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.”

Lost Among the Pillars of Grass: The Three Poetries

Turning yesterday’s post on its head less than 24 hours later, I’ve been reading John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, and am forced to admit, once again, that there isn’t just one poetry.  There are whole swaths of people who get things out of poetry that I don’t care all that much about. And that’s a wonderful thing — I’m firmly opposed to the balkanization of poetry.

Here’s the second poem in the book, “They Dream Only of America”:

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily–
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

And I am lost without you.”

You need a decoder ring and a lot of time to figure it out, or maybe just a love for this kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure the poem is a homoerotic lyric, a love poem wrought with the pain of having to keep your love in the closet.  (Ashbery fans, correct me if I’m wrong.)  It took me about a half an hour and a couple dozen reads to come to this conclusion.

Lines like the second, “To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass,” are undeniably brilliant.  Here the most obvious allusion is to Walt Whitman, himself a homosexual poet, but the leaves of grass becoming instead “pillars” at once reveals the first phallic image among many in the poem, and also references Lot’s Wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom (which, of course, is where the word sodomize comes from).  Being “lost among the thirteen million” expresses the desire to be both hidden and open about one’s sexuality — to be hidden in plain sight — and I also wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that thirteen million is an estimate on the number of gay men in America in 1957, when the poem was written.

All this in one line.

Once you find that key, the rest of the fractured narrative starts to make sense — all the seminal fluids and phallic objects (the honey, the key, the cigar, and so on), the dark barn and the bedroom, dandelions and the lilac cube*, the “Please.”  (“Now he only cared about the signs…” — are all the signs, now, Freudian?)

But “They Dream Only of America” is more than just an occluded love poem. “There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” After oppression, even freedom is a horror. And there it returns to Lot’s Wife — she turned to salt only when she looked back. Ashbery wrote the poem when he was thirty, living in Paris, the city to which he’d fled from the sexual restrictions of America — so Ashbery himself is looking back, turning to salt as he does.  But there’s more to it, even, than that — there’s a hint of Stockholm Syndrome, there’s the thrill of the secret, of impossible love losing its luster in fact, and so on.

This is complicated stuff — and I think there are also references to the French Revolution as well, which I haven’t even mentioned (The Tennis Court Oath itself is the moment where the French people “came out of the closet” to form the National Assembly). Or smaller things that I’m less sure of — is “ash tray” a reference (even visually) to “Ashbery”?

The point is, though, that I don’t care about this stuff.  Or, rather, my enjoyment of this poetry is entirely other than the enjoyment I get from what I consider to be great poems, the poems that work like spells.  The pleasure in Ashbery is the pleasure of a Rubik’s Cube — the text is a puzzle to be solved, which happens to be constructed in the music of language.  It’s more than just a Rubik’s Cube, because even when you come to an interpretation of the poem, there’s an indescribable mystery to it, that pang of unexplained epiphany.  Even the riddle’s answer is more than you can wrap your head around.  This is art.  You can’t argue that it isn’t poetry — but it’s not my poetry.

All this to say — yesterday’s definition was too narrow and personal.  There are really three kinds of poetry, and I can contort their categories enough to call them the Three E’s:

  1. Exclamatory — The artful and didactic expression of preconceived sentiment. This is greeting card and occasional poetry.  The kind your aunt who never reads likes you to send her.  What George Orwell referred to last week as “good bad poetry,” and what Elizabeth Alexander read last month. This is actually by far the most popular, though we wish we could show the masses what they’re missing.
  2. Experiential — The poetry-as-spell I described yesterday. The poem is an incantation, a rhythmic shaping of the breath that uses the body as a medium and so recreates an emotional or mental experience for the reader.  This is my kind of poetry, and I believe the most popular among so-called “poetry users.”
  3. Exegeses — (A hard word to say, even harder to turn into an adjective…exegeian?) The poetry of analysis, poetry-as-puzzle.  This is the poetry of the academics, emphasizing condension, allusion, subversion, lexography, and etymology, among many other tools.  The least popular, but the most critically acclaimed.

A cynic would say that exegesis poetry is only popular, even in academia, because it justifies the position of the professor (or critic) as a conduit to the God of Poetic Truth.  When the dean comes around, you can show how much work you’ve been doing, because the students books are filled with marginalia, all the allusions they wouldn’t have noticed without you.

I’m not so cynical, though.  Breaking down “They Dream Only of America” was fun tonight.  Just not kind of fun I prefer to receive from my poetry.  I want an experience, not a challenge — unless I’m really in the mood for it.

But I think poetry is done a disservice by having only one name for itself.  In high school you’re taught to analyze poems, to look for all the hidden meanings and allusions in your CliffsNotes so you can write an essay about them, as if all poems are about the exegesis.  So you miss the joy of just experiencing the kind of poems that don’t need to be broken down.  On the other end of the spectrum, “Hallmark verse” gets called poetry, too, and so we have to feel embarrassed as poets that “Roses are red” is considered the same art form.  It’s not — these three categories of poetry are entirely different — they operate on different parts of the mind, and they have entirely different goals.  The only thing that unifies them is the superficiality of how they look on the page.

Earlier I said I don’t support the balkanization of poetry, but maybe that’s not true.  I think if we started looking at them as separate entities, it  might be easier to appreciate each one for what it is and is trying to do.


* It’s worth noting that Ashbery was born in Rochester, NY, and grew up in the small town of Sodus, about an hour’s drive to the east.  I was born in the same place, and my first memories are of Sodus, where I lived from ages 2 through 5.  The two flowers mentioned in this poem are of especial interest to locals.  The annual spring celebration in Rochester is called the Lilac Festival, and the University of Rochester was built on a field of dandelions — the yellow weed, I’ve heard, becoming the school mascot for nearly a century, until students started taking exception to the “dandy” image on their chests, and changed the nickname to the much more manly Yellowjacket.  Could Ashbery have been referencing this urban legend?  I have no idea.