Koans Rhyme with Poems

Over the summer, the editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle approached me, asking if Rattle might help them with a poetry discussion group.  Though we have no direct ties to Buddhism, I thought it might be interesting to participate.  I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself — I’m too much a spiritless materialist to succor the notion of reincarnation or Buddha-nature — but I’ve always had a strong affinity for their philosophical and psychological views, which in the end comprise the bulk of their theology.  I went through a phase where I read a lot of Buddhist texts, and maybe I’m being too honest here, but my hunch has been that the Buddha got it right, but his message was corrupted by the canvas of the Rigveda, and then 4,000 years of the same human ambitions and anthropomorphisms that have dogged every religion since the beginning of time.  I even spun a fantasy that, when the Buddha said “reincarnation,” he meant moment-to-moment — the fact that we’re not the same person we were 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago, and in that time even your bones have been replaced.  The miracle of reincarnation is the constancy of consciousness itself, which is reborn relentlessly, even as the body itself changes.

In any event, Buddhist scholars have been thinking about the nature of our reality, intelligently and unbiasedly, for an awfully long time, and their observations are as insightful as they are fascinating.  And much of it relates to poetry.  I’ve already talked about the poem as mantra (“mind-tool”) — poetry as a spell, a hypnotic string of words that alter your mental state.  In my opinion, that’s the best definition of poetry there is.  But that’s not all eastern religions have to offer.

Poems are also koans.

In the Zen tradition, koans are little stories teachers tell their students to mess with their heads — in a good way.  Koans are often presented as faux-riddles which cannot be resolved rationally.  Pop culture is familiar with many of these: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  “If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?”  The teacher will present a question like this, as if there were an answer, and then the student will meditate on his or her failure to find a response. (For more on how this works, see this anecdote by Huston Smith in Shambhala Sun.)  When you fully engage a koan, the effect is a subversion — and thus exposure — of the tired and routine workings of the mind.  You can almost hear the gears grinding up there, as the mind tries to make sense out of the nonsensical, and with that comes the stunning revelation that the mind is not you — it’s something else, something less than yourself, something outside yourself.  If you can sense your mind flailing, who is doing the sensing, who the flailing?

So in the end, the koan has little to do with the koan itself — the koan really lies within the response it triggers. It’s a process, not a product.

But in many respects, koans do have answers.  For every scholarly analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a Buddhist scholar analyzing Two Hands Clapping.  Koans always seem to invite critical thinking at the same time as they subvert it.  The medium is the message, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t messages in the medium, too.  Here’s an example, a koan in narrative form:

When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master retorted, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master’s retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang’s words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, “What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest.”

If this passage sounds baffling at first, don’t worry.  It’s a story-equivalent of one hand clapping, meant to short-circuit your usual thought process.  But still beneath that, there is meaning.  When the two men speak of the feather duster, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate Oneness of reality — there is only one universe, all things connected, but to use any object within that universe you must first make it an object, which makes you a subject manipulating the object, dividing the ultimate Oneness into finite Multitude (the mind is a knife, carving up reality into discrete units).  When Ma Zu asks about separating him from his skin, he’s asking what would happen if the Oneness were separated from the Multitude, to which Bai Zhang replies, by using the feather duster, that Oneness and the Multitude are actually the same things, interpreted differently.

Ma Zu then tests his student further, with his own words, a kind of “Are you sure?”  In returning the feather duster to its place, Bai Zhang shows that he only understands in theory, not in practice, so Ma Zu shouts his student deaf, where he will be alone in his own mind for three days, receiving no instruction.  It is only then that Bai Zhang understands the lesson lies not within the words alone, and becomes enlightened.

I don’t know if that explanation makes sense without a working knowledge of Buddhism — but the point is that a koan is not just a transformative tool, it’s also a parable, with real metaphysical wisdom locked inside.  A koan is both things simultaneously — if it were just the information, the lesson, then it would not be a koan.  A koan is an instruction that must become an experience to do its job.

And that is what poetry really is.  You can read ten books on “The Waste Land,” exploring all the allusions and symbols and structures, but they will never add up to the experiencing of “The Wast Land,” because a poem is only the confrontation with the poem itself — the transformative, resonant response the poem gives us has nothing to do with the footnotes, and everything to do with the indescribable mystery and music within it.  There are many answers, but none of them are the answer — it’s the process that answers, not the product.

The problem with what we call “hallmark verse” — a category into which the majority of poems submitted to any magazine fall — has nothing to do with sing-songy meter or forced rhyme or mushy subjects.  Bad poetry, fake poetry, hallmark verse is all product, no process.  It’s the Cliffsnotes to the koan, rather than the koan itself — it lacks the magic of mystery, the transformative power of subversion.  So many writers seem to get an idea for a poem, and then merely pass that idea along, as if they’re passing along the answer to a question.  They might as well be writing letters or diary entries.  When you write with a message in mind, the message is lost.

A poem must be more than the message; it must be an experience.  All the novice admonitions — “show don’t tell,” “avoid cliches” — are subsets of this one lesson.  Poems are koans.   That’s why it’s so hard to write real poetry, but so easy to fake it.  Answers are easy; transformations are hard.

Which brings me to this week’s poem in the Tricycle discussion group, Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act,” first published, along with her interview, in Rattle #26.  It’s the best example I know of a what I’ve been talking about:

THOSE WHO CANNOT ACT by Jane Hirshfield

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”–
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

© Jane Hirshfield, from the book After, HarperCollins, 2006.

We can talk about this poem for pages and pages, for days:  the poem’s ending into stark silence, the voice of those who have no voice, the implicit responsibility for those who can act.  My favorite part of the poem is that it forces us, the readers, to be among those who cannot act — we’ll never be able to finish the poem, it will only end in frustration.  All of those elements are there, and worth discussing.  But they never add up to the experience of the poem, the haunting, wrenching truth that lies beneath it.

Like a sculptor carving marble blocks, the statue itself what remains, a poem is really the sum of all that isn’t said.  Poems happen within us — what matters is the leap they make us make ourselves.  A new koan:

A student gives the MFA instructor a poem to read overnight.  The next day the student asks, “Was my poem any good?”  The instructor replies, “What poem?  All I see is you.”

Stand-Up Poetry

Last week I read poetry with a comedian at a hair salon slash art gallery.  An unusual setup, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — poetry readings are generally boring as hell.  They come in two forms — the poet plus open mic, and the fancypants poetry pair all by their lonesome.  I don’t know which is worse; the former is a more acute pain, the latter more a dull ache.  Both are mostly psychological torture, bound to a chair and suffering a tedium bearable only in small doses.  Maybe you do come out of them a better person, though.  Think electroshock therapy.  It’s only enjoyable when it’s a poet you already know and love, preferably reading poems you already know and love.  Or if it’s a good slam poet.  But I digress.

Sharing the stage with a comedian is surprisingly like sharing the stage with a musician.  No matter how good you are as a poet and performer, no matter how bad they are as a whatever else they’re doing, it feels like following the Beatles.  Poetry pales.  And comedian Barry Holiday was good — he made us laugh for a solid half-hour.  So, up next as a lowly poet, what do you do?

The only option seems to be becoming a comedian yourself, so that’s what I did.  It’s surprisingly easy to be funny on stage.  I’m not sure what it is — all laughter, whether nervous or pure, is infectious, maybe.  Or maybe something just happens with all that focused attention, some cosmic coalescence, some inherent irony in the very act of standing in front of a crowd with a mic and trying to entertain them.  It seems even easier as a poet, too — you know a comedian’s trying to make you laugh, but when you find yourself face-to-face with the rare and reclusive poet, you don’t know what to expect — laughter is an extension of surprise, after all, and what better blank slate of anticipation does the general public have?

I started out by asking how many in the room actually read poetry, and 3 out of 30 hands flew up.  So I focused on the majority, and gave them the inside scoop on this business, which is a pretty funny enterprise.  The sighs, the snaps, the golf claps.  The inferiority complex.  Subtle jabs at other poets that even they might not recognize.  At the end of the set, it was pretty clear that the audience enjoyed my banter more than my ballads, but there’s really nothing wrong with that.

It got me thinking again about poetry on the stage — what’s the problem?  Why is an off-key folksinger cycling through the same three chords more entertaining than the best of poets?  So often I focus on how to make the performance better that I gloss over the obvious fact that poetry is simply not meant to be performed in the first place.  Music, comedy, drama — those are performance arts, and no matter how often it gets grouped in with them, poetry never will be.  So of course the only way poetry can beat them is to join them — which is why slam poetry always drifts into comedy or dramatic monologue.  And maybe that’s why the best slam poets often drift back toward the page — the page is where poetry really lives.

Before you hit me with history, recitations of Chaucer and the bards of the Parisian Court, it’s true that poetry was born orally, a millenia before Guttenberg.  Music, comedy, drama, and poetry, all share a common ancestor, but each have evolved over thousands of years to become specifized within their own niche.  Poetry is the private, internal communication between an individual writer and an individual reader, in which the reader’s own breath and heartbeat become the artist’s medium.  Whenever we try to take it back to the stage, we’re like dogs trying to wrestle a grizzly bear.  Yes, we’re all caniformia, but that doesn’t make it a fair fight.  And evolution cuts both ways — put that cliched folksong on paper with a score, and try reading it for pleasure.  Bears don’t make good housepets.

In the end, the poet is left with two options:  Don’t perform at all, keep it on the page and keep your dignity.  Or accept that poetry isn’t meant to be done standing up, and incorporate elements from other performance arts.  Tell a joke, sing a sonnet, speak in tongues.  Don’t be so stubborn that you put us to sleep.

Poetry Is Not a Racket

War is a racket. … Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
–Major General Smedley Butler,
War Is a Racket, 1935

It’s no revelation to say that we’re a culture obsessed with money.  That we can’t do anything unless someone makes a profit.  Money corrupts everything it shouldn’t:  healthcare, politics, adoptions, war…  Sometimes I’m surprised there’s no one outside picketing the Postal Service.  (DHL and FedEx do it better, right?  So what if it costs $8 to send a postcard…)

But you can’t make money writing poetry.  And I’m thankful for it.  Our poverty keeps us pure.

Of course, plenty of people make money in poetry, greasing the gears of the machine so we can keep cranking out poets and books and magazines.  Teachers get paid to teach.  I get paid to run a magazine, which contrary to popular belief, consists mostly of correspondence, database maintenance, advertising, accounting, and web and graphic design.  Every once in a while I have to write the introduction to a tribute section, or a little blurb about our contest winner — and I hate that.  It might take an hour or two, so for two hours out of fifty a week, everyone once in a while, I get paid to write about poetry.  But most of the time I’m a clerk with a fancy title, either tracking files or shipping and receiving.  Megan and I might read more poetry than anyone, but we also lick more stamps.

When it comes to writing, though, there is only the writing.  No one writes poetry for any reason other than that they love to do it — or at least loved it at one time, and hope to love again.  Maybe they love it for the discovery or for the meditation, or just for the empowering feeling of having a voice in the world — even with the most self-important of motivations, the love is pure; the goal is self-contained within the poem.  It’s work for no profit other than the work itself.

I think about this every time I hear poets lamenting the fact that there’s no money in this — if only there were more grants, if only poetry books sold like novels and you could make a living just writing…  Of course that would be great for the successful few, but think of what we’d lose.  All these voices speaking their own truth.  There woudn’t be any more real poetry in the average bookstore, there’d be sections for mystery collections, horror, Harry Potter, and Chick Lit.  We’d have to worry about agents and contracts and copyright infringement…  No thanks.

It’s that last that got me thinking about this again.  Recently I made the mistake of posting a copyrighted photograph without crediting the artist.  The comparative in poetry would be to have a poem of mine republished on the internet somewhere without my name one it.  The truth is, I don’t think I’d mind.  Of course I’d prefer to be listed as the author, and I’d be upset if the poem was attributed to someone else — plagiarism is still a sin.  But any negative feelings would be balanced by the honor of finding some random stranger who appreciates my work.

The difference in reaction has nothing to do with personalities, but rather, is inherent in the medium itself.  Photographs have a real-world value.  Whether you’re taking stock photos, journalism, or fine art photography, it’s possible that you might sell those images for a meaningful amount of money.  Poetry has no tangible value, so copyright infringement isn’t all that important.

I’ll give another example.  Two summers ago, in our slam issue, Rattle published Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.” (If you click that link you can listen to it, and I highly recommend you do.)  Years before we published the poem, it had already become a meme among educators — even my aunt, a retired high school math teacher who never reads poetry, recognized that poem.  But interestingly, the poem was often passed around without mention of Taylor’s name, so that several people wrote to us claiming that the poem was plagiarized.  When I mentioned this to Taylor later, he didn’t seem bothered in the least.  He had a message, and he was happy that it was getting out.

When you add money into the mix, things change out of necessity.  When it’s really a livelihood at stake, we have to be more serious.  And it effects some corners of poetry, too.  Within that same slam issue is a piece by the only poet who ever denied our request to put audio of a poem online.  He said it would be alright if we streamed the recording, but he didn’t want the mp3 to be downloadable, because it appears on a CD he recently released.  Since I don’t know how to do that, I wasn’t able to post the poem.  But I understood completely — I’d never want to damage someone’s livelihood.

That’s why I’m happy that there’s rarely any money in poetry.  A poem is only as serious as a poem is — gravely, intangibly, irrevocably serious at times, completely unserious at others.  True to nothing the poet, questionable to nothing but itself.  Poetry is not a racket.  It’s a hobby, a passion, an obsession, a calling.  Free to anyone with a pen and time to think; free to anyone with a library card and time to think on.  It’s entertainment, comfort, catharsis, epiphany — but never currency.  And there’s value in that.

VIS-PO-ART and the Shimmering Verge

The forthcoming winter issue will feature an interview with Molly Peacock, and I love one of the things she talks about, which I’ll preview for you here.

PEACOCK: The shimmering verge is for me the place between two states of being or two emotional states. I opened my one-woman show by asking people to imagine a paint chip and that paint chip is green, and then I asked them to imagine another paint chip and that paint chip is blue, and then I asked them to get one greenish-blue and one blueish-green and greenish-greenish-blue and blueish-blueish-green until they can’t tell the difference; they can’t tell what color the paint chip is anymore. And that is the shimmering verge, the place where one color shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And that’s where one emotional state shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And for me, that’s where the poem occurs. And because the poem is always about the thing we don’t have words for, that’s why the poem exists, because we didn’t have words for it before. … And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is, like where the side of road exactly ends and the land begins. It’s that kind of thing—where the lake ends and the shore begins.

That might be the best description of “real” poetry that I’ve ever heard.  Poetry gives words for things we don’t have words for yet — if there were words, we wouldn’t need the poem.  That’s the problem with cliches and hallmark verse, and I suppose it’s what makes real poetry too challenging for most people — not that they couldn’t understand the shimmering verge, but that they don’t understand that this experience is what they’re looking for.

The concept deserves its own post, but it’s not going to get one.  Not much of a segue, I know, but what I want to talk about is visual poetry.

Starting a couple weeks ago we’ve added Dan Waber as a contributing editor, helping us make visual poetry a more regular part of Rattle.  Whether loving it or sounding baffled, we’ve received a huge response to last summer’s Vispo issue, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to keep that fire going.  It’s explained in a bit more detail here, but what we’re going to do is this: Dan Waber will write a column on visual poetry in every e-issue, usually focusing on a specific poem, series, or artist.  We’re also encourage black and white visual poems to be considered for the open section of our print issues.

Quite incidentally, we’ve already got two concrete poems slated to appear this winter — a shaped sonnet by Patti McCarty, and a textual flame by Paul Siegell.  We’ll also have an ekphrastic sonnet, and the photo it’s written after.  I wasn’t sure if any of these should be considered visual poems — each of them are enhanced by a visual element, but that visual element isn’t really necessary to any of them; if you just read the poems out loud, they’d still be good poems.

Since we now have a resident vispo guru, I asked Dan what he thought, and he directed me to this fun page, where he turns categorization into a quiz, listing 31 gray-area pieces, and making us decide.  Of course, which category a poem falls into will always take a back seat to the experience of the poem itself, but the human brain is basically a categorizing machine, so you can’t blame us for feeling the urge.  If you’re up to the challenge, take the quiz.

Two interesting results seem to arise.  First, the general concensus of the results for each piece seems to stablize as the quiz progresses — respondents seem to agree more often later in the series.  Dan describes the quiz as an educational tool, forcing us to make a label and so exploring that label, and this suggests that the tool actually works.  Maybe we don’t always agree what to call these things, but the more often we label them, the more confident we become in our labels.

What’s more interesting, though, is that visual poetry seems to exist as another kind of “shimmering verge” — that indescribable ground between poetry and visual art.  “And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is…”

In the same way that, I think, the shimmering verge scares fiction readers away from poetry, I think it might be the shimmering verge that scares poetry readers away from visual poetry — if you don’t know that the shimmering verge is what you’re looking for, you don’t know what to make of it, it’s unsettling.  But if you embrace the shimmering verge, then these are the poems that become most exciting.

Hey Hilda, Publish a Book Already!

As I was putting my eight hours at the ol’ poetry factory today, updating returned subscriptions and stuffing envelopes (with a papercut on my thumb to prove it), I was listening to Poets Cafe‘s interview with Hilda Weiss, which you can download by clicking here.  It occurred to me that Hilda Weiss might be the best poet I know of who hasn’t published a book yet.  We published a single poem of hers in Rattle, “My Neighbor Gives Me Meat Bones,” which she reads during the interview (and you’ve got to hear her read it).  Other poems she reads there are great, too, particularly the sestina.  I was hoping to find it somewhere online, but could only find a scant offering from Moonday Poetry, a local reading series in LA, from which this poem is stolen:


These moments.
These sometimes moments
of joy and success, of beauty and surprise.
How embarrassing.

I am so
unaccustomed to good.
Moments of awe
encumber me.

beginning to see,
they occur and occur.
Perhaps they swim

like young, brown trout.
When the eye and mind
learn to separate fish from water,
suddenly the fish are everywhere.

–from Meridian Anthology, Vol. V, 2007

I guess what I love about her work is her slow precision — the willingness to draw so much attention to a simple word or phrase, that it can be lifted out of simplicity, and be exposed for the beautiful musical score that it is.  In the poem above it’s “These moments. / These sometimes moments.”  And then the repetition of “occur” — which with all this attention for the first time for me hints at the relevant word “ocular.”  It’s such a slender little poem, not opaque in the least, but it really packs a punch.

What I kept thinking about, listening to the interview, was that there are so many awful poets who publish books — who win awards, give readings instead of mostly filming them.  Why isn’t there a collection by Hilda Weiss yet?  Is it because she’s too busy running poetry.la to focus on her own work?

When I’m feeling cynical, I start to think that success in the poetry world is only a measure of two things:  ego and energy.  We know Hilda’s got the energy, so maybe it’s the ego that’s missing?  If that’s the case, maybe this will help: Hey Hilda, you’re a good poet — publish a book already!