Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening. – Zen proverb
I favour poems written in plain English. And short. For many years it was rare for me to write a poem that contained more than eight or nine lines. I said what I had to say and got off the page. I didn’t grow up reading this kind of poetry. I grew up on the likes of Walter de la Mare, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson and, of course being a Scot, Robert Burns—good ol’-fashioned narrative verse where people went for walks to see the sea or alongside brooks or sat in fields looking at flowers. Poetry was always about something. It told a story. I didn’t need to be that caught up in the process. At least when I was a kid I could see no good reason to get involved and so obviously I was only reading the poems superficially but no one told me that was wrong.
At secondary school we started to delve into the mechanics of poetry. I was familiar with rhyme and rhythm already—that’s how you knew what a poem was, if it utilised these techniques—but there was more, clever stuff like alliteration and onomatopoeia. There was something else that wasn’t talked about but that I picked up on myself. Call it a moment of insight if you like—a follower of Zen might use the term ‘kenshō’—although it really was the polar opposite: a moment of uncertainty or doubt. It came to me at the end of Larkin’s poem ‘Mr Bleaney’:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
It’s a single sentence sixty-five words long but I don’t find it the easiest of sentences to hold in my head. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read the poem but I still can’t recite it from memory although what I can say is that every time I read it I encounter the same sensation. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to incorporate into almost every one of my poems since first reading it over forty years ago. Less of an ‘aha moment’ and more an ‘eh? moment’.
At the time of this great … let’s just go with encounter because it really wasn’t any kind of revelation … I hadn’t read any Oriental poetry whatsoever. I’m sure nowadays they use haiku in primary schools routinely as a way into poetry but it was years later that I stumbled upon this style of poetry (thank you Ezra Pound) and in it I found this same frustrating lack. The poems seemed incomplete: they said something but I always got the feeling they were really saying something else. They’d lead the reader only so far and demanded he or she took those final last few steps to … ‘enlightenment’ is probably too strong a word, so let’s just go with ‘understanding’ … they demanded he or she took those final last few steps to understanding on their own. They rarely stated. They hinted.
you make the fire
and I’ll show you something wonderful:
a big ball of snow!
a dog howling
sound of footsteps
There’s no question mark at the end of Larkin’s poem but it’s still a question nevertheless. I’d never been in a bedsit in my puff when I first read it and yet I empathised with the poem’s narrator lying there in his empty-in-all-the-important-ways, sarcophagal room. He was wondering about the meaning of his life. (What else would one do in a quasi-coffin?) I was wondering about the meaning of mine assuming that there are individual answers to the question and it’s not the same answer for all of us; now that would be depressing.
I was asked recently to explain my poetry. It’s not an easy question to answer. This was what I came up with off the cuff:
I aim to leave my readers with … the best expression I can come up with is ‘a sense of unease’ … when they reach the end of a poem, the realisation that its true meaning rests in their hands.
I didn’t spend a long time coming up with that but having done so and finding myself dissatisfied with what I’d written I’ve come back to the question.
A poem should take you out of your comfort zone. It should make you uncomfortable. If you’re lying in bed or maybe have been sitting in a chair reading for a long while and you become uncomfortable what do you do? You change position. That is what a good poem sets out to do, to make you change your position, your perspective, on some matter. We all bring our own baggage with us to a poem. To accommodate that poem it may be necessary to shift that baggage around a little.
A while ago I read Alan Spence’s novel Night Boat which tells the life story of Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. It’s a book full of poetry and Zen. Whatever Zen is. It’s one of those many, many words we use routinely that we think we understand but struggle to explain. Dictionaries define words by using other words and every other word they use also requires defining by a similar amount of other words which, too, require defining by more and more other words. I am not sure that true understanding demands that evidence be provided of its attainment by a summation of said understanding in words. If that was the case how would any of us cope if asked to explain ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ or ‘grief’? My definition of each of these words is experiential not academic; it’s personal to me. That being the case my definitions may be flawed or limited but at least they’re mine and true to my experience of them.
At the same time as I was reading this book I was also submitting poems to various journals online. As always I started with the later poems—those poems that were fresh enough that I still had some emotional attachment to them and hence thought them better than most of my older stuff—but after a few days I started considering poems twenty or thirty years old—I went through a long period of not bothering to try to get my stuff published which is why I have so many unpublished—and the experience was quite different. Some I could still remember writing or at least I could remember the circumstances surrounding the poem but there were others that had no choice but to stand on their own and be judged as good or bad based on nothing bar the words on the page. If you’re a writer you’ll understand how hard it is—it’s nigh on impossible, let’s be honest about it—to look at something we’ve written with anything approaching objectivity. No poem is ever complete—Paul Valery’s quote about all poems being abandoned comes to mind here—but the worst poems are like icebergs: 90% of them are still stuck inside the poet’s head which is why when he’s reunited with the poem as far as he’s concerned it’s complete and it’s wonderful—it says exactly what he wanted it to say—and he won’t brook any criticism of it. If you don’t get it then it’s your fault because it’s perfect. It’s only when you read someone else’s poems that you start to realise how little you’ve left the readers of your own poems to work with. The trick, though, is not to cram everything in in an attempt to ensure your reader has no option but to get exactly what you were on about—that’s what prose is for—but to lead them along the garden path and then let go of their hand before they reach the gate or the fence or the swing or wherever it is you want them to end up.
Across worldly maps
oceans are inscribed as words
and yet as we write
such boundaries will wash through,
how strange we think only in words
This isn’t a complex sentence—only twenty-five words compared to Larkin’s sixty-five—but it does exactly the same. It’s not a puzzle to work out but it is something to think about. Now here’s a puzzle to work out:
Sometimes you have to go
before you can get
and sometimes you need
to P on the way back.
7 June 1997
It’s one of mine, a little play on words and there’s not much below the surface. It’s certainly not the most profound thing I’ve ever written and once you’ve worked it out that’s about it. It pleases me every time I read it but it doesn’t really do much more for me. The tanka on the other hand, although at first it seems like a little puzzle, is really more. It is about our reliance on language. We trust things we can define that we can trap in words. Definitions hem us in, though, like borders. A girl asks her boyfriend, “Do you love me?” and he says he does because he knows what’s good for him but what does he know? He knows he’s fond of her. He knows he finds her physically attractive. He enjoys her company; she’s got a good sense of humour and better still she laughs at his jokes. He wants to be with her and not just for the sex so maybe it is love. If the word never existed would it change how he felt? Would he suddenly not enjoy her as much simply because he didn’t have a label to pin on the relationship?
The ‘answer’ to the tanka is to think about it. You can’t merely read it, get it and be done with it. And that’s the case with most poetry which is why it’s such a bad fit in today’s society. No one has time to meditate. And by ‘meditate’ I don’t mean sitting around in the lotus position going, “Om”; I mean thinking deeply about stuff. That’s what meditation’s all about. What’s the point telling someone to meditate on a koan and for them to go away and think about nothing? They need to think about the koan.
Here’s a poem from Alan’s book:
You think you understand anything?
Unless you hear the sound of one hand
It’s all just nonsense.
May as well stretch a skin
Over a wooden koto.
It’s in the chapter entitled ‘One Hand Clapping’ which is probably the kōan most laymen have heard of even if they don’t know what a kōan is. This is what Alan’s Hakuin has to say about his poem:
Skin on a koto. Animal hide stretched taut over the beautiful paulownia wood, making the instrument impossible to play. The thought of it would cause anguish, that great ball of discomfort in the chest, rising into the throat, a good koan doing its work.
I hadn’t finished the book when I started to write this article and so you can imagine how pleased I was to discover this. If asked most people would say they meditate to ease discomfort not to exacerbate it. I see it as a distraction technique: replace one discomfort with a lesser (or at least a different) one, a manageable one, one that only requires a change in position to alleviate it.
The most important and influential teaching of Hakuin was his emphasis on, and systematization of, koan practice. Hakuin deeply believed that the most effective way for a student to achieve insight was through extensive meditation on a koan. Only with incessant investigation of his koan will a student be able to become one with the koan, and attain enlightenment. The psychological pressure and doubt that comes when one struggles with a koan is meant to create tension that leads to awakening. Hakuin called this the "great doubt", writing, "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully." – Wikipedia
If you doubt you’re not sure. We like to be sure. Are you sure that’s what you mean?
Here’s one of those old poems I was talking about earlier:
The man with the strange name
passed her by
thinking strange thoughts
in a stranger's tongue.
His dark clothes caught her eye
for a moment
and then he was gone.
A feeling came and went
but she didn't know its name
and tried forgetting
what she wouldn't want to understand.
6 November 1982
To my mind this poem perfectly captures the unease I felt when I first read ‘Mr Bleaney’ and thirty-odd years later I still get that feeling. It’s all about the limitations of language. As is this one:
Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologize.
Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.
Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.
2 June 1985
This was a very significant poem for me. It became the first of the ‘Drowning Man Poems’, a series I worked on for several years. The picture of a man drowning in emotions but never dying was an image that preoccupied me for four years. This is the last of the series:
The Drowned Man
He is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.
I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.
They give him guilt
and pain –
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.
25 June 1989
I find these very uncomfortable poems because I can remember being the guy who wrote them. I’d like to think that everyone finds themselves discomforted when they read them. Poems should not be easy. That said I’m quite against “difficult poetry” so probably what I’m saying here is that poetry should not be too easy. What happens in ‘Empathy’ is not hard to follow: a man dressed in unfamiliar dark clothes passes by a young woman. They don’t even make eye contact and yet something still passes between them, something she can’t put into words, something that makes her uneasy, something she would like to shrug off but can’t.
What did he do in ‘White Light’? Whatever it was she doesn’t seem to mind. Why did he do it? Because he wanted to. Full stop. This was what bothered me. I was the person who did the something. It doesn’t matter what the something was which is why I’ve not specified but I was looking for a reason why I a) wanted to do it and b) did it and the only thing I could come up with was that I wanted to, that it was enough simply to want, that there didn’t have to be a reason behind everything. Maybe there is a reason behind everything—there most likely is—but we don’t always benefit from knowing what that reason is. After I’d done what I did and thought about what I’d done and why I might’ve done it what I was then faced with were a mass of conflicting emotions. It was as if… Hey, that’s a good idea for a poem, a guy drowning in emotions.
Neither of these poems is meant to be understood. At least not intellectually. There’s little to understand. I’m looking for an emotional commitment. I want you to feel something even if you’re not sure what exactly you’re feeling other than uneasy. It took me four years to become comfortable—or at least less uncomfortable—with doing things because I wanted to and not questioning why I might want to do them. If I felt like an ice cream I’d get an ice cream. If I felt like a hug I’d find someone to hug. That mindset is not without its problems and it did cause me problems because we’re supposed to think about stuff before we do it and not just do what we want do even if it’s only something relatively innocent as looking for a hug. After four years I’d turned—poetically at least—into an emotional vampire. That’s what ‘The Drowned Man’ is all about.
Haiku is very simply, and most difficultly, a record of what is happening at this very moment, and only this moment, right in front of and in the midst of your senses. It is the moment when what your senses are telling you pulls you totally under, so that you disappear and all that is left is the seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting of the moment. Haiku, at its best, is therefore a small satori. As Basho admonishes, there should not be even a hair's breadth between the writer and his/her subject. Anything less can be interesting reading, and, if bordering on senryū, can make you smile, but a real haiku makes you gasp and the hairs, wherever you may have them, stand up.
In haiku literature it is called the "Aha" moment both for the haijin (haiku writer) and for the haiku reader, for both reading and writing haiku find the reader and writer spun out of themselves and tossed to the far ends of the universe by three small lines, and often, these days, fewer. For a haiku records a moment that contains everything that comes before it and everything that is to come after it, and if your brain suddenly being introduced to such a moment doesn't shatter all its concepts, then the haiku under consideration can only be a half-baked haiku gesture. – Naomi Wakan, ‘Haiku Is Not’, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, August 2013, Vol. 17, No. 8
I am, as I have stated numerous times, not in any way, shape or form a spiritual person. I’ve enjoyed reading Alan Spence’s book but I’ve only got it up to a point. All the visions and stuff about mountain sprits has just gone—whoosh!—over my head. For me poems can only be appreciated in one or both of two ways, intellectually or emotionally, and I think many people misuse the term ‘spiritual’ when it comes to things like the ‘Aha moment’. It’s a moment of clarity or of insight but there’s nothing mystical about it. When you read a poem like ‘Empathy’ you can meditate on it all you like, think it through, but really what I’m looking for is for you to feel it through.
Satori by the way refers to the experience of kenshō, seeing into one's true nature. Poetry is very much a collaborative exercise. I’m not asking you to look into my soul, rather your own which is why ‘White Light’ is presented as a template poem, a stencil for you to fill in the blanks. When have you done something simply because you wanted to? I think this is why we either bond strongly with poems or forget about them quickly. If they don’t take root in us then then shrivel up and die. There’s an expression, ‘make it your own’, and that’s what I want people to do with my poems, make them their own. I have a poem whose title escapes me at this precise moment but I think of it as ‘the Barry poem’ because when my boss at the time read it it reminded so much of her relationship with this guy called Barry that she asked for a copy of the poem and it became ‘the Barry poem’ from then on.
I looked up ‘sense of unease’ in Google to see what kind of poems it directed me to. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Human Interest’ was one; Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ was another, one I knew well; then there was ‘Meeting the British’ by Paul Muldoon, ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ by Emily Dickinson, ‘In the Sepia Sky’ by James Gillick, ‘Wanderweg’ by Sarah Lucas and ‘When Big Joan Sets Up’ by Jason Labbe. I read them all but the one that jumped out at me, the one I connected with, was this one by the Spanish poet Eli Tolaretxipi from her collection Still Life with Loops in a translation by Philip Jenkins:
Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem
Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem.
It is the same in the photograph
which only says: I was there.
Something extraordinary and ephemeral happens:
a rainbow in the dishevelled hair of the wave
a whirlpool around the feet which are sinking in the sand
black body on a surfboard.
black signs on the white and ruled page.
I’ll leave you to meditate on it. Or maybe one of the others.