Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Poetry and Zen

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:
ahowlingdog big ball of snow!

Matsuo Bashō

a dog howling
sound of footsteps
longer nights

Masaoka Shiki
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.
Night_BoatA 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.
Here’s a lovely tanka I found online. It’s by Sunil Manghani:
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
to Z
before you can get
to B
and sometimes you need
to stop
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
imagespassed 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:
White Light
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

FangsHe 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 fear
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. Sprout_LightbulbAs 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.
Untimely precipitation
black signs on the white and ruled page.
I’ll leave you to meditate on it. Or maybe one of the others.
Empty polaroid


poetjanstie said...

This is wholly insightful and a breath of fresh air, amidst legion sound bites and jargon in the world of poetry. Not so much an 'aha' moment, or even a muted 'understanding' moment; more of a connected streams of thought moment! I have just finished drafting an article/essay for the Bardo Group, where I am a contributor, on the subject of light bites and sound bites, which, conversely, relates the dangers of the human race becoming brainwashed by clever marketing and political PR, using sound bites and (Increasingly) dazzling imagery (and even poetry) to woo us into spending our money and casting our votes! It is this connection with your thinking on the subject that makes me realise how powerful good poetry is, in the right hands. Stimulating our minds to discover our own conscience and coming to terms with ourselves as well as with life itself is so very important in the face of this 'Matrixian' brave new world, which we inhabit.

I have often pondered, both intellectually and emotionally on what poetry should be, who it's for, how it should make you feel. Although I have been writing it for many fewer years than you, I realise that only one of these things are important: the 'how it makes you feel'! I don't necessarily think that poetry should invariably make you feel uncomfortable, although a good deal of my own does so. I think it is possible to find poetry that leaves you with pleasant feelings on the surface, but that stays with you. I cannot find an example right here and now, but the important thing is that it makes us think - whether outside or inside the comfort our little boxes (if you'll pardon the jargon).

Your explanation of the good and bad in oriental poetry is useful too; achieving that "for sale, one pair of baby shoes. Unused" moment that smacks you in the face with emotional intensity and some! I enjoy the brevity and synergy of your three poems above. These are truly good poems that most certainly make me feel uncomfortable and, in a perverse sort of way, comfortable at the same time; probably because I understand them on my own terms.

I'm glad I made time to read this post. I should pay more attention to your writing in future.

Thank you for delivering this very readable piece to my blogroll (or whatever it's called).

poetjanstie said...

P.S. The only thing that remains for me to understand is how do we get poetry to reach a wider audience. Perhaps we have to change the way it is delivered; add a few bells and whistles to dramatise it and attract a younger, sound and light bite oriented audience?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comments, John. I have a list sitting next to me of all the poems about poems I’ve written over the years—there’s about 130—and I will eventually whittle that number down and get a pamphlet out there. For some reasons there are those who look down on poets who write about their craft and I’ve never understood why. Until someone comes up with a definition of poetry that we can all agree on—Ha!—shouldn’t every one of us be trying to understand better what it is we do? There are too many things in this life we do without properly understanding what we’re doing and, granted, part of the learning process is in the doing-when-you-don’t-know-what-you’re-doing and learning from your mistakes which is why I wrote 452 bad poems before I produced a half-decent one that, to this day, I’m not ashamed of having written. Not that I’ve reached the end of understanding—I’ve barely scratched what poetry can be—but I do have an understanding. I’m a bit of a one trick pony in that respect. Which is why I write articles like this because I believe quite strongly that if you can’t explain something then you probably don’t understand it half as well as you think you do. When I taught IT I used to get my more experienced students to help the newer ones so they had to put into words what they needed him or her to do; it also took some of the pressure off me as the teacher.

Sound bites have their place—they’ve existed for centuries as proverbs, idioms, aphorisms, truisms, even one-liners—and this is just the latest manifestation of common knowledge; it has its place and does some good. A poem can contain any of the above—it’s one of the many techniques open to the poet—but a poem is more than a sound bite although many get reduced to one. Just think of all the poems you only know one or two lines from. Or look back on what’s survived on the ancient Greek scholars. Imagine your life’s work being reduced to half a dozen clever sayings.

I’ve been thinking about what it is about ‘uncomfortable poetry’ that I like and I think perhaps a better word would be ‘unresolved’, the ‘a-’ without the ‘men’ to put it crudely. When I studied music I was fascinated by how mathematical it was and at the same time how touchy-feely which is why so many musicians can play but can’t read music; they feel their way towards the cadences. Poems are never complete and rely heavily on readers to be able to play their part. I can appreciate jazz but I don’t have a feel for it—the chord progressions don’t come naturally to me—and so it is with certain kinds of poetry; I’m a bad partner.

As to how we get poetry to the masses that’s beyond me. I write for me and me alone. That other’s get something out of my writing, well, that’s a bonus. I need to write poetry. I don’t have the same need to read other people’s. If I didn’t write poetry I’m not sure I’d even try to read other people’s. That’s probably where the key lies. At school we were taught to appreciate poetry and occasionally asked to write a poem but I don’t ever recall being taught how to write; it was just assumed that after having read a few poems I’d got the idea and that is fundamentally how we learn but a little technique goes a long way. When I left school and found I still had a need to write poetry I looked for guidance and was depressed to find no one seemed willing to share their techniques. You’d think I was asking them how they had sex and I suppose for some it felt as personal as that but I suspect the answer was far simpler: they couldn’t explain it because they didn’t understand it. Now I’m more understanding of how hard the question was which is why I write articles like this, not to provide answers but to offer pointers; some answers we have to find on our own.

I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Not sure I have many more left in me but I’ve been blogging for close to seven years now so I would encourage you to look back through the years to see if there’s anything else you might find helpful.

poetjanstie said...

Thanks for your reply. 130 poems about poetry, wow. Here's one I did a couple of years ago, that was the result of some kind of hypnopompic experience, but it does cover some common ground:

Jim Murdoch said...

For a great many years I virtually never remembered any dreams, John. My father actually swore blind he never dreamt at all. Nowadays I’m aware that I dream and regularly but I rarely hang onto the content for any length of time and I’ve never ever found inspiration in a dream for anything, not even a single line or an image. I’ve certainly never had an experience like Coleridge which actually annoys me a little because I would kinda like my dreams to be useful. No doubt they are—otherwise why the hell do we dream?—but they don’t feel useful. I’ve just woken up from a nap—I (unusually for me) dozed off on the couch in the middle of the afternoon—and I can still remember the tail end of my dream in which I’d also dozed off only in my dream I woke up to find the living room ankle deep in water from a (non-existent, at least in the real world) tap I’d left on. But that’s it. Clearly being tired enough to lie down on the couch during the day bothered me but nothing I can work with. Interestingly I did write a poem about sleep a few months back:


        I don’t
        what sleep
        needs from me.

        It’s so
        greedy and
        up my night

        out nightmares
        and dreams
        or nothings.

        worse than the
        As Nature

        hates a
        void it fills
        up the
        space with a

        sense of
        loss but for
        what we
        never know.

        I think
        sleep’s when we
        That’s its job.

        Friday, 02 August 2013

Ken Armstrong said...

I came to the comments section with the word 'Insightful' in my head and there's John beating me to it. :)

I do think this is a wonderfully insightful post and there was much in it for me. Because, as you know, I'm not even ankle deep in any understanding of the ways of Poetry, the simplest thoughts here are the ones that strike home most with me. Particularly the one that Poetry should take one out of their comfort zones.

The simply 'lyric' stuff I sometimes scribble down seems designed to reaffirm people's comfort zones. To reiterate what I reckon they might be feeling. I like the idea of shaking things up and might go off and try it a bit more.

I equate this to an esteemed drama person telling me that my plays seemed keen to answer questions when, really, the best role of modern drama is to ask them.

Jim Murdoch said...

A question is like an open cadence, Ken. There’s a place for them in music but there’s nothing more satisfying than a perfect—or if you’re feeling particularly holy—a plagal cadence. I have a book on my to-read list called The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell which consists of nothing but questions and I’m curious how long it’ll take me to get to screaming point. Questions have their place but so do answers. You write a lot for younger people and I think it’s important for them to realise that there are answers out there. In time they’ll come to appreciate that problems can have many solutions that are right but the important thing to get across is that there always is an answer; sometimes it’ll be the scenic route, other times as the crow flies. Is murder wrong? Yes. Is it ever justifiable? Yes. But that doesn’t stop it being wrong. I suspect you’re being too hard on yourself. You don’t have all the answers. None of us do. You simply present scenarios where there are answers. It’s easy when you’re in control of all the elements. Your audience can walk out the door and straight into a scene from one of your plays and be surprised when nothing goes the way you said it would. Welcome to the real world kids: Shakespeare lied.

Looking over the poems in my article the one thing they have in common is an inability on my part to find words to express what I want to say. So I create a scenario, give my readers a wee push and hope the momentum helps them get the point. It would be so much easier if I could say what I mean but words are the worst. Christ knows why we bother with them. I watched a wee film this morning called Frog which is worth watching for a few reasons. For starters it was filmed in a single take which is always impressive. But what caught my attention was how much was unspoken especially by her. How does one script that? Answer: one doesn’t. One interprets. Not every writer is a poet—and not every writer who thinks he’s a poet is a good poet—but the ones who are are the ones who say only what absolutely has to be said and trust their readers to interpret the poem for themselves. Just look at all the ways you can say, “To be, or not to be?” Now that is a question worth answering.

Ping services