Monday, May 16, 2011

Poem Without a Category

Browsing the thrift store bookshelves today, found a few treasures, old and new.

The real find of the day was Arthur Laurents' autobiography Original Story By, since Laurents has only just now died at age 93. I came home and immediately sat down to read, finishing about a third of the book in one afternoon. Very smart, very crisp, and completely open about his own life as a gay man, triumphs and mistakes included. It's fascinating to read about his Broadway and film work, the many people he knew and worked with. I suppose on some level this is gossip, but it doesn't read that way; it reads as memoir and revelatory memoir at that. One gets a real feel for what it was like to live as an artist in the closet during the McCarthy years, for example, which Laurents always refers to as the Witch Hunt years. He spends a lot of time on the psychology of informers, and the suffering caused, concluding, I think quite rightly, that someone who can betray their friends by informing on them will ultimately commit other betrayals, because they are at core incredibly focused on themselves first and foremost. One of the most interesting parts of Original Story By, to me, is the chapter on the genesis and first stagings of West Side Story, a story I've read before from Sondheim's and Bernstein's viewpoints. To hear it again from Laurents' viewpoint is fascinating, interwoven as it is with several other threads.

Also acquired were some backup or loaner copies of some other books: ones I often loan or give away. It's always good to have spares of those, and at thrift store prices they're easy to acquire. One of these was a pristine paperback copy of Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression, one of the best books I've ever read about depression; the book is truly encyclopedic, even including some good background information on related spiritual conditions such as acedia and the dark night, and how they can look like depression but aren't, really.

And I found another pristine copy of The Enlightened Heart: An anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell, which is a good anthology for eclectic students of the poetry of spirituality and vision. I opened the book at random, and this is the poem that I read first, which today has rather deep resonance for me—especially after my recent comments about categories, boundaries, critical boxes, and the avoidance of same:

Poem Without a Category

Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade through the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough—
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

—Gensei (trans. Burton Raffel)

Written in classical Chinese form by a Japanese Buddhist monk, a loose wander of the mind through the day, avoiding all categories typical for the classification of poems. The poem's own restlessness is part of the avoidance. Not a nature poem, not a Zen poem, not an urban bustle poem. A poem of simple observation of an afternoon's wander.

But then the shock of those last four lines:

The point in life is to know what's enough—
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

Fill infinite space with even the smallest happiness held in the smallest heart's vessel. I feel that way a lot, lately. I feel both very small and insignificant, and yet the whole Universe cannot contain what I am feeling. Certainly words cannot. Sometimes what is being contained is serenity: unexpected, quiet, it comes upon me at the least likely moment.

Another Japanese Buddhist poet, from the same anthology, the same period, writes simply:

Die while you're alive
and be absolutely dead.
Then do whatever you want:
it's all good.


That's the heart of Zen for me at the moment: dying while you're alive, right now, no waiting. Then, you're completely free, and everything is everything. Mountains become mountains again, after having been illusions for awhile, and sudden;y whether or not you ever climb to their summits is a matter of no importance. If you do, that's good. If not, that's also good.

The Enlightened Heart is a diverse tapestry of spiritual wisdom in poetic form—certainly heretical to the contemporary poetry yen for "words for words' sake"—ranging from the Upanishads and Lao Tze to Emily Dickinson and Rilke. The anthology ends with Robinson Jeffers' poem "The Treasure," with its long lines summing up many truths in a few poetic phrases:

. . . That silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it;
    interjection, a jump of the breath at that silence. . . .

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Anonymous Steve said...

The Noonday Demon is such a great book. There can't be many books on the subject that are so comprehensive, open-minded, thoughtful and well-written. It stands up as a book in its own right - it is so much more than just a guide to depression.

I rarely find second-hand gems - but then my unread book pile is big enough as it is!

4:52 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well said, Steve, about The Noonday Demon. I agree completely. That's why I keep giving away spare copies to friends who might really get some good out of reading it.

I'm lucky to live in an area not too far from a big university town, and also not too far from a bigger city, so the things that turn up in thrift stores are often quite interesting. I'm also lucky in that I'm a fast reader who has enough time, at the moment, to actually be able to read.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

Oooh, you KNOW I'm borrowing the Laurents book while I'm there...

2:51 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

James says bring Vernor's and Sander's, and you might have a chance. . . .

4:11 PM  

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