Monday, June 30, 2008

The Harmonics of Human Experience

Film director/writer Michael Mann said something in a recent TV documentary interview that stuck with me, that expresses a great deal of truth about art, why I make art, and what it is about, and for. He said that he is interested in those moments in his films when you see a look in a character's eyes, and you can relate to what they're thinking and feeling in that moment: you share what's going on with them, you can see the wheels turning. These are moments that happen sometimes without dialogue, or in the midst of it. The term Mann used to describe this moment is the harmonics of human experience.

That's a rich phrase for a musician/artist/poet like myself to run across. It refers to that same thing in poetry, in music, in art, that I have often referred to as richness or as resonance. These are the moments that give depth to a work of art. Without a moment like this in it, a poem is no more than a head-experience; perhaps a clever one, but not a deep one. Far too much art and poetry is disembodied, even anti-bodied (in all senses of that phrase), lacking a somatic connection.

Harmonics are resonant frequencies within a sound that create its richness, its tone color, and its synergistic volume. Tuned harmonics increase the overall volume of the sound, by adding resonance. It is a synergistic aural effect in which the whole is greater than the sum of the elements. Tone color is also created by harmonic resonance: a pure sine wave tone, such as that produced by a concert flute, with a cylindrical column of vibrating air, is bright and pure; a clarinet, because of its conical chamber, has a darker, rounder tone, because of the harmonics that are missing from the overtone series. The higher number of higher partials or overtones a sound contains, the brighter the tone color.

I am using physical, mathematical, and musical/acoustical terms to describe an aesthetic experience. I am doing this because I've studied all of these disciplines—something that seems to be rather rare even among musicians, many of whom don't know the first thing about physical acoustics or instrument-building——and because this is all verifiable by the mathematics involved, that describe the acoustical sound. What are the mathematics of human suffering? Surely mathematics can be used to describe state of mind—although the wisest mathematicians know that their formulae can never determine or predict the human heart. Aristotle was quite wrong about his poetics, and that is because he was a philosopher, not an artist; he described the reader's experience of poetry, not the poet's.

The human body is a sound-receiving instrument. We tend to think that we are face-forward, because our culture tends to promote the visual field as the dominant sense. (How else can you read this on your computer screen, but visually?) (Of course, I am also aware that sight-impaired readers who might find this essay will have various alternative technologies available to them, including reading-aloud software.) But we are drenched in sound. Acoustic space is three-dimensional and immersive: like water in a swimming pool, we are bathed in sound coming at us from all directions, all the time. Sound is harder to ignore than vision. Even if we cannot see, sound completely fills our bodies: our tissues, those semi-fluids and liquid-filled inner organs within us, resonate to sound, and vibrate within us as sound waves pass through us. We live and breathe is a transmissible fluidic medium: our planet's atmosphere.

What does this mean for poetry and music?

In film, Michael Mann is referring in one way to empathy: to the experience of finding oneself in the other (or the Other). His phrase the harmonic of human experience is also musical in that such harmonics tend to be partial experiences: specific moments of connection. These are what tie us all together, as a species, as living beings, even though we may have nothing else in common. We can all see a look in someone's eyes of complex despair, of bitter anger and regret mixing within with yearning, and feel that within ourselves; we have memories of having felt that way, too. But even leaving aside empathy, this is the resonance of human experience in that it is evoked shared experience. Art does this: this is what we feel in art, when we connect with it. (And this is what is lacking in art that does not move us, that we feel no connection to, that doesn't engage more than our intellect; sadly that's most art.) Even hatred of a work of art is an aesthetic experience, if we stop to appreciate it as such. The worst possible response to artwork is sheer indifference: nothing is more disembodied.

This resonance is exactly what I try to write in my poems. I'm not much interested in anything else.

Looking back, this may indeed by why I have always felt incredibly drawn in by Michael Mann's films. They are compelling and engrossing in visceral ways; most similar filmmakers leave you in your head, or your gut, not your full body, full experience, the way Mann films can. Moments in Mann's films can gut-punch you, leave you feeling shaking and shaken, feeling too many emotions at the same time to be able to articulate even one of them. Complexity in film scripts is very underrated in these days of simplistic narrative formulae. One thing that Mann films do is give you a sense of surprise: why did a character do that?—but then you realize that it is entirely in character, and they could have nothing else. There is a sense of shock, but it is the shock of real life, or verisimilitude.

This resonance is what I want a reader to get out of one of my poems, what I want a listener to hear/feel when they experience a piece of music. This is what it is all about: this resonance. There is nothing more important. Most discussions of poetics, or poetry guidebooks, talk only about craft, about technique, about the nuts and bolts of making a poem—almost none of them talk directly about the aesthetic experience which is resonance. Perhaps that's because it's so hard to articulate, even for those committed to using words as their primary tools. (Tools I trust less and less, although I am forced to use them.) It might also be that poetic philosophy has come to view resonance as a subjective experience, and therefore either impossible to discuss, or not worthy of being discussed.

But Mann's moments, those sometimes silent moments in his films, give the lie to the fallacy of the utter subjectiveness of aesthetic experience. It's about time we decried that easy and lazy myth, that of subjectivity, that lets us avoid the hard work of doing our best to connect to each other, through the resonance of human experience, despite it's inevitable difficulties. Artistic criticism has long since given up the fight, by proclaiming not only that is it impossible to understand each other—only insiders to a sub-cultural group can signify all their own signs—but that it's impossible to be objective, and one might as well be a solipsist. (This is why critical post-modernism cannot last: it is nihilistic, infinitely subjective, and ultimately valueless rather than value-neutral.) But Mann has not given up the fight. The thing is, when you look at those moments in his films when you can see the wheels turning behind a character's eyes, and know exactly what they're thinking and feeling, those moments are human moments: they make us what we are. And these moments are not "artistic" moments, not framed as art-objects, or set aside as special: they're ordinary moments. They are not High Art Aesthete moments. They take place simply, suddenly, precisely, and the create connections, silent communications. This is how art is meant to "communicate" between artist and audience. Too often, poets think that poetry is mere communication in a very superficial way: telling, narrative, confession, inner monologue, story. But that's phone-book-level communication. That is only the surface level of poetry. A poetry that has real depth, real richness and resonance, is going to be more akin—possibly even more cinematic per se—to one of those moments Mann describes from his films.

In every poem I've written over the past decade, this is exactly what I've wanted the reader to receive from the poem. (Success or failure is a separate issue from intent.) Ordinary magic. Moments of connection. Connection between the reader and the world of my own experience, vision, and imagination. I feel like a poem has succeeded when I get that kind of response. It's not a response you can force, or evoke at will: you can only do your best, as a writer, and hope that the resonance is there. There is something mysterious about it, still; even as all your craft and skill are dedicated to finding it, and capturing it.

I feel even more strongly about this in my music. I don't use tonal music clichés to evoke it, anymore than I use clichés in poems. Clichés are signs that stand in for actual experience: they are conventional shorthands, and moments of real resonance are impossible to achieve using clichés. Oh, you can be clever about subverting a cliché to good effect: but that's a headgame, a trick, and while it might be fun and clever, it still isn't very deep.

A piece of music can have meaning and resonance for me, and I don't have to explain it to the listener. Music is far more abstract than poetry: it can do things beyond the boxes that words, being symbols, put meaning into. I don't write program music: music that tells a narrative story, that is ekphrastic or depicts a story that can be printed in the program. My own music has always been about melody, gesture, and mood. Sometimes it tells a story: but in the way dance tells a story, not literally, not superficially, but through a sequence of feeling-images. I am not interested in a justification of my music; at the same time, I'm well aware that my tradition as a composer is that of experimental music, and of world music, not of mainstream tonal music with all its familiar patterns and styles. The closest I get to tonal music is writing in modes. I have an affinity for gradual-process music, although my chief inspiration for this style is the classical music cultures of Indonesia, India, and pan-Islamic North Africa, which I am somewhat fluent in as performer, theorist-listener, and composer. I have been successful as a composer, I feel, in that performers like to play my pieces, and listeners have more than once asked me if the feeling of energy and spirit they received while listening was intentional. (It was hoped for, if not presumed.) After a long absence, I am returning to composing/performing. It is where my craft really applies, and where I have to work harder than anywhere else, to get what I want. (Poetry, for me, in many ways, comes rather easily, by comparison.) Music is where my heart is, even though I practice several other artforms. (I'm probably least known for my music, and probably best known for my visual artwork. I don't care. The music is mine, and doesn't need to make me famous.)

The harmonics of human experience is a phrase, as I said, that itself has a lot of resonance for me. This is what it's all about: this resonance, this connection-making, this contact. E.M. Forster put two words on the title page of his novel Howard's End, to serve as frontispiece, introduction, epigram, and guiding principle:

Only connect.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What does "published" mean?

In the not-too-distant past, being a "published author" had a cachet of importance, because the process of becoming published was lengthy and involved many intermediaries, from editors to press operators. Then came the desktop publishing revolution. Then came the internet revolution. Nowadays, therefore, what it means to be a published author has come under a great deal of scrutiny. When is your poem considered to be "previously published"? Some publishers don't accept any presentation of your work online as being a legitimate publication, while others view any appearance of your work, anywhere, no matter how ephemeral, as a publication.

The problem is not that online publishing, or self-publishing, or "vanity" publishing, is ruining the publishing world. The problem is that we are in a time of transition, when all the old rules and guidelines and standards that have served print-publication for so many years are disintegrating—because the world has moved forward, and technology has put self-determination into the hands of the independent and uninitiated as never before—and traditional publishing doesn't know how to deal with the change(s).

We are in the midst of a paradigm change. None of this is sorted out yet. It might not be in your lifetime, or mine.

Resorting to absolutism, many editors of poetry journals now consider any public appearance in print of your poem to be a publication. If you put it on your blog; if you post in on an online poetry critique or workshop board; if you post it to the comments stream to someone else's blog: all these are considered publications by some poetry editors. If they can do a search for a line from your poem, and find it, they will consider it as being a prior publication, and will reject it. It doesn't matter where, or how, or why: they will reject it.

The problem with the absolutist position lies in its simplistic and reductionist thinking. In fact, most readers of poetry magazines in print don't spend a lot of time reading through online workshops, so they're not likely to have seen the poem before, in any state of completion. Trying to enforce the absolutist position is difficult—although if it can be referenced by powerful Internet search engines such as Google, many editors will say it's already been published. But if an editor wants to put hours and hours into searching for one of my poems online, in order to reject it, I have to question their priorities: that seems like a lot of work for little gain. Some online poetry workshops now prevent Google from searching their fora, in an attempt to evade the prior-publication issue. It is probably safe to say that many readers of poetry simply don't care about any of this: they just want to read good poems. It is similarly safe to say that many readers of poetry don't care if they find it online, in a magazine, a book, or printed on a placard at a subway station. The important thing to most readers is that they encounter the poem: sometimes the novelty of where the poem is encountered can mean a great deal to them, but in my experience your average poetry reader doesn't really care about first publication rights. Most poetry, it is fair to say, is read, and always has been, in reprint: in book compilation or anthology, in classroom textbook, and in similar reprint venues. Few things are more ephemeral, in the publishing world, than poetry journals and magazines.

The aspect of all this that is most absurd is why anyone should care very much. There is a double standard: An editor may reject your poem as already published if they find it on your blog, but when you collate your poems into a book this is a publication you cannot cite as legitimate. No one actually cares, except the editor and the publisher.

People have been handing out copies of their poems to be read in classrooms and critique groups for ever; and that is never considered a publication. How is an online poetry workshop board any different? The intent and the process are identical; the major difference is the mediation of the technology used to convey the poem.

And that's an important point: technology is mediation: it stands between us, even as it enables us to communicate with each other as never before across borderlines and perviously insurmountable obstacles. Marshall McLuhan's ideas about the global village have been brought to fruition by the development of information transmission and mediation technology (the media: the media are those who mediate).

Mostly because Google's cache archive is forever, and even a poem long since removed from your website might still be found in their archive—and therefore some editor might consider it as published, if they find it—mostly because of this, there are editors who will tell you, if you ever put your poem anywhere online, they consider it as already published. It doesn't matter where. The problem here is the editor's lack of common sense and wise discrimination. The problem is absolutism: the "published is published!" attitude. It's remarkable that in such a friable and temporary medium as internet websites, in which entire journals and magazines can disappear in an instant, data itself lingers so very long, and is so very searchable. This says a great deal about Google's power: but it doesn't say anything about what deserves to survive, as good data, and what does not. It is the ultimate packrat paradigm: never throw anything away. In the long run, this may not be all that healthy for either the arts, or for the social fabric in general, of which the arts have often served the function of bellwether.

Fortunately, many editors think this is all as silly as you or I might. Some journals also don't mind prior publications: they want your poem because they want to publish it, not because they require it to be pure, original, something no one has ever seen before.

We got to this point in part because of poetry publishing's over-emphasis on originality; a problem that is shared across many of the arts nowadays, and has been since the rise of the Romantic and Modernist archetype of the individualist genius-hero-artist. Everyone wants first crack at publication—as though publishing one of my poems would make you rich and famous, or somehow give you credit or prestige. The very idea is laughable. But the truth is, publication has been about originality for well over a century now—and it's also been about novelty. But novelty can be taken to extremes, because, frankly, just because a poem (or poetics) is novel doesn't guarantee it's good. It doesn't even guarantee that it's worth publishing. Most new ideas are bad ideas; it has always been so. The ideas that have some merit, and survive to become old ideas, have always been in the minority.

Some editors of small publications insist on unpublished work because they feel the need to compete: after all, why else should anybody else bother to seek them out, unless they have scored a publishing coup and gotten some new good work? They might not state it so baldly, but that's the truth.

One problem with the previously-published attitude is that some editors apply it to drafts: which is one reason they won't accept a poem that has appeared in any version on a workshop or blog. It doesn't matter to them that the revised version you've submitted is substantially different than the version that was workshopped. Other editors do say that they will accept the final version as long as only the drafts appeared on a workshop site. (Again, one solution, which lies well within the power of most online poetry boards' administrators, is make their workshops invisible to the search engines.)

My best advice to you about this controversial prior-publication dilemma is simple: Ignore it.

Don't waste a lot of worry on it. Just do what you do. Ignore every critic who tells you that you are less than literary simply because they don't approve of the venue in which you have been published. At the same time, don't expect fame or plaudits—ever!—and don't expect to be loved simply because you're now published.

The other reason to ignore the situation lies in becoming aware of the difference between a paradigm of competitive scarcity, and a paradigm of abundance. Simply put: If you come up against this issue, write a new poem and submit that. It baffles me that any writer would buy into the idea that creativity is a scarce resource that must be jealously guarded and fiercely defended.

My own position is this:

1. If a poem has been workshopped somewhere, that's like workshopping it in the classroom, or living room, with your regular writer's group. It should not be considered a publication because, frankly, that probably isn't the poem's final version, but rather it's struggling early version(s). I don't always post a revision for further comment, if I happen to have workshopped a poem. I think that workshopped poems should not be considered as already-published, since workshopped poems in writer's groups are not: the paradigm is the same. Just because your editor can find a line from your poem via a search engine is insufficient reason alone for rejection: they must also reasonably consider the context.

2. If one of my poems appears on here on the Dragoncave, or on my website, you can assume it's a final version. Should I gather those poems later into a book collection, they might well be revised again, but such revisions would not be fundamental changes, just little tweaks. So, a poem in that state could be considered previously published by some editor. But this attitude runs directly into collision with the needs of the published book collection: If your chapbook publishers requires you to list prior publications—the places these poems appeared—in an acknowledgments page, then you do need to list the places your poems appeared. My feeling is that one ought to gratefully acknowledge the journals in which one's publications previously appeared; but whether or not you list your own blog as such a publication is up to you. Personally, I don't think it's necessary, and I am not in favor of padding one's resumé, as it were. Nonetheless, this may be something you have to talk about with your chapbook's publisher; you might want to sound them out on their policy, beforehand.

Realistically, the current paradigm shift—possibly the greatest paradigm shift in the world of information supply and demand since the development of printing itself—will take a long time to settle down. We don't know when or how things will eventually resolve. We cannot guess: not because we are not intelligent enough to guess, but because the rate of technological change and paradigmatic evolution has reached a point of such acceleration that no one person or collective can keep track of it anymore. There is literally too much information to process nowadays: including information about information. (Art, after all, is one kind of transmittable data.)

Labels: ,

Monday, June 23, 2008

Recovering Perfectionist

Hi, my name is Art, and I'm a perfectionist.

Hi, Art!

Let me tell you the story of how I got here to Meeting. It's a long story, so I'll probably get it wrong. You know, tell it imperfectly.

[ hoots of good-natured derisive laughter ]

It all started with my Mom . . .

[ more laughter ]

Okay, that was all too Freudian. But seriously, folks, my Mom was a major perfectionist. I think I learned some of my tendencies from watching her all my life. She was a genuine perfectionist. Everything always had to be as perfect as possible. She could let some things go—she wasn't obsessive, really—but not for too long, and sooner or later everything was brought back into order. For example: Our home always had public rooms, which were kept immaculate and always ready for the unexpected guest, and private rooms, which didn't matter as much. But no one was let in to see the private rooms; no one except family, and only immediate family, not extended family. After Mom died, when some family friends were helping me clean house, some told me they had never before seen her bedroom, or even the hallway leading to it. Mom had a tendency to keep some things very private.

Some of this was generational, probably. My mother grew up in relative poverty, and both of parents were old enough to remember the Great Depression. That period of national deprivation and economic disaster marked that entire generation of children, I believe. More than one of my friends' parents became "always be prepared" packrats. My Mom was obsessed with flashlights, specifically with handing them out during thunderstorms, which terrified her. (I always liked storms.) A friend's mother had bought multiples of survival-supply items, like electric blankets; I helped clean out their house, when she died, and we also found multiple kitchen utility tools in their basement. In cleaning out my parents' house after their deaths, over the past several months, I discovered that my Dad was more of a packrat than I had known, saving things that were important to him. They lived in this last home for about 27 years, so, trust me, sorting through and cleaning out their home was a major undertaking.

Anyway, back to my story, before you get restless.

I admit to being a recovering perfectionist. I tend to still get caught in it, and beat myself up for making mistakes, or even having accidents, and for not doing some task perfectly. I have to actively remind myself to let myself off the hook, and give myself permission to screw up, not get it right the first time, even fail outright. Sometimes a few deep breaths are required.

[ chuckles ]

Here's how it usually catches me: I get an idea for how things should go, a plan of action. But we live in an entropic universe, an imperfect world, and entropy is creeping around the edges of a plan's beginning before you ever get to the end. That used to drive me crazy: I could never get it right. If I could just keep all the plates spinning in the air, when I got to last one, the structure would be complete, and I could be done with it. But it always seemed that when you got close to getting the last plate spinning, the first one would slip, and you'd have to go back and readjust it.

I tend to want to do a job myself, rather than delegate it to someone who might get it right, or do it as quickly and smoothly as I can.

By the way, this is symptom of perfectionism I recognize a lot in others. (You see how knowing your own problems can develop empathy!) I see people who micro-manage, and refuse to delegate non-essential tasks, and I see how it drives them into burnout. Been there, done that—designed and printed the t-shirt, in fact!

[ laughter ]

I'm not attached anymore to my way of getting things done being the only way, or even the best way. I have one friend who still can't wrap his head around this: because his way of doing things is effective and right most of the time, he tends to think he's right all the time, and tells people how to do a job the way he would do it. He cannot recognize that there are other ways to do the job that produce the same result, and are otherwise just as efficient. It's a blind spot for him.

But anyone can spend too much time and effort trying to do a task just The Right Way, that they never actually get it done. This is only one short step away from the obsessive-compulsive repetition of small rituals, that must be done Just Right, or the person cannot continue. Not being to get it Just Right gets them stuck, trapped in a tape loop, unable to move on. If you can recognize this tendency in yourself, that's the start of letting it go.

I've let go of my attachment to specific process, in favor of two things: appreciating the process itself as a Way, a gateless gate; and, a recognition that in many practical situations, an accomplished goal is the most important thing. Two of my favorite four-letter words are Done! and Next!

I'm speaking practically here, by the way, not spiritually. The spiritual side of recovering perfectionism is the recognition that the journey is more important than the destination, and it's the quality of the journey that matters.

One of the truths that I discovered, fairly early in life, that helped overcome a lot of my ingrained perfectionism, was a truth I owe to the Navajo. It was traditional, when weaving a rug or blanket, to leave a deliberate mistake in the finished piece. This is because only the gods are perfect. If you were to weave a perfect rug, especially if that rug contained a sandpainting design used in one of the healing rituals, or Sings (Chants), you would risk calling the gods into the artwork, which could upset the balance of the universe, and cause real problems. The only times sandpaintings are done perfectly correctly is during healing rituals; all other depictions of them contain at least one inaccuracy.

This is useful way of doing things: deliberate imperfection. When you build it in, you are not even tempted to try to make it perfect, and that is a great blessing, because it allows you to relax from the start. Making art shouldn't have to another kind of perfectionism. There's a point it's just Good Enough, and it's okay to stop working on it. I know artists who are so perfectionist about their art production that they never actually finish a piece or work: it is always under revision, and never completed.

The other aspect of the Navajo practice of imperfection was to leave a trail out of the pattern for the weaver's soul: since a weaver puts so much time and effort into a weaving, the soul can get trapped in the rug as it is on the loom. So, a loose piece of yarn is left sticking out slightly from the rug, allowing the soul a way to get out of the rug. This was called the spirit string or spirit line.

Another source of imperfectionism, if you will, that I discovered later in life is the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi. Stated perhaps too simply, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic attitude, not a style, that finds beauty in imperfection and natural materials, evoking the natural cycles of life and death. An uneven glaze on a tea bowl. The use of weathered wood instead of perfectly milled wood. The preference for asymmetry in form, over perfect symmetry.

What can we learn from this? What does this teach us?

At the very minimum, it reminds us that nature itself is imperfect, fractal, uneven, asymmetrical, and always changing. Perfectionism traps us, because it is unnatural. It's not even a kind of death, because death is natural—it's a kind of anti-life. I find myself able to relax into wabi-sabi, and let go of perfectionism, whenever I work with natural materials, to create a kind of beauty that doesn't require ideological perfection.

Because, after all, perfection doesn't exist. It's a purely mental, dissociative, unnatural state. Perfection is not found in nature. So I can let go of it, and just be, and just do my art.

That I'm still a recovering perfectionist mainly means that I still have to occasionally remind myself of all this. But it's all good. I'm easy about it.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Spring, the World Turns Pink

Crabapple tree, early May 2008, Beloit, WI

Sunset with waxing moon, June 2008, Beloit, WI


Old Journals

Before I became the laptop-toting wanderer that I am, I wrote as often as I do now—not daily, but regularly—in journals. I started writing in journals when I was twenty. I had no interest in keeping a diary, especially a daily diary of mundane circumstances and events that no-one, least of all me, would care to read about in future. I mean, who cares? It's just not that interesting. But when I was twenty, i started to realize that I needed to write down, as often as I felt like it, what I was feeling and thinking. A lot of that is unintersting, too; yet as I go through boxes after moving last month, as we sort through the bins and trunks of family photos and papers—and as I must shift gears regularly, because the emotional charge that develops from going through the family history becomes overwhelming in due time—I discover my old written journals, and leaf through them at random.

I started with spiral notebooks from Ulrich's Bookstore in Ann Arbor. These are books of manageable size, not too thick, not to tall and wide: not too daunting in which to write. When I lived in Java, in Indonesia, in 1985-86, on a Fulbright, I started to write in thicker, cheap, lined journals bought in office supply stores in downtown Surakarta. These books were thicker, much thicker, although the paper is basically thin newsprint pulp. I bought about a dozen of these cheap writing books to bring home with me from Java, and used them for my journals for close to twenty years. I have one or two empty volumes left, but these books are mostly full now.

In the past few years, I have begun to write directly onto the laptop with regularity; but when I am traveling off the grid—camping, driving across the Big Empty, or spending all day taking photos and writing from roadside stops along the Pacific coast—I now write in larger journals yet. Some years ago, my sister began to bind books, and she makes handmade bound journals for herself, and me, and others, every year or so. I have a set of these that I use for journals, but also for calligraphy and haiga, and one or two I can't bring myself to write in, because the book itself is a work of art. More and more I use a large, unlined, blank artist's sketchbook, because more and more I am drawing as well as writing in my journals. I continue to teach myself to draw with colored pencils. (I've also discovered, in going through the boxes during the move, that my mother had kept every painting or drawing I had ever made, back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. I've found two boxed caches of this old, childhood work. Some of the acrylic paintings I did back then are better than I remembered.) More and more, too, I am using larger brush pens to write with, and using larger, broader strokes, that flow easily from words into pictures. That division between writing and visual art-making seems less and less firm, as time goes by.

Most of my poems have begun in my journals—either as sketches to be edited later, or the occasional fully-formed poem. Poems come to me, and more than a few have arrived complete, as though I was taking dictation, needing little revision later. I've gotten used to that; there's some part of my mind that does this work of writing, that only tells the conscious, personality-ego part of my mind what's going on later, when it's complete. It's like something hits the Print button in the back of my head, and a poem comes out.

Below are three haiku, dating from a journal from about ten years ago. The journal is one of those cheap Indonesian lined volumes. The haiku are what they are. At some point, I need to go back through these journals, and make sure I've extracted all the ideas, and poems, and project plans, that I mixed in with all my more mundane writings about what I was feeling and thinking. These were everyday books: everything went into them. Some of it is worth keeping, even as the most of it is unmemorable.

Labels: , , , ,

solstice fire

as the rains subside
we drool into the earth,
vanishing as stones drown,
into silent mud;
we’ve unmasked the world
turning silence into silver
daimon eyes stripping the essential
violence of birth,
dying to create:

clouds move across stars,
a cool wind rises as you walk;
music from a flute of purple flowers raining,
a glass leaf, exquisite in every vein,
turns in a child-god’s hands.

the wind that blows between the worlds
bends the air, igniting your hands,
your eyes; the doors open,
the light of the place between
slips into the frame, actinic, inviting;
the jewel of the worlds spinning,
each facet a new world:
choose. choose.
create your life.

we are our own gods:
what madness we grow from
is the end we chose to create;
spinning on the end of a flute,
blood luck dripping from the player’s hands,
warm whirlwinds shape today from tomorrow,
unnamed, unknowable until chosen.

Labels: ,

Meditations on John Donne

A difficult writer, a man who became a leader of his Church in England, whose sermons are as famous as his poems. Often quoted, often misunderstood. I've sung numerous choral settings if his words, feeling via the repetition of rehearsal the meanings of those words get under my skin. I've never set any of his words to music, as I have done with Hopkins, but there's still time.

John Donne, poet and priest, capable of erotic and satirical poetry as brilliant as his religious verse. A man of many facets, some of them contradictory. If you could call him back to life, for one day, to converse and ask questions of the man, I might ask him, How did you resolve your contradictions? or did you at all? Sometimes it's the inner conflicts in a writer that lead him or her to the greatest depths, the most profound insights into the human self and soul and mind. Sometimes it's the unresolved tensions, held in paradoxical suspension, that lead one towards enlightenment.

There's a light that shines through Donne's words, even at his darkest and most problematic, a light borne of experience. This is a poet who lived a life of hard, dark passages, which seasoned both his self and his art, and gave him the confidence to write about those dark times with a spiritual honesty echoes rarely in English poetry. The poet he is most often placed in companionship with, George Herbert, Donne's equal in many ways (and to whom Donne dedicated a poem), is another mirror in which we see these shadows. The are not dissimilar. (Oddly, we know more about Herbert than Donne, as persons.) We have a few portraits of Donne, some epitaphs, and other sources; but the man is still best viewed through the veil of his own writings.

This first poem, one of the Holy Sonnets, is well-known. But it is not deeply known, it seems to me. Few who read it seem to understand that Donne is both reflecting upon his soul's dark night, and begging for it to be afflicted upon him, again and again—break, blow, burn—because it is in the dark night that we find who we really are, when all else is stripped away. The imagery is violent, sensual, dramatic; a characteristic of Donne's greatest poems. How are we to take this? It is as if Donne is begging to be raped by the Divine, to be entered by Spirit and raised to ecstasy: the language is as sexual as it is spiritual.

Many of the world's mystics have used the language of sexual love to describe the movement of Spirit into themselves. What so many critics do not understand is that these mystical poets meant it to be literal ravishment, literal ecstasy, not merely some disembodied gnosis, some magnesium flare that separates mind from soma. I believe that Donne knew better; and this is what makes him a genuine mystical poet—the common label for Donne and Herbert, and their peers, the "metaphysical poets," falls far short of their actuality, their awareness that the soul and the body are One, not-two.


Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

This next poem is a lesser-known poem from Donne's canon, but to me it speaks, both figuratively and literally, of the start of new life, of rebirth and resurrection. It speaks to me of starting my own life over, after the difficult passage I have passed through. It speaks of the desert, but also of cool waters, of the ocean, but also of mist. Again Donne's language is violent, and he focuses on the passage of blood that he has passed through. But there is still light behind the blood.

La Corona
7. Ascension

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th' uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash'd, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter'd heaven for me!
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark'd the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

And then there are Donne's Devotions, the best known passage of which I quote below. No man is an island. We have all heard that countless times, even though we don't always know what it means. We ken it somehow on a non-verbal level, knowing that we are all One, all connected. Again, the mystical poet's vision is akin to the depth psychologists: the shared archetypal images of the collective unconscious give weight and truth to Donne's images and phrases: and we know them to be true. No man is an island: and on this spherical planet on which we ride, waters seek their lowest grounds: islands are not disconnected from the mainland, because all the land between the shore and the island is one land, connected under water. The water lies between, but also above and around the spine of the earth.

This seventeenth Meditation begins with the epigraph:

Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

And so we must. No one gets out of here alive. The two things we all share in common, without exception, and being born, and dying. The process of each binds us together, even if nothing else can. We are in relationship if only because we shall all shed the last skin.

Donne uses analogies and examples to make his point, in this Meditation, but he also states the truth, plainly and simply: for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

This is the asking for the dark night again. The asking for burial and rebirth. The shedding of the skin, to be reborn. Some centuries later, another poet, a far less pious and Christian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, gives us the same message, in very similar words, in the opening section Tenth of the Duino Elegies:

How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year-, not only a season
in time-, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil
and home.

And Donne echoes all this, in his Meditation:

The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Unprinted Books

(Re-)reading a slim little book this morning, The Gospel According to Zen, I came across a couple of passages regarding poetry and creativity that seem important to pass on. *

There has been a lot of turbulence on Poetryworld lately. Probably no more infighting than usual, but I find I have no taste for it, no interest in definitively establishing who's right and who's wrong—if that's even possible, which I doubt. There is much heat, and little light.

In the midst of all this, I picked up this little book to re-read at random, and the book fell open to the following passage, which seems so incredibly relevant to the state of poetry, and creativity in general, at the present time:

Men know how to read printed books; they do not know how to read the unprinted ones. They can play on a stringed harp, but not on an stringless one. Applying themselves to the superficial instead of the profound, how should they understand music or poetry?
—from R.H. Blyth, ed., Haiku, Vol. 1

What this makes me think of is the artless art, the sublime numinous experience that lies behind the poem, and is both source and cause of its making, and if the poem is well-made, the numinous recreated in the reader, in their own soma and out of their own experience. That is real connection.

The argument is made by some poets that poetry is the highest artform of all because it most closely approaches this form of near-telepathic connection between writer and reader. Certainly poetry is capable of achieving that. But saying therefore that makes poetry the "highest" artform is a leap, because that assumes that other artforms are not capable of the same level of near-telepathic connection, which demonstrably they are.

A similar argument is made, following up on that idea, that because poetry is capable of such near-telepathic connections, it is therefore the most abstract artform of all, which of course means it is also the pinnacle or highest of all artforms.

That doesn't follow at all. It isn't even logical.

Poetry is made of words. I will grant you that poetry is the pinnacle verbal artform. But it is not more abstract than music or dance, which use no words at all.

No words are as short and compact as one note expressively played on a violin. Words are never as abstract as wordlessness, just as silence is more abstract than noise.

This is all rationalization. It doesn't really matter, of course.

But this is typical of artists in all artforms, when they talk about their artforms, and compare them to other artforms. All poets say poetry is the highest artform, all dancers say dance is the highest artform, all musicians say music is the highest artform, architects say the same thing about architecture, painters say the same thing about painting, and so on and on.

This Artform Vs. Artform Deathmatch Championship is absurd, because comparisons between "the greatest" are only valid to a point when you're talking apples and oranges and lemons: they're all fruit, but they're all different enough varieties of fruit that comparisons only take you partway to the truth. We can all have our opinions and beliefs about what the greatest artform is, or could be, but they're not much more than that. You'll never convince a dancer that poetry is a higher artform than dance. Maybe if you teach the poet to become a dancer, and the dancer to become a poet, they might have some genuine common ground for comparison, but without that somatic experience, comparison is a mental/verbal game, and not much more than that. In fact, because it's a verbal game, it's limited by its medium. If you want to pursue truisms that point out the weakness and uselessness of words in many situations, one need only cite the hoary clichés Actions speak louder than words or I was struck speechless by your lies.

The Buddha's flower sermon was conducted entirely in silence, and was one the most profound teachings ever transmitted by any spiritual teacher.

Opera was considered the highest artform for centuries in Western culture, because it combines music, lighting, words, theatrical presentation (drama and acting), stage design (visual artwork), and is a time-binding narrative artform the same way plays and movies are. That's a fairly convincing argument, because opera is a multi-media artform. A multi-artform artform in which all the other artforms are subsumed within it to create a larger synergistic whole. The nearest thing to that in contemporary arts, that is not opera per se, is performance art, especially as it is practiced by artists such as Laurie Anderson.

In songwriting, poetry (words, if not poetry) are one element that combine with other elements to create a larger synergistic whole. That's an argument sometimes used by songwriters to claim their artform is the greatest. The truth is, most song lyrics are not poetry per se, and cannot stand on their own without the music that both enhances and contextualizes them. Most song lyrics do not succeed when read on the page, or spoken out loud as poems, rather than sung. This truth points out the fallacies behind the cult of Bob Dylan being a great poet: he is indeed a great songwriter, but he is not a great poet. Poetry has to be able to function successfully without the music, and also on the page. (The entire spoken word/performance poetry vs. printed poetry deathmatch is another bit of absurdity. A poem needs to work both on the page and read aloud.)

So, you can argue this a lot of ways. Most of them are convincing, at least on some levels, and most of them are rationales for saying that whatever artform you yourself practice is the greatest of them all. This reduces to self-justification, for the most part.

You'll never convince dancers that poetry is a higher artform than dance. They know better. And, within the context of the artform that they are practicing—dance—they're right.

Authority prevents the understanding of oneself, does it not? Under the shelter of an authority, a guide, you may have temporarily a sense of security, a sense of well-being, but that is not the understanding of the total process of oneself. Authority in its very nature prevents the full awareness of oneself and therefore ultimately destroys freedom; in freedom alone can there be creativeness. There can be creativeness only through self-knowledge. Most of us are not creative; we are repetitive machines, mere gramaphone records playing over and over again certain songs of experience, certain conclusions and memories, either our own or those of another. Such repetition is not creative being—but it is what we want. Because we want to be inwardly secure, we are constantly seeking methods and means for this security, and thereby we create authority, the worship of another, which destroys comprehension, that spontaneous tranquility of mind in which alone can there be creativeness.
—from J. Krishnamurti, in The First and Last Freedom

This speaks to me of the ongoing discussion, of which I have played a part, in what's wrong with online poetry, and how the situation might be improved. (The essay that triggered this discussion can be read here, a lot of the suggestions for what can be done to improve online poetry are to be found in the comments thread. This discussion has also rippled out across cyberspace, and has been discussed on many online poetry-related fora and blogs, etc.) The discussion has resolved into some profound questions about the usefulness of moderation and administration for online poetry workshops, and how policing the masses can interfere with a poet's growth, in that context. The poet deserves the chance to fail, without interference, or succeed.

Krishnamurti goes on with some general comments about creativity:

Surely our difficulty is that most of us have lost this sense of creativeness. To be creative does not mean that we must paint pictures or write poems and become famous. That is not creativeness—it is merely the capacity to express an idea, which the public applauds or disregards. Capacity and creativeness should not be confused. Capacity is not creativeness. Creativeness is quite a different state of being, is it not? It is a state in which the self is absent, in which the mind is no longer a focus of our experiences, our ambitions, our pursuits, and our desires. Creativeness is not a continuous state, it is new from moment to moment, it is a movement in which there is not the "me," the "mine," in which the thought is not focused on any particular experience, ambition, achievement, purpose, and motive. It is only when the self is not that there is creativeness—that state of being in which alone there can be reality, the creator of all things. But that state cannot be conceived or imagined, it cannot be formulated or copied, it cannot be attained through any system, through any philosophy, through any discipline; on the contrary, it comes into being only through understanding the total process of oneself.

The understanding of oneself is not a result, a culmination; it is seeing oneself from moment to moment in the mirror of relationship—one's relationship to property, to things, to people, and to ideas. But we find it difficult to be alert, to be aware, and we prefer to dull our minds by following a method, by accepting authorities, superstitions, and gratifying theories; so our minds become weary, exhausted, and insensitive. Such a mind cannot be in a state of creativeness. That state of creativeness comes only when the self, which is the process of recognition and accumulation, ceases to be; because, after all, consciousness as the "me" is the center of recognition, recognition is merely the process of accumulation of experience. But we are all afraid to be nothing, because we all want to be something. The little man wants to be a big man, the unvirtuous wants to be virtuous, the weak and obscure crave power, position, and authority. This is the incessant activity of the mind. Such a mind cannot be quiet and therefore can never understand the state of creativeness.

Krishnamurti is describing both the state of meditation, I believe, and the state of egolessness in which creative force moves most freely. You have to get your self out of the way so that the Self can emerge. When you learn to get out of your own way, sometimes what emerges seems much larger than oneself; and it often is. It's something larger than the little me that gets up in the morning, pays the bills, and wants to eat a good meal. It, when it emerges, is something much larger—perhaps something transpersonal, something cosmic, or something mythic. It is this aspect of the larger Self with which we co-create, when we create, when we are being creative; that is why this kind of creative force is not limited to known artforms, but can show up anywhere.


* This is one those slim little anthologies of collected wisdom that were popular as paperbacks when it was first published. The full title is The Gospel According to Zen: Beyond the death of God, edited by Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr (Signet/Mentor, 1970). The blurbs on the cover tell about the book more directly than I can:

An extraordinarily ecumenical collection of readings in the new consciousness of post-Christian man. . . .

At the living heart of both Christianity and Zen lies a single, luminous perception: Whether it is called Satori or Salvation, it is nothing less than the perfect knowledge of God. This unusual book brings together the most enlightening parables, riddles, and poems of East and West, to explore and illuminate this "new consciousness" that is thrusting modern religious thought beyond theology.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 16, 2008

Shifting Gears

It's perhaps because I have only a limited time in which to play and record on my mother's piano, before it is shipped away; or perhaps it's because I've just started teaching music, teaching piano, again, after a long hiatus. Perhaps it's because the recent verbal warfare about poetry online, so fierce and vicious, has driven the last nail into the coffin of my disaffection with the poetry critique workshop environment—a disaffection that had been growing for months prior, as I was increasingly feeling that I could not get the critique I wanted, or needed. Perhaps it's that, at some point, one simply tires of the endless taxonomy—the minute subdivisions among categorical genres, the bias of procedure over content, the procession of manifestoed -ism after -ism—and one wants to simply write, and not have to join either a camp, or sacrifice one's time in arguing over labels. Perhaps it's that what I have been writing, which is as new to me as it is to you, has mostly been focused on the major life-changing events I have passed through in the past two years, and has produced major changes in my art; so that I am feeling my way much of the time, without a roadmap, without desire for one; and that I have grown weary of justifying myself to those critical forces that are alternately Apollonian-formalist, or simply clueless. Perhaps it's because one reaches a point where the workshop environment, with its tendencies towards conformity and placing social cohesion before artistic growth, becomes an impediment rather than an aid to one's artistic development; at some point, you need to go off on your own, rightly or wrongly, and explore the possibility that you have more of a clue about what you're trying to do with writing than does anybody else. (Not that you'd never do a workshop ever again; but right now, it's not helpful.)

Still, I find myself producing very little poetry, at the moment, and much more music. I find myself uninterested in engaging anymore with the politics of -isms that poetry has become, and the personal politics of who gets to call themselves a poet, and who doesn't. A lot of those arguments are so fierce and violent because there's literally nothing at stake. Poets care a lot more than they ought about the arguments, probably because it's safe to do so; in the current world political climate, fraught with actual danger and warfare, an argument over poetry is a safe sublimation for more general anxieties. The writing that has been coming out, most of it prose-poem, has been largely focused on elements of the life-reassessment, and reassessment of personal biography, that I'm told are integral to the grief process. I'm content to let whatever writing I produce follow its own nose, and not try to force it into either agenda or practice. I'm content to explore those darker caves at the back of the mind, where the ancestral dragons rumble and sing, and put up a few candlelit paintings, when I am so moved.

I've always been aware that creativity is a force, like water through a firehose, with many outlets. Where you direct it doesn't matter, as it will spray out regardless. The real battle with the firehose is to keep the flow clear of obstructions. For myself, if for no one else, there are two scales of operation upon which this works. On the micro scale, I am able to redirect the firehose pretty much wherever I wish, as I turn my attention from project to project without serious interruption. On the macro scale, though, there is a cycle of attention that operates on a deeper level than my conscious intentions. On this larger scale, I have been aware for some years that, for example, when I am musically active, musically busy and satisfied with what I'm doing, very little poetry comes out. The need is simply diminished; the urge is lessened. I may simply be in a period where the larger attention is shifted away from one art, onto the other. (I like what few poems or prose-poems I'm producing at the moment: I like them because I am being surprised by them. None are planned, and all of them move in unpredictable directions.)

I've never believed that one must, as an artist, choose only one artform in which to work. I have always felt that one is able to do more than one, and at high levels. One might still dabble in other artforms, but the mythology that artists are only capable of mastering one artform has never been convincing. I'm sure for some artists that might be true: but it might also be true that it is these mono-artists who most promote the idea that no artist can ever be great who works in more than one artform. It's hard to believe in something you've never experienced, and cannot imagine. (Although that's a short definition of the essence of faith.) For myself, I in turn do not believe in the mono-artist, as that has not been my experience, either.

The fact is, there have been several great artists who were multi-channel artists. I take most of these as my role models: these mavericks, these shruggers at the small-minded who went their own way and didn't listen to the nay-sayers. A partial list of my mentors, my role-models in this realm, all of them polymaths and multi-artists, must include: Leonardo da Vinci; Benjamin Franklin; John Cage; Georgia O'Keeffe; Gordon Parks; Henri Matisse; May Sarton; C.G. Jung; and some few others, each of whom I also note were pioneers and explorers, often ahead of their times artistically and philosophically. The list evolves periodically. I was a young teenager when I first codified this list, which I used at that time to proactively argue against those among my teachers and peers who would have me choose between the many artforms I was interested in, and practice only one of them. The argument has always been, "You can only get good at one artform, because you have to devote all your time and attention to it, in order to get good." My experience has always contradicted this argument, and my confidence in my own firehose of creative force has always affirmed me. I was no more than 13 or 14 when I first discovered Gordon Parks, and used him as an example that disproved the mono-artist myth. His name was the first one that list; the rest were added later, as I discovered them.

My own firehose of creative force is moving away from poetry, again, still, for now. It will no doubt return. I have experienced dry spells and fallow periods, before, in every artform I practice. The well has never run completely dry; even in dry spells, I still make art, although it might be sparser in arrival. I have learned that fallow periods are necessary to the artistic process: a necessary pause, perhaps. One always returns, eventually, to continue what one has begun.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Substantial Reclamation

Dreams littered with stirred up memories. Old locations. The high school attended, the elementary school, the childhood crushes and vanities and sorrows. Learning to walk through the woods to get home to avoid the bullies, a history of violence leading to nature's first communion. The church of the redwing blackbird. Finding old photographs that depict a boy full of silence, a quiet tight-lipped concentrator on things others never noticed. Playing piano on a summer afternoon shirtless in the heat snapshot photographed by amateur family camera embarrassed by either shirtlessness or photographer's distraction while playing a difficult piece. Youthful stage-fright. Another photograph sitting at breakfast table reading a magazine surrounded by flowers winter weekend morning snow outside flowers in vase on table. Something romantic about the image, something lovely. Parents trusted boy at home when going to evening concerts, trusted him not to get into trouble. How he wishes he had, certain kinds of trouble anyway. Dreams always in color, memories always colored, photographs sometimes black and white. dreams of flying down the school corridors, or flying outside, avoiding trees and powerlines. Another photograph of washing the family car, wearing only a swimsuit, water, suds, and glasses. Always wearing glasses. A serious boy at any age. In camera's eye few smiles fully bright few grins unguarded, always something in the eyes that doubts questions seriously wonders. Fresh lithe limbs with old man's gaze. Dreams inhabit some memories more than others, coloring perceptions, waking up stirred and troubled, needing to revisit old locations, revisiting feelings sifted for places to be now, here, now, then, awakened fluttering in the breast come morning waking alone.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 13, 2008

Music from My Mother's Piano 2

Yesterday I edited a few more improv pieces together from recent recording sessions with my mother's piano. The day was full of storms, heavy rain, lightning and thunder in waves, well into the night. The old house is now basically empty, except for the last round of cleaning. The piano sits alone in the large living room. The room's acoustics have changed without all the soft couches and chairs in it to absorb sound; it now has a much more live sound. In between all the severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings, I was drawn to more abstract and atonal ideas that I had played.

When you record it doesn't always seem like genuine music: you're experimenting, you're trying an idea out, you're testing the limits of your technical ability to play what you hear in your head. So it's often a pleasant surprise that improvs that seemed tentative, in the moment, can come to seem like coherent compositions, upon later review.


she disappeared between the gypsum trees

celestial road

I felt the mood of some of these pieces, when I was editing them—perhaps this was my mood anyway, and I was merely projecting it onto the music—to be wistful, bordering on sorrow, but never dramatized. There are images that emerge for me of celestial landscapes, of a loved one disappearing into the night mist, of missing them, but also of being aware of the immensity of the cosmos into which they've faded.

celestial road is assembled from two different one-minute improvs, heavily processed, then layered together. It's both modal and abstract. I got the sense of complementary voices, one very staid and moving forward implacably, the other very light and crystalline. I sometimes wonder if the stars don't sing like this. The effect created, for me, the feeling I get when I listen to some of Olivier Messiaen's more celestial compositions.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rainbows After the Deluge

The weather has been turbulent and dangerous here, shedding more and more rain, after weeks of cool weather. The past year has caused the river to flood over its banks onto the floodplain three or four times—last August, last winter, last March, and now—which is a record, in my memory. Suffice to say, we haven't had to water any of the plants for some time. Some cornfields north of here are flooded, and when the sun comes out, those spots under water will overheat, killing the crop under them. I was driving through the back roads a few days ago, noticing how the new crops were starting to sprout, and poke their tendrils above the rich, dark soil. Now, some of those more low-lying fields are no doubt flooded. It's enough to make one think about the Biblical Flood.

But it also makes one think of what came after that mythic Flood, in the Bible story. And there have been those in the skies, as well.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Birds In Space

Birds In Space, acrylic on posterboard, airbrush technique with stencil forms, probably from the 1970s

In moving to my new house, and in sorting through my parents' belongings as we prepared for the move, and for putting my parents' old house on sale, we keep discovering many forgotten things. I have found a whole box containing art I had made many years ago, in my teens and twenties. There are many pieces in there I had forgotten about, or had lost track of. It turns out I gave a lot of my art to my mother, thinking it wasn't worth very much, and she had saved it all. She saved a lot of things, but in particular she saved all the creative work I gave her.

That was a point in my life when I felt like I was no good as an artist, had no talent for drawing, and not much technical ability. The truth is, of course, I was unfairly comparing myself, a beginner, with artists much more experienced and accomplished. In such comparisons, of course you're going to fall short.

Now I can look back at the art I made back then, and I think it actually looks rather good. It's not technically adept, but it has spirit and vigor. Sometimes I think the worst things art school and music school do to enrolled students is force all the spontaneity out of them. I look back at this early art of mine, which was made for no reason than to do it, and I like what I see. Are these great paintings? No; but they were made from honest exploration, not from a desire for fame. (Fame in the arts is something I have always believed to be more accidental than inevitable. Merit is demonstrably disconnected from fame.)

I have memories of my mother encouraging me to do more with art, with writing, with music; she encouraged me and supported me, in memory, especially when I was unsure of myself. It was a huge boost of confidence-building, one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child. Then as now a lot of my art was misunderstood and occasionally feared and rejected. I have never been good at being dishonest in my creativity, I have always tended to go boldly into discomfort zones, knowing that I must do so, out of honesty, even when it scared me, too. Sometimes what I wrote and composed as a teenager and young adult made me feel very emotionally naked. I have a memory of my mother saying, in that firm tone of voice she could use: Listen! Who cares what other people think? You keep doing what you're doing, and ignore them. That took me many years to let sink in; I have probably been more aware than not of the reactions me art gives to other people. But I have also been willing, as always, to be honest in my art, and go into zones of discomfort because I must. This was never a desire to shock or titillate, never some kind of conscious rebellion. It has always been about following where the poem, or the painting, or the music, wanted to go: it has always been about where it takes me, not where I would have it go. My willingness to follow it wherever it wants to go is why I've ended up in discomfort zones.

So, I am rediscovering an artistic period in my life that I had long since forgotten, or put behind me, and I am finding that I like a lot of what I see. Some of these old paintings are actually good. Most are not—but then, most painting is not, no matter who does it. All the same, I am enjoying this process of mining the archeological past of my own creative development. It's time, now that both of my parents have passed on, to re-assess all those old parts of my life, and look at them in the context of going forward, now, with my own life, freed of what no longer needs to hold me back. We can forgive what needs to be forgiven, of the past, and we can re-discover what was good and true, and bring that back into what we are now, as we move on. Perhaps this is all part of the grieving process, this reassessment and this rediscovery. But it is also part of letting go, and of healing.

Labels: , , ,

what remains

opening the rock with a hammerblow
fragments of white jasper chert and dolomite
skitter away across the tableland

suddenly it’s done: no more
sorting and carting, no more choosing
sides to be thrown aside, kept, given

finding stones in the basement
realizing I am not my family’s first collector of
rare and unusual geologic beauty
my mother kept perfect stones
as doorstops and regulators
ovoid hearts found next to boxes of candles
a veined gabbro block on a storeroom shelf
living alone in the broken darkness

and suddenly it’s done: no more
boxes to sort, move, store, put away
just bills to pay, new arrangements to gather in

and in the garage more stones found
geodes pregnant with mystery, unopened
shimmering mica panes flash in the afternoon light
and clusters of black-speckled rough granites

my own collection of stones
gathered in the mountains that first summer
I traveled there to study

this gathering of stones, these gardens
of stone: I came by this habit most naturally
from mother to son to garden of memory


Friday, June 06, 2008

Music from My Mother's Piano

I have been recording some new pieces, and new improvisations, on my Mother's 1970 Yamaha grand piano, the piano I grew up with, and spent many hours playing, and studying to play piano, since I was a boy. The piano will eventually leave the house, and travel to Europe, where my sister and her husband live. I'd keep it if I had room for it. My brother in law is also a professional musician, so it will be well-loved.

Meantime, I am recording new pieces on the piano. I will be recording more. I am also making many new photographs of the piano, as memories, and as elements for future art, collages, etc.

Here's a sampling:



Rain, with rain

midnight wing

3 May 2008. I recorded two new piano improvs last night. It took awhile to get set up, but I did what I wanted to do. One of the new pieces is self-confident, and already on the podcast: midnight wing. The other piece was a bit tentative, but there’s something really good about it; I might try to record that one again. I have finally set up the mics and mixer by the piano, where I will leave them set up at least for a day or two, while I record as much as I can before Pam arrives. It is quieter late at night, but I don’t mind the right kind of ambient noise, if it’s birds or rain instead of traffic sounds.

the essential has remained. it remains

4 May 2008. It’s late at night. I just finished recording on piano the piece that I had begun to compose and record a few nights ago, that was tentative then, but is done now. Tonight I played it the best I am able. I am tempted to call it Requiem, but what I did instead was look for a line from one of my favorite poets, one who has given me many lines as titles for music: Odysseas Elytis. There is a line in his 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech: . . . the essential has remained. It remains. That is the title. It is a piece that is in memoriam for my parents. I just finished rendering it, and am posting it to the podcast. This is the first, best music I can make, for now, for the memory of my parents. It is as close as I can come to those unnamable feelings that have been lurking around the edges. It is the best I can do, for now. I may re-record it at another time.

A recently discovered photo of me playing this piano in my teens; probably from the early 1970s

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Inner Compass 2: Another Vista

One of the most remarkable aspects of much contemporary poetry criticism is how remarkably parochial it is. Very few contemporary critics have a real sense of history, and even less of a sense of the rest of the world's poetry. I won't even mention how few of them have a sense of the history of the rest of the world's poetry. When you are a poet, like me, who has been strongly influenced by Asian poetry, and the history of Asian poetry, constantly finding new insights and fresh depths therein, finding like-minded poets and critics in the West can be an exercise doomed to frustration.

The truth is, of course, this dislocation and misunderstanding is something I've felt my entire life. I was, after all, a child who grew up in southern India before "returning home" to the USA, a country his parents were from, but of which he has no memory. I've always looked to India, and later, to Japan, not only for artistic inspiration, but to find out who I am. My inner compass has always pointed towards Hindu-Buddhist values. There are still times when Greco-Roman myths and philosophies, and the ideologies derived from them, can seem to me, as they seemed to me when I first encountered them in history and civics classes in public school, quaint and exotic. Edward Said defined Orientalism, in his book of that same name, as often prejudiced and outsider views of the East by the West, in which the mirror can be distorted by the history of political Imperialism and colonialism. I wonder sometimes if there is an equivalent reverse-exoticism operating in those from the East, a kind of Occidentalism?

This morning, I picked up and re-read part of Octavio Paz' book In Light of India. Paz was Mexico's greatest poet and critic of the past century; but he was also an internationalist, a world thinker, who had spent many years as Ambassador to India, and whose life, like mine, had been deeply affected by long encounters with the Other, in other cultures, and through travels. One aspect of American provincialism that I find parochial is that few Americans travel very far, or very often; and this is reflected in the parochialism in criticism. Far too few American poets and critics know even more than one language. Paz, on the other hand, traveled widely, learned from his travels, learned other languages, and brought all his experience into his poetry. Even his most deliberately Mexican writings cannot help but contain reflections of the rest of the world.

In a long discussion of poetry in ancient India, Paz points out several things that are shocking to the parochial Western mind, that serve to explode assumptions about the world. For example, he contrasts classical Indian Sanskrit poetry with that of the Renaissance, pointing out that one mood that is common to Renaissance poetry does not appear in Sanskrit poetry: melancholy.

In Indian poetry, on the other hand, there is a feeling that is rare in ours: luxuriousness, that moment in which the body, without losing its composure, seems to waver, enveloped by extreme pleasure, and falls into a delicious swoon. The poem becomes a naked body adorned with jewels, lying conquered. Luxuriousness is an effluvium that glows and vanishes. It is also an agent of metamorphosis: the male body, weakened by an excess of pleasure, twists into that of a woman; in turn, the female body, goaded by desire, leaps on top like a tiger. The transposition adds ambiguity to the erotic battle: Krishna seems at times like a maiden, and the graceful Parvati, in a flash of the eyes, turns into the terrifying Durga. (p. 153)

Eroticism in Indian art—eros itself, if you will—is often depicted as languorous, rather than conquering. Sexuality is not a war between the sexes, but a blurring of their boundaries. Role-reversals are not uncommon: the woman must ride on top, and be dominant. The rigid gender and sexual roles that have become reified by custom and religious dictates in the West are not present in this poetry.

The ambiguities of the erotic games that Kalidasa, Amaru, and other poets describe are not perversions, in the Freudian sense: pregenital games. And, unlike the Greco-Roman classics, homosexuality hardly ever appears in the Indian poetic tradition. Nor is there the notion of sin or the consciousness of the transgression of norms. This is the great difference from Western eroticism, which since the end of the eighteenth century has been largely concerned with infraction and violence. Bataille emphasizes that eroticism is essentially transgression: Hindu art proves him wrong. It is not a legal code but a fan: unfolding, refolding, unfolding again, displaying the whole range of pleasures. An art and a poetry that have never known sadism. (p. 154)

The eternal humanness of this Sanskrit poetry—it's durability, but also its location in the soma, the body, the sensual—brings into high relief, for me, why so many contemporary Western poetics seem like ephemeral fashions. Both the egoistic self-absorption of confessional lyric poetry, and the intellectual puzzle-boxes of language poetry, seem like bubbles on the surface of a long tradition—neither style destined to endure, neither topic or tone likely to be embraced forever by future poets. There are merits to both of these poetries, and things to learn from them; but neither of them will be the nature and root of poetry in the long run. In their distinct ways, they are both psychological and mental, with no strong connection to sensuality and corporeality and embodiment (I'm not ignoring that there are individual poems within both styles that are powerfully sensual) as part and parcel of the human experience.

The ancient Sanskrit poetry brings us back to the body. It also embraces by implication and interpretation the tantric awareness of the duality of personal energies, Shiva and Shakti, yin and yang, animus and anima, and in this aspect is deeply psychological as well as sensual and erotic. These are poetries of eros, while so much of Western poetry has become fascinated with and dominated by poetries of logos. Most Western poetics views Sanskrit poetry as exotic, and from another time, while poetries from contemporary poets that explore these domains of the flesh are usually labeled aberrant, transgressive, even pornographic. I do find it intriguing that most of the erotic poetry from contemporary Western poets that touches on the same topics and luxuriousness of Sanskrit poetry comes, now, from homoerotic poets. There is little overt homoeroticism in the Sanskrit poetry, but the poetry that comes closest to its tone and temperament nowadays in gay and lesbian erotic poetry. (One laments the loss to published literature of the magazine Yellow Silk, edited by Lily Pond, which was the beautiful and sensual exception.) There are several possible reasons why that might have come to be; foremost is the possibility that authors whose sexual differences from the normative values of the mainstream culture have made them targets of oppression rebel in every way possible, both to assert their own aliveness, but also as a form of tweaking the noses of those who insist upon more mainstream values.

I find the fashionability of contemporary poetic trends to be ephemeral rather than enduring precisely because they present themselves are perpetually avant-garde. They may have begun as resistance and rebellion, but now they have become established. It's very difficult to present one's group as continuing to be perpetually avant-garde when they have become the mainstream, or a dominant current at least. We cannot know what will endure, but we can make guesses when we see a style of poetry lose interest to the generations following that of its major creators. (In which instance, Romanticism has long outlasted Language Poetry, and well continue to do so.)

The necessity of following one's inner compass instead of the winds of fashion is not so that one's poems will endure for centuries, although that's not bad in itself; the necessity is because one cannot depend on fashion because fashion is ephemeral and fickle.

And the confidence in—the hope of—the appearance of a future reader, that twin soul who will save us from the injustices of the present, is a sentiment that runs through all poets and writers, both Eastern and Western:

Armed with their rules and precepts,
many condemn my verses.
I don't write for them,
but for that soul, twin to mine,
who will be born tomorrow.
Time is long and the world wide.
(p. 160)

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Inner Compass: Avoiding Advice About Writing

When you write do you take anybody's advice about writing? Don't do it: nothing will so mix you up as advice. If a fellow wants to keep clear about himself he must first of all swear a big oath that he'll never take any advice.
—Walt Whitman, 19 April 1888; from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden

At a certain point (a point I have reached as of a few months ago), you have to stop taking advice from other people about your own writing. At that point, you have to learn to trust your own craftsmanship—you are no longer an apprentice, but a journeyman—and to trust that your internalized craft will keep you honest. You also have to start to trust your internal compass, for lack of a better phrase, your intuition and instinct. You have to give up caring what other people think about your poetry, either before or after you write it.

If this is too scary, try it for a short period of time, then go back to asking for feedback from those you have trusted before. You might discover that your own objectivity and self-confidence have increased during the interim. You might also discover that you went down a blind alley for awhile. But you might also discover that while everybody else thinks you've gone down a blind alley, it's still an alley worth exploring, and until you're done exploring it, you need to keep traveling through.

Whitman's quote above speaks directly to the last stanza of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken (1920):

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many people quote those last three lines. Many others imagined they too have taken the road less traveled by—but have they really? How many have actually taken that road less traveled, compared to those that deceive themselves into imagining they have?

One way to tell that you have indeed taken that road is to reflect on how much resistance you have faced. The more artistic battles you have fought, the more resistance you have faced, the more likely you are to have stepped off the well-worn paths.

The vast majority of people are tribal in nature: they resist change, they enforce conformity to the known standards of conduct, and even when they pay lip service to growth and change and experimentation/evolution, they don't really mean it. The group, the tribe, is conservative by nature; they move much slowly than can the individual who has freed herself or himself from the group's influence. But the group doesn't like to give up its influence.

This is where the advice about writing that you get can mix you up. Whether you get it from a critique group, a writer's circle, your ill-matched thesis advisor, or your clueless best friend, if you take the advice you receive to heart, you can lose touch with your inner compass and get lost at see. Few things can send an artist into the rudderless doldrums than advice that misunderstands, even misrepresents, one's own art. If your self-confidence and self-esteem are not in place, watch out: you will find yourself spinning in circles after every advice you receive.

Trusting yourself, and your craftsmanship, is essential. Even if you only go off on your own for a few months, a year or two at most, when you return to the social network of artists who like to talk about their art-making, you will realize that you have changed. You will have realized that, somehow, you learned to trust yourself. I mean, to trust your intuition: about what to write about; about how to write about it; about how to revise it, prior to presenting it to the world.

Talking about writing is not writing. Writing remains a solitary activity, practiced in solitude. Even if you sit in a circle at a poetry workshop and all write together in silence, that silence is deep, eternal, and insulating. Solitary silence is essential: you must trust that silence, if you trust nothing else. There is no other way to hear the voice of intuition, and to learn to trust that voice in the face of all criticism is to practice self-confidence as an artist, and as a person.

Don't mistake me, here: I am not saying that all solitary artists are genuine artists. But I am saying that all genuine artists have experienced that solitude, that silence, have made friends with it, and inhabit it in their work. Too many writers are far too social, far too chatty, far too gossipy, and thus too dependent on the opinions of their peers. You need to let that all go, at some point, and stop taking everyone else's advice, and start listening to your own. That's the road less traveled.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 02, 2008

Allusion in Haiku

Allusions are references to literary works, to art, to cultural, historical, and political events. They can be explicit or indirect, evocative or direct. They are connections to a shared pool of cultural imagery and conception, and the reader is expected to understand the reference. Allusion in poetry is expected to deepen the meaning of a poem, for example by connecting a contemporary scene to one from ancient Greek mythology.

Allusion is common in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry: references to great poets of the past are made frequently, and one is expected to understand them. This tendency of classical poetry does appear in classical haiku. More than one of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi refers to a poet or famous figure of the past, and many haiku memorialize places that resonate with history and memory. There is no doubt that allusion can be effective in haiku for deepening the emotional response to the poem.

But what of haiku in English?

Are we to use allusions to the Western cultural heritage, or may we also use allusions to classical Japanese literature of the past? I find myself doing the latter more often than the former, in part because for haiku is also a do, a way, a form of meditation, with both Taoist and Zen overtones. One often reads about "the haiku moment," which is a timeless moment, a moment or experience that stands outside of the normal flow of time, in the eternal present. The best haiku, for me, are memorable and resonant precisely because they exist in the eternal present: the image that inspired the haiku may have been fleeting, and the poem itself may have been dashed off in a quick burst of inspiration, but the experience in the poem itself is timeless, eternal, never-ending.

I would tend to avoid simile and metaphor in haiku, though, because the haiku moment is about direct observation, about seeing what is really there. What the poem evokes is a recreation of what was actually there. There is no need—and no room, in such a short poetic form—to say things like "the clouds were like creampuffs."

Actually, I don't much like simile in poetry, in any way: simile is usually lazy, a shorthand way of making metaphoric connections, but without committing to using an actual metaphor. One does much better in any poem to use metaphor rather than simile, regardless of content, form, or style. It's just more concise and direct.

In using allusion in haiku, it is considered more classically usual to allude to nature, to natural rhythms and cycles, and to personal experience. It is far less usual to allude to political and social-history images. One of the basic distinctions that is often made between haiku and senryu is that senryu are poems in haiku form that are ironic, humorous, and about people and social relationships, rather than the classical timeless nature-infused topics of haiku. Senryu tend to be funny, in a gently ironic manner, and often get us to laugh at the failings and foibles of our imperfect human selves. When you encounter a haiku whose content is political, especially if it is satirical or mocking, it is often better to classify it as a senryu. Of course, none of this is absolute; there are exceptions, and some definitions have permeable membranes.

Let's look for example at two English-language poems that were published as haiku, in haiku journals.

the tulips
wide open

—Carolyn Hall (Published in Heron's Nest)

At Quang Tri, Vietnam

both armies

—Ty Hadman (Published in Haiku World)

Both of these poems are concise, compact, short-syllable poems. The second is unusual for haiku in that it rhymes; rhyme is problematic in English-language haiku, as are many other techniques familiar to English-language poets, for example, meter, or alliteration. (Some bad early translations of haiku set the poems into rhymed quatrains. Not only does this really miss the entire spirit of haiku, it's really clunky and inaccurate in terms of bringing either the tone or the meaning of haiku into English.)

Both of these have political themes. Both refer to the memorials of war, and to war itself, either directly or indirectly. Both of them could be considered anti-war poems, although it's not clear that the poets intended this.

There is a tendency in English-language haiku to carry concision and compression too far. Arguments continue to be made that because English is naturally iambic (Japanese is not), it is more acceptable for English-language haiku to fall into a 4/6/4 syllabic pattern rather than the classical 5/7/5 pattern. This is highly debatable. One of the joys of writing haiku, for example, can be to discover what one can do within the traditional constraints, before one gives them up in favor of the spirit and tone of the form.

I'm honestly not sure I'd call either of these poems haiku, per se, even American haiku. They succeed of allusion, bringing forth many memories: of the graveyard at Arlington, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there, both of which I have visited; and of the horrors of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, in which so many soldiers were butchered. But part of me wants to see, in English (frankly, American) haiku, more of a sense of respect for the original style and tone of the haiku form.

Are these excellent short poems? Absolutely. For that reason alone, they're worth discussing. But are they haiku? I'm not completely convinced of that.

Meanwhile, returning to the idea of allusion per se: I tend to want haiku to be timeless, egoless, eternal, epiphany moments of the human experience, and of life's many kinds of moments. This isn't to say that one cannot write an allusive, topical, even political poem in haiku form. But when does the poem lose that numinous quality that the best haiku have and become, for example, a senryu?

I think that the Arlington poem is the better of the two, on this front: very much in the spirit of evoking the floating world, this dewdrop world, the ephemerality of life, the sense of life's transience, and the sadness at its passing. I would say it works not because it's allusive to the national military cemetery at Arlington, but because it falls into that genre of war poetry that goes back centuries. Wilfred Owen. Keith Douglas. Siegfried Sassoon. Michael Casey. Musashi. And so forth. These are mother's poems, warrior's poems, poems about the pity and desolation of war. The Arlington poem can safely join ranks with those.

The Tet poem, to my reading, seems glib, even a bit gimmicky. The rhyme in such a short poem makes the poem seem glib for this serious topic. Yes, gallows humor, laughter in the face of death, and so forth, I respect all that. But the poem is less allusive, for me, than the Arlington poem, or than anything Michael Casey wrote in his book Obscenities, which is a collection of short poems about his experiences in Nam during the war—and about coming home. Casey's short book set a high standard for contemporary war poetry, to be sure.

A poet who works mostly in this very short, haiku-derived if not always strictly haiku formalism, is Cid Corman. Both of these poems remind me of his poetry.

Now let's look at a haiku-form poem I wrote some years ago. Politcal, perhaps allusive, possibly topical although also timeless. Is it a haiku? Or just a poem in haiku form? Is it a senryu?

politicians and
businessmen lie constantly—
snow falls in the tropics

It's a sarcastic poem about impossible events: snow falling in the tropics. I don't think it's a haiku, personally, but then, what is it?

There is often mention, in discussions of the spirit of haiku poetry, of that quality that is non-literary to the poem: the numinous, liminal part of the experience of the poem that pushes it past words towards something more sublime. Some haiku masters claim that this non-linguistic aspect of the poetry must also be present, in order for it to be a haiku rather than a senryu. I generally tend to agree. All of Basho's and Issa's best haiku have that sense of the ineffable about them: that there is something more going on, something both larger and deeper than our everyday selves. In this lies, in part, the transcendance of the ego that we were talking about earlier. Perhaps the use of political allusions in haiku bring the spirit of the poetry out of the numinous and too much into "the floating world," that world of impermanence and transience that marks all of mortal life.

The Arlington poem reminds me of two of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi that refer to wars and battlefields of the past:

summer grass
all that remains
of warrior's dreams

in deutzia blossoms
Kanefusa can be seen:
white hair

The haibun section between these two haiku is perhaps necessary to supply the backdrop, although the story of the retainer/warrior whose name was Kanefusa would have to have been known to make this poem work—a prime example of historical allusion in classical haiku. (Basho was visiting the Takadate Castle at Hiraizumi, where a historic battle was fought in a civil war in the 12th century. It was a tragedy, ending with the great general Yoshitune committing suicide after killing his wife and children.)

The reasons I would be willing to call the Arlington poem a haiku, but would not call the Tet poem a haiku, are tied up with both this allusiveness, and with the numinous quality of the best haiku, already mentioned. The Arlington poem is also more suggestive, a technique used to good effect in the best haiku, while the Tet poem is more bluntly direct (an American characteristic).

But lest we think that the numinous quality of haiku is all about being pretty, and using stereotypical nature imagery, let's remind ourselves that sometimes the haiku moment is very raw, even while being exalted and sublime. Another of Basho's haiku in Oku no hosomichi is this one, coming after a description of a long day of travel, followed by nights sleepless in a barn during a heavy storm:

fleas, lice,
the horse pissing
near my pillow

Yes, exalted. Yes, sublime. The exalted and sublime are precisely in the piss-ridden barn and the compost pile. Thinking haiku only have to be about "pretty things" misses the point by making a judgment about the superficial elements of the poem, missing the non-literary aspects of the poem.

Haiku is all about waking up. That's the Zen influence on it, of course, but Basho and Issa emphasized that very strongly. To write a haiku, to experience a haiku moment and write it down, is to, if only for a moment, be awakened. "Buddha" means "awakened one," not "savior." Everyone is potentially the Buddha, if only they'd wake up for long enough to realize it! Haiku writing can be a form of spiritual practice, therefore, as much as it can be a literary art. How do you approach it? It is possible to approach it as both literary art and as a spiritual practice.

This discussion of allusion, I think, deals with the literary more than the spiritual; but note how the sublime moment described in the Arlington poem makes that piece a haiku because it contains a spiritual view as well—and don't conflate "spiritual" with "religious"—whereas the Tet poem is not a haiku because it is all about being glib and clever on the literary level, but lacks that non-literary movement of the spirit that the Arlingotn poem contains. The same goes for my own political senryu: it lacks any movement of the spirit, it's just a clever bit of irony.

Clever, witty, glib irony—literary wit in its most self-conscious exemplars—overshadows, even kills, the movement of the spirit, in most poetry that is written from the ego, the head, rather than from egolessness, and from the heart. Egolessness in haiku is about waking up to what's really there, versus what we think is there, or what we project as being there, or what we imagine is there.

So, I would say that the Arlington poem is a rare achievement: a haiku tha does contain allusion. Basho's own haiku along these lines also work because they contain that same sadness and awareness of the transcience of life.

Here's how the whole world wants to wake us up, if only we'd let it:

Our usual experience is that, just when our perception is getting vivid, we get jumpy. The world is always displaying itself, always waving an winking, but we are so self-involved that we miss it. The experience of sticking with it, of not giving up, is one in which the whole world, everything that we see, becomes extremely vivid and more solid, and at the same time, less substantial and more transparent. We’re not talking about seeing anything other than the person sitting in front of us: seeing how his or her hair sticks up or lies down, is dirty or clean, brushed or gnarled; or seeing a bird with black feathers and a twig in its mouth, sitting in a tree. The things we see all the time can pop us out of the painful cycle of samsara.

If we stick with it, our experience becomes more vivid and more transparent, and we can no longer not get the message. And this is a message that never gets interpreted. Things speak for themselves. It’s not that red cushion means passion, or little mouse darting in and out means discursive mind; it’s just red cushion and little mouse darting out from behind the chair.

Sound is the same thing, ordinary sound—every sound that we ever hear, from the alarm clock waking us up in the morning to our snoring companion at night. We all know what sounds are like when they punctuate and startle us, but what does your pen sound like, writing in your notebook? And how does it sound when you turn the pages of this book? What about your own voice? It’s interesting to hear one’s own voice; it sounds like someone else’s voice. To hear what we say and see how it goes out into the environment and communicates also has the power to pop us out of the deadness of samsara. Even if we’re alone, our yawns and farts communicate. So every ordinary little peep or scratch or snicker, every little chewing sound or drinking sound or whatever, can wake us up. The idea of samaya is that if we don’t avoid our personal experience—if we don’t think there’s a better, more inspiring, less irritating, or less disturbing sound—sounds become vivid and transparent.

The same goes for mind. As we practice, we see that thoughts do not go away; they become more precise and less substantial. At the level of mind, we break samaya making things “wrong” or making things “right.” We think we have some choice to make, some alternative to just hanging out with not solving anything, not resolving anything, We could say that, at the level of mind, breaking samaya is feeling that we must come up with a solution to a problem—or feeling that there is a solution or a problem at all. That might give you some idea of how difficult it is to keep samaya.

—Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, from the chapter entitled The Trick of Choicelessness

Labels: ,