Thursday, July 27, 2006

Poetry Chapbook Binding Options

Lots of poets these days are looking to self-publish their chapbooks—often since no-one else will. This is not always because of merit, or ego, although it can be, but because the market is already flooded with printed tomes, published books, and small presses. It's hard to get published, and hard to get someone's attention. The upshot is that sometimes poets choose to self-publish simply because they need to. In these days of expanding publishing routes—including online small magazines, small presses, self-typeset PDFs for download publishing, and many other options, both print and virtual—the choice to self-publish is becoming somewhat more acceptable to the book publishing and literary-critical mainstreams. The primary thing to watch out for, however, is vanity presses that don't provide the services they say they will. In other words, there are many scam artists that prey on the ignorant or experienced beginner. (Just for fun, you might pop over to for a list of some known rip-offs.)

Still, many reputable and established printing houses turn up their collective noses at anything that has been published as a vanity publication. Submissions guidelines, in some cases, go so far as to say that poetry books published by vanity presses do not count, literarily, on one's resume as an author. So, if you submit a chapbook to an established press, you might not be able to include on your publications list anything that you self-published.

My opinion is that, while I agree with that position to a certain extent, as it does weed out some literary chaff, I am also aware that very beautiful hand-made books with excellent writing in them have been generated by so-called vanity presses. Furthermore, a hand-made book is a work of art in itself, so is nothing to be dismissed out of hand—whatever the merits of the poems inside. So, don't hesitate to self-publish by going the art-book route. There are plenty of community centers in many cities now, plus book arts seminars, hand-made paper and binding classes, and other learning resources, all readily available to the interested poet who wants to learn how to make their own art-book presentation featuring their poems.

So, with all that in mind, a few pieces of advice, based on experience:

I hate comb binders. Nothing looks less professional. Comb-binding is practical and useful primarily for cookbooks and musical scores (I've done both, even comb-binding Ozlid blueprint press scores of my own compositions back in music school), hardware and software manuals, and other productions of that ilk. The main reason to use comb bindings is that you need to leave the book open to a full spread to consult it for an extended period of time. For poetry, unless you're reading the book on a lectern, I don't see why comb-binding would ever offer any advantage. Using comb binding on your poetry chapbook is much more likely to make your book look amateurish and cheap.

I prefer hand-sewn books. If you have the fortitude, you can learn to do perfect binding and/or glue-based techniques. But there are also many styles of hand-sewn bindings that are not too diificult or strenuous to do, and that look quite lovely.

I have often hand-sewn chapbooks, both just spine-stitch and Japanese-style spine loop binding (a short history of the art can be read here). I like hand-sewing, although it's tedious, because it looks so good when finished; the arts-and-crafts appeal is considerable here: each hand-made book is a work of art. I've also got a special-length stapler that I use to spine-staple folded-paper books I've made. I also like laser-printing on really good papers; sometimes I also hand-illustrate, or print a Photoshop piece I've made, and hand-color, or whatever. I've made several different chapbooks this way.

My sister has been doing hand-made books for around ten years now, and they're all beautiful. I often design end-papers and print my photos as cover-papers, and send them to her; sometimes I get a beautiful blank book back, with my own artwork on it, which I use for my journals. I also am currently using one for a Zen calligraphy book, which I paint and write in, Paul Reps or Frederick Franck style, with a calligraphy brush pen. I'm also doing some cyanotype sunprints of recent photos of the Southwest, and incorporating those into handmade books with my poems about the Southwest. My sister and I also collaborated on a book of my haiku, some years ago; to illustrate my poems, she did monoprint art, and bound the books; an edition of 15 or so, all very beautiful. I suppose i could force myself to sell them or give them away, but they're so lovely, it's hard to part with them. And she used a dark blue and gold paper for the cover. As Sei Shonagon said in her Pillow Book, "Everything indigo is exquisite."

Some of my hand-made chapbooks are viewable on this page of my portfolio website, about half-way down the page.

Some of my paper designs, used for book covers and wrapping papers, are available for perusal here.

Perfect binding is a great idea. Velo and thermal are also good options. It's nice to know that there are now available all these small-run bindery options. There are also now companies, or so I've heard, that manufacture small binding machines for hand-made books. (The chief advantage of the scrapbooking craze that has swept the craft stores for the past decade or so, is that excellent tools, papers, and method books are far more available to the beginning hand-made book creator than ever before.) When I worked in a print shop, I sometimes ran the big stapler, folder, and binder machines. You could always go ro a local small printing press establishment that has a bindery and ask them what they would charge for a small bindery run; I daresay it might be reasonable, if you brought in everything already printed, for example.

If you're into book arts, and you find yourself developing a love for hand-made books, here is a great place to start reading about it.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Visionary Poetry 13: Immanence & Transcendance

Is transcendance the goal of visionary poetry? It is certainly a central concern. But too often transcendance is considered in an either/or relationship with the here-and-now. In fact, genuine vision encompasses all of these states of being at the same, in a both/and rather than an either/or relationship.

I don't think you can discuss transcendance without also discussing immanence. The two states are paradoxically the same, and this paradox lies at the core of mysticism, and probably at the heart of what we might call spiritual. "Spiritual" includes those experiences we can have that numinous, transcendant, immanent, and mystical—but which are not tied to any given religion, belief-system, or cultural trope. Visionary experiences are of this type, no matter how they are interpreted later in culturally-bound language, description, and trope. What is transcendant, here, is that visionary and spiritual states transcend culturally-bound beliefs. We might use the language of our local culture to tell about what we have experienced, but the experience itself transcends the description and the context. Thus, in various parts of the world, a vision of the Divine Feminine might be called a visitation from the Virgin Mary, or Kannon (Quan Yin), White Buffalo Calf Woman, Spider, or various others. Every culture has Trickster tales. The fact that such patterns and visions occur in every culture, in every era, is one of the markers of what makes them archetypal. An archetype is a universal pattern arising from the collective unconscious of the entire species; we all have access to the archetypes, even if you call them one thing and I call them something else. Our images of the gods, or God, are archetypes. (And not the actual Presence, one might add. The goal of many mystical quests is to see the Face of the Divine directly, without intermediation. Again, this turns up everywhere. Meister Eckhart: "I pray to God to rid me of God.") So the archetypes transcend time, place, and local culture. But they are also immanent, because they arise from within. Immanence is the divine-within, the divine embodied in The Ten Thousand Things. When you see the Divine looking back at you from the eys of your Beloved, that is the Immanence. Something much larger than we, but also the same as we, that arises from within us. This again is a key trope you find in a lot of mystical poetry. Where that overlaps with spiritual poetry is that it's dealing with the same topics, but in a non-sectarian way. Some folks such as the Theosphists have defined spirituality as simply the same concerns as religion usually talks about, but with the sectarian, institutional trappings removed. Of course, the paradox here is that one risks creating a new system, a new institution with its own set of new trappings. The mystics talk about continuing to remove layers of the onion, even if you have to keep removing layers forever. So, spiritual poetry might look like that: it can start somewhere specific, and keep going past the usual boundaries.

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Visionary Poetry 12: definitions, revisited

Returning to the distinctions between spiritual, visionary and religious, there's always more to say about the differences and similarities.

I want to emphasize mostly the spiritual and visionary, even the mystical, aspects this time out. Every poem I write is a spiritual poem; the roots of my spirituality and my creativity are intertwined and inseparable. All of my poems are therefore spiritual poems. But not every poem I write is a "faith-based" or "religious" poem, or even overtly spiritual. (Ignoring for the moment the continuing attempts by the Christian right-wing to claim ownership of the term "faith-based.") My particular spirituality is broad and nature-based, shamanic, based in mysticism and the direct experience of the Divine, so the range of topics in my poetry is all-inclusive. The first assumption you can let go of is that nature is somehow separate from me, us, you, humanity; nothing could be further from the truth.

For me, spiritual means practice: a continuous process of engagement, discovery, exploration, growth, and change; a process of personal and collective evolution; an awareness that the physical is spiritual, and the spiritual is physical, and there is no mind-body dualistic separation. For others, spirituality may mean something different. For example, it is my experience that people of strong religious backgrounds tend to assume that "religious" and "spiritual" mean the same thing, in terms of poetry—ultimately, meaning doctrinal and dogmatic conformity, no matter else is said—when in fact they don't have to mean the same thing, and often do not, and will not. Nevertheless, the tendency to conflate "spiritual" and "religious" is a tendency common to many poets of the religious mainstream and fringe alike. The problem is: many such poets tend to also conflate how well they state their beliefs in the poem, with literary quality. Again, nothing couuld be further from the truth.

I'll be honest: I do indeed find many "faith-based" or overtly religious poems to be lacking something, AS POEMS, because there often occurs in such poems the collapse of the literary-critical intelligence into a dogmatic or doctrinal restatement of faith. (I am not picking on any particular faith; I see the same thing happen in poems that come from many different religious backgrounds.) Many faith-based poems are witnesses, credos, or screeds, and as such they tend to repeat or restate, rather than giving a fresh perspective or a fresh insight. Their most common failing, AS POEMS, is the resortment to cliché to make a familiar point, which the poet often assumes the reader already knows about, and agrees with. Especially when the poet assumes that all readers share their particular faith, or know all of its details. This sort of poetry is, literally, preaching to the choir. It might be fine when in fact one is presenting the poem to those who agree with one's own faith; but it can be a problem when one presents the poem, AS A POEM, in a purely literary-critical context.

It is quite possible to read any religious tradition's sacred texts as literature, and study them, as literature, without believing any of the doctrine of faith presented in that same sacred text. This is quite possible, and people do it all the time, when looking at sacred texts from faiths other than their own. (The dialogue between Judaism and Buddhism has been interesting to follow, in recent years, and there are numerous books on the topic from both perspectives.) The problem arises when one drops one's literary-critical faculties when regarding the sacred texts of one's own faith, whatever that faith may be, and gives the text a free pass in terms of literary and technical standards of writing, not excluding grammar, spelling, and the elements of style. There are many overtly religious poetry boards out there on the Web; the quality of writing on viritually every one of these boards is abyssmal.

This situation is very parallel to the situation wherein a poet posts a therapy-poem or a journal-poem that means a great deal to them, personally, because it records a psychological or emotional crisis they went through (or may still be going through), and then the poet gets upset when someone criticizes the poem, AS A POEM—in other words, they make the common mistake of all, in confusing critiques on the poem with personal attacks on the poet. This is the most common problem that I have seen occurring in discussions of spiritual, religious, or visionary poetry, here and elsewhere. My experience has been that many faith-based poems do share many of the same problems, AS POEMS, as journal-poems and therapy-poems, because many such poems spring forth from the same wellspring: the narrative of witness.

It is perhaps too easy to take a comment ABOUT THE POEM personally, when the poem is written about one's own faith, and one therefore naturally cares deeply about the contents of the poem.The resort to defensiveness about one's own faith-based poems is a constant source of contention, misunderstanding, and argument, wherever one sees a faith-based poem posted; this is rooted in the reality that the underlying assumption that the poet makes is that most readers will share the poet's own faith, and agree with the poet about fiath. Argument arises when not everyone falls into the same boat.

But the poet who posts a faith-based poem must be aware of the same rules of literary criticism that apply to all poetry, faith-based or otherwise: If you cannot honestly act objectively about your own faith-based poems, AS POEMS, then I guarantee you get will critiques OF THE POEMS that you don't want to hear. If you assume that "faith" means your own faith, and forget that not everyone out there shares it—especially in the context of a large-membership, free-wheeling, internet poetry board—you are going to run into this problem. There are many people who are generally interested in the poems, AS POEMS, and who will be civil and courteous in their critiques; but the poet must also be civil and courteous in their response, for a discussion to continue. Everyone involved is responsible for the tone of the discussion.

It is quite true that some readers will be excluded from completely understanding certain spiritual, religious, or visionary poems, simply because they might not know the details of a theological, doctrinal, or faith-based concept as reflected in the poem. This is an inherent problem with "insider poetry," of any kind or genre, and is as common when discussing Language Poetry as it is when discussing faith-based poetry. I am not opposed to some readers being excluded in this way—it is simply something they can go look up, if they're interested, just as they can go look up the details of a little-known Greek myth—but what one occasionally does find, on the part of some faith-based poets, is an unwillingness to engage in a discussion, ABOUT THE POEM, as to whether or not the poem succeeds in getting the idea across. Some faith-based poets just state something and let it drop like a brick, and blink in incomprehension when a critique points out an alternative way of presenting the idea, or asks a question on a doctrinal point that might seem obvious to an insider, but isn't obvious to an outsider.

This can lead to dismissive responses. "What, you didn't already know all that? What are you, stupid?" I see that often, in discussion threads about religious poems. The poet, in such cases, might need to let go of their assumption that everyone reading the poem might know all the details of the poet's faith. Again, this is also true when a critique asks whether or not the poem succeeds in presenting the concept clearly and effectively, AS A POEM.

I'll be blunt here, and say what I'm sure some people are already thinking: This is the real reason you don't see too many purely spiritual-poetry forums on poetry boards dedicated primarily to quality-of-writing and literary critique: discussions get too contentious, people get bristly, sometimes even a provocateur shows up who is maliciously disruptive, and everyone gets upset, people leave in a huff, and emotions run very very high, causing months of disruption to a previously smooth-running board. I have seen this disrupt boards. I have seen this kill and destroy previously wonderful poetry boards.

It is similar to the situation that happens whenever a poet's ego gets too bound up with the poem. As a sign at the entrance of a martial arts dojo once said, in the area where one leaves one's street clothes: "Leave your ego with your shoes." That's wise advice, at all times.

Getting back to definitions, then, I am comfortable conflating "spiritual" and "mystical" with regard to poetry, because the thread of mysticism that runs through all the world's cultures and religions is a unitary thread. if there is any thread of spiritual experience and writing that seems universal, and a human birthright in all times and places, it is the mystical experience. I find it fascinating that many of the mystics, of whatever time, culture, or religious background, all say some essentially similar things. I tend to believe that the heart of all the established religions, even the ones that have gone astray, was a revelation of divine compassion: a mystical vision. The same mystical principles, we might even call them spiritual laws, are present in the root traditions of all the worlds major religions, and often in remarkably similar language. One wonder where they all went astray, after that.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Poetry Is Not Prose

How many times do we have to say that? Poetry is not prose, and doesn't have to obey the same rules as prose. Prose grammar and punctuation are not necessarily pertinent to poetry. Yet there are constant picky grammarians who never seem to get it. Perhaps it's a litmus test, for whosoever insists on prose grammar in poetry is also likely to be writing poetry that is very prosaic, and except for enjambment, might as well be prose. Examples abound.

On punctuation, I'll say it again: the rules of prose grammar do not necessarily apply to poetry. Poetry, again, is not prose. One can hear the grammarians already raising their hands to object, but that's the simple truth in a nutshell. They're not the same, and they are not to be treated indentically. One of the problems with so much bad poetry being written nowadays that reads and sounds exactly like prose, except for being broken into odd lines on the page, is that too many poets have actually being listening to these grammatical purists and their bad advice. That, and of course the problem that many people don't realize that free verse also doesn't mean the same thing as prose. But I digress.

Many poets use punctuation of various kinds to indicate breath marks, pauses, breaks in the flow of reading, short lines, long linesa—all of these indicate how the piece is to be read. Some poems deliberately use "non-standard" punctuation to notate the way the piece should be read out loud, in much the same way musical performance is notated. Obviously, line-breaks and stanza-breaks also affect this, too. The bottom line is: punctuation is another poetic tool, but it doesn't have to be used in the same way that we're expected to use it in prose.

Poetry is music with language: it's meant to have rhythm, cadence, melody, and harmony, including harmonc resonance, in ways that prose does not always use. (Let's ignore, for the momentary sake of argument, the venerable prose-poem, one of my favorite literary forms, and which breaks many of these rules.) Dry prose is not supposed to sing. It is wonderufl when it does. But poetry takes it to another level: poetry is heightened, exalted, brought to life. It's more than prose. A poem can pack layers of meaning into a few simple images and words that might take a paragraph of prose to describe. Basho can be just as resonant and evocative as Proust; their methods are different, but their goals, and their achievements, and not so very dissimilar. Poetry is condensed, compressed, layered, compact language. Prose doesn't have to be.

Poetry is not prose. Quit trying to make it into prose.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Visionary Poetry 11: An exemplary poet

Robinson Jeffers.

I am always looking for the transhuman in nature. I sense a vast indifference, in the cosmos, to what we so egotistically call things that matter—things that matter to us, perhaps, but not necessarily to Nature. I have often found a kindred spirit, albeit an occasionally extremist one, in the early founders and writers of the Sierra Club, David Brower, Ansel Adams, even Edward Abbey. (Although I have written before, in a review of Desert Solitaire, that Abbey is at his best when he just describes nature, and at his worst when he shares his opinions about anything with the reader.) Since I arrived in California, haunting the various Goodwill stores around the East Bay, I have found numerous volumes from the 1960s and 70s published by the Sierra Club, mostly edited by David Brower. A lot of these are coffee-table trade paperbacks, richly illustrated with photos of nature, and some are well-known now, others less so. I have several books now that are quotes from various sources accompanying the photographs of Elliot Porter, who has been rapidly becoming a favorite photo-mentor of mine, as I artistically follow in his footsteps.

Now, I find and read a book based on the writings of Robinson Jeffers, Not Man Apart, which is all his poems and photos by various artists of the Big Sur countryside, and I find a kindred spirit in there. Jeffers once wrote about his philosophy:

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty. —from the Preface to The Double Axe (1948)

More on Jeffers' viewpoint, by William Everson:

And like an intrepid desert prophet he set about the correction, writing poems which were massive acts of confrontation, exhortation, and persuasion. He confronted human pride with the facts of human abjectness, he exhorted human complacency with acts of religious arousal, and he persuaded of human folly by appeal to transhuman relevance. Thus he sought to wrench man's attention from his own self-deceptions, and fasten his soul upon the naked divinity manifest in the cosmos. This is a familiar enough religious tactic, but Jeffers' employment of it is extraordinary. Nineteenth-century science had presented Nietzsche with a universe in which there was no place left for God. Twentieth-century science presented Jeffers with a universe in which there is no place left for man.

For unquestionably it was science that provided him with the objectivity, and hence the authority, to effect the religious mission he claimed for his own-particularly the sciences of astronomy and physics. Between those two millstones, the galaxy and the molecule, he pulverized human complacency to reveal man's insignificance to man. Whereas religious humanists like T. S. Eliot resisted the tendency of science to displace humanity from the center of things, Jeffers welcomed it and, moreover, celebrated it. He turned the employ of science back from the proliferation of creature comforts to religious contemplation; and what it contemplated was virtually ungraspable, a vision "measureless to man."

I find this an increasingly congenial viewpoint, and I think Jeffers' attitude towards the larger world, whatever we might make, nowadays, of his poetry itself, is worth re-visiting. It contains a visionary spirit of looking beyond the everyday pettiness of human concerns and self-conscious self-awareness, to something larger, more potent, more eternal. It is, in some ways, an almost religious impulse.

But even as it is transhuman, it must also include the human. Jeffers writes:

. . . the greatest beauty is organic wholeness,
the wholeness of life and thigns,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that. . .

He is saying: We are not separate from That, we are not apart from it. In loving the world, we must also love ourselves—but as part of the world, not above it or in dominion over it (as some would have us be), but as an element of the whole, to be equally loved as part and parcel of the whole itself.

Like Loren Eiseley, who also wrote an Introduction to Not Man Apart, Jeffers writes about science, and stars, stones, evolution, and so forth. But also like Eiseley, he en-spirits what he writes about, he gives us the myths and the magic, and makes us understand why we should care about the souls of stars and deer alike. It's a way of looking at the world still too rare among Western poets, a way still mocked by the urban literati who have never slept out under the stars, cold by a dying campfire, coyotes howling in the distance. I find it conrinuously amazing how unfashionable this particular brand of nature-based visionary poetry remains, even now, among poets—even now among American haiku poets, who should be invested in this worldview like no others have been before them—unfashionable because it's subject is not the self, not personal drama, not confessionalism. It's a poetry not emotive in stereotypical manner, not personal or human enough to be sentimental. It is indeed transpersonal, archetypal, and mythic in scale, always remembering the humans went before us (Gary Snyder writes about his poetic roots being in the Paleolithic, not the Modern), and those who will come after us—a viewpoint of geologic and astrometric time, rather than political or social time. Perhaps it will always be unfashionable; but it is profound, and necessary, and essential for our survival as individuals and as a species.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Visionary Poetry 10: Embodiment

A merely psychological explanation for visionary poetry is no explanation. The body has to be included.

Nonetheless, I reject the idea of biological determinism, the idea that consciousness consists only of the brain and biochemistry. I reject the notion that all things human can be reduced to biochemical triggers. Neurological medicine has become dominated by the purely mechanistic viewpoint, and I think that's a tragedy. Consciousness is what in cognitive studies and artificial intelligence studies they refer to as an emergent phenomenon: a synergistic result that is more than the sum of its parts.

There is also the holographic paradigm, as seen in laser holography: every part of the finished image contains the whole image, but the smaller the part, the more fuzzy the image is; full resolution can only be obtained from the whole. (Break up a developed hologram slide into smaller parts, and every part contains the whole image, but the focus gets fuzzier the smaller the part gets.) Lay a neuron on the table, and show me what part of my mind and soul it is? You can't; no one can.

I think neuroscience is a red herring, when we talk about visionary states. I think you can make a case for the brain and the mind interacting, and reflecting one another. The brain-mind system is recursive, and integrated. But even though we know that brain chemistry affects mood, state of mind, and so forth, it still does not account for the emergent phenomenon of consciousness. Brain chemistry by itself is an incomplete picture of what's really going on.

The left-brain/right-brain hemispheric model is an interesting model of consciusness functions, but it is not after all reflected all that strongly in the actual brain. Since this model was originally proposed, following early PET scan research in the 1970s and 1980s, when for example it was noticed that the left hindbrain "lit up" during linguistic activity—since then, more research has been done, a lot more detailed active-scan photos have been taken, with higher resolution, and it turns out these hemispheric functions are in fact more diffuse, and more generally distributed than the early, crude (low resolution) images made them appear to be. Another example of an early model based on poor data. The hemispheric concept has entered the folklore now, though, and may even have descended to the level of myth or archetype. Western discourse has a strong tendency to model everything as a binary polarity in opposition, from heaven/hell to god/man to man/woman to left-brain/right-brain. It's no wonder then that the hemispheric brain model would then become part of the folklore.

But folklore doesn't always reflect detailed, accurate science.

I read a book several years ago with a truly hefty title, that was nonetheless a real page-turner, proposing a hemispheric model for the history of human consciousness; this theory has largely been supplanted or refuted, but the book itself remains one of the better-written science volumes of all time, and still reads well as literature: Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

What I find so interesting about materialistic, reductionistic explanations of human consciousness as nothing more than biochemistry is how ridiculously far out on a limb they go to try to explain things like near-death experiences as simple oxygen starvation. Even if one could account for spiritual experiences as simple brain dysfunctions—the similarities between some mild forms of epilepsy and shamanism have been noted before—one cannot account for the emotional and spiritual impact these experience have on the minds and hearts of the people who survive them. Oxygen starvation cannot in and of itself account for the peacefulness many NDE surviviors describe, or their changed attitudes towards life and death, after their return.

What I find intriguing is the reversal of attitudes in the sciences themselves. 150 years ago, physics was a completely mechanistic (Newtonian) and deterministic field, while biology presented a more spiritual, organic, near-mystical worldview. Now, 150 years later, those worldviews have become completely reversed! Physics, since the advent of atomic physics, quantum mechanics, and string theory, has as one of its root tenets the concept that the consciousness of the observer directly affects the outcome of the experiment; while biology has become completely dominated by the deterministic, mechanistic, biochemical worldview.  (cf. Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake, Natural Grace: Dialogues on creation, darkness, and the soul in spirituality and science)

I find this flip in worldviews in biology to be particularly ironic, when it isn't purely alarming. Since, after all, physical principles, the universe's physical laws, ultimately underlie biology—we are all made of elementary particles, or star-stuff, of the same elements as everything else in the Universer—it's particularly blind of biology, it seems to me, to adopt a totally mechanistic worldview, when everything they are studying is ultimately based on physics.

The observer rule in theoretical physics seems to imply a direct connection between consciousness and the fabric of spacetime, albeit not a deterministic one—physical determinism is based on the idea that the creation of consciousness only flows one way, from matter towards mind; the observer rule contradicts that, showing that the information flow goes both ways, since mind can affect matter—thus, the observer rule implies that consciousness, even if it is an emergent phenomenon, is able to affect that which it emerges from.

There have been a few brain-mind studies that have shown that experienced meditators can affect the structure and chemistry of their own brains. A study of Tibetan monks has validated these conclusions, and linked strong theta-wave function in the EEG of a meditating monk to alterations in brain neurochemistry. So much for one-way determinism. Even if one argues that these are exceptional cases, it remains true that they are within the realm of human possibility, therefore, anyone who really wanted to, could do it, too—therefore, determinism is not in operation, because one exception to a deterministic rule means that the rule needs to be re-formulated.

Therefore, even if visionary states are reflected in brain chemistry, there is still something else going on. Something that science might be able to explain someday, but that it cannot at this time. Emergent properties are syngeristic, more than the sum of their parts, and transcendant of their origins. We cannot explain what our own consciousness is, even as we experience it.

Many neuroscientists appear to want to dsiprove the existence of spirit or soul—they are in some extreme cases rabidly anti-mysticism—but they are hampered by the nature of the question: You cannot definitely prove a negative. You cannot prove that something does not exist, because you would have to have analysed and catalogued the entire universe before you could definitively state that—and the universe is very large, resisting comprehension by the single human mind. (Try to imagine the time-span of a million years, much less a billion. Geologists get used to working in deep time, as they call it, but it requires an imaginative effort that I have noticed can sometimes impair their ability to cope with the here-and-now of the present moment.) Astrophysicists and astronomers continue to discover new and bizarre phenomena on a regular basis; the skies are full of wonder. How then, should the human spirit be less wondrous?

The truth of vision remains an open, unanswered, equivocal question. It remains an issue of qualitative study, rather than a subject of quantitative analysis.


I don't think it's necessary to "explain" visionary states as psychopathology or neuropathology, as it then becomes all too easy to explain them away. Exalted state or food-poisoning? People who want to believe only one of those choices will not be easily convinced of the other choice also being present. While the turn towards ratonal science in the 17th century, and away from Medieval mysticism, was in part prompted by the Church's attempts to stifle heresy, and as such was a justifiable endeavour, scientific rationalism is and never has been the root of all knowledge. (Newton also studied alchemy and astrology, for example.) So, I find the attempt to rationalize visionary experiences as products of either cognitive or neurological causes to equally miss the point.

You see, reducing visionary states to psychological dysfunctions is no better than reducing them to neurological dysfunctions. There is something missing in all such reductionist thinking‚—and that is the quality of the experience, and the effect it has on the experiencer, short-term and long-term both. Even most brands of modern psychology would discard spiritual experiences as readily as the neuroscientists do, because most brands of modern psychology are inheritors of the medical tradition which in the tradition of Western medicine assumes pathology and dysfunction as root causes, or at least more interesting to study, and usually does not consider healthy function.

This is why Abraham Maslow's work was such a breakthrough: his was first psychological tradition to study healthy function rather than pathological dysfunction. The transpersonal psychologies follow in this wake. One of the most interesting areas of study in psychology, in connection to visionary poety, is Stanislav Grof's work. He began in the 1950s by studying regular people taking LSD to promote visionary experiences in controlled settings. (Back when it was still legal to do so.) He began noticing many patterns emerging from this case work, which led to the development of his theory of perinatal experiences, and eventually, in collaboration with his wife, Cristina, to holotropic breathwork. (cf. Grof, The Adventure of Self-Discovery; and Grof and Grof, editors, Spiritual Emergency)

Maslow also wrote a book, The Psychology of Science, which is relevant to this discussion. He discusses education in some detail in this book, but the main thrust is how personality affects the way people do science. Some workers in science even use scientific rationalism as a defense mechanism against uncertainty and error—which can lead to the elevation of Science to the status of a religion, complete with unquestionable articles of faith.

I have used this analogy before: the ego-personality likes to think it is the whole system, and/or the part of the system of the Self that is in control at all times. But the ego-personality is like the screen on your compiuter monitor: it's the part that interfaces with the rest of the world, that looks outward onto the world, that seems to be all there is to the computer, or in some magical way embodies personality of the computer. The screen is what seems to link us to cyberspace. But it's only the interface. By itself, it has no existence: it is merely projected light on a screen, with no physical substance. It's a valued, important part of the overall system, but not the most important part even, just the most visible part. What really makes the system work the way it does is largely invisible and hidden—the famous nine-tenths of the iceberg below the waterline. There is a great deal going behind the scenes of which the ego-personality is unaware.

So, if the entire system were able to self-integrate and become self-aware of all its parts (the purpose of the opus, the work, of psychological integration), it would become more than it was, synergize into something greater—and the visionary experience is an emergent property of the result of this integration.

Some of Maslow's work on self-actualization and peak experiences ls very much in this terrain, as well, and quite supports this conception of transcendence. His studies of "oceanic" or peak experiences are worth looking into.

Yet many other roads lead to visionary experience, not just this one. There is the Via Positiva, the way of positive experience and knowing. Yet, there are also the roads of darkness and unknowing (Via Negativa), the roads of creativity as a spiritual path in and of itself (Via Creativa), and the roads of transforming the world and all those in it via healing and social justice (Via Transformativa). When we discuss visionary poetry, we are largely discussing the Via Creativa, but since everything is connected, we also have to discuss the others. I don't think any one of these paths is more important than or superior to the others; furthermore, we all cycle through each path, at different times, although not everyone experiences the same pattern or cycle. The Via Negativa is a particularly harrowing route to vision, and not recommended to everyone; it requires a great deal of preparation. But then, so do the others, in their own ways.

I dispute the ultimate usefulness of mechanistic assumptions about the nature of mind, body, and consciousness, because we are also organic gardens of many parts working together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Synergies and emergent properties are still not accountable for in strictly mechanistic models.

Chaos theory talks about zones of stability and turbulence, wherein as you add energy to a system, it stays turbulent until it reaches the next dynamically stable state, which can usually be expressed as a mathematical power of the initial state. This is dynamic stability, because it is always in motion, always energzied, never in a stable state akin to some Platonic ideal form.

If we continue to integrate aspects of ourselves previously undeveloped and/or suppressed (what lies in the Shadow), it's quite likely we can continue to feel these exalted states, every time we pass through a zone of turbulence into a node of high-energy stability. Perhaps there continue to be ever-higher levels of evolution, not one final ultimate level of total integration of everything—unless we were perhaps to call that state the Unified Field Theory of Everything—or God. So, each time you attain a node of dynamic stability you have a vision, and you have to keep climbing up the ladder to attain more visions.

Yet this does not account for why unevolved, unintegrated, messed-up and generally unenlightened individuals also get visions. It does not account for why some visions only come from the darkness, and only appear in the darker times in a life. It also does not account for some of the results of vision, which can lead, via inspiration, to increased awareness of social justice, and also to the spiritual state of being open to life in emotional ways that one may never have experienced before (the sacred heart; bodhichitta; compassion).

So, mechanistic models don't work for me, because they still don't account for the actions of spirit in all this.

All of this brings us back to embodiment. We have visions, and we also have bodies. We are not disembodied consciousness free-floating in a grey sea of mentation.

Let's talk about a fundamental body act of creativity: sex.

One Indonesian/Malay word for "sex" is "bersetubuh." The root word is "tubuh," which means body, flesh. The "se" is a prefix used as a contraction for "satu," which means the number one. "Ber" is a prefix used to turn a noun into an active noun, that is, a verb. "Bersetubuh" means "to make one body." This is a profoundly enfleshed way of presenting the concept of sex.

Poetry that is only of the head—words alone that are unbodied, poetry that is not somatic, not enfleshed—cannot achieve this connection. A visioanry poetry that is only pretty images, nice little angels or angles, something floating up there somewhere above the earth, is incomplete. It is a fiction. Visionary poetry needs to get its feet dirty, have its metatarsal digits touch the ground, get a little grimed the way barefoot children run home in summer with blackened soles and broken toenails. A visionary poetry that is too perfect, too perfected, too heavenly without being earthly as well, too removed from the heart with its blood pumping everywhere, is incomplete, unfinished.

I keep hearing many poets claim that poetry is the highest artform; I've discussed this earlier in this Chataqua. These poets describe Poetry as if it were an ideal, Platonic form—perfect on some ethereal plane of existence, not dirtied or messed up by the hard pains of stubbed toes and broken jaws. Such poetry is not a complete poetry, because it is not somatic.

If a poem doesn't enflesh itself in us, the readers, if it doesn't make us feel the experience being described or told or foretold in the poem, then the poem is nothing. Literally: nothing. If it doesn't leave a mark on you, it won't last in your memory, to be sought out later for re-experiencing and re-tasting.

A visionary poem has to engage more than just the mind. It must engage all the sense, and the heart, as well as the mind, to enwrap us in its existence. Only then can it lift us up, or take us down, raise us to the heavens, bury us alive in the moist soil freshly opened by the gravekeeper's spade. We lower ourselves into the earth, covered with white butterflies. We are lifted by white ballons rising into white winter skies, everything going white. Angels see only in black and white; they listen, they attend, they assist, but they are not soiled by living. A poem needs to soil you, a visionary poem needs to explode in you like a loam bomb.

A merely psychological explanation for visionary poetry is no explanation. The body has to be included.

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Visionary Poetry: Interlude & Rondo

When I originally posted this series of mini-essays on the same topic, some of which were prompted in response to other poets' questions and thoughts, I realized at some point that I cared enough about the topic to let it become something of a Chataqua. I realize now, a year later, upon reviewing, the topic, that I still do care. I want to be clear again, though, that I do not regard visionary poetry as in any way tied to or representative of any sort of organized, normative religious stance. I maintain that there is a powerful difference between belief and faith. (Faith is about surrender to the Will of Heaven, or the Tao. Belief can be challenged; faith just is.) I further maintain that there is a strong distinction between rationalism and non-linear, irrational experience, and that visionary poetry falls towards the irrational and the Mysterious.

The complaint is then made that there is an assumption made in poetry criticism circles that much overtly Christian poetry is going to be pedantic, uninspired, and proselytizing, while a free pass is given to poetry of other faiths, or no faiths. Poems with an overtly Zen viewpoint, for example, are not attacked as toxically faith-based, yet Christian mystical poems are. I note that this objection comes primarily from avowed Christian writers. I would point out to these writers, however, that they represent the mainstream, the dominant hegemony (if we must use the post-modern critical theory), the reigning viewpoint, the majority worldview. Thus, for two reasons, the objection rings hollow: 1. hearing the majority viewpoint complain about being challenged is always ironic, because it contains an unspoken assumption of entitlement and privelege that does not understand, in itself, why it might be questioned; and 2. what do you expect of people who feel oppressed by the prevailing worldview, who in themselves, their entire lives, have been told repeatedly that they are abberant, bad, wrong, evil, or worse? do you not expect them to talk back? do you expect them to be silent in the face of what they might perceive as continued oppression? (Ignoring for the moment the accuracy of that assessment.) It is the pinnacle of psychological naivete to imagine that people won't speak up about something they dislike, don't agree with, and have felt damaged by.

But the real bottom line for me remains this: I am talking about visionary poetry, not religious poetry. It might be wise to remember that visions happen to people without regard to what their religions are; no one religion or belief-system has exclusive ownership of visionary experience, or even of mysticism.

What i find so fascinating about mysticism (and have found fascinating since I first began to study it, at age 13) is that, no matter what culture or tradition mysticism occurs in, most mystics say very, very similar things. The mystical experience is a human experience, transcending local culture, religion, and myth—although of course those local cultures do color how one might interpret or transcribe one's own visionary experience. (For example, a vision of the Divine Feminine in Boston would probably be interpreted as a vision of the Virgin Mary, while in Tokyo it might be interpreted as a vision of Kwannon; the Divine wears many faces, as the mystics say.)

Personally, I haven't seen much attacking of Christian poems going on in literary-critical circles, except as just plain bad poems. Just because a poem is a personal testament of faith, of whatever faith, that doesn't give it a free pass to evade critique as a bad poem. You've never seen me attack a poem simply because I don't share it's avowed faith, and you never will. You will see me give an honest critique of a bad poem, as a bad poem, regardless of its content.

Let me proffer a short civics lesson:

Statistically, since Christianity is the majority religion in Euro-American (Western) culture, it hardly needs to be defended: it already is the mainstream, by definition. Being the biggest fish in the school does mean that you're more easily targeted, yes—but what of it? Nothing new, there.

Furthermore, Christianity as a religious institution hardly has a perfect track record of loving tolerance towards opposing belief-systems, either within or without its orthodoxy. (I look at Christian fundies and Muslim fundies, and personally, I find it very hard to tell the difference. Both groups are shouting loud but not listening.) One recalls the Spanish inquisition, in which Europe turned on itself, and burned both men and women as witches, heretics, and non-believers. One recalls the Crusades, which while in some cases there were economic motivations behind them, all occurred under the banner of institutional religious faith, and all of which had as their goal the reclamation of the Holy Land from the infidels. (Which has not been forgotten by Islam, some branches of which claim that Christianity is the aggressor still, in modern times.) Christian institutions, as a matter of public record, have a very poor history of playing well with others.

None of the desert-spawned Middle Eastern religions, the three Abrahamic religions, for that matter, fare much better; perhaps it is the harshness of the climate in the Holy Land, but all the religions birthed in that region share a tendency towards insularity and intolerance, from ancient Sumer onwards. Contrast that with Hinduism, which takes tolerance to the opposite extreme, and converts and expands by absorption and assimilation. Did you know that the Christ was one of the Avatars of Vishnu? But I digress.

So, majority Christianity has often been intolerant of others—that's a matter of record. If Western culture had spent more time practicing what it preached, history might have been a little less bloody.

And, to be bluntly honest, many Christian groups do proselytize, and promote proselytization or missionary "witnessing" as a key element of religious practice: that is, to go out and preach to the unwashed and try to convert them to your own faith. Many Islamic groups also do this. (Those Middle Eastern religions again; Judaism is about the only religion born in that region that doesn't try to convert outsiders to their faith, but there are other reasons for that.) The fact is, many members of minority religions do feel like they're being proselytized, on an ongoing daily basis, when they encounter an avowedly Christian poem, because in their experience, 90 percent of their encounteres with Christians involve attempts to convert them and/or condemn them, simply for being who they are, and believing what they bbelieve. Shall we mention the gay marriage debate, just as an offhand example? Or women's reproductive rights? Virtually all of those "hot-button" issues in Western political discourse at this time are driven by religious groups with an agenda to convert everyone else to their way of doing things. So, you might understand that in a climate of daily exposure to this, some random gay pagan witch poet might get their dander up.

(Don't even bother to question my credentials on these grounds: I am the son of a doctor who took his family to India, where I grew up, and whose work and hospital were sponsored by the Lutheran Church in America. I am a forner mission brat. I grew up around missionary work, I spent all of my childhood interacting with mission work, seeing it happen, and seeing what it did to all involved. I hold no illusions whatsoever about proselytizing. I am not reactionary against it, just for the record—I am indifferent to it. I only mention this to underline that I know whereof I speak.)

Since Western culture is a majority Christian culture, those of minority positions, who have spent every day of their lives feeling embattled against the majority, might—rightly or wrongly—feel embattled here, too, and choose to say something about it.

Perhaps it is because those of a minority viewpint must speak up, or remain silenced. If not by intent, than by ignorance. If you don't tell people how they're oppressing you, they'll never know—and people of good intentions won't know that they're doing anything that might be bothering somebody. Sure, some won't care; but some will, and will change their behaviors, in order to be good neighbors. Those with good intent might, through education, be given the option of devloping a little sensitivity on the matter. Education provides options; taking personal responsibility for one's actions, after one has been educated, is another matter.

(The whole point of having a pluarlistic society, under a Constitution designed to operate a secular government, that is, one not governed by any one religious system, is that everyone can feel free and safe to practice their beliefs, in their own way. Yes, this even protects the practices of people we don't like, and don't agree with in any way. The point is to protect against religious oppression of the few by the many, or by the government.)

The history of Christian culture has been quite bloody, quite violent, and quite intolerant. So, to require those who have felt oppressed by the Christian cultural mainstream—such as those of modern minority religions, and those of modern minority political viewpoints, and those who are of unapproved sexual orientation or marriage status—to require those who have felt such oppression to not speak up about it, when they feel they are being oppressed, is the height of naivete. That's like asking them not to defend themselves, when they feel threatened. Granted, there will be over-reactions, and over-statements, and knee-jerk reactions, and hurt feelings, and some wounded knuckles—in both directions. But it is naive to wish this would never happen.

The question is then asked: But if we censor our poems to conceal their religious content, are we not guilty of literary dishonesty?

There are several responses to this.

1. Which is more dishonest, writing honestly what one believes, or speaking out in disagreement? I would say: neither. Which is the more censorious, speaking out one way, or speaking out the other way? I would say, only if one viewpoint refuses to listen to the other viewpoint's position; that works both ways, too.

2. It's a big Internet, and big world of literature. There are plenty of poetry boards that are specifically for religious poetry, of whatever faith. There are always other sandboxes. Is that censorship, or knowing your audience with wisdom?

2.b. Which is more dishonest, knowing one's audience, and being honest about intentions and expectations—or posting something that one knows darn well is going provoke someone, and deliberately posts it, anyway? (Note: This is not limited to religious poetry, but can occur around many other topics, contents, and styles.) Which is more dishonest, having a covert agenda to be a provacateur, or to speak up against such an agenda, when perceives it in play?

3. We are only being guilty of literary dishonesty if we censor ourselves, and never write a religious poem, for fear of being attacked by it. If you stop yourself from writing, because of internalized censorship, then yes, that is a shame, because self-censorship is the very worst form od censorship. I oppose all forms of internalized censorship, self-censorship, or writerly inhibition, about any and all topics. That does not mean, however, that I will go out of my way to read poems I'm pretty sure are going to offend me.  That's not dishonesty, that's choosing to avoid provocation. Because, frankly, it's usually a complete waste of time with something you already know is going to piss you off.

The question is then raised: Where is it written that a Christian cannot also be a visionary? or that a religious poem is a priori less insightful than a more secular poem, all other literary merit such as technical competence being equal?

It's not written anywhere. Christianity has a strong, ongoing tradition of vision and mysticism. One thinog you can say for the Catholic Church, with all their other faults, they at least preserved a Western tradition of mysticism, while Protestant groups mostly threw it away. It's not the only thread of mysticism innate to Western culture, but it an imporant one. Personally, I've spent a great deal of time studying and exploring Medieval and modern Christian mysticism, and have gained a great deal of wisdom and knowledge from it. From Meister Eckhart, who I have cited on this thread, to Thomas Merton and Nikos Kazantzakis, to name only a few.

However, neither is it written that visionary poetry must be conventionally, formally, or openly religious, either. Nowhere is it written that visionary poetry must be dogmatically and theologically correct. If anything, the history of visionary and mystical creativity shows us, repeatedly, that genuine vision is very often disruptive of conventional theology, contradicts doctrine and dogma, and often takes us back to direct contact with the Divine, with their being no need for institutional mediation. If anything, the Church has demonstrated, repeatedly, that one of its chief fears about visionary and mystical experiences is that they make the priestly, intermediary caste unnecessary and obsolete—thus putting the whole instituional framework into question. That, of course, is something most institutions tolerate poorly.

For this reason, then, I would say that, yes, a poem that is dogmatically or doctrinally conformist—ex nihil obstat, without error, as the Vatican would say—can be quite a but less insightful than one that is open to exploring wherever the vision wants to lead. Let us not automatically oppose "secular" to "religious." I am neither particularly impressed by religious poems that merely repeat existing articles of faith—which, in terms of poetry, are usually cliches—or are personal statements of faith, any more than I am particularly impressed by journal-entry poems, and for many of the same reasons. They're simply bad poems, when they're mired in cliche, or are a list of symbols we're all supposed to agree on (says who?) without question, and nothing new has been added to the work of Poetry in general. Credo in unum whatever. But is it a good poem?

Perhaps the real reason some critics don't like religious poems is because they rarely require much thought—or because they rely on stereotypes that are little more than symbols, or signs. In other words: they're easy, and they're cheap. They don't require a mental stretch. They merely replicate existing structures. Replication of existing doctrinal formulations is a habit-of-thought that misses or ignores the wide range of non-religious-yet-spiritual material available. It is precisely such habits-of-thought that are the problem: because habits of thought are filters between person and reality, that keep us from seeing what is really there, versus what we think or assume is there.

I understand that many people will disagree with a lot of what i've said here, yet I don't have any interest in engaging in a long debate on the topic.

Again, I'd rather talk about visionary poetry, which is a much larger, inclusive, and more interesting (for me) category of poetry.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Visionary Poetry 9: Shamanic artwork & poetry

At one point, a few years ago, I had been looking for a way to describe and articulate my thoughts about my creative work (visual art, music, and poetry), with only limited success. This has been an ongoing, necessary process for me—especially in reference to my body of work called Spiral Dance, which is a visionary work I hope to publish eventually as a deck of cards to be used for meditation and visioning. It's archetypal, it's visionary, it's otherworldly, it's mythopoetic, it's transformative, it's this label, it's that category—none of which entirely fit. So, at that time in question, I was "tugged" by a certain book to open it and read (something that happens from time to time). I was astonished to find within the book a few paragraphs that describe my own creative work—its purpose, its function, its meaning, its goals—with amazing accuracy.

I had been planning to go camping that weekend, but could not, for various reasons, so instead of spending a few days in the woods up north, I spent some time visiting the forest within. This book was my guide and my goad, and for several days, after reading a section, I felt energized and opened wide to experience.

The book is When the Spirits Come Back, by Janet O. Dallett, a certified Jungian therapist and artist/writer. (Series: Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1988.) Be warned: this is a somewhat controversial book, in which the author describes her personal process of breaking out, along with some of her clients, of her clinical training and conditioning into a more creative, affirming practice.

Here is the relevant passage, from the chapter entitled "Shaman, Artist, Lunatic, Thief":

Now, seeing what I can only describe as an inductive effect of [my paintings hung on the walls of the cafe/gallery] on others' psyches, I became aware that it made an opening into another world for people from all walks of life, people who would not ordinarily be motivated to discuss their dreams or to give conscious attention to the spirit world in any way.

As I sat in the cafe that day I fell deep into deja vu. A few years earlier, when I began reading my poetry in public, many people had seemed puzzled by the work and some had expressed strong feelings of discomfort with it, just as some did now with my paintings. Simultaneously, then as now, others had reported that their creativity was remarkably stimulated by mine. Reflecting upon these events, I understood for the first time that a certain kind of work, resembling what Jung calls "visionary art," functions in much the same way as the shaman in tribal societies. That is, some art is shamanic in function. Formed from collective unconscious material, it activates the unconscious of its audience and mobilizes the psyche's self-healing capacities. It opens the door to a different reality, the world of dreams and imagination, and "spirits" silently pass into the world of every day, affecting people in unexpected ways.

Shamanic art undermines unexamined cultural assumptions. For this reason it disturbs some people and may even arouse rage. Those who are open to it, however, often find that it sets their own creativity in motion.

Such art tends to be prophetic. It asks, even insists, on being heard, just as shamans are compelled to tell about their inner experiences when they begin to apply what they have learned about healing themselves to the healing of others. The visionary creative act is not complete until it finds an audience, coming out into the world and disturbing the complacent surface of collective consciousnes. If the process is blocked, one outcome may be psychosis. Cancer may be another.

Shamanic art brings eros values to the healing of the psyche. That is, unlike traditional clinical psychology and psychiatry, it is more concerned with connecting and making whole than with the logos values of dissecting and understanding. It is related to a form of psychotherapy that interprets rarely, seeking instead to set in motion a symbolic process that has its own unforeseeable healing goal. Understanding of behavior is important only to the extent that it serves a living relationship to deep levels of the psyche. Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity. The soul of the shaman lies equally behind the visionary artist and the therapist who works in this way. If the shamanic type of therapist ceases to live her own creative life, the capacity to function in healing ways becomes lost and may even turn destructive.

When the Spirits Come Back, pp. 36-37

Part of the result of reading this book, was a feeling being validated and affirmed, in my wanting to continue to do my visionary artwork, and also to be more open about doing it. Thus, I have been writing about this topic for the past several entries.

One important value about poetry, about art, that this brings forward is the truth that: Art does not replicate and reinforce cultural values; rather, it disrupts and expands those boundaries. Such art is often uncomfortable, and resisted.

Such art brings in the new, the unfamiliar, i.e. the not-yet-foreseen or experienced. This lies close to the root of visionary poetry, in its prophectic function.

If we focus on art that only replicates a culture's existing values, we get Socialist Art, we get Hallmark cards, we get lots of bad art that panders to cheap sentimentality (the bane of Victorian poetry), we get Entertainment instead if Art, in the sense that entertainment only reproduces, soothes, and provides escapism. Bread and circuses for the masses, while Rome burns. This is exactly what is meant by the slogan "Art is life. Entertainment is death." (Rob Brezsny) And also by the statement that artists are "Against the reproduction of Death." (Hakim Bey)

Dallett writes: Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity.

Rollo May says some similar things in his book The Courage to Create, and Arnold Mindell devotes an entire book to this topic in The Shaman's Body. (Imagine if Castenada had been a post-Jungian process therapist, and you'll get some idea of where Mindell goes with this work.) Abraham Maslow also gets into this terrain, when he studies the psychology of peak experiences. Another excellent book that discusses peak experiences is George Leonard's The Silent Pulse.

The shaman's journey to the Otherworlds is solitary, and yet his return is social. Hers is a message of healing, and it is ultimately rooted in compassion. Too much modern, Western, psychiatry-influenced poetry seems to be about what Alan Watts called the "skin-encapsulated ego." Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and many, many others—the confessional poets. Poems about one's life, one's dog, one's feelings in relationship to others; poems about grandmother's wedding dress, or individual subjective insights; or what I had for lunch on Tuesday. All of these serve to reinforce normative (socialized) existence, which is trapped (especially in America) in myths about the (rugged) individual, standing independently apart from all, self-motivating, self-made, self-propelling, yet grounded in family, subjectivity, value. (I exclude Whitman from this thread of confessional poetry, beacuse despite his constant use of the first person, his vision was transpersonal and all-encompassing, rather than normative. In fact, all visionary poets stand outside the mundaneness of this kind of poetry, even if their poems start in the mundane.)

By contrast to the normative world enumerated by the confessional poets, the returned shaman often lives a precarious balance between social acceptance and social rejection. He never entirely returns to the fold, and she is always a suspicious character in the eyes of the more conservative elements in society, as he keeps going off on new journeys, new soul-flights, and never really settles down. Once a traveler, always a traveler. Most shaman I have known have remained troublesome individuals, eccentric, idiosyncratic, troublemakers, even Tricksters—they've been outside the box, they continue to think outside the box, and so they tend to be, well, rabidly misunderstood.

There's a saying I've heard: "The shaman does not live in the village."

The truly individuated person is always going to be non-normative, because they have, in the process of becoming a whole Self, a whole person, overcome their Tribal conditioning, which often means giving up their Tribal value-system. Growing up as an individual can mean leaving all Tribal values behind in one's wake. The hidden truth here is clear: the Tribe is there to support us and protect us when we are helpless newborns; and so the Tribe's actions and values are thus inherently protective, conservative, and based on fear of the dangerous outside world. But when we start to grow and stand on our own two feet, the Tribe will actually try to hold us back, keep us infantile and dependent, for fear of losing itself as its members move away from it.

Another old saying: "The prophet is never beloved in his home town." No one is ever going to applaud you for thinking beyond their internalized and self-limiting belief-system.

The problem with compassion, which is a word I accept and use, along with bodhichitta and lovingkindess, is that "compassion" to many people in our post-Christian society (which is still learning about Buddhism, and hasn't really absorbed it yet) carries the connotation of Grace, as bestowed from Above. It is a function of the Divine, rather than the human. (This is not what I believe; it is a paradigm I see in play, though, in many cases.) So, people tend to think of compassion as being lovey-dovey, gentle, or angelically bland (another holdover from the Victorian symbol-set). Compassion is what the Divine Feminine bestows upon us, in the form of Mercy (or whatever Face the Divine is wearing today).

But compassion can also be "tough love." Doing the action that seems hurtful at first, because it is not conventionally lovey-dovey, but in retrospect is seen to be the action required for the development of the individual's highest good. I was in the audience once when the Dalai Lama was in Madison, WI, giving a talk; he had just been named as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, although this talk had been planned for some time prior. I remember him saying, in responce to an audience question about compassion, more or less exactly this: that compassion can be fierce as well as tender, that tough love is also a form of compassion. Whatever the soul needs in order to wake up, can be compassionate action.

So, while I agree that the shaman's motivation, upon return from the journey, is to pass on the healing to others, and while I can accept compassion is one of the shaman's motivations, I am also aware that compassion in this case can break all the rules, and be very non-stereotypical. It can be explosive. It can be the opposite of a soothing balm. It can be disruptive, and in the form of poetry and artwork, just as Dallett describes above.

Is it more compassionate to an evolving soul to let it stay asleep in its dream of normative social values and roles, or is it more compassionate to remove those illusions, so that the soul can wake up, and make progress on its path?

So, compassion can be a destroyer and disturber, as well as a soother and caretaker. This is the truth behind the Wrathful Deities, in tibetna Buddhist cosmology: they are the same as the Peaceful Deities, and both want to wake you up. In the Bardo, the Peaceful Deities appear first, to give you a chance to wake up; if that doesn't work, then the Wrathful Deities appear, to slap you upside the head, and give you another chance to wake up.

But both are emanations of compassion.

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Visionary Poetry 8: Keeping room for Mystery

Perhaps the cultures that still allow visionary poetry are the ones still closest to vision, still open to magic, the unexplained, the Mysteries. Those cultures that can still point to a rock or tree or building or mountain, and say, "The Divine lives there." Perhaps these cultures are indeed primitve, and undeveloped, and unenlightened—if only because they are not yet made self-conscious and self-aware in the way of Modern and post-modern Western civilization.

But perhaps the judgment of so-called "primitivism" is, after all, a parochial and misinformed judgment made by the "developed" countries for largely superficial reasons. Perhaps it says more about those who make such judgments, than it does about those being judged.

Even in our enlightened, developed, rational culture, there is room for the sacred and the visionary. Children lead magical lives, full of fantasy and wonder, till we train it out of them, and teach them to disbelieve in the fantasies of childhood. At a certain age, you're expected to stop believing in Santa Claus, and the rest—and grow up. But in our pursuit of rational adulthood, perhaps it would be wise to retain some of the magic of childhood, to keep life in balance.

This is not sentimentalism—I am thoroughly and permanently opposed to all forms of sentimentalism and nostalgia. I am not speaking of cheap and easy sentiment, or cuteness, or childishness. I am speaking of childlikeness—like unto a child one must become, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Many of the mystics, in their poetry and other writings, say that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now. If only we'd wake up to the fact that is already present, within us, and all around us. It is only a short step to enlightenment. We are already there, if only we'd realize it.

Perhaps one of the functions of visionary poetry, ridiculed as it often is within our rational-scientific, technical, non-magical culture, is to remind us of what we lost, when we gave up magic (one of the original meanings of eros) in favor of logos and technos. There is no doubting the great achievements made in technical and mercantile culture by the Western cultures since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But even today, many scientists question the wisdom of advancing technology without also advancing a moral compass, an ethic; witness the testimonies of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and Einstein's own reservations about the technology his physical theories helped to create.

Perhaps the function, and purpose, of visionary poetry is to remind us that there other ways of constructing reality, and other windows through which to see the Universe. Not to discard what has been won, through long years of research and development—not to discard it, but to complete it, to give a human soul to the Golem's manufactured flesh, to breathe life and peace into the made-things that all-too-often have brought us only death.

A quote from poet Robert Duncan:

Myth, for Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, was the poet-lore handed down in the tradition from poet to poet. It was the very matter of Poetry, the nature of the divine world as poets had testified to it; the poetic piety of each poet, his acknowledgment of what he had found true Poetry, worked to conserve that matter. And, for each, there was in the form of their work—the literary vision, the play of actors upon the stage, and the didactic epic—a kind of magic, for back of these forms we surmise distant origins in the rituals toward ecstasy of earliest Man. Once the operations of their art began they were transported from their sense of myth as literary element into the immediacy of the poem where reality was mythological.  —from The Truth and Life of Myth, p.39

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Visionary Poetry 7: Orders of magnitude

There is perhaps a distinction between the infrequent Big Vision, which can be life-changing, and the ordinary visionary experience, which can be of lower dramatic content, but no less life-changing, over time. There are many legitimate mystics whose visions are quiet and personal. We hear most often about the dramatic experiences of the mystics, because in part we are addicted to drama, and think that all life-changing experiences have to come as rupture. Well, they might, but they're not required to. They can be slow and quiet, and grow over years into a restlessness that makes a person change his or her life because there is, finally, in the end, no other choice.

I think that the distinction being made between the Big Vision and the little vision(s) is a false one, an illusory one, because it it not in fact a difference in kind, but merely a difference in scale, intensity, volume. Either path of vision can lead us to where we want to arrive. And I think it also to be a mistake to think that little visions can give us only consolation (such a condescending word!), while only the Big Visions can be life-changing. I think that's a real misunderstanding that requires clarification at this point.

I am reminded of the tradition of quietism in contemplative meditation, which, over time, can lead to visionary experiences. But the root of the practice is to let all things rise, and let go of them, and let them pass on, without getting attached to them. This is Meditation 101, and forms of it appear in all of the world's sacred traditions; because it is so universal, it is not limited by or tied to any one religion, but in fact is fundamental to the human birthright. So, we can refer to it as spiritual technology.

Not everyone is temperamentally suited to having Big Visions, and in fact Big Visions can distract us from the Way, because they take up too much energy and attention, especially when other people start oohing and ahhing over them. The quiet mystic, who keeps seeing golden light in the garden of a calm afternoon, is no less a mystic, and the vision is no less a vision, for being less dramatic than having a blinding white light knock you off your horse (St. Paul), or angels dictate to you visual maps of cosmology (Hildegard of Bingen).

We are attached to Big Visions simply because we are attached to drama. Ego likes drama. Psyche does not require it, however.

Meditation, or contemplation, or quietism, is spiritual practice via several practical techniques of meditation practice, the gradual calming and silencing of the mind and the ego's need for drama and self-display. This is a variety of visionary experience: but it is, in the words of Meister Eckhart, "a sinking and cooling," an experience of the void of nothingness, of silence, of non-action. It is the opposite of Big Visions, but no less life-changing. The experience of nothingness, the Void itself, was one of my own key Big Visions, and it was truly horrifying, at first, to feel such emptiness. It was the loss of meaning, of the roots of everything I had believed to that date, and I struggled for years after that vision of the Void to try to find or create a meaning for my existence. (I wrote three Sutras about it, in that series of spiritual-exercise poems.) But the Void is also the place where there's nothing to be done, no big agenda, no great missions or purposes—and that is a relief, as well. The second vision of the Void that was given to me, was of a place of rest, calm, and tranquility. Nothing exists, and there is not meaning, so there is nothing to be done. What a relief!

I think it's possible to get too attached to the Big Vision, and the big dramas around big visions, and come to think that only Big Visions can be life-changing. Experience, and the mystical record, have shown us otherwise. Hollywood is very attached to the Big Vision; yet how much more profound are most small visions, such Little Mysteries.

Now here's a paradox for you: I personally am prone to Big Visions; I've had several in this lifetime, and written about them in various poems over the years; and yes, they've been life-changing experiences. Two of my spiritual teachers, who I view as much further down the path than I, and both of whom are very wise individuals—neither of them have Big Visions. They're both very intuitive, even clairvoyant, if you will, but neither experiences the drama of Red-Sea-parting visions that I experience. So, what's the lesson here? The lesson is simple: intuition is a birthright of us all; guidance is ordinary; visionary and mystical experiences are common and no big deal; they happen to everybody. My Big Visions, which I still get, are no longer so life-changing; they're cumulative, for one thing, and while the first few can seem like a Big Deal, after awhile they're all No Big Deal. The Big Vision becomes the ordinary, everyday little vision.

The whole purpose of practice, according to some visionaries, is to let go of the Big Visions, as well, and realize that visionary experiences are all very ordinary. The secret of enlightenment is really very plain and simple: chop wood, carry water. You don't need to do anything different after the Vision. You don't need to go announce it in the streets, and proclaim it from the hills. You can quietly create ripples of mindful action that have, in the end, perhaps more power to make the world a finer place, because it all goes on quite normally, behind the scenes, below the radar, out of the spotlight. The divine has in more than one tradition been described as "the still small voice," after all the Big Drama has passed on. And you can write poems about your experiences, and the ways your life has changed as a result: quiet, creative responses that create ripples that spread in all directions.

A good sourcebook for reading the mystics and visionary poets, as well as a guide to the mystical pathway, is Matthew Fox's Original Blessing. Each chapter is prefaced by lengthy quotations from various mystics from various traditions, and the annotated bibliography itself is worth the price of admission, and can serve as a reading guide for anyone who wants to pursue this topic. Numerous poets are included in Fox' listings, too, including but not limited to: Rilke, Yeats, Whitman, Vallejo, Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, D.H. Lawrence, Dante, others.

The first stage of the experience of the Void, the experience of Nothingness, is letting go of images and letting silence be silence. Silence doesn't need to be filled: not by our clamoring voices; not by anything. I have noticed, after all I've been through, that I am quite comfortable being silent with my friends; when we are looking at a beautiful sky, just being silent is enough. The vast majority of people can't bear the silence, and need, it seems, to fill that void with chatter.

Meister Eckhart:

God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.

The ground of the soul is dark.

Nothing in Creation is so like God as stillness.

Tao Te Ching: The Tao is beyond words and beyond things. It is not expressed either by word or in silence. Where there is no longer word or silence Tao is apprehended.

The paradox, then, is that behind the veil of drama that is the surface of every Big Vision, which we imagine must be life-changing in order to be authentic, is the quiet, even silent, slow absence of drama, and that is where the truly life-changing truthes lie, and are activated.

It is possible to become enlightened while peeling an orange. It is possible to achieve true mindfulness while doing nothing special. It is possible to find such inner stillness that Spirit floods in, with no hindrances made by oir filters and assumptions. All these things happen, every day.

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