Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Fire Sermon: a commentary

The Fire Sermon is an older poem, dating from the mid-80s. I wrote this poem partially during my Fulbright year in Indonesia, and finished it when back home in the Midwest. It’s an early example of a poem written at white heat. I hesitated to share it here, but when I was making the artwork that accompanies the poem, I realized that the art was meant to go with the poem, and it seemed essential to show them together. I have revised the poem slightly for this post, mostly trimming along the lines of my worst habit as a poet, too many “the”s and “and”s.

Why did I post/publish this poem now? It's more than 25 years old in its original form, written in that period in the mid-80s when I was very convinced of the necessity to write out my philosophy and mystical experiences as poetry. More accurately, I was convinced that there was no better way to record those experiences for myself. I’ve practiced this mode of visionary poetry writing at several periods in my life, when it seemed most natural and appropriate, in part because I could find no better method. The flatness of even the most poetic of prose seemed to take the life out of the experience, to somehow denature it, to take away its power. It seems to me that poetry can capture or enhance the telling of these kinds of experiences of otherness and transcendence, because poetry is enhanced and powerful language itself: heightened speech, words taken to their edges.

When I lived in Indonesia for a year on a Fulbright, studying music, a whole chapbook or two came out of that year, as well as a lot of music. I was living in Java officially to study music, true, but really I was studying everything, thinking about everything. Nothing was insignificant. Everything mattered. I was involved in all the arts, not just music. I went looking for experience, and I found lots of it. Call it a wanderjahr, the classic time of walkabout. I look back on the poems I wrote back then, including the Fire Sermon, and I recognize the person who wrote them as someone who was trying to figure himself out, although I'm not that person anymore. I have a lot more experience now, although overall I believe I'm younger at heart.

This poem, although inspired by the Buddha’s famous “Fire Sermon,” a central doctrine of Buddhism, isn't canonically Buddhist. It actually rather turns the original message of the Fire Sermon upside down. The original sermon by the Buddha, as recorded by his disciples, was about how all of the senses are on fire, all of life is on fire, and how those flames need to be cooled and put out, by following the eight-fold path of dharma towards nirvana. I found, when I was writing the poem, that what I believed was that immolation, the refiner’s fire, the burning of the self in the fire of life, was the other path to enlightenment. The flames rather than the cooling. The immersion in existence in order to transcend it. Nowadays I recognize that as the Tantric path, although I did not formulate it as such back then. Still, I've had many visionary experiences involving light and fire and uplift, experiences I still encounter even now. So as a proper mystic, I suppose I would end up taking the path of fire anyway.

Why did I post this older poem now? Partly it was because I made the accompanying artwork. Not knowing where the artwork was going, I was just playing with the images and processing. Fooling around. Improvising. As usual. People think that finished art is made with intention, but in my case as with some other artists it rarely is. I don't write an outline, I don't do sketches, I don’t plan everything out in advance. I just dive in.

The truth is, I've been having a real hard time lately. Call it depression, PTSD, feeling stuck, or worse, I lost most of today to feeling like crap and doing nothing. I’ve been feeling that way even on days when I can look back and tell you what I did accomplish. It didn't help that the day I made these images was cold and dreary and wet outside, which after weeks of unseasonably hot weather was doubly hard to take. Lots of people keep telling me that they think I'm doing well, on this current phase of my journey, and I'm starting to wonder if we're living in parallel universes. I do try to "think positive!" but sometimes you just want to punch the next overly cheerful New Ager when they chirp up about the power of positive thinking. I guess I've been good about hiding what I'm really feeling; I guess I have everyone snowed. The truth is, I feel like crap more often than not. More precisely, if not bad, then not good either. Quality of life has been lost under quantity of life, and quantity has been oppressive.

Was I looking for a reason to cheer myself up? Mostly art-making does that for me, or at least can often do that. Not lately, though. It's hard to feel like doing anything when you don't even want to get up in the morning. Depression. Whatever. Actually, depression can feel like The Big Whatever, an existential condition of anaesthesia and acedia. It's a fact that it can be hard to care. Sometimes I have to convince myself to care.

Fact is, I'm still under a lot of stress these days, Lots of people tell me I’m handling it well. I usually don’t feel like I am, so the external validation has been welcome. I don’t feel like I'm handling life very well at all. I feel overwhelmed and out of sorts most of the time. I can't always cope. I lose days to depression. I'm doing my best, and most days it’s an effort, feeling like an uphill battle, feeling like I have to force myself sometimes, feeling like even I don’t believe myself. I did make art today, out of this mood, as I've done before, but if it’s any good I can’t always tell. Nonetheless, a document of the moment, of the day, of the times. Life is difficult and complex enough right now, for many. There are several artistic projects and marketing and future career planning tasks on my To Do list, and having that list is good, because it gives me a reason to even bother trying to get moving up that hill yet again. I crossed a couple more items off the list today, yet as the witching hour approaches I don’t feel accomplished, I just feel tired.

This poem, my Fire Sermon, spoken out of a very Kazantzakis-like or Elytis-like mode of theology and mystical experience, inundated by sunlight and drenched with heat, a theology of Light and fire spoken in this poem through the mouthpiece of the Great Awakened One, falls into a category of poems that is perhaps limited artistically but fundamentally important personally: poems I have written for myself, to express truths I needed to write down, not caring if the poems themselves were good or not, along the axes of art-for-art’s-sake, purely because I must write about what is in the poems. They may not be good Art, or good Poems; in fact I'm certain that some poets would say they're not.

I’m well aware that this kind of poem is hugely unfashionable, no matter what the current fashion might be. They’re not hip or ironic, they’re not intentionally obscure or deliberately vague, they don’t require a decoder ring or secret insider information to get inside of. They’re not technically amorphous or brilliantly original. They’re neither metrically traditional nor neo-formalist. Each poem has a unique poetic form that emerged from the poem itself, and from its contents. (Form follows function.) They use mostly plain speech, albeit compressed and heightened and focused towards white heat. (I do get comments, about some of these poems, that they do ignite some readers, that they do catch Light, that they do break down the walls around heart and soma. That’s all I could ask for, and more.)

They are poems many poets would reject purely because of the subject matter, my personal experience of the sacred and sacramental, while other poets would reject them because they’re personal but not emotionally or psychologically confessional. There’s no psychological pathology in these poems beyond what a reader might project onto them. (Shamanic experience has frequently been misperceived as pathology.) There’s nothing pathological about having sex with God unless you believe that God is dead and passion is a necrophiliac aberration that must be suppressed. Freud would condemn Rumi as schizophrenic, entirely missing the point. (Freud was remarkably wrongheaded about so much that is natural to transcendence and contemplative spirituality. Maslow by contrast gets it right, in his studies of peak experience, of oceanic experience. The poets of ekstasis get it right more often than anybody else.)

These poems would not satisfy the criteria of many creative writing workshops, because they’re not personal small-scale lyric poems in the approved workshop mode, nor are they abstract and philosophical or opaque, in the approved language-mannerist modes. These poems are too sincere on the one hand, and not awkwardly self-conscious enough on the other. There is almost nothing in them about human love relationships, except as such relationships are avenues of grace and fire and what we can call Tantra.

The poems in this category have almost universally been rejected, or over-praised, often for the same reasons. It's rare to hear a response to this kind of poem that is just so, just right on target. I don’t know if they’re Great Art. I’ve ceased caring either way. I do know that they are letters written from myself to myself, and to Whoever or Whatever else is listening. They are what is transcendentally universal that I can find in what is personally mine. Some of them are stories, and others are deep descriptions of instantaneous non-narrative moments. The Fire Sermon is perhaps the only poem I’ve ever written consciously as a sermon, as a speech written to be delivered to the gathered congregation. It's not even a didactic poem; it's a poem of praise.

So that’s what it is. The other reason I present it now is because intuition says it’s necessary. The timing must somehow be right. I must be brave enough, right now, to be naked and vulnerable. Opening the heart is also a Tantric practice. Who is the Beloved to whom I send my song? He alone who knows my heart.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never been fashionable. Unless you count enjoying the music that was in the charts when I was a teenager but that was only a fraction of the music I appreciated. I have always hated how fashion dictates, also its arbitrariness. It’s like laws—one day you’re a law abiding citizen, the next you’re a criminal, or vice versa—people just decide this is the way things should be and we all go along with it. I personally think that poetry is one of those things that transcends fashion. Yes, fashion affects its marketability but since next to no one is buying the damn stuff how important is it really writing ‘fashionable’ poetry? I didn’t comment when you first posted the poem because it was beyond me—on several levels—and it still is; today is a foggy day and not a good day for reading poetry, especially long poems. Had it been six lines long I would have made the effort. When I saw the title though the first thing I thought of was Eliot and that did nothing to encourage me since I’m far from being his biggest fan although I don’t mind ‘The Hollow Men’.

I empathise completely with you feeling like crap all the time; I’ve not had major surgery and feel like crap all the time. Today it’s my back. Not sure what I did to put it out but I’m hobbling around like an old man. The back comes and goes. If it gets really bad I’ll go and get an adjustment but I don’t rush to the osteopath; oftentimes the problem rectifies itself. I’m also going through one of my spells where I have headaches for days on end; that can wear one down. But you take the pills and get on with it, at a reduced pace and with limited efficiency but something is better than nothing and as long as I’m moving in the right direction I can’t complain.

I’m like you though, a to do list that never goes away. I’ve just resigned myself to getting less done and not burning out. It’s hard to stop when I see myself getting tired but that’s what’s necessary: at half-six all attempts at work stop. I aim for three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon and, on a good day when I’m on a roll, one after dinner. Often though I get nothing much done in the mornings because it takes so damn long to pull myself together. I’m jealous of these youngsters with all their enthusiasm and their stamina but try and not let it get to me.

So I’m not going to say “think positive” although “think realistic” is probably something you should do. The days when I thought I could work twelve hour days seven days a week for months on end are over. Fact. All the positive thinking in the world won’t alter that fact. But I’m not dead yet and neither are you.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree that poetry transcends fashion, however lots of poets do get caught up in it, and give it more attention than it deserves. Then again, there are always people in the arts who lust to be on the cutting edge in whatever they do. I often find myself on the cutting edge, but mainly because I'm restless and like to explore.

Have you considered that headaches and backaches might be connected? For me addressing one has also helped with the other.

That's the thing with thinking realistic vs. thinking positive. Lots of folks only want to hear you be positive, and they tell you that in many subtle ways. Like it's a sin to not be positive and sunny and cheerful all the time. I tend to always be realistic, anyway. What's changed lately is that I can't be bothered anymore taking care of other peoples' feelings before my own. I'm still learning that one. It's a lifetime of putting others first that I have to undo. And considering that I'm nowhere near done with my own medical journey, I think it's okay to be a little selfish about it. So if I'm not feeling cheerful, I just don't pretend to be anymore. It's been interesting to watch peoples' reactions.

1:35 PM  

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