Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ode to Federico Garcia Lorca

The poet has come down from the white hills to die in the red stone plaza.
The poet of the black mesa. The steel tribute of the bruised tornadoes.

The song of the village is in his heart. The song of his white heart.
The poet turns left at the edge of town, and circumambulates.

He walks sunwise along the ridges, sniffing the silver olives.
His mind is on fire with snow. A snow flute could narrate this story.

The dead white horses have come to snuffle at his feet.
Trailing over steaming flanks, the river has a quicksilver tongue.

A song floats across the plaza: the suicide pacts of lovers,
overwrought, far too passionate, thus perfectly contained.

At the poet’s feet, the young boys bear wreathes of thorns.
Ivory from the hills has been brought into the darkened city.

A lone olive tree, stripped bare by long-haired girls.
At the edge of the cliff, a white-gowned child spins a rosary.

The poet has merged with the grass, his face is the olive trees.
He peers out, wiser, greened, between beetle-chewed leaves.

Butterflies emerge from his lips, and are spent. The white butterflies.
In time, the blood falling from the blue rose-petals will dry.

Deep song from the café, Federico, where you sat and laughed,
the blood on your pants black in the candlelight,
while you laughed, freed at last from love’s knives,
Federico, freed at last in the hills by death’s silver stinger.

Blue tongues of the white flowers, Federico, and the blood-black rose.
The black mesa, Federico, and the white hills. The song of your white heart.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Returning to the Unnamed

Awhile ago, I wrote a contemplation of George Herbert's poem The Collar. In passing I mentioned that I'd written one or two older poems, not my best poems, that come from a similar place. I was sorting through old papers tonight, sorting through many boxes of old papers, putting most of them out for recycling, including many old posters of concerts I'd done, and old copies of older poems. (Nothing is lost: these are multiples and duplicates, and all my poems exist as multiply backed-up word-processor files. I went digital when I got my first Apple Mac Plus, back in 1989.) Among the papers I found a print copy of one of these poems. I find I've still been thinking about the topic a lot lately, so here is the poem:

the unnamed

i give up, great christ!,
i give in.
if you still want me, i am yours.
i have spent so many years
beating my way out of your church
of bones, only to find myself
again at your altar of blood.
i would turn this way and that,
fighting my way to an exit,
and, bloodied, succeed.
and then the door would open
only into your own cathedral.
now, i grow tired,
unwilling to battle on;
if you still want me, take me,
hard master, or discard me,
or chastise me, or fill me.
it is all the same, i know,
i know.

I don't write at all like this anymore. I find the lowercase "i" to be an affectation, now; although back then it was an early attempt at reducing the ego-personality in my poetry, something I continue to try to do, if by new and different tactics. (And which I've written about most recently here.)

Who is the poem addressing? Who do you think? I can interpret this poem better now than I could back when I wrote it, some 20 years ago.

"God" is a complicated word with a lot of baggage attached to it, so it's a word I avoid. I prefer larger terms for that Immanence that can be felt in the world, particularly at certain times, in certain ways. I often use the word Mystery; that label is a good marker for what cannot be named ("The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.") and what can never be fully understood (we are all much bigger than we think we are). I sometimes use the word Spirit; but I mean it is a verb, not a noun, and I often fill out the line as Spirit That Moves In All Things.

The god addressed here is the Christ, certainly; but maybe not Jesus. The Christ is an office, not a particular person who once held that office. ("Christ" is not a last name: it's a title.) There have been others, and there will be again. But the god addressed here is also the Aztec god of the land of the dead (Mictlan), who has the form of a skeleton with a necklace of eyeballs and robes of paper strips (in Aztec myth, skeletons are a sign of fertility and renewal): Mictlantecuhtli. And also Xipe Totec, the flayed one. The Corn God. The Sacrifice. The Hanged One. All of these are images of both death and rebirth, of the Yearwheel turning around in its endless cycle, the passing of the soul between different realms.

I think of this as my Collar poem. It's not a great poem. But I rarely rewrite older poems; I let them stand or die on their own merits. (And I have been criticized for that practice, by poets who one might think would know better.) Sometimes there's a line in an old poem that might inspire a new one. But they were the best I could make at the time—just as what I write now is the best I can do, right now—and as such, deserve to survive or fail on whatever merit they retain. Sometimes it's good to review one's past art, to see where one has gone from there, and how one has evolved. And interestingly enough, some folks like some of my older poems, even when I feel that I can do better now. The artist needs to keep on going, but there's nothing wrong with someone liking an earlier body of work.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008


(Hat tip to Jim Murdoch for triggering this rumination.)

There are many kinds and types of epiphanies, from the great and life-changing to the small "aha!" that suddenly sharpens the day's edges, and makes you sit up and pay attention, even if only for a moment. I don't think small epiphanies should be overlooked, I think they can be just as personally life-changing as the greater epiphanies. It is a matter of scale, perhaps, but not only. Moments of transcendence are moments of epiphany; moments on the threshold of the numinous and liminal can be revelations equivalent to epiphanies; when they are brought back to us by the shaman or the poet, even small epiphanies can serve as guideposts and signs on the way to the greater experience of the transpersonal.

The etymology of the word epiphany is revelatory, literally: Etymology: ME & OFr epiphanie < LL(Ec) epiphania < Gr(Ec) epiphaneia, appearance < epiphainein, to show forth, manifest < epi-, upon + phainein, to show The Greek root epiphainein, to show forth, to broadcast (as a light going out into the darkness), to bring into the light what was hidden in shadow, to make manifest, to make real, to bring into being.

I've been writing a series of new poems and prose-poems using Greek words as titles and triggers; most of these words have Christian theological subtexts and usages, although the poems are neither conventionally religious nor Christian, nor epistolary. (I read a lot of theology, for a layman.) In going back over some older poems of mine, I recently discovered anew that private epiphanies are a long-standing subject in my poetry. I looked back over some older poems, specifically one or two written almost 20 years ago that have lingered with me, that were written during or after experiences of personal epiphany.

One of these poems that readily comes to mind is the third in a short series of poems called the Portraits. The poems in the series were written in persona, and are not autobiographical; some of them were inspired by fictional characters, and were my poetic response and capsule summation of each character's moment of transcending everything they had been or knew up to that moment. In the introduction to the series I wrote: The Portraits are moments of epiphany or transcendence taken from critical turning points in the lives of their characters. They are moments outside of time, when you have stepped back and learned how to see yourself independently of your everyday concerns; you see how to hold yourself up to the light and examine every brilliant facet of the gemstone of your existence, turning and seeing the same moment from every angle. None of these characters should be confused for real people; none of them are people you know; yet they are very real. I can say, re-reading these older poems of mine now, that I'm pleased that one or two of them have held up, and aren't too horribly bad.

portrait. i

lost in an overwhelming sunflare of vision
the dancer stands stilled by the touch
of a night without music, without change
and her eyes are unlatched by the sound
of a sky dormant with promise and fear

she holds no denial of roses or prayers
but her dance is the display of a twilight
twofold in laughter and pain
and her cause and her ending a quest
for her own simple truth, in a world of no endings

the vision moves on, leaving her freed
full of the hope to banish her frowns
vanquish her solitude, redeem her tears
and her joys may be numbered, though numberless remain
for her dreams are unbonded, her sorrows now gone

portrait. iii

in his epiphany
icy silence cloaks the earth
branches of a willowwhip
thwack on the porchwood
ice sliding on the glass
he looks out
and is reflected in crystal warmth
twofaced window
the inner and outer silences
(one darkly warm, one brightly cold)
he watches lights on distant hills
twinkle in winterwinds
through blackbranch trees dancing

One more poem, this time actually titled epiphany. This was originally written in the mid-1980s, one late spring evening when I was coming out of a campus film society showing of one of those movies that occasionally hits you so hard that you are rendered speechless, overcome by something beyond your usual limits. I came out of the movie theatre, overwhelmed, and the sky seemed exceptionally clear that night, even in the city, and full of stars. I stopped and stared, and felt like I was going to fall up from the face of the earth, into eternity. (The movie, by the way, was Louis Malle's My Dinner With André.)


the sky here is bright and cold at night,
hard-edged and flat like quartz
in the first early dawn. the moon
stands between two pines, her husbands;
she turns like a coin spun in the air,
turning, rowing like salmon
in the river. bright star points
here and there, a stream flowing
in the most careful pattern-
but the pattern is unknowable,
transparent; even the moon
can't hold it. her husbands
stand guard on it, silent except
for the evergreen needle falling,
falling in the dark. sitting
on a ridge, head thrown back,
Coyote howls. he wants to make love
to the whole sky, but he's too small.

you don't usually see with such clarity.
every treeshadow has a name,
a shape, a movement in the breeze,
and you must name them all
as you pass. our ears open
as we walk, as the drama ends,
the shadows fade, and the music
very quietly plays. you are ready.
the moon brightens,
then veils itself in clouds.

The idea of epiphany has come up for me in my visual art as well. In 2003, I collaborated with another photographer on a joint exhibition titled Epiphainein. I also played live solo Stick for the opening reception at the gallery. Click on the flyer below to see some photos from the show (yes, I designed the flyer, too):

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Library of Nomadics 2

When you travel, there is usually a dearth of books in the places you visit as a traveler. Travelers are meant to be happily distracted by suckling at the teat of ubiquitous blaring televisions in every airport, bus station, bar and restaurant, information wayside stand, and commercial-zoned street corner. Hotels don't think of habitual readers; they think of the need for people to be entertained and distracted. That's a comment on our society in general: entertainment über alles. The cultural assumption is that readers are in the minority, especially among travelers. Not that there is any shortage of media demands on your attention; travel can rapidly get very overstimulating.

I've been in many hotels, and few have ever boasted a library, though every room has a TV and probably a Bible placed by the Gideons in a nightstand drawer. (Someday I am tempted to replace the Gideon Bibles I encounter with copies of the Tao Te Ching; a small bit of poetic terrorism for a future road trip.) Actually, the TV is useful in the morning, to check the Weather Channel; I like to look at the raw data and do my own interpretation, so I leave the sound off, and just watch the radar and cloud maps displayed while I tie my shoes.

There is a personal morning ritual I've practiced for many years, that helps my day go better if I start it out this way. (I notice the difference when circumstances force me to miss a day.) It's my habit in the mornings to read and write, first thing, and to meditate, before breakfast. (Which can become brunch, some days.) I usually spend about an hour every morning in quiet contemplation, reading books that inspire and open my mind and heart for the day, and in writing. (As I'm doing this moment.) The books I need to read in the morning are spiritual books; books of spirit-infused poetry, anything from haiku to Rilke; books on Taoism or Zen; Thomas Merton, for example The Wisdom of the Desert; etc. I also often do some self-healing energy work.

When I'm on the road, there's no need to break this habit. If anything, it's even more important. When I am camping, I often wake with the sun, which is earlier than usual for me, being a natural night person. If it's a warm day, I will go visit the campground bathrooms, then sit in the sun to read and meditate, and soak up the morning warmth and air. Later, when I eat breakfast and break camp, the quiet mood of contemplation can sustain itself for some hours, especially on road trips when I'm not in a real hurry to get anywhere.

I like to travel to and camp in the quieter places of the earth: in the deserts; near the oceans; in the mountains. Places where a national, state, or county park system offers simple, low-rent tentsites. For me, the more primitive the better. I have friends whose idea of roughing it means no room service; my idea of roughing it means cooking a gourmet meal over a woodfire with no radios or TVs blaring from neighboring RVs. I like the dearth of human-made noise, so I can listen to the noises of nature. The sounds of a wood fire under pine trees swaying in a light wind, night birds, and rustlings of squirrels or other critters in the undergrowth: heaven to my ears.

These are places where you can actually hear yourself think. I know many people are afraid of this, and will fill up all empty spaces with distractions so they don't have to listen to their own inner voices. But I like the aspect of travel that gets me away from the usual noise and distraction. I do some of my best thinking when I'm driving, when I'm on a road trip.

When I'm traveling, there is every reason to bring along a few books to read, both in general, and specifically for my morning ritual. Fortunately, there are backpack-size and pocket-size editions such Shambhala Pocket Classics and Penguin Classics, which publish a great deal of the books I like to read in the morning. So, I always have a few books stuffed into my overnight bag, along with the clothes, shampoo, hairbrush, pills, and band-aids.

One book I always carry with me is the Shambhala Pocket Classic edition of Sam Hamill's translation of Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior. It's a book I never tire of re-reading, especially when I'm on the road.

Another book I always seem to take along is Matthew Fox's Original Blessing, The first time I read this book, it was a revelation, a map of my own inner cosmology: something I already knew, but had not put into words as clearly as this.

Other titles in lightweight editions that I like to carry along, on a rotating basis, might include: Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert; Emily Dickinson, Poems; compilations of haiku, or Zen poems, or other poetry; Rilke's Duino Elegies and Letters to a Young Poet; etc. Another favorite that I often seem to carry along, especially if I'm going to be camping someplace for awhile: Four Huts: Asian writings on the simple life, trans. by Burton Watson.

I always have at least two or more audiobooks in the truck with me when traveling, that I listen to on day-long drives. Many of these sustain my morning ritual reading in tone and content. A lot of the audiobooks I like to listen to are released by Sounds True. My top two authors to listen to are Dr. Caroline Myss, and Pema Chödrön. Even on repeated listens, I get something new. While I have all of Caroline Myss' books—another author whose descriptions of the cosmology of inner space validate my own—I especially like her seminar and book CDs, in which she teaches the same information that's in the books but without merely reading the book; they're often done with a live audience, and they're often very funny. I like her no-nonsense Chicago-blunt style of teaching.)

I have an ambition, not yet realized, to re-read Herman Meville's Moby Dick. I first read this American masterpiece years ago. I started re-reading it a couple of years ago, but life has gotten in the way of getting very far along. There is an unabridged edition on 18 or 19 CDs that I covet, which would be good listening for a forthcoming road trip.

I have no grand conclusions or summations here, other than to observe that my reading rituals are the same, whether traveling or at home. I am always reading something. The continuity of my morning spiritual habits is a key element to sustaining the continuity of my daily practice, my daily life, no matter where I am today. Tomorrow, who knows?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Library of Nomadics

I reserve one shelf of my library, which I am packing up to move, for books on nomadics: the study of rootlessness, of travel, of being on the road, or pilgrimage and journey.

I first became conscious of the importance of this area of study to my life when I read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines for the first time. In that book, there are sections titled "From the Notebooks," which are compilations and collections of various notes, thoughts, and reminiscences on the idea of being a nomad. The other Chatwin book that lives on this shelf is Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. This volume collects various neglected and previously unpublished pieces; reading through them, you can see that his abiding themes—which are my own, as reflected in the volumes on this shelf of my library—of roots and rootlessness, exile, the exotic, possession and renunciation. Bruce Chatwin's writings and collected thoughts on nomadics set the tone for this area of study; some of his writings directly reflect my own experiences and attitudes. I am not sure if the books shaped me, or if I discovered Chatwin's writings after I had already started down my own roads. I can find anecdotal evidence from my life that could argue the point either way.

My own lifetime of being a global nomad, comfortable almost everywhere I've been, comes from my childhood living abroad, when "coming home" did not to me at that age mean returning to the country where I was born. That early sense of dislocation has left me without that sense of home-place that most of my friends have: they know where they were born, and where they grew up was where they were born, and they have memories of a childhood spent in a home-town. I know where I was born, but I don't have a home-town; I never have, except for those I've temporarily made for myself. I wonder if buying a house, and becoming a homeowner for the first time in my life, will change my perspective on this. One of my new home's purposes will be, after all, a home-base from which I will continue to travel, and spend long periods of time on the road.

Other titles on this shelf of books about nomadics—not all of these writers would see these titles as related in the same way I do, i suspect—include:

Jim Harrison: The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a roving gourmand

William Least Heat Moon: Blue HIghways and his other books

Larry McMurtry: Roads

Alan Booth: The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile walk through Japan

Darrell Yates Rist: Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust: A history of walking

Juliette de Bairacli Levy: Traveler's Joy: A personal guide to the wonders and pleasures of gypsy and nomad living

Charless Nicholl, editor: Journeys: An anthology

Paul Therous: Fresh-Air Fiend

Marc Robinson, editor: Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on exile

John Julius Norwich, editor: A Taste for Travel: An anthology

Robert W. Harris: Gypsying After 40: A guide to adventure and self-discovery

Gary Paulsen: Zero to Sixty: The motorcycle journey of a lifetime

Of course, that also brings up Robert Pirsig's classic Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is peripherally connected to all this. As a friend of mine once pointed out, I do some of my best thinking when I'm on the road.

I should note that most of my walking (Colin Fletcher) and camping guides are on the Outdoors/Nature Writing shelf in my library, which is next to the Nomadics shelf, and has some overlap with it. But the emphasis is different in each case.

Paradoxically, writing about travel is writing about place: writing about journeying is writing about a search for home. This creates some of the dramatic tension that great travel writing carries. The theme or rootlessness is best served by reflecting on its opposite.

So this library shelf also includes:

Mary N. MacDonald, editor: Experiences of Place

Least Heat Moon's PrairyEarth

Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, Nancy Curtis, editors: Leaning Into the Wind: Women write from the heart of the West

Gretel Erlich: The Solace of Open Spaces and her other books about places

Sven Lindquist: Desert Divers

Another related genre that creeps on and off this particular shelf is the Japanese genre of zuihitsu and travel-diary. Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior is a classic of this genre. And there are English-language descendants, including some poetic journals. The classic book of this type, though, is Lady Sarashina's Heian-period diary:

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a woman in eleventh-century Japan (trans. by ivan Morris)

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What the Bee Knows

My favorite honey is from bees working basswood (American linden) trees: dark, rich, sweet, flavorful. Basswood is also one of my favorite woods for woodworking projects: light, strong, very fine-grained, pale but lightly honey-colored. I have a custom-made worktable made from basswood, adjusted to my height, that allows me to stand upright and write or work on art projects without any back or posture issues.

Your average supermarket honey is still honey, usually clover honey, but what I love best is the honey from individual beekeepers selling their wares at the farmers' markets, or small local shops, or similar-scale venues. Local commerce. My favorite candles to burn are handmade beeswax candles; the scent is divine. I make candles from time to time; when I make beeswax candles, I tend to make them for myself rather than to give away. Then there's the whole thing about the healing properties of honey, in various uses and cultural systems.

PL Travers is one of my favorite essayists and writers. Her "thinking is linking" style has had an impact on my own essay style. Of course, she's best known for creating Mary Poppins, but I think the numerous essays she did for Parabola Magazine are essential reading. Since 1976, when Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition began publication, Travers was a regular contributor and consultant editor. In 1989, a collection of her numerous essays from Parabola (with a few from other sources) was published as What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story. This is one of my treasured books; it's long out of print, but if you run across it, wade in and be glad.

The title essay, "What the Bee Knows," was originally published in Parabola, Vol. VI No. 1, February 1981, in the issue themed on Earth and Spirit. This remains one of the best documents on the significance of bees that I've ever encountered. Travers begins this luminous essay completely sideways, an essay tactic I adore:

“Myth, Symbol, and Tradition” was the phrase I originally wrote at the top of the page, for editors like large, cloudy titles. Then I looked at what I had written and, wordlessly, the words reproached me. I hope I had the grace to blush at my own presumption and their portentousness. How could I, if I lived for a thousand years, attempt to cover more than a hectare of that enormous landscape?

So, I let out the air, in a manner of speaking, dwindled to my appropriate size, and gave myself over to that process which, for lack of a more erudite term, I have coined the phrase “Thinking is linking.” I thought of Kerenyi—“Mythology occupies a higher position in the bios, the Existence, of a people in which it is still alive than poetry, storytelling or any other art.” And of Malinowski—“Myth is not merely a story told, but a reality lived.” And, along with those, the word “Pollen,” the most pervasive substance in the world, kept knocking at my ear. Or rather, not knocking, but humming. What hums? What buzzes? What travels the world? Suddenly I found what I sought. “What the bee knows,” I told myself. “That is what I’m after.”

But even as I patted my back, I found myself cursing, and not for the first time, the artful trickiness of words, their capriciousness, their lack of conscience. Betray them and they will betray you. Be true to them and, without compunction, they will also betray you, foxily turning all the tables, thumbing syntactical noses. For—note bene!—if you speak or write about What The Bee Knows, what the listener, or the reader, will get—indeed, cannot help but get—is Myth, Symbol, and Tradition! You see the paradox? The words, by their very perfidy—which is also their honorable intention—have brought us to where we need to be. For, to stand in the presence of paradox, to be spiked on the horns of dilemma, between what is small and what is great, microcosm and macrocosm, or, if you like, the two ends of the stick, is the only posture we can assume in front of this ancient knowledge—one could even say everlasting knowledge.

After this, Travers gets into bee lore per se, but always with a slightly sideways skew to her viewpoint. This is the essence of poetry. I always think of what E.M. Forster wrote about the poet Constantine Cavafy as

a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the universe.

It seems to me that poets always stand at a slight angle to the universe. Travers most certainly did as well as Cavafy. Whenever I re-read one of her essays, I often feel my own perspective has shifted somewhat; a thing to seek out, for poets.

Later on in her essay, Travers talks about talking to the bees, as well as listening to the news they give us of the land, the soil, the sky, and the earth itself; bees are keepers of the earth-knowing:

But this apprising of the bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment. In the British Isles and all over Europe, the folk continually keep the bees abreast of the news, at national as well as local level; decking the hives with crepe or ribbon, whichever fits the case. On one occasion, an ancient great-aunt of mine, hieratically assuming a headdress of feather and globules of jet, required me to accompany her to the beehives. “But you surely don’t need a hat, Aunt Jane! They’re only at the end of the garden.” “It is the custom,” she said, grandly. “Put a scarf over your head.” Arrived, she stood in silence for a moment. Then—“I have to tell you,” she said, formally, “that King George the Fifth is dead. You may be sorry, but I am not. He was not an interesting man. Besides,” she added—as though the bees needed the telling!—“everyone has to die.”

Again, at a wedding reception in an Irish garden, I found the gardener, a family retainer, morosely surveying the scene. “All this colloguing and gallivanting, and never a word to the bees!” he grumbled. “Why not tell them yourself?” I asked him. “Is it me to be doing such a thing? It needs to be one of the kin.” “Well,” I told him, “the bride and the groom are my godchildren. Would I be near enough?” “Ah, you would!” he said, with a brightening eye. “Yer a bit of a bee yerself.” So, puffed up with this piece of flattery, I went and told the hive and it hummed. The news would be spread abroad and doubtless commented upon.

And this leads her eventually, circuitously, her essay following the bee's own weaving path—thinking is linking, after all—to the heart of the matter: that we must have the earth-knowledge, the chthonic myth-knowledge in our bones, in order to live:

Our profane life is full of these hidden meanings, of clues that we are at pains to find but pass by, not knowing what to look for—or, more exactly, how to let meaning discover us. For this to happen we need to become aware, as our forefathers were well aware, that by the fact of being born, each of us has assumed a place in the cosmos and is part of all that is. But not only that.

Myth, by design, makes it clear that we are meant to be something more than our own personal history. It places us—and it is not a comfortable position—squarely between the opposing forces that keep us, and the world, in balance—the two Earth Shapers, benign and malignant, checking and disciplining each other to produce a viable whole. One has only to think of Prometheus, forethought, and Epimetheus, his unfortunate brother; or Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the light and dark of Zoroastrianism; of the Hindu Vishnu and Shiva, preserver and destroyer; of the Navajo Water-Child, born of the rivers, and Monster-Slayer, born of fire—the cool flowing sap of one and the solar heat of the other; the angels and devils of Christianity.

How pleasant it would be, and easeful, to be able to choose between them; to fall to one side or the other and so escape the conflict. But the myth allows us no soft option, at any time in our lives. A child of three once said to me, “I am two boys, Goodly and Badly.” Alas! too young for this, I thought, but at the same time realized that truth requires us to be young, no matter what our age. And then came the faltering, anxious question—“Which do you like best?” I knew the answer, and all the breadth and depth of it, but I had to appear to pay it mind. If I chose Goodly, then Badly would be in the wilderness, alone with his badliness and lost. If Badly, then Goodly would be in the same plight, alone with his goodliness. “Joy and woe are woven fine/A clothing for the soul divine.” “To tell the truth,” I said gravely, “I like them both the same.” The look of anxiety turned to relief and a trustful hand met mine.

We are both light and dark, Ahriman and Ormazd. We are both the Hunter, Orion, and the Seven Sisters, the Pursued, the Pleiades, the Sisters pursued into the sky.

Myth is essential to us: we must always be aware of it, and of its story in our lives:

For if man does not, of intention, enact it, keep alive its rituals, preserve unbroken the chain of its being, myth will enact itself through man. It is doing this now, all over the world, with ambivalent intensity—the tidal wave of births and deaths; the devil invoked in the name of God; instant heroes and instant villains; gods masquerading—myth has its wit and irony—as Chairman, President, or Mullah; Persephone abducted to the Underworld, eating the symbionic pomegranate and her mother searching for her child through the California fields; the Great Goddess rising in wrath, dressing up as female priest or terrorist; she who is terror as well as beauty—the Hindu Kali, the Celtic Morrigan, La Belle Dame Sans Merci—and be her very nature priestess with no need of dogcollar to proclaim it, is calling herself, not such honorifics of nobility as Gaia, Isis, Hecate, Hera, but Women’s Liberation. All these show myth in action. For good or ill? That is not the question. It is always for good AND ill.

And at last, Travers reaches the conclusion of her pursuit of myth, by returning to what the bees know, and can tell us:

So, we are left in question, which is where the myth is designed to leave us. Time, space, and matter are mutable realities. The Sphinx, the Pyramids, the stone temples are, all of them, ultimately, as flimsy as London Bridge; our cities but tents set up in the cosmos. We pass. But what the bees know, the wisdom that sustains our passing life—however much we deny or ignore it—that forever remains. Begotten, not made, it is here to declare to us, in the words of the old Greek poet Aratus, that “Full of Zeus are all the ways of men.” That word “full” means what it says, and therefore, with the ambiguity of myth, reminds us, too, that the sky is always falling, that the bough inevitably will break and the rain it raineth every day.

What does one do with these trifles, not unconsidered, that are snapped up from the bloodstream? Throw them back, as the fisherman does the riddler, to let them grow and breed! So—I toss them into a tributary of that whole planetary vein, that flows just around the corner; from which, long wandering beside it, I have learned so much. And also thrown into it so much—lamentation, doubt, question, gratitude, and joy. Let it all go, river, to the sea to be made over, absolved and dissolved, suffer the sea-change and return as bee-stuff.

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song!

Bees are also symbols for industriously accomplishing the impossible. Witness the long conundrum in science of understanding how the bumblebee is able to fly; for a long time it was a great mystery. It was only high-speed stop-motion photography that allowed us to understand that the high wing-beat-rate was how it was possible at all. But the improbable mystery remains.

Then there is pollination. Bees are not the only pollinators, no, but they are the major pollinators, worldwide. They gather and they pollinate; so all bees are essentially "honey" bees. (Talking myth here, even if science disagrees.) So: symbiosis with the rest of life; without them the plants would have a problem. Bees also furnish food, and prey on other insects, as part of the food chain. Bees that nest underground help churn the soil, over time, and replenish it. So: fecundity; life-force; nourishment.

Bees are another sign of spring, of life returning to the land. Like the first robin, the first redwing blackbird, the first crocus flower poking up through the snow or carpet of last year's leaves, sighting the first bee of the season is a revelation, and an affirmation. I haven't died. The world is coming back to life. Maybe someday I will too.

As Ted Andrews says in his book about totem animal powers, Animal-Speak:

If a bee has shown up in your life, examine your own productivity. Are you doing all you can to make your life more fertile? Are you busy enough? Are you taking the time to savor the honey of your endeavours or are you being a workaholic? Are you attempting to do too much? Are you keeping your desires in check so they can be more productive? Are you taking time to enjoy the labors and activities you involve yourself in?

Bee is obviously about celebration and organization, too. They live in organized colonies, with social, sexual, and functional roles laid out clearly; a diverse yet purposeful commmunity. Bees tell us that we can all live together in harmony, however impossible that sometimes seems. Perhaps the way to do that is to dance the bees' dance, orient ourselves to the sun, moon, and stars, center ourselves and our lives around Spirit and the Goddess (the Queen Bee), and work together in community. The Celtic tradition says that bees are the secret wisdom coming from the other world. In Jungian as well as Celtic terms, the archetypal perfect society is centered around the Queen, the Great Mother, paying homage to the sun in sacred dance, and producing from the fields and woods a substance that can both feed and heal and intoxicate.

Then there's mead—fermented honey. Mead is one of the oldest fermented alcoholic beverages in the world. Some recipes still in use are truly ancient: old enough to out-date the first cities. So: celebration. When we see the Queen Bee as the Queen of Faerie, then perhaps judicious draughts of mead might assist the "second sight" or the celebrant's transition to the faerie world Underhill.

And wax: for polishing, for light, for many other uses including waterproofing, threading needles to make clothing. And the antiseptic and medicinal properties of honey were surely known to the Old Ones. To think that we mostly usually it only for a sweetener these days! Wax for candles casts the smell of beeswax throughout the room, an intoxicating, sweet scent that opens the mind as well as the senses.

The bees humming and buzzing, thrumming and churning. The soft hum lulls us to sleep, and draws us into the Dreamtime, into the dreamworld, the Summerland, paradise. In the Welsh bardic tradition, a harp is known as a teillin, which is altered form of an t-seillean, "a bee."

Bees benefit from blossoms, practice useful things, work in the daytime, do not eat food gathered by others, dislike dirt and bad smells, and obey their ruler; they dislike the darkness of indiscretion, the clouds of doubt, the storm of revolt, the smoke of the prohibited, the water of superfluity, the fire of lust. —Ibn al-Athir

Our relationship to the bee is very old. Bees appear in ancient sacred geometry, maps, and earthworks. Who knows? Perhaps early humans, at the start of the agricultural revolution, when they started banding together in communities, noticed that the bees were also banded together in communities. Maybe they studied them as models of community; hence, the early usage of bee-symbols as far back as human temple architecture goes. Perhaps we were influenced to form communities because we noticed other communities already existed. Bees are certainly agricultural role-models, on some levels.

So, what the bee knows is what the earth itself knows. We must continue to talk to the bees—but we must also listen. There is lore the bees can whisper in our ears. Let them land on you, don't brush them off from fear. Let them crawl into your ear and whisper-buzz that ancient wisdom, that quiet voice that only comes to us when we sink most deeply into time, into the sinking and cooling that is Mystery, that is the Godhead, that is what the bee already knows is there.

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What Is the Purpose of Poetry?

It's tempting to start with a flip, quasi-Zen answer: None. One could elaborate on that a bit further: There is no purpose. It just is.

While I think that at a very deep level this is true, let's spend a little time with the question. Are we questioning what we do? our reason for being poets? is this a question that gets to root of our very existence? Yes, yes, and yes. So, it's worth examining periodically. Life goes better if you have a purpose, and give life a meaning thereby: even if it's something you completely make up. Invented purpose is just as valid as discovered purpose; and possibly less prone to ego-inflation.

Let's start with a raw definition of what poetry is, before we get to its purpose.

Most typical definitions of poetry focus on the technical aspects of what separates poetry apart from prose. Poetry is almost always defined as not-prose. This is both superficial, and not. Among the list of how poetry is not-prose, I've heard (and quoted myself): poetry is heightened and exalted speech; poetry contains musical form and musical elements (rhythm, cadence, meter, repetition, sonic structures) regardless of formal linguistic elements; poetry doesn't have to follow the syntax and grammar rules of prose; etc.

Most definitions don't define their basic terms. What is meant by "musicality"? I've written an opinion or two that poets shouldn't have to turn to music theory to bolster their arguments; but I digress.

Lately I write mostly prose-poems, or haibun and haiku, or unidentifiable forms that have neither names nor an extant body of criticism. I straddle these definitions all the time. Who I am is an artist who has spent his entire life on both sides of the fences of all kinds of borderlines.

I think the best definitions of poetry I've ever read are those of Rilke, especially in the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Letters to a Young Poet.

A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can enter through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.

Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we be real? When does he pour

the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice — learn

to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 3, trans. by Stephen Mitchell

That's one of the best definitions of poetry ever. Poets often use poetry to define poetry, of course, which can be maddening to the literal-minded, but it seems essential and correct to me.

What is the purpose of poetry? of art in general?

Is it to be entertainment? Surely mere passive entertainment is the most debased level of artistic appreciation. Can art actually change a person? make a difference to someone's life? Surely it must be able to.

This is one of those questions that's so big, you don't know where to start, and there is no answer that can ever completely satisfy. The question comes out of despair and frustration: it's really an existential question that is triggered by frustration around poetry, or art, but has nothing to do with poetry, or art.

Only you can determine if poetry is worth it, to you as the poet, to continue, or to quit. It's a thankless game, an endless road, and no one will love you for it. You might become a better person for having followed that road, but that is by no means certain either.

Having said all that, I believe this to be true:

If art can't change a person, it's not art. Perhaps I just eliminated the majority of my own poetry from being called art, but I think this is true nonetheless.

In my lifetime, with all the art I've made, I can name, perhaps, three instances of people who have told me that my art changed their life. Frankly, that felt great. (You usually never get to hear such feedback; so I feel blessed.) It was more than enough reason to feel like I should continue, when someone told me that. (Of course, such praise told me nothing about how to continue as an artist, only that I should.) So it's remotely possible that your art can make a difference to someone, somewhen, somewhere—it does happen, from time to time. Changing one person's life may be enough ambition, though; wanting to do more, hubris. You usually never find out about it, though. Can you continue, not knowing the outcome?

It's also true that the vast majority of all the art I've ever made amounts to exactly nothing. I'd even use harsher words at some darker times: études; scrap; masturbation. Any artist who looks into their own selves from time to time might feel the same way. It's human to have doubts. Again, this is existential rather than about poetry per se: Do I matter? will the universe miss me, or care, when I'm gone? am I making a difference in those things I believe in? does anybody care? will my work be remembered, even if I am not?

At another level, however, even knowing that some of my art did affect someone, is suspect as a motivation for doing art in future. I can't afford to think about that as I continue to do art; I can't afford to think about it at all.

Don't do art for all the wrong reaons: fame, glory, vanity, pride, the plaudits of your fellow poets. The lack of those doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong, in your poetry. It also doesn't mean you're doing everything right, either. It may mean you're truly original, and no one understands; it may also mean that you're going down a blind alley that will be forgotten. More despair will arise from attachment to either of those beliefs.

Don't make art because you want to change people's lives. That ambition is hubris. You can't control what people do when they receive your art, even with the best of intentions. You might very well be changing people's lives with your art—but you may never hear about it. It doesn't affect you, in return. So it's irrelevant to you as a writer. Either you find a better reason to keep making art, or you let your desire for applause stop you, when there's no applause. Lots of artists do stop, when they feel like they're shouting down a well and not getting an echo back.

Believe nothing. Do art because you do art. "Why?" is the most suffering question in the world—because it always takes you back to unanswerable questions, and you'll never get the response(s) you crave. That itch won't scratch.

I do think that, on average, great art does tend to disturb more than soothe, shake up one's world more than reaffirm it, give one a new way to perceive the world rather than underline what one already believes. It certainly has the power to make one pay attention, in any case.

But it's not always what one needs, in those times when one is already rocked by circumstances or life-changing events. Sometimes "bad art" is just what one needs, for solace. At those times, the well-meant insistence by others that "good art" is always better for one than "bad art" can come over as an attack from the Aesthetics Police, rather hurtful, and breathtakingly and ignorantly insensitive.

All this certainly affects the poems we write, too, does it not?

How's that for purpose?

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Photography As Memory 3: Discoveries

In cleaning out our parents' house before selling it, my sister and I have been going through many years of accumulated Stuff, and making discoveries along the way.

untitled, © Pamela Barick

This painting was one my sister painted probably 30 or more years ago, when she was still a young artist. My sister, Pamela Durkee Barick, is now an accomplished artist in several media, including etchings and ceramics; she also is a skilled quilter and bookbinder. Several years ago, Dad hung several of my sister's paintings on the walls in the hallway of the finished basement that led to his small office there; I must have looked at this painting a hundred times. When we were putting together the stack of her canvases that she was going to ship home to herself, I asked if I could keep this painting, and she cheerfully gave it to me. I have always liked it, and it will hang on the wall of my music studio in my own home, which I am moving into soon. That wall will have a lot of artwork on it, in a room devoted to creative pursuits.

I post this painting of my sister's on her birth date, as a thank you and a birthday greeting.

This is a watercolor of Mahabalipuram, the famous seaside temple in southeastern India, not too far down the coast from Madras. It is one of my favorite temples on the planet. I have memories of visiting this temple when I was a small boy; it was a place we stopped for a day or two, when we were on vacation from Dad's medical work in Andhra Pradesh. We often spent our vacation time on the ocean; I have photos of myself circa age 5 with a surfboard in the gentle waves of the northern Indian Ocean, probably the only time in my life I've ever surfed. I have vivid memories of Mahabalipuram; there is a promenade inland a little ways, lined with smaller temples and trees, and pairs of life-size stone statues of elephants. I remember being there in the light just after sunset, when the elephants seemed to start to move in that fading light.

This is a painting my mother brought home with us from India. It has hung on the wall near the piano for almost 20 years, and it one of the India paintings I am keeping. It will hang probably in my bedroom in my new house, near where I plan to keep my sacred artifacts.

Mahabalipuram was miraculously not destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami that ravaged the eastern Indian shoreline. There was a breakwater and as you can see, the temple itself is protected by a prow of stonework that juts out into the ocean. I understand that the force of the tsunami was split and swept around the temple. There was water in the temple, of course, but it was spared the brunt of the wave, and is still there.

Among the many other objects my parents brought home from India are several decorative metal plates; meant to be wall-hangings rather than serving plates, some of them have graced the house walls, in rotation, for years. I am keeping a pair of plates that depict Hindu gods; there is a Shiva Nataraj and a Saraswati, for example, that are made of worked copper, brass and silver, that will hang in my new home.

Shockingly, this beautiful, simple, elegant plate was one I have no memory of. I don't know if I ever saw it before. Or it has been so long that I'd forgotten it. It too will hang in my new home, possibly in the kitchen area.

Thus do we reconstruct and carry forward our past into our future.

I am moving soon, as I said. I am keeping some objects, and letting go of many more. It's not possible to let go of most of the India Stuff, for either myself or my sister. Some of it we've already divided up; there are a few pieces left over that we haven't decided what to do with yet. Some are antiques, that were already old when my parents bought them when we lived in India; how can you possibly assess these for monetary value? They are priceless, and not only because of the memories we associate with them.

My own decorative style in my new home is obviously going to be heavily Asian in tone. At some point, when the dust settles, I have plans to incorporate more Japanese touches into my overall design. And a lot of bamboo. My home will be decorated in my own style, not my parents' style. Still, there is overlap. My Mom's taste and my own have many shared touchpoints, among them Asian art and Scandinavian Modern furniture. But it will be my own taste predominating.

Thus do we move forward, and make our own choices.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Samuel Beckett: A celebration on his birthday

Ohio Impromptu



Words and Music

Samuel Beckett Films at Ubuweb

(And a tip of the hat to Frank Wilson for the birthday reminder.)

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A Course in Photography

I'd like to teach a course in photography—I have taught other courses, but this dream remains unrealized—called The Zen of Photography, or perhaps The Art of Spirit in Photography. It would not be a theoretical class, nor primarily a discussion or philosophical class, it would be practical and experiential. Students would be expected to have read from the reading list before each class, but each class would be practice, an exercise or situation to work with. The class would be about teaching a mindset—a Way of working—grounded in actual practice, not in just talking about ideas. It would also not be a beginning photography course; students would be expected to have some experience and familiarity with their cameras and other tools.

There would be a variety of sessions. The first week would be to familiarize ourselves with the materials at hand, before stepping out to make photos. We might discuss composition and framing; the ethics of staging a scene vs. discovering an existing arrangement; the necessity of slowing down to spend a long time looking before we ever make a single photograph. Some photographs are made quickly, in the moment; for others, one must spend all day waiting for the light to be just right.

A session would be spent outdoors, starting an hour before sunset, and proceeding for two hours after. (I have taught specialized courses in night and low-light photography before.) Another outdoors session might be an afternoon in the woods.

Another would be about portraits: but portraits of anything but people, still designed to do what portraits do at their best, which is to bring out the inner self. How you photograph a river in order to bring out its inner essence? a leaf? a candle? a park bench?

One entire session would be practice in calligraphy, followed by photographs of each other's calligraphy. The brush, the pen, the word, the book, the photo; these are all more connected than we usually realize. A similar session could be devoted to lighting and photographing still-life arrangements of writing materials and books.

The ultimate goal of this course is to get the students to get past all the technical aspects of photography, which is where most students spend most of their time, and get them to experience for themselves the poetry and Tao of photography. To get them to be able to go out and take a camera walk. It's about attitude and worldview and mindset, and how to make photographs both with detachment and as if your very life depended on them. Both are true.

The reading list would include:

Philippe L. Gross & S.I. Shapiro: The Tao of Photography: Seeing beyond seeing

Robert Leverant: Zen in the Art of Photography

José Argüelles: The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the nature and history of human expression

Audrey Toshiko Seo: Enso: Zen circles of enlightenment

Frederick Franck: The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/drawing as meditation. This book is central to the course. It is also best when accompanied by its two companion volumes, all drawn and hardwritten in their original editions by the author:

Frederick Franck: The Awakened Eye

Frederick Franck: Art as a Way: A return to the spiritual roots. This is another key book for the course; it contains basic concepts and attitudes that are valuable beyond saying.

Not Man Apart. A Sierra Club Book with several contributors, one of their best ever. Lines from poet Robinson Jeffers; this is actually a good introduction to Jeffers' poetry, and can serve poetry students as an illustrated Selected Poems of sorts. Photographs of the Big Sur Coast by Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams, and several other top-flight photographers. With an introductory essay by Loren Eiseley.

David Bayles & Ted Orland: Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking

Matsuo Basho: Narrow Road to the Interior (I prefer the Sam Hamill translation.)

John Cage: A Year from Monday

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet (I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation.)

Optional further reading would include:

Robert Pirsig: Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (A famous title, but how many of you have actually read the book?)

Dan Millman: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. (Essential grounding in basic concepts. The recent movie helped revive interest in this perennial title.)

Philip Scott Chard: The Healing Earth: Nature's medicine for the troubled soul. (I recommend this book as not just another pretty new age nature book. For one thing, it's better written than most. For another, it contains practical exercises.)

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 6: Passion

A wise man once said: Passion for science is a good thing. Passion in science is not a good thing. I think this also applies to creativity, especially perhaps to writing.

I'm in a passionate mood tonight, and I'm feeling emotionally honest. So, here goes nothing:

I've been feeling homeless as a poet. In the recent past, the poetry boards that I thought were my home, where I had developed friendships and peer-groups, have fallen dead or self-immolated. There are whole groups of folks who were my friends that refuse to talk to each other anymore, or refuse too talk to me. I was on the phone with one of them a few weeks ago, during the immolation, and he actually hung up on me, and never called back. Well, that's okay: we all have lives to lead, and there were a lot of hurt feelings during that particular immolation.

Yet now I feel homeless, rootless. It's not that I miss the poetry critique interchanges so much, because I had been feeling for months that I wasn't getting useful critique anymore, anyway. My new poems were just too different for even most of my regular critique-exchangers. When you go through a series of life-changing experience, you have to expect your art to change, too. The mistake was in thinking that my tribe would cheer me on, instead of giving me all those change-back messages. So, I was already withdrawing. Still. Nonetheless. It's not right, and it's the best anyone could do, and it has to be forgiven, and it is forgiven, and forgiveable. Even understandable. It's also the refiner's fire, the forge that makes us who we are. It was probably doomed to happen, and it was probably my wyrd to go on, despite.

But I miss the discourse. The discussions I used to have with these poet-friends I knew, that were on a very high level. They are all smart people, they all had genuine insights.

Truth is, I need, actually need, smart people to bounce ideas off. We don't always have to agree, and we don't always have to come to the same conclusions, or even start from the same premises. The process of discourse really helps me figure out my own strategies and ideas. It's a process I need. you bounce ideas off a wall, and eventually you all augur in on the truth, or some version of the truth. This was the passion of discourse, passion about poetry.

I may be an introvert at core, but the past many months of real-life change and challenge have made me understand how much I really need discourse, how much I really need other people. I've had to learn to ask for help, especially when I didn't want it. That was often a purely practical necessity. It's a select group of people that I need. Not a large group of strangers, but a small group of people who really can listen to each other, take it all in, not take it personally, and talk about the ideas, not each others' personalities.

I'm not willing to give that up. I'm not even willing to give up all those poets who have become friends with me, even if they don't like each other. Somehow, I'll make that work; I don't know how. If you hear a fierceness and loyalty in my tone, that's exactly right; that's where I'm coming from, and I can be a force of nature about it.

All I can see passion in poetry cause right now is break-ups, hardships, and tough times. Writing is not a social club, and shouldn't be expected to be. I think a lot of us have been stupid, online. I think we have gone into poetry boards, and email listservs, and blogs, assuming all poets were grown-ups who could be passionate about poetry, but remain level-headed otherwise. This is patently not true. Online, personalities are magnified. It seems that very few of us strive to be the same people online as offline: as honest, as direct, but also as cordial. Online, lots of people let out their "monsters from the Id" to play; they say and do things they'd never do face-to-face. The filter of relative anonymity lets out the dark side to play. (Hardly a new insight, nonetheless a relevant one.) I've made all these same stupid mistakes, too, beginning with assuming that people online are basically altruistic and empathetic. That mistake can cost.

But passion about poetry needs to constantly resurrect and renew itself, to keep feeding itself on those fires of belief and desire and disagreement. It's the classic oyster-pearl analogy: the pearls are produced by irritation, not by comfort. Nothing ever comes from total agreement. (Which is why totalitarian board-moderating usually kills poetry-boards: if everyone agrees with you, there's no life left.)

As another wise person once said: Life would be a lot easier if we just didn't take it all so personally.

Be passionate about your art. But don't take it all so personally, and don't tie up your self-worth in getting everyone to agree with you. They never will.

Think about it. Don't take it personally. It's usually not worth your wrath, and it's usually a waste of energy to nail down that sucker who insulted you over your latest masterpiece. Don't feed the piranhas: let them die of starvation. Let it go, and move on.

No actual guitars were harmed during the recording of this album. Although we thought about it. Void where prohibited by law. Always look on the bright side of life.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Elytis' To Axion Esti: An Exercise

Here is an excerpt from a famous poem by modern Greek poet and Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis, To Axion Esti:

This is the original Greek. There are numerous translations available of this poem; but don't go looking for them just yet.

That's because this poetry exercise is a little different: It's about layout and typography. The exercise is to look at the format and structure, rather than the words of the poem. Look at the arrangement on the page. It is strophe/anti-strophe, chorus/anti-chorus. It is two voices on either end of the stage, as in classical Greek drama.

Is it a list poem? a call and response poem? a verse and refrain poem, but arranged for two voices? is it a dramatic dialogue, notated as if for performance? is it first person singular, or plural?

Just look at it for awhile, and write how you respond.

Odysseas Elytis was one of my favorite contemporary poets. His poems are always light-drenched, often ecstatic, and full of eros in its original sense: life-force. His poetry always makes me feel more alive.

He wrote the following statements about himself and his poetry in 1972:

It has been said that I am a Dionysian poet, particularly in my first poems. I do not think this is correct. I am for clarity. As I wrote in one of my poems, “I have sold myself for clearness.” I told you that I am critical of occidental rationalism, skeptical of its classicism, and that I feel the breach opened by surrealism was a real liberation of the senses and the imagination. Could one possibly conceive of a new classicism in the spirit of surrealism? Is this a contradiction in terms? Do you know the work of Hans Arp? There you have great simplicity! He is a classical sculptor, isn’t he? Yet he was a surrealist! In other words, the world of surrealism had its classicists and romanticists. Essentially, it was romantic movement. But Éluard, for example, I personally find more classical than romantic.

I never was a disciple of the Surrealist school. I found certain congenial elements there, as I have told you, which I adapted to the Greek light. There is another passage in my “Open Papers” where I say that Europeans and Westerners always find mystery in obscurity, in the night, while we Greeks find it in light, which is for us an absolute. To illustrate this I give three images. I tell how once, at high noon, I saw a lizard climb upon a stone (it was unafraid since I stood stock-still, ceasing even to breathe) and then, in broad daylight, commence a veritable dance, with a multitude of tiny movements, in honor of light. There and then I deeply sensed the mystery of light. At another time I experienced this mystery while at sea between the islands of Naxos and Paros. Suddenly in the distance I saw dolphins that approached and passed us, leaping above the water to the height of our deck. The final image is that of a young woman on whose naked breast a butterfly descended one day at noon while cicadas filled the air with their noise. This was for me another revelation of the mystery of light. It is a mystery which I think we Greeks can fully grasp and present. It may be something unique to this place. Perhaps it can be best understood here, and poetry can reveal it to the entire world. The mystery of light. When I speak of solar metaphysics, that’s exactly what I mean.

I am not for the clarity of the intelligence, that which the French call “la belle clarté.” No, I think that even the most irrational thing can be limpid. Limpidity is probably the one element which dominates my poetry at present. The critic Varonitis has perceived this. He says that in my book “The Light Tree” there is an astonishing limpidity. What I mean by limpidity is that behind a given thing something different can be seen and behind that still something else, and so on and so on. This kind of transparency is what I have attempted to achieve. It seems to me something essentially Greek. The limpidity which exists in nature from the physical point of view is transposed into poetry. However, as I told you, that which is limpid can at the same time be altogether irrational. My kind of clarity is not that of the ratio or of the intelligence, not clarté as the French and Westerners in general conceive it.

You always look somewhat puzzled, I notice, whenever I contrast Greeks with Westerners or Europeans. This is not a mistake on my part. We Greeks belong politically, of course, to the Occident. We are part of Europe, part of the Western world, but at the same time Greece was never only that. There was always the oriental side which occupied an important place in the Greek spirit. Throughout antiquity oriental values were assimilated. There exists an oriental side in the Greek which should not be neglected. It is for this reason that I make the distinction.

Let me conclude by reading to you a concise statement I have prepared concerning the aims of my poetry:

I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never been attempted until now. In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.

Here is a transcription of Elytis' Nobel Prize Lecture, from 1979.

Here's an essay about his collected poems. Here's a biography of Elytis. Here's a list of his works and of translations; probably the most accessible in English are the Olga Broumas translations. Broumas' translation of Open Papers is essential reading.

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George Herbert and the Dark Night

This is a favorite poem (transcribed here), one I feel close to because I feel I have lived it myself. I'm in the mood to re-read it today because the wind and rain are howling outside, big sheets of rain are striking the windows my writing desk is placed before, and the world is filtered as if by a wet windscreen. The trees are moving in the strong winds as though I was driving past at speed.

There is a great deal of literature available on George Herbert and his poetry; my purpose here is neither to reiterate nor rebut the scholarship. (I recommend to you especially C.A. Patrides' books on Herbert.) Of the Metaphysical Poets, Herbert and John Donne are my favorites, in that order. Both of them approach the experience of living with the Divine, and against the Divine, with passion, wit, and humility. My response to this poem, here and now, is a personal appreciation, and nothing scholarly.

What always speaks to me about Herbert's poems are their ability to make you feel as if it was all happening to you, right now. The poems draw you in, and you feel as though you were the actor in the poem, the speaker, the narrator. Herbert's poems were only published after his death, but obviously they spoke to readers then as they do to me now, as they were quickly reprinted a dozen times in as many years.

In The Collar, the spirit of rebellion against limitation and restriction is explicitly, even violently stated. Have we not all chafed similarly under some restriction? Have we not all tried to break free, push away, go out into the world on our own terms, by our own rules and laws, and reject the laws given to us by our forefathers? Have we not all questioned the received wisdom of our birth tribe, as we struggled to become individual, and develop our own ethic? Have we not all felt similar torment, and similar humility at the end? Have we not been so bitter, and so balmed?

When I was living in the trailer in the New Mexico desert, going through my monastic experience of the dark night, I turned to this poem more than once. It reminded me that, even when I felt most cut off from my contact with the rest of creation, there were things I didn't know; forces in operation I could not know about, that were moving things along in a path towards eventual release. There are truths that are only revealed in hindsight. One of these is that, when I felt most alone, most abandoned, I was not. There was still a presence there, aiding me, even if I rejected it or could not sense it except briefly.

That awareness of presence is the core of the religious and mystical experience. I reject conventional spellings for this core experience, although it is one I have had several times. Every established religion has a way of talking about it, naming it, encapsulating it; they are all true, and they are all lies. (Because words can't really contain it.) I am not a member of any established religion, yet I recognize that this kind of experience lies at the root of most of them. In that, they are all separate paths to the same goal, and the goal is to go Home. Me thoughts I heard one calling, "Child"—and one must reply, in whatever words, or wordless waiting, one can muster.

Herbert in many ways was a better poet of divinity than any since; including Donne. He was in many ways the high mark to which we might all aspire. His freshness of approach and metaphor endure, and are still shocking. A collar—what is that, a dog's collar? a priest's collar? a leash on which the spirit lunges, only to be reined in? All of these, and more. What an incredible conceptualization of the relationship between God and poet. The very idea still stuns me, and I have read this poem a hundred times.

There are two older poems from years ago, not among my better poems, that I wrote out of this same experience, which I recognize as having parallels to The Collar. I can rarely approach Herbert's raw power, or even his violent fury in this poem. I've written my fair share of miserable angst-poems about being caught up in the dark night, in spiritual crisis, in acedia. I have looked long in that abyss, and have felt the abyss look back into me. I'll spare anyone from being subjected to these most miserable poems of mine; you probably have similar, or worse. The cri de coeur poem has as many problems, as a genre, as does the intellectual/philosophical poem; although they are different problems.

Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.

Herbert speaks for all cris de couer with these few lines, that can be matched only by the limpid despair of Eccelsiastes, or by some few passages in Albert Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. Gerard Manley Hopkins comes close in some of his sonnets, but Hopkins was perhaps directly influenced by Herbert, and had surely read him.

The Collar ends with:

But as I rav'd, and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, "Child";
And I replied, "My Lord."

And the growing violence of the language, the writhing and clipped phrases, suddenly become still, quiet, centered, and contained. Are we reined in, or do we rein ourselves in, given that one word of calling? This is a symbol of what happens when you hear that inner voice calling: everything goes quiet, and the still small voice speaks clearly within you. The world takes on sudden brilliance, colors become brighter, your hearing sharpens as though your ears had become suddenly unblocked and you can hear the thoughts of Canadian geese across the drowned lawn.

Near the end of that dark night, in the desert, there was for me a similar quiet. A silence that appeared as, finally, everything else fell away. A silence that I can still find, in myself, a still point. It has become easier to locate it, even in the storm-stressed whirl of daily lists of things that really have to get done, or else. Even when I'm completely out of sorts, some part of me can still feel and hear that ringing silence that surrounds the call. Once you've heard it, it remains.

Still, I want to go back out to the desert, soon, and pull over to the side of a lost two-lane highway, stop the truck, get out and stand there just listening to the silence. That silence which is the most enduring poetry of all.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here's a challenge:

Look over a large selection of your own poetry and try to note habits, good and bad, that you fall into. When you're looking at your work in this way, don't just notice the habits, seek to discover ways to utilize your strengths more completely, and way to augment or re-balance the weaknesses.

This is a challenge designed to bring forward a little self-awareness of your process and results. It's something I would urge most poets to do, periodically.

I'll answer the challenge myself, to get the ball rolling:

This is a very hard question for me to answer. I would have to start by saying that I pay a lot more attention to the process than the product. This is true for me in all of the several creative arts I work in: process matters, product sometimes doesn't. So, I'm not sure I can answer the question, except in some kind of roundabout, blithering, babbling sort of way.

I never had anything like a (typical) confessional lyric poem stage. In my teens I did have a stage where I wrote a lot of stuff out of vivid imagination that in retrospect could be called psychologically revealing, but none of it was about me per se. A lot of it was fantasy, fiction, even science fiction. I also wrote my first homoerotic poetry at that age. (Shock! Horror! Teenagers have sexual feelings! Call the thought police!) In fact, the three or four longest poems I've ever written have been erotic poems; two of them were started at age 16, and completed well over a decade later. (One of those things you pick up and put down, and set aside, and come back to sometimes many weeks or months later.) When I showed some of those old poems to adults, they got uncomfortable. (Today, they probably would call the cops; which is just so ridiculous.) I still have most of these old poems, buried in old notebooks in the basement.

I didn't write my first good, mature poems until well into my twenties, and I didn't write in my current (new and improved, one hopes) style until about 10 years ago, in my late 30s. I recently have been thinking along the lines that most poets don't write a single good thing until they're at least 30 or 40; and most poets who get published too young burn out too soon. (How many poets published in the Yale Younger Poets Series go on to produce great work later? A small minority.)

The best poem I ever wrote is the one I haven't written yet.

I abandon poems by the kerb as soon as I can't do anything more with them. I often do not wrestle with a poem beyond a certain point; at that point, it's better to scrap the thing and start over from the same point with a brand new poem. Endless revision can take all the life and joy out of poetry.

I don't self-analyze my poetry when I'm doing it, as bringing the inner critic online during the writing process itself is a sure-fire inspiration-killer for me. Looking back in artistic overview is not something I do much of, either. I can't even say that my poetry evinces a coherent body of work, as I have written in so many styles across so many topics. The only forms I write in, typically, are haiku and its related forms: haibun, tanka, renga, haiga. I suppose some poets would call it a weakness that I have no "feel" for traditional European poetry forms; on the other hand, one of my strengths is that I do have a very good feel for many Asian poetry forms.

I regularly "invent" forms for myself. Which means I do a poem, then like the shape of it when reading through it later, and do other things in that form. I'm aware of having invented 3 or 4 new forms for myself that I still regularly use.

What I often do during revision is compress and compact the poem's language, make it tighter and more connected. I am known to spew out a lot quickly, then edit it down. I often have to remove a lot of "the"s and "and"s, so I guess you could call that a weakness.

Poetry is my third art, after music and photography (visionary digital art). In all my arts, I have two favorite four-letter words: DONE, and NEXT. I am not the most patient and methodical of artists; quite the opposite. I don't spend much time in self-analysis, as psychology and autobiography not what the art is about. In fact, a lot of my poems (and visual art) are impersonal, verging on egoless. My work has been called both "brooding and moody" and "coolly transpersonal." It's also been called shamanic, transpersonal, mythopoetic, and archetypal. Go figure.

In fact, I don't have much ego-based ambition about my art; my music is the most personal to me, the rest much less so. For example, I've been a commercial illustrator and designer for years, so I gave up ego in my visual art a long time ago. (If the art director wants you to change an element, you do. You learn to detach from your artistic goals in order to realize the client's goals, even if you disagree with them. One learns detachment or one gets out of the business.) In my poetry, I trust my instincts; if a critique helps me improve a poem, I go with it, but I also have a strong sense of what the poem wants to be, so I'm not likely to adhere to the winds of fashion or make changes that go against my instincts. Thus, when I present a poem for critique, it's usually for a final polish, and only rarely an early draft. There are poems I write that I never present for critique, because I don't feel they need any feedback; they're pretty much already done, and I've already revised them on my own.

Some would call it a strength that I am ridiculously prolific—I make art (in whatever media) every day, with few exceptions. I have built up several distinct bodies of work with internally coherent styles (if diverse across the set of "all work"). So, when someone asks me for a piece, I often have a lot to draw on, and can even fine-tune an existing piece to match the request. Some artists think that's a weakness, and call me scattered and unfocused, but they miss the point. In all my arts I've won awards, etc., so if I'm "scattered" I am so in a good and productive way, and maybe it just doesn't matter.

I am a very strong improvisor, in poetry, music, and visual art. I play with things till they reveal to me what they want to become. I "listen" to what the poem wants, to where it wants to go. My artistic process is strongly intuitive, as opposed to rational, methodical, mechanical, intellectual. Some would call it a weakness that I have no "discipline" about poetry: I don't write a poem every day, but only when one seems to want to be written. It is my job as an artist to be always alert and ready, but never to force it. I do write every day, actually, I just don't write poems every day; essays or journal entries, though, are often how I start my day, even before breakfast. I suppose some poets would call it a weakness that I'm neither a formalist nor follow their kinds of discipline (writing a poem a day can be a good exercise, for some, but no one should be fooled into thinking that everything that comes every day out is a good poem).

One strength that I do possess, that I think a lot of poets lack, is artistic self-confidence and self-direction. Sometimes that inner compass serves you much better than anything else.

I can list a few other strengths not yet discussed, some of which are purely technical in terms of writing craft:

1. I'm good at line-breaks and overall enjambment. I have a good feel for where to break the line, to underline or establish the mood the poem. If the tone of the poem is propulsive, for example, I know just where to break the line so that the reader wants to hurry on to the next line or phrase. This sounds self-consciously manipulative, but I'm making an observation based on looking back over many of my own poems; when I actually do it, I do it by "feel" not by intellect.

2. Much of my poetry is cinematic rather than narrative. I am good at letting sequences of images evoke their own implicit narrative, without following an explicit scenario.

3. I am very good at mining my dreams and other sources from the unconscious for material. A lot of this turns into my strongest, most evocative and strange imagery. I have kept a dream journal since I was very young. A lot of my poems began in my journals, and were later pulled out and revised into poems. I allow myself to do "free writing" in my journals, without any goal or editing; sometimes I fall into a poetic cadence, full of imagery and music, without thinking about it. I allow myself to turn off my Editing Mind and follow the pen wherever it wants to go.

4. I actively seek to take risks with my subject matter. This can be very challenging for me personally, having been raised by parents who believed in emotional and spiritual privacy, in never revealing too much of the self. Some of this risk-taking openness and honesty is the direct descendant of my decision, in my youth, to live as honest, open, and authentic life as possible. It is also part of the coming-out process that many gay and lesbian writers go through, at some point: you want to write about what you honestly care about, and you don't want to have to redact yourself, or your writing, any more.

This isn't to say that this is personal poetry, or a kind of confessional poetry. Nothing remotely that exact or explicit. I'm not interested in either autobiography or self-justification. I already mentioned that I never went through a typical confessional lyric phase in my writing—I mostly confined that to essay, not poetry. It may be true that some earlier poems are "coded" or concealed, or symbolic rather than explicit; one can always read that into one's early-life work, but one must be careful not to retroactively revise one's own history too much on purely psychoanalytic grounds. (Freud is over, okay? Let's just get that out of the way.)

The risk-taking honesty in question is the honesty of response, not of biography: If I just saw a rock outcrop or a naked torso that made my blood sing (and both have), I want to write about what was triggered in me, as exactly as I can. When the world catches light, or takes fire, I want to write that down in a poem. So, this is in many ways a poetry of eros and ekstasis. I think I've gotten pretty good at this. It's the reason behind my writing discipline of being prepared for the poetic vision to strike, but not writing a poem a day, or other classic writing-practice tricks.

The risks I seek to take are often along the lines of putting my mind inside the mind of the Other, and speaking with their voice(s). This is a poetry of empathy rather than simulation. I'm aware that I've got at least one or two memorable poems that are from the point of view of the non-human. This, too, is about eros and ekstasis, but from a trans-human viewpoint. It's the curse and blessing of being a mystic, a visionary who just happens to make art.

Who am I kidding? I make art because I have to, because the vision demands it, and because I have no other way of conveying what I have experienced, to let other people see what I have seen. So, a lot of my visionary poetry (and visual art) is actually nothing more than a record, or document, of what I have experienced.

If I can get you, the reader, to experience in your own self what I have experienced in mine, then that to me is a successful poem, or work of art.

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The Endless Edit 2: Hard Craft vs. Intuition

Another round of this polarized dichotomy came up awhile ago on a poetry critique board. It prompted me to restate some things I've said before, from possibly a new direction. (I have left the original dialogue form mostly intact here.) At some point, you have to realize that it isn't a real dichotomy but rather a fiction of criticism. (One begins at times to think that all such binary polarizations are fictions of criticism.) We'll get to the dichotomy itself at a later date.

Nonetheless, the question was asked: It seems to me that the more I learn about writing poetry, the harder it is to write poetry. At the moment, I like the "not one word extra" approach, so I ruthlessly chop out what does not conform to my calculated purpose.

From the way the question is stated, it sounds like it already assumed that poetry is an intellectual, mental process. Where's the intuition in that, at all? "Calculated purpose" implies a goal-oriented process, not a process of exploration or discovery.

Of course, having a purpose or goal is how poetry is taught in the classroom. Since no-one can actually teach inspiration or creativity, all that can really be taught is the craft, the tools. The problem is that many students then come to believe, because they're not reminded otherwise, that the craft is all that there is, and all that matters. Thus, we we get a lot of poetry which is very craft-oriented, and says things really well but really has nothing to say.

I am increasingly worried that the intuitive poetry which I wrote before is being ruined, and is being conformed into workshop-poetry or common poetry without balls or freshness.

Always be clear to separate the process of revision, or re-writing, from the initial process of writing. They are not the same processes, and they do not proceed along the same guidelines.

Writing can be very intuitive: you might be following the pen, writing down everything that comes up, or that you see, or that you remember, in no particular shape or order. You might start with a situation rather than an idea or a narrative, and see what arises. Revision is the rather more mental process of imposing order onto the mass of what you have initially written.

So you could, for example, write the way you've always written, your more intuitive way of writing, and use the poetic craft you've been studying and learning during revision.

If you start to use all that well-learned craft too soon in the process, you do risk blocking up the creative channels, and losing your connection to your more intuitive self. Self-editing too quickly in the writing process does indeed lead to constipation. The internal Editor is for later, and must be ignored or set aside when actually writing. Stop thinking about it so much, so early in the process of writing. Just write, and think about it later.

Last night, a friend told me I had ruined a poem of mine by chopping out words and lines, and by changing the structure to one which seemed to be right according to what the poetry wallahs say in their numerous guidebooks.

Believing what the "poetry wallahs" say in their guidebooks is always risky business. After all, they might not know any better than you, and they definitely don't know you better than you do. Your process of writing and revising might be quite unlike anything the "poetry wallahs" can imagine, or communicate, and you'll end up trying to force yourself to conform to generic ideas about writing that are not actually useful or beneficial to you. Far better to discover your own process than to genuflect to anyone else's ideas about our process, including mine.

It is tough to know how much cutting is too much.

You know you've cut out too much when the poem no longer coheres. There is a line where the poem crosses over into incoherence, and separates into random particles rather than remaining a unified whole.

The "when in doubt, cut it out" rule is like all poetry "rules"—there are times it's totally inappropriate. If you reify it into a defined Rule, you will inevitably run into trouble, contradiction, and times when it does more harm than good. This is true for all poetry "rules." That's why poetry is a creative art, rather than engineering: there are times when the rules don't apply, or can be broken brilliantly, or just don't matter. Adaptability and flexibility will carry you a lot farther than the rigid application of any given rule-set.

The trick is to learn to balance your instinct for the shape of the poem against what you've absorbed as guidelines (perhaps a better word than "rules" in this context). The goal, obviously, is to make the poem as good as it can get. But each poem is its own universe, too, and sometimes guideline X will apply while guideline Y is actively harmful. The trick is to learn what guideline is appropriate to each poem, and where, and when, and why. And to let go of the rest.

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A Place to Roam

When I first moved West in 2004, living first in New Mexico, then in California, I left the Midwest because I'd hit a dead end. I needed to shake up my life. I needed to start over. I left the ruins of one life behind, in order to begin another.

Taos Plateau, west of Taos, NM

That has become something of a habit.

It was the beginning of a period of semi-nomadism that continues. Although now I find myself re-seating my roots in the Upper Midwest: born in Michigan, gone to school in Michigan, spent time in Wisconsin and Minnesota before going West, now putting new roots down in Wisconsin. I find myself building my home base here, now, for many reasons. One, I can afford it. Two, I have many friends in that corridor between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Three, if you're going to be driving to all parts of the Lower 48 for your photography work, which I am, it makes sense to build your home base in the middle of the country, rather than on one of its extremes. This is my place from which to roam, and to which to return.

I'll be in Florida this summer, and later in New Mexico, Nevada, and the West Coast. I've driven the length of coastal Highway One all the way from Los Angeles to Portland three or four times now.

Little Sur, CA

I feel like I know that winding, windy stretch around Big Sur pretty well by now. The first time I drove it was in the middle of the night, terrified of the precipices hidden in the dark, driving too slow, taking forever to get to Paso Robles, and long and tense and exhausting drive. Now, several trips later, the road feels familiar enough to tell me its first name.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, CA

Next time I travel West, though, I will have the cameras and recorders and no agenda this time. I won't be rushed to get back home. My last trip out West, I was hurried, and had to return here as soon as I was able, to resume taking care of my ailing parents. Now that they're both gone, I am free to spend as much time on the road as I can. That is, after all, my mission and job now. It's what I do now, what I have dreamed of doing, and what I intend to keep doing. It really is my job: to go out and take photos and video, bring them back home, turn them into DVD movies, add music to them, and make them available to the world. I will camp as often as possible, or stay with friends along the route. I will spend as much time as I can alone in the truck, listening to audiobooks on CD during day-long drives. And I will come home, now that here is home, again.

I will make pilgrimage, for that is what travel is. And I will return to my cave to nest and recover, to build strength and joy. And then do it all again.

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Haiku, Personification, Zen, Translation, Now and Zen

More than one English-language haijin (someone who makes haiku) has felt themselves up against the wall. The wall is the Western belief that anthropomorphism and personification are fallacies, are fiction, are no-nos in poetry. They use Western literary-critical terms like pathetic fallacy (now there's a term designed to be a negative from the get-go) or Eliot's objective correlative. They talk about subject-object relations, which is a Western bias built on millennia of assumptions about the nature of reality: that the "I" of the ego is separate from the "thou" of the world, that we are separate from nature, that we are in fact as Descartes claimed, ghosts in the shell. But the best haiku are not snapshots, not metaphors, not bridges between the disembodied mind of the poet's language and hte untouchable putridness of the natural world—the best haiku are deeply embedded participations. They are unifications, not bridges; participations, not observations; whole embodied experiences, not words about disembodied theoretical experiences. If you don't fall into the poem, into the world of the poem, if you don't feel it in your own body, the poem is not finished. Some would still call that sort of embodiment a personification or pathetic fallacy, of course: how we love to cling to our postural habits and defenses.

I think this is a very Western-psychological way of looking at the topic, which can be useful, but has some limitations, and can become a wrong turn, if one is not careful. Critical terms such as pathetic fallacy don't really have exact correlations in Japanese thinking about poetics.

Rather than personification, I would say identification-with: the idea of becoming-one-with. I think we get closest to this when we talk about participation. Not subject/object relation, but as Harry Hay put it, subject-subject consciousness. No separation: not-other. Nothing, no-thing.

It seems to me that the best haiku have this sense of immediacy, of identification, of lack of separation in all ways. So, no participation, no subject/object, but oneness/mu. This is the very aspect of Zen that was infused into haiku by Basho and his students, and also by Issa. It's a state-of-being condition, not strictly a literary-critical philosophy, which could of course be included in state-of-being. (This is also in the area where Zen converges with Western mysticism, in realms of Unity. Think of Yeats: like a long-legged fly, his mind moves upon silence.)

The criticism has been made that R.H. Blyth, one of the earliest translators and introducers of haiku into English, was rather "too Zen" in his thinking, thus misleading a whole generation or two of American haijin, notably the Beats. The criticism has also been made that Basho was only a fake monk, and admitted so. Add to that, were they daily practices, there would be no haiku, because words (and concepts) are a form of separation that are to be dropped away when one studies true Zen; the assumption is that one would be so fully enlightened that the need for poetry about experience would cease.

Fake monk or no, which was actually a common trope in the shogunate era in Japan—safer to travel dressed as a monk than as a merchant, for example—Basho and Issa were both recognized as having captured the spirit of Zen by later Zen masters and teachers. The spirit of haiku, obviously, is what I am going after, and is what I think trumps "literary correctness," or any perceived lack of Zen credentials on the part of haijin. So, I think the issue of Basho's Zen credentials is not as important as the truth that he did embody Zen in his writings, at least some of the time, and has been recognized as doing so. Tie in the influence of Zen on calligraphy, an art not at all separate from literature in Eastern culture—nor is painting, for that matter—and the both/and oneness of literary/artistic/Zen production starts to come into focus. No separation there, either.

I don't agree that one who is enlightened would no longer use words, because that throws out the whole tradition of teaching, darshan, and training. (This gets at the difference between the Theravada-style arhat who attains personal enlightenment and checks out, in contrast to the Mahayana-style forms of Buddhism, including Zen, that include helping others along the path of enlightenment, as well as oneself. The Vow of the Bodhisattva, while not so integral to Zen as it is to other branches of Buddhism, is not repudiated.) Demanding that the enlightened remain silent would also throw out the Zen literary traditions of the enlightenment poem and the death-poem, both of which are doctrinally accepted, and have produced some lovely insights into Buddhist philosophy. (My all-time favorite Zen enlightenment poem: "Now that I'm enlightened, I'm just as miserable as ever.")

The argument for it being easier-said-than-done has merit only to a point, because in Zen, literary work, like everthing else, is incorporated into daily practice. The point of practice is to exist in the Zen mind, beginner's mind, continuously, throughout the day, doing ordinary things ("chop wood, carry water"), not only while doing formal zazen or sesshin, which are "specialized" activities that even some Zen masters say are "nothing special." So, easier-said-than-done is simply part of the practice, until, like everything else, it becomes infused with Zen, and is as easily said as done.

Literary practice was incorporated into Zen, of course, which is why we have any tradition of Zen-literature at all. No separation here, either: it's all Zen practice. Thus, we have lots of Zen in haiku, and haiku in Zen. Lay monks, fake monks, or no, many of the greatest of Japanese literary treasures fit under this umbrella. (I'm thinking or Ryokan and Ikkyu as well as Basho and Issa, all of whom donned monk's robes at various times, for whatever reasons.) So, the fake-monk argument doesn't really mean they never had any genuine enlightenment experiences. That's only a matter of lineage-recognized credentials, not the actual fact of lay practice.

The problem with literary analysis of Eastern literature by Western critics is that sometimes there are underlying assumptions about the nature of reality (which can be understood across cultures; I don't buy the solipsistic argument for untranslatability) that are not the same in both cultures. I think you can translate when you are aware and respectful of the cultural context, the underlying assumptions about reality that the poet's culture carries. I think it's possible to understand each other, although it might take insight, time, and work, to do so.

This is why I prefer Sam Hamill, Stephen Mitchell, and one or two others as translators of Basho, Issa, Buson, Ryokan, et al.: they are actual Zen practitioners: they "get it," because they have had the experience of doing Zen, which many academic/linguistic translators have not. The translation can get even deeper when the reader has the same experience, and can embody the poem in herself/himself. Another poet worth mentioning in this context is Jim Harrison, who has done "versions" of Zen poets, although he himself is not a Japanese scholar, but rather a long-sitting Zen practitioner.

And here we get into the age-old argument about translation itself: do we translate the exact letter of the poem, or the spirit of the poem, allowing it to breathe in the new language? I personally feel some of the more "precise" academic translators often miss the spirit of the haiku when they translate them, because they get bogged down in the trees, and miss the forest entirely. A comparison of several translations of Basho's famous frog haiku can be found here, along with a commentary. This comparison is revealing, as is the commentary, which is by Robert Aitken Roshi, a Zen master and poet in his own right.

I don't really have a problem with R.H. Blyth, either, because even though he can occasionally be a little self-consciously "literary" in his word-choices, he does get at the spirit of the thing. I never understood the criticism of Blyth being "too Zen" about haiku, as, after all, how can anyone be "too Zen" about haiku? It's sort of the whole point of it, ennit?

The point of identification, obviously, is for the reader to complete the haiku experience by embodying it, by being the cricket or apple blossom, rather than just reading about it and keeping that mental (illusory) separation. No separation between "subject" and "object" is what Harry Hay means by subject-subject consciousness, in part. Again, this has deep parallels in the Western mystical tradition, too.

I do not mean to imply that a translator must be a certified Language Scholar, or otherwise a native speaker of both languages, or some other form of language expert. I question that assumption. I think that is perhaps a bias from academic life that isn't real-world. As an former escaped academic myself (and also as someone who spent much of his childhood in Asia; I am familiar with Japanese and its complicated history of writing, too, though I am hardly a scholar), I recognize it when I see it; and I have to say, leaving academia myself, showed me definitively that the wide, wide world contains many more things then are ever dreamt of in ivory-tower seminars. Academia is about the life of the mind; the rest of the world includes the life of the senses, body, and soul.

So, certified language scholar or native speaker of both languages? Not only is that not necessary, but if that were the principle and only criterion for translation, then hardly anything would ever get translated—and we would all be literarily and culturally poorer for it.

Again, I find limited those many translators that get stuck in the trees—the linguistic details—and completely miss the forest—the experience of the poem, the experience that the poem conveys. Some languages are easier to translate between, that is not in dispute. But I can think of several examples where the translator was not fluent, or a language scholar, yet the translations are successful, acknowledged as such, and highly respected.

Coleman Barks' versions of Rumi, for example: Barks knows little or no Persian; he relies on a literal translation of the original, originally by language scholars such as John Moyne, who is credited as co-translator early on in Barks' books of Rumi translations, then Barks works to get his versions in English. I have heard native Arabic-speaking Sufi scholars opine that Barks has indeed achieved a successful translation of Rumi into English. So, perhaps he's the exception, but it's obviously not an impossibility.

In my own experience, the academic disciplines least likely to get hung up in the box-like mindset that ignores the forest for the trees are those like anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology, all of which I majored in, in grad school; I admit, that could be a bias based on my own experience. The other academic disciplines least likely to get mired in literalism were the performing arts and other creative arts; musicians, artists, dancers, etc., have managed to communicate both intent and content successfully for generations, without necessarily being able to converse eloquently over tea. There are, in other words, other levels of communication than literal speech: and this is where the spirit of the poem can get through, even if the translator is not a fluent speaker of both languages. Wabi-sabi is a philosophical aesthetic that arguably reached its deepest development in the Zen-influenced Japanese arts; but it's an idea that does turn up elsewhere, too.

As for being accused of being a cultural constructivist, I have always responded to essentialist arguments about literature with laughter. I have lived a significant percentage of my life in other cultures, on multiple continents, and speak more than one, or even three, languages. My experience has taught me two things I believe very strongly: 1. The human experience is the same everywhere, no matter how we talk about it; we all have more in common with each other than not. 2. The differences, that wonderful diversity, are what brings the spice to life, and are to be treasured. I firmly believe that different languages literally create different mindsets, ways of framing the universe, ways of looking at the universe; and that every language has one or two experiences that can be expressed in that language that are completely non-translatable.

So, I agree that knowing the language helps one attain the world-view of the poet to be translated. But I would never exclude the possibility that a poet-translator could, through intuition, common (poetic) worldview, or lucky insight, get the spirit of the poem correctly without being a language scholar. It seems to have happened often enough that one must include the possibility.

There continue to be arguments that haiku and its related forms are too often mistaken as Zen-related. I think this remains a Western bias, perhaps an attempt in the Western post-modern(ist) era to divorce form from content, inspiration from form. I think the argument misses the point, if it is an argument that prefers to only discuss the secular, non-spiritual aspects of poetic form. Such arguments are equally absurd when discussing Rumi, or other mystical poets, for example.

Zen is a state of being, not a list of ingredients. It's a mindset that you inhabit, not a checklist of points made that fit an established canon. That sort of checklist literary criticism is wrong-headed at all times. All the Zen masters say it comes back to experience, and being Zen rather than talking about it, or even making poems about it. How can anything be Zen-related too often? That's like saying there's too much air in here for us to be breathing properly.

Maybe what these critics are trying to say is that too much emphasis can be given to Zen as an influence on literature, on the literary practice of writing haiku, and on the arts in general. I can see where someone might want to emphasize the literary sources over the spiritual, and talk about gatherings of poets rather than gatherings of monks; but then, I turn to the idea of "ordinary people and monks and mystics" (cf. Marsha Sinetar's book of that name) and ask: What's the difference? And who cares? Why make it into a big deal, when life is all of a unified piece? I sometimes view these anti-Zen literary arguments as coming from the same motivations of arguments against any and all forms of superstition, where the root of the argument is the implicit viewpoint that only concrete, physical reality matters, and things of soul and spirit are too trivial to be mentioned. Obviously, I disagree with that viewpoint. (Nor am I alone. The whole of Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on an ecological view of the human body's energetic and physical systems, in contrast to the mechanistic paradigm presented in Western allopathic medicine. Is it a coincidence that many anti-Zen literary arguments seemed touched by the brush of Western mechanistic philosophy?)

I come back to Zen not because I think haiku is only and ever a Zen poetic form, although for many haiku writers it seems that it was, but because knowing about Zen can help one understand the Japanese arts in general, because there was a huge influence from Zen on all the arts in Japan, literature included. The question of impermanence and transience is part of all this, including wabi-sabi, the seasonal-referent words (kigo) in tanka and haiku indicated by images from nature, and the act of creation.

As an artist, writer, and musician, I use every bit of beginner's-mind training that I have absorbed over the last 30 plus years—whether it came directly from Zen, or from Sufism, or from my Native American teachers about sweatlodge and shamanism—to clear and quiet my mind, to access my inner self, open my heart, and set forth: before I ever set down a word, pick up my musical instruments, or take a photo, I do this sort of self-emptying meditation practice. I don't really care what people call it, or where they think it comes from; there are many rivers.

I know from experience that there are other poets and writers who work at their writing in similar ways to mine, although we appear to be a minority surrounded by rather more intellect-based poets; that's an ongoing clash of viewpoints that we could get into, or not. The proof of the process is in the quality of the poem as it stands—which of course means that many processes are valid, because many different kinds of poets write many different kinds of poems of similarly high quality. There are many rivers.

I don't think we can get away from talking about Zen in haiku simply because we can't get away from talking about the images of impermanence that appear in many, many haiku. Chicken or egg? Does it matter? Doubt it.

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