Thursday, November 16, 2006

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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