Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing about Certain Places

There are poems, and poets, we turn to for consolation, for aesthetic pleasure, for spiritual discernment, in which the content of the poems matters as much to us as their artfulness, grace, or aesthetic style.

There are several reasons why we turn to reading some poems, and poets, for consolation, for discernment. One of these is for comfort in dark times; to know we are less alone; that someone else has been through the dark night, or the bright day, and was able to evoke in us the vividness and power of their experience, creating echoes in our own.

In the best of these poems, the beauty of the writing is not separate from the (extraordinary) contents, the subjects of the poems are integrated with their style. Great poems often evoke some universal human experience in an appropriate and perfect aesthetic container, in which the form enhances the contents, creating a synergy greater than the sum of its elements. In poetry criticism, the appropriate match between form and contents is often overlooked as a point for discussion; yet I think it an essential aspect of great writing.

When reading poems, it is sometimes necessary to turn off the constant nagging of editor's-mind and/or critic's-mind, and read for pure pleasure. Or pure release. Poets as well as critics, or poet/critics, often get stuck in their critical minds, and forget how to read purely for pleasure, or consolation. Once the intellectual analytical mind has become engaged, it often lingers and refuses to be shut down again. Reading poetry needs to happen on many levels simultaneously, not only, and not even mainly, for the markers of acceptable craft and valid execution.

(Yet in no way am I advocating bad writing or slackness of artistic execution, just because certain topics are being written about. In no way am I saying the poet should strive any less mightily for the best writing they can do, simply because they're writing autobiography rather than artifice. There is never any excuse for attempting any less than your personal best, in the moment of creation. Furthermore, even though I am discussing poetry of the spirit here, I have no use whatsoever for conventional "religious" poetry, as more often than not that sort of poem merely repeats cant in a new form, or is a dogmatic credo in unum deum chanted in a rhyming cloak but without thoughtful consideration, a way for the writer to "witness" to their beliefs before the world. This may well serve a personal purpose to good ends; but it is often just bad art. If you're seeking examples, most of the poems appearing in Reader's Digest fall into this category.)

There are poets who we turn to regularly, to read for consolation and invigoration; another of whom I will briefly mention below. I have written about reading Emily Dickinson this way, for consolation and for connection, for seeing the poems a mirror of our own inner experience. I think it only fair to walk my talk, and provide below an example of my own poetry, for good or ill, that fulfilled a need to express ecstasy, and in which perhaps some reader might someday find consolation, or at least commonality.

The Sutras are a series of poems I began in 1994, and worked on intensively till circa 1998. I have gathered them together but not yet released them as a group because a few of the poems are as yet incomplete, needing revision or further transcription. I've hesitated to show them to many readers, except piecemeal, because they are so personal. It's not that I feel naked in giving the poems away, or in revealing too much of my own inner life—that feeling is one any poet must become acclimated to—it's that the poems have so often been misunderstood, as have my motivations for writing them. One bores of being required to continuously re-educate the misguided.

The Sutras are texts in poetic form about my personal experiences of awe, of ecstasy, of transcendence. Many of them are transcriptions or responses to visionary experiences; some of these were specific to certain places and times. They are mostly written in the ecstatic, vatic mode. I never intended them to be taken as "fine art poetry," although they have been judged by some critics as lesser poems of mine. The poems, taken collectively, sum up what I know to be true. You could consider them, if you wished, as my original scriptures, which contain knowledge arising from vision, ecstasy, awe, empathy, connection, and embodied soul-flight.

Each Sutra carries a subtitle that labels what group or channel of metaphysical experience the poem is most closely allied to. There are five groups within the Sutras: Pranayana; Vajrayana; Tantrayana; Mahayana; and, The Way of the Animal Powers. Each of these sub-groups has its own set of connections to historical spiritual traditions, which I don't want to spend a lot of time detailing at the moment. Suffice to say that in this context, these labels refer to rich and resonant paths of practice: explicit labels for which set of spiritual exercises the poem can be seen to walk.

My approach to my spiritual life has long been as a shaman, a spiritual technician. Someone who believes nothing, in the conventional sense of restating the received wisdoms of the world's established spiritual traditions, but whose experience leads him towards knowing rather than believing. In some ways, this is an engineer's approach that uses the mindset of the scientific experimenter to discover what is true, and let fall away what is accrued baggage. (Although "experimenter" is an inadequate word; perhaps "explorer" or "pathfinder" would be more precise.)

The Sutras are therefore, if you will, records of visions that have become personal credos, shaman's songs, poetic letters to the faithful, odes to meaning. Sutra is a Sanskrit word that means letter. In early Buddhism, a sutra was an epistle, a record of what the Buddha taught, a letter to the monks, a way of guiding practice in fruitful directions. But my own Sutras are not epistles meant to convert anyone; there is no missionary intention.

Some of the Sutras are quite explicit: not only sexually, but psychologically, and spiritually. But this is natural for any poetry of ecstasy; their can be no limitation in what we write about, if our motivation is to be honest, and to discover in the process what we know to be true. The only hesitance in sharing the poems that result from mining the self is a nagging sense of having been misunderstood, again and again. I rarely hesitate to write explicitly about erotic experience; however, I'm not interested in writing pornography, which is more about personal titillation than achieving connection and oneness with one's other self. As any ecstatic mystic knows, in Heaven lust and love are the same; only in Hell are they separate. Pornography keeps us separated; erotic art brings us together.

Furthermore, I do not wish to be mistaken as writing a poem of confession rather than presentation. There is nothing to confess here, as there is nothing to be ashamed of—shame and repudiation being the scaffolding of confession. The Sutras are poems of presentation, in the same way an artistic photograph is a presentation: an artful depiction of what has been seen, captured out of the flow and crystallized for extended contemplation.

I do feel that some of the Sutras are better poems than others, purely as poems. Nonetheless, the purpose in writing was not primarily literary, and was never to impress. Writing spiritual questions poetically seems obvious, a natural fit. The exalted and non-everyday language of poetry seems the ideal container with which to share one's moments of transcendence, of connection to the divine, of experience of heightened reality, or whatever other label we might use.

The most direct precursor to the Sutras is Nikos Kazantzakis' strange little book, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (translated by Kimon Friar). This book is a poetic statement of the author's inner mystical vision, written at white heat during an unexplained and disfiguring illness that vanished as soon as the book was completed. It is one of the least known of Kazantzakis' several books, yet it contains in summation his entire cosmology, his motivations as a poet and mystic, the ideas that lie behind his entire corpus. Kazantzakis titled his little book, askitiki, or ascesis, connoting both "asceticism" and "aesthetics." The spiritual and the artistic are one, a truth the poet lived as well as believed. It appears in one aspect or another in all of his writings.

I felt that Saviors of God gave me permission to write the Sutras. It allowed me to turn in this direction, and write what I had been feeling and seeing, for many years, ever more clearly and explicitly, without feeling any need to redact myself or my experiences in order to make the poems more "acceptable" or "artistic." What came out in poetry, thereafter, is what the recording angel set down on the tablets of my innermost self. While some of the Sutras were deliberate attempts to record a powerful vision, many others felt as if they were dictated, given to me to transcribe rather than interpret.

My form of writing in the Sutras is my own; there is no direct literary influence. The influence on me is spiritual, aesthetic, internal. Rather than imitating Kazantzakis' form, or turns of phrase, I have absorbed, I hope, his mode, his heart, and his practice. Writing the Sutras became a form of spiritual practice: exploratory, questing, partially as a life-review, partially involuntary, yet always exalted. Many of these poems were written at white heat, rapidly, spontaneously. For some others, I knew the topic I wanted to write about, but gave over direction of the pen as soon as the words starting to come forward.

This way of writing has become central to my overall creative process, in which I no longer try to direct or control the creative force, but do my best to follow where it wants to lead. I am always searching for the precise container for the vision; finding the perfect form in which to express the poem's contents, to wed them as closely and appropriately as I am able, in the moment.

Western Lands Sutra was written out of two experiences of awe I had in the Western United States, in the Rocky Mountains, and by the Pacific Ocean. The poem is structured in two sections, both of them memories of ecstatic experiences.

The first section is a poetic response to a night spent camping at Craters of the Moon National Monument in south central Idaho, the summer spent studying geology in the field. I was 18, and it was my first extended trip out West; everything I saw was beautiful and amazing, and this class taught in the field changed my life. The mountains continue to call me back to visit them often, as does the Pacific. In the two months prior to this writing, I have been back to revisit both locales written about in the poem; each visit felt like a homecoming, a welcoming back.

The poem's second section is written in response to the night spent camping on the beach at Redwoods, CA, that I wrote about in Certain Places. The poem tells the story of my first visit to the beach, restating it more poetically.

Taken together, the two halves of this poem are a paean to places I love, and powerful experiences I had there. Moments filled with transcendent awe. Both experiences changed me, and took me to places in myself I'd never plumbed before, but which have stayed in my awareness ever since. More than anything else, I am grateful for what I have been given. The writing of such a poem is one way of giving back, of paying forward, of passing on what was given me in hopes that it might also be meaningful to some one else. In this way we do our best to connect with each other.

Western Lands Sutra (Vajrayana)


at Craters of the Moon, we sang obscene geologist’s songs till it was very late
standing circled around a laughing bonfire, flames licking
    at least twelve feet above the firepit
flat volcanic blackness of the plain rolling off into night
hunched taciturn stubborn as hibernating lichen

the nearest city lights almost a hundred miles away
five times more distant than the earth’s curving horizon
past the extinct pectorals of the park’s silent cinder cones
invisible across a boot-eating plain of glass-sharp flows

the night was bright and moonless
but light enough to read
    my name written in the living earth

I made my bedroll on the near slope of a shallow rise
a hundred yards from the firepit
bedding down in the cool July Idaho night mountain air
    my blankets flat and hard on hard flat ground
a few scraggly trees stooped the rise behind
and I lay on my back, cradling my head in laced fingers,
looking up and out into the galaxy
    for hours before I slept

I’d never seen so many stars

they beat down all around our camp, thick as silver mist—
I searched for old familiar friends, constellations that had
    kept me alive through dark-soul nights:
but they were lost among too many stars,
    the whole galaxy exploding overhead
    wheeling bright and silent above blacksilver ground

I couldn’t see Orion or the Bears, fishing among the many stars
    flickering soundlessly in that night
I couldn’t find Arcturus, so generous of its light
I couldn’t locate the Pole Star or the Dragon or Cassiopea’s chair
but the Milky Way was a deep silver river lacing across the vault
    pocked with gas clouds, velvet curtains hung in sky’s window
and I could see the hot young fires of stellar nurseries spark crystal sharp
    against that river

and as I lay there, gradually falling off
    falling into the dark, falling off the planet into sleep
    into the visible depth of those canyons between suns
the air rang with crystalline sound, the skybowl struck
    a glass bell, ringing, keening, rising and breaking
collapsing, shattering like a flash-frozen lake
as stars began to fall into me, one by one, then by hundreds
striking themselves out on the stone of the desert
until the whole night fell into me
and I felt the starlight burning deep inside me
    answer back that music


on the southern beach at Redwoods, encamped by the Pacific Ocean shore
    a mere fifty yards from the surf roar,
we took time-lapse photos of each other, naked, bathed in rosy fireglow
before the reticent mouth of our two-man tent
night wind blowing in from the sea,
    buffeting flames twisting around logs
we made long exposures of ourselves crouched, naked cavemen,
    clubs in hand, sacred amulets hung from necks,
    all darkness in our eyes
trusting my camera to tell the archetypal story of men in love,
    Enkidu and Baldur and Gizaemon,
    the Hunter’s mysteries enacted in our eyes and loins

over the last hills where the beach shelved west came white light
    bright enough to read by, as bright as day—
at first, as we tried to pick out constellations spinning into the ocean,
    we thought it was an inland farmer’s night-fear lights,
    yardlights every farmhouse keeps burning through the dark
but the light grew brighter, and as I walked towards the roar of the sea
I suddenly realized it was the full moon rising
    atavistic tingles running down my spine
my gods, I gasped, so beautiful and so dangerous

so I stood there, head tilted back in surprise as I fell into the moon’s face,
    standing mere yards from tent and fire,
    naked, wrapped in blanket against wind off sea,
    waves a constant roar of dragons making love to the sand;
it was All Hallow’s Eve, the eve of the Day of the Dead, and full moon:
I knew my new life was about to begin

in the morning, I picked polished stones like flowers from the beach
    white and black and greenish-gray
    polished volcanic basalts and wide-strewn rare serpentines
I picked enough stones to make a set of Runes,
    and a smooth black dreamstone to sleep with,
    its rounded heft a perfect fit to my fist,
    and its white black-veined companion,
    smaller, lumpy, a polished peyote button

and, just as I had dreamed that night, I found three perfect rocks
    lying in close formation
    a triangle balanced on point, equal on every side and facing the waves
a black stone, a white stone, a nondescript grey stone
the dark, the light, and everything in between

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Blogger Rachel Fox said...

A huge post with a lot going on in it. I especially like the opening section about ways of reading but it's all interesting.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Jester, I think, and welcome aboard.

Rachel, thanks. I know it's a big topic. I thought about splitting it up, but in the end it's all one built on one thought, so I couldn't. It's always a risk.

12:27 PM  

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