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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