different formal layouts: one of them as blocks of text, as above, which can be read as single long lines; the other broken into a more traditional enjambment. I far prefer the more SOC-like version, as it looks and feels more like actual stream of consciousness, a person having idle thoughts in a flowing internal monologue with interruption or pause. I feel this far more accurately represents actual mentation. I feel that breaking such a piece into enjambed lines not only breaks up the flow of SOC, but it also makes the poem more self-consciously poetic. I love the long-line single-breaths that this unpunctuated long-line form also implies: it leads me to want to perform the poem with a sense of continuous rhythmic rushing, with long breaths and long phrases, rising and falling. There is the sense, from that, of the endless journeys taken via truck, the long road stretching out before one, the hum of the tires on the tarmac: all evoked, implicitly, by the layout and rushing flow of the text. I feel this makes for a very successful poem.

Stream of consciousness is a writing technique that attempts to depict the psychology of mentation. many experiments have been made in the attempt, ranging from the continuous flow of surface thoughts written down by the writer, to very experimental texts using no-standard syntax, typography, and illustration. In many ways, it's an impossible task: writing anywhere near to the speed of thought, the speed at which the mind moves, gives us a majority of uninteresting, mundane thoughts. A true depiction of ordinary thought-consciousness would most likely be trivial and boring. There is an art to writing stream-of-consciousness. It looks artless and random, but in fact it takes work to get to that point. The artfulness comes in selecting what to include, and what to leave.

How does one depict stream of consciousness?

One famous example of SOC writing is the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, the Penelope chapter. This chapter depicts the inner monologue of Leopold Bloom's wife, Molly, who is of course Penelope to Bloom's Odysseus; her continuous flow of thoughts is homely and erotic, detailed and general, highly charged, and almost completely unpunctuated.

Another example of flowing SOC writing is Samuel Beckett's short prose-poem piece, Lessness. This is a good piece to read aloud to one's self.

Lessness piece is more artfully constructed than it appears, with poetic repetitions of imagery and phrase that loop back around to create a state of dynamic immobility: always changing, but always the same. The piece was constructed using fragments that are arranged using partially aleatoric (chance-method-based) means to determine order and placement in each section. What I find when I read this piece aloud, though, is that it takes one into a state of mind that seems to accurately depict stream of consciousness. It appears random. It feels random. (Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr wrote an interesting paper on Lessness, focusing on randomness and stream of consciousness, and also discussing aleatoric construction.)

Beckett stated an intention to depict "the chaos of consciousness" in his work, to accomodate the randomness of surface thought processes in linguistic form. In his shorter prose works, such as Lessness, and in some of the shorter radio plays such as Cascando, I think he succeeded in depicting stream of consciousness accurately.

Other examples of SOC writing, on a much larger scale, are Virginia Woolf's two best novels (in my opinion), To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Particularly in The Waves, Woolf allows her characters to depict their SOC to the reader as directly as possible: the entire novel is written as internal monologues spoken by the 6 characters; and interrupted only by descriptions of the waves on the shore, throughout the course of a day.

Let's try an exercise in stream of consciousness writing:

1. Sit down with a pad of paper, or a new file on your computer. A blank page, be it longhand or at the keyboard. Sit quietly for a moment, and listen to your own thoughts. Try not to judge or dismiss anything, just listen.

2. Start writing whatever comes into your mind, and whatever your hand wants to write down. Don't edit, don't break the piece into enjambed lines (you can do that later, if you wish), and don't stop. Write down your thoughts as they emerge, and let them stream out onto the page without getting in their way.

This is one of those techniques where getting the mind "out of the way" produces better results than if one allows one's internal editor to sit in on the process. Getting the mind out of the way means paying attention to your surface thoughts without judging them. Every thought is equally valid, and can be detailed. Everything that comes up can be written down. Don't edit. Editing comes later.

3. IMPORTANT: For the purposes of this exercise, don't use a lot of unnecessary punctuation. Or, use a reduced set of punctuation. Get a feel for how some kinds of punctuation (including line-breaks) actually stop or interfere with the flow of SOC. Try to avoid stopping the flow. If that means writing words with no punctuation, do that. If that means running words together without letterspaces, that's okay too. Short paragraphs with only commas are good. Long pages with no breaks and no paragraphs are great. Go back and look at Dave Mehler's poem above, and the Beckett and Joyce examples, for a sense of style, if you find that helpful.

When I write this way in my longhand journal, i frequently only use semi-colons and commas for punctuation; this gives a feel of continuous thought; I might stop and take breaks, but the text keeps moving; and ending a paragraph with a semi-colon leaves a sense that the thought goes on even after I finish writing; it continues, as life itself does; it never comes to a full stop, with a period, but uses only conditional, partial pauses, depicted with semi-colons;

4. The object here is to flow, without stopping or breaking, and to sustain the flow as long as possible. Most of what you write will be nothing special, and you will likely discard most of it. But don't stop yourself to make those editorial decisions while writing—do that later. Keep the flow going for at least a few minutes or pages before taking a break.

5. Now, after you stop writing, take a breath, take a short break: get completely away from what you have just been doing, for at least a few minutes. Have a cup of tea, watch TV for awhile. Step away, and give yourself a moment to do something completely unrelated. You may discover that you are in a slightly altered state of consciousness, for awhile.

This exercise can shift the normal flow of random thoughts, merely because we have been paying more attention to them than we normally do. When we start to Pay Attention this closely to what we are thinking and feeling, it can alter our state of mind.

Don't come to your writing till you have shifted back to a normal state of mind.

6. When you come back to what you have written, look for those sections—there may be many, there may be few—that seem to flow the way consciousness flows. You may wish to copy them off to a new page. Look for repetitions (consciousness is often very repetitive) and cycles, and recurring themes. Begin to arrange them on the page so that they look completely spontaneous and artless and natural.

This exercise is a good way to do "morning pages" as a daily writing exercise: spew without editing, then mine the page for the golden bits, later.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Obscurity for the Sake of Being Obscure Is No Virtue

It is all-too-common, though, in contemporary poetry. Many beginning or younger poets (in practice, if not in calendar age) confuse obscurity with depth, thinking that if if no one understands them, they must be doing something right. But that's a case of the emperor's new clothes.

Taken to its ultimate, arcane extreme, this sort of obscurantist poetry reduces its audience to one: the poet, who is the only person who has a clue what is going on. (This is my main objection with poets like John Ashbery: there is no way for the reader to find their way into the poem.) All too often, subterfuge, misdirection, ambiguity, cloaked meanings, faux-Surrealism, and obscurity stand in for actually having something to say. It's a maze with no reward: after you have navigated all the tricks and hidden passages, and found your way to the center, there's nothing there but an empty room. There's no there there.

The idea that poetry needn't communicate is exactly why poetry has no common readers, no best-sellers, and is read mostly by other poets. That's a problematic little puzzle-box of a conundrum all on it's own. Nor, however, do I think writing down, or pandering to the lowest poetic denominator in the potential audience, to be the solution.

Poetry that is all edifice and no substance is a waste of time and effort. It's an intellectual exercise, akin to a murder mystery; but the difference there is akin to the difference between a puzzle-box drawing-room mystery such as Agatha Christie's, and a mystery that unfolds less mechanically but more naturalistically, like Raymond Chandler's or Tony Hillerman's, where the writer had something to say of substance, based in experience, and the mechanics of the plot don't show through the curtains. (The reason to read Chandler is for the poetry of his writing, the vividness of his characters and the described world they move through; his plots are often his weakest elements, and they do not proceed via clockwork logic but are often laden with meaningful coincidence.) If you want to simply play a guessing game with the reader, there are ancient models, such as that Medieval volume, the Exeter Riddle Book. A guessing game can be poetically undertaken, but is not at its root poetry. Avant-garde writers are just as prone to obscurantism as any other group; there have always been avant-garde writers who make you see the world in a new way, and expand your mind with new possibilties; while others, claiming to blindly follow the irrational guidance of their inner worlds, present a magic show, curtain after curtain revealing another curtain, and no end in sight. There were good Surrealists, and there were bad Surrealists.

Deliberately making it hard for the reader, for no reason than to make it hard for the reader, is mainly rude. Telling the reader to go back and re-read the poem till they "get it" can be churlish. If you leave no trail of breadcrumbs, then how can you expect to be followed?

It's perfectly possible to write complex, beautiful, musical, arcane poetry, that can still be followed. It's possible to erect a towering edifice yet still bring your reader along with you. A writer like Jorge Luis Borges can be arcane, difficult, obscure, and even frustrating, but there's always something beautiful and surprising waiting for you at the center of the Maze. Borges demonstrates that even purely intellectual exercises can be gut-wrenching, and take you deeper into life and mystery, than any logic-puzzle has a chance of doing. (I view Borges as a poet and practitioner of meta-fiction, not of standard fiction. He is sometimes criticized as being a bad short story writer; but that misses the point, because he was never really writing short stories.) There are indeed some poets who carry you on their sheer musicality alone: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, evem Hart Crane. But achieving that is rare, and requires a good, well-trained ear.

Thinking that obscurity is a poetic ultimate is thinking that content doesn't matter at all in poetry. The argument for obscurity of expression, in and of itself, is an argument against content. Certainly there are lofty and ordinary, simple and complex, musical and blunt ways to say essentially the same things. What I am decrying here is the use of the lofty, complex, musical means that are used for the sake of prettiness, when there is nothing to say. This tactic can generate pretty gardens of words, but they're like cotton-candy: they're tremendous frothy fun going down, and leave you in the end feeling empty and unsatisfied. Marie Antoinette playing Queen in her fantasy garden at Versailles, while the peasants in the streets had no bread. Rococco mannerism: the fripperies of a Watteau painting, all shimmer and glabrous sheen. Poetry with plucked eyebrows.

I am not advocating clarity over artistry, or simplicity for the sake of simplicity, in some reactionary manner—although others have made that argument—but there is something to be said for engaging the reader, enticing them along the journey, rather than trying to deliberately confuse or mislead them. There are some subjects that are complex, and require complex, multilayered writing to engage. But with obscurity for its own sake, that's being complex simply to show off, well, that's purely egotism.

If you have a complex subject, by all means write about it using the best means available. But don't over-write, and there's no need to make it confusing as well as complex. Leave a trail for the reader to follow; or, if you leave no trail, don't complain about no one being to follow you. Make sure there's a chimera or a manticore, something dangerous, beautiful and vaguely disturbing, waiting for the reader, when they arrive at the center of the Maze.

Some interesting thoughts on this and closely-related topics:

A discussion of Marianne Moore's poem Poetry.

Tim Love writes about difficulty in poetry.

A further Tim Love thought on obscurity.

Steve Kowit on The Mystique of the Difficult Poem.

Now, it seems to me, the next layer of this topic is for poets to find a way to communicate their inscapes (to use the Hopkins term) in a way that is evocative, possibly complex, and personal, without being so idiosyncratically personal that no one else a clue what's going on. In other words, personal without being hermetic. (Or confessional, necessarily; confessional poetry is unfortunately responsible for the many horrid excesses of journal-poetry and therapy-poetry.)

This is where language comes in, I think.

Not syntax, not grammar—I am the last person to say that poetry must use textbook formulae of syntax and grammar—but rather, heightened speech. Perhaps poetry begins in the everyday, ordinary speech, which then, through various poetic means, including compression and crystallization, becomes exalted. The idea of poetry, as a Platonic ideal, prior to the Moderns, was that poetry had to be metered rhyme of some sort; that was the Western archetype of what poetry is. Poetry had its roots in sacred texts, and in the epic. (cf. Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, still a relevant read on this topic, if otherwise dated) Since the Moderns, poetry as an ideal archetype has changed, and its boundaries have gotten intermingled with many other forms of writing, including prose, and influences from the East, such as haiku, tanka, the characteristic Chinese and Indian forms, and so on. So, a lot more of the ordinary, everyday speech can be found in poetry nowadays.

That doesn't mean that all poetry should be plain speech. I think one of the things that defines poetry is that it is heightened speech, charged language, numinous, exalted, ecstatic, non-ordinary. Musical. It's different because it's somehow more real. It's the act of putting a piece of cloth in a frame and hanging it on the wall that makes it a "painting," in most non-artist's minds; I could argue this, but the action of framing the space and time in which a poem occurs does set it apart, as it does a concert performance of a piece of music.

So, as a poet myself who is often accused of being obscure (although a quick bit of Google research can often take care of that; research goes a long way, these days—the Internet is a great tool for looking things up), not I think because I am trying to be obscure for its own sake, but because my inspirations and sources are often non-mainstream, non-everyday—as such a poet, I greatly sympathize with poets who get called obscure by some readers, when the readers could "get it" if they worked a little harder. That is not what we are speaking out against here, in this discussion of [obscurity for its own sake] as a trope and style.

I think it's okay to ask the reader to work a little, and meet the poet part-way. Haiku depends on this: it requires the reader to finish the poem, to enspirit the poem. I think it's okay to ask the reader to be a little bit more active, rather than be a passively-entertained TV watcher with no interaction. Great poetry always engages the reader. However—and this is that pivot point where we discover a possible balance-point—however, it's not my goal to baffle the reader and lead them astray with uncanny wit, more-intelligent-than-thou superior posturing, or a magician's bluff when there's no minotaur in the Maze. Showmanship in literature is ego-display.

The trouble is, I write poetry, or so it seems at times, that's pretty far out there, by many readers' standards. This is in part, I recognize, because one of its sources is visionary experience: experience of non-ordinary reality. How do I develop a language to deal with that? I've been thinking about this, and working on it, for many years. One possible solution is to use plain language in a visionary way; I've tried to do that in poems such as in another world. Another solution is to find a way to speak to inscape that can still include the reader; perhaps vision needs to be grounded in the concrete, so that the sublime and the ordinary can co-exist. I don't know if I can articulate this very well, right now; I'll have to think about it some more.

I have some issue with the "poetry is communication" argument, because if we take that to its ultimate extreme, we would never do anything to challenge the reader, make the reader work a little, or open their minds. In my book, that way lies pandering: entertainment rather than art. That is perhaps the opposite extreme from the [obscurity for its own sake] examples we've been talking about here. I don't think either extreme is useful to either poet or reader.

If poetry is only communication, it might as well be prose.

I think poetry can communicate, and communicate well, even complex poetry. I think it can inspire, and shock, and explode. I think it can be what Robert Bly has called "leaping poetry." I think it can build a great edifice.

But in the end it still has to have transparency, clarity, some connection to the life of the reader, even if only archetypally and psychologically, or musically and viscerally.

It comes down to intention.

If the intentions are to honestly experiment, as the poets of the avant-garde were wont to do, that's a different—and I believe it produced a different kind of poetry than the ignorant ego-driven poetry that has become reflexive for many poets today.

Having said that, I still am not fond of the "you have to know the rules to break them" argument, even though I acknowledge that in many cases it's a true statement. I won't deny it even in my own case, except to say that I really don't think about craft when I'm writing; it's the last thing on my mind. I also know, from personal experience, and from observing others, how very very hard it is to let go of the rules and un-learn them once you've learned them—so that one might transcend them, pass beyond them, stop thinking of them as the end of the journey. Far too many artists think they're the end of the journey.

I went through this after music school, watching how all the music theory they'd crammed down our throats was actively inhibiting us from writing new music. Some years later, I know of only two composer friends I knew during music school, other than myself, who are still writing and/or performing music. Craft can be over-done and over-taught. The secret truth about music school was: they really couldn't teach us how to write music, or what to write. All they could teach was the craft of music theory.

Craft can become so internalized that it is no longer at the forefront of consciousness, no longer has to be thought about, and so the poet can go forward not having to think about craft anymore, but just write. Of course, internalizzed craft doesn't go away. But it also is no longer a mental hindrance, either. It serves and supports, without blocking the flow.

I observe that many poets who, young or old, have this tendency towards being deliberately obscure, for the sake of obscurity, are very very bound up with "the rules" of craft. That is in fact all that they have to rely on, because of the previously-mentioned lack of actual content. Examine a poem that is very heavy on craft, and takes a very long and complex way to say something very simple, and ask why the poet did it that way, when they could have done it much more simply. Could the same thing have been said in a haiku? If they did it for fun, well and good: writing frilly nothings can be great fun; but they don't endure.

Similarly, look at how great, complex poems use technique and are still compelling, even though difficult and even obscure. I think of Rilke's Duino Elegies; William Blake, which can take a bit of deciphering at times; Mallarmé, Elytis, Paz, and Borges.

By way of analogy: Bach's Two-Part Inventions for keyboard were originally written as study-pieces, for one of his offspring to learn to play the harpsichord (and fortepiano, which was a new instrument back then). They were etudes. The difference between Bach's etudes and the music written for the exact same purpose by Hanon and Czerny, their piano etudes, is that people still want to hear Bach. No one ever plays Czerny or Hanon in concert: only students ever play those pieces. But there's actual music going on in Bach, behind the surface flash, in Bach's etudes.

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