Reading as a Buddhist

by Linda Bamber

My topic is reading as a Buddhist, and my focus is American poetry. But maybe all reading — all absorbed and impassioned reading, that is — is reading as a Buddhist, whether you’re a Buddhist or not. Describing himself reading Proust said,

I only feel myself living … where I find nothing of my conscious thought, where my imagination is excited by feeling itself plunged into the depths of the non-ego. (17)

The non-ego, of course, is anatta. It sounds even better in French: « le non-moi. » Reading, then, is a temporary form of enlightenment: liberation from the miserable moi. And note that Proust says, as Buddhists do, that we’re only alive when we’re in the non-moi. But when I talk about reading as a Buddhist, I mean something much less exalted than this. I mean the way many of us read in terms of our Buddhist ideas, finding consonances and resonances, formal and thematic, in all sorts of texts. I’d like to propose three different ways of understanding the contemporary moment in American poetry in its relations with a past which is either explicitly Buddhist or has affinities with Buddhism.

The first and most obvious thing to be said about the contemporary moment is that it includes a long list of poets who are themselves seriously interested in Buddhism: Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen (near-contemporaries), Gary Snyder, Robert Haas, W.S. Merwin, Anne Waldman, Jane Hirschfield, Diane DiPrima, Arthur Sze, Kenneth Rexroth, Joanne Kyger, Sam Hamill…the list goes on and on. What influences their work? Not surprisingly, the work of many of these poets shows their careful attention to Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced Asian sacred and literary texts. Gary Snyder’s work is an example. An ongoing project of Snyder’s has been to translate Buddhism into the American cultural context and the American idiom, as he does in « Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen » and in the following two haikus:

A truck went by
three hours ago
Smoke Creek desert

Scrap brass
dumpt off the fantail
falling 6 miles. (BC, 29)

The Japanese haiku masters often aimed at a sense of sudden perception, and in these haikus Snyder wants us to have a sudden realization of emptiness . In three hours not a single vehicle has passed the hitchhiker in the desert; the scrap brass falls unobstructed through the ocean, falls and falls. But Snyder’s themes are aggressively American: hitchhiking and ocean-littering, not moon-viewing or rice-planting. Snyder wants to rescue Zen from the realm of the exotic and antiquarian and make it a matter of here and now.

An interesting essay by Jody Norton links Snyder’s poetry not just to haiku but to Chinese shih poetry of the T’ang dynasty. A line of shih poetry, she tells us, often consisting of nouns without verbs, was a matter of « elements organized in a highly elliptical syntactical relation »(44). These elements gesture towards imprecisely defined situations and images, creating spaces in which the reader’s imagination may fall into a « wordless recognition of the true nature »(45) of things. An example is a poem Norton quotes Wai-lim Yip as having translated

At cockcrow, the moon is seen above the thatched inn;
Footprints are seen upon the frost covering the wooden bridge. (45)

In fact, this poem might be more accurately translated

cock crow thatch inn moon
man trace wood bridge frost. (45)

Norton points out many ways Snyder finds to create in English the syntactical and semantic spaces created by the T’ang poets. Like them, he often avoids verbs, relying instead on verbals. « In the cold shed sharpening saws, » Snyder writes in « Sixth-Month Song, » « grinding the falling axe…sharpening wedges for spitting… »(BC 17). Ordinarily these verbals would be participles waiting for a subject to modify. In this case they are free-standing gerunds, indicating an activity without a subject, as if the « I » in the cold shed has become what he does. Verbs are elided, the subject is elided, Norton shows us, transitions are eliminated, articles are avoided — all in the service of sunyata, emptiness. The connection to shih is the vigor with which Snyder leaves things out.

In « A Walk, » what is elided is drama.

Sunday the only day we don’t work:
Mules farting around the meadow
Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I’ve eaten breakfast and I’ll
take a walk.(NN 90)

Nothing seems to be happening here. The speaker decides to take a walk and does take a walk. Something could happen; there is plenty of danger in this « steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country. » « I stemmed up a crack and almost fell, » the speaker tells us. In another narrative this could be the dramatic high point, making the walk an adventure. Here the excitement is immediately undercut: « But rolled out safe on a ledge/ and ambled on. » The word « ambled » feels quite deliberate, as if the speaker knows we want a story and refuses to give us one. The walk is an exercise in goalessness, and the point is that nothing can either advance or retard the speaker’s progress. He is not going anywhere, he’s just going, just doing — like the mules farting around the meadow. The challenge of the poem is to prove that we don’t need the ego’s fantasies of success and failure in order to stay engaged in the world around us.

after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope —
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.

That’s it, the poem says. That’s what there is. When you get where you’re going there’s nothing there but a « rusty three-year-Ago left-behind cookstove, » so see what you can notice along the way — deer tracks, for instance, and boulders and quail chicks. The ending of the poem particularly pleases me: « Stopt and swam and ate my lunch. » This is simultaneously an arrival and a non-arrival. See? the poem seems to say. You can achieve all the closure a poem needs with a complete non-event.

If Snyder can stand for the strain in contemporary poetry that looks to an Asian past, Allen Ginsberg can stand for « Buddhist » poetry with a more American lineage. Let’s begin with « Thoughts Sitting Breathing, » a poem in imitation of meditation. At the end of each line we return to a syllable from the mantra Om Mani Padmi Hum.

OM — the pride of perfumed money, music food from China, a place to sit quiet
MA — How jealous! the million Pentagon myrmidons with dollar billions to spend on Rock & Roll, restaurant high thrones in the sky filled with Electric Bombers — Ah! how jealous they are of the thin stomached Vietnamese boy.
NI — Lust in heart for the pink tender prick’d school-boy upstairs bedroom naked with his books, high school locker shower, stretching on the bed, the young guitar player’s ass (100)

Is this meditation? It’s not a bad performance of meditation, in any case. The mind starts with a self-critical thought (« I’m attached to what I have »), proceeds to an angry political thought (« I hate the Pentagon and its war »), and is quickly led by an association to shameful lustful thoughts. In between thoughts the mind remembers it’s supposed to be meditating. That’s about right, no? But in fact Ginsberg is not meditating here, he’s writing a poem, and it’s a poem in a specific American tradition. Whitman, of course, is font and origin of the American long loose line, but closer to Ginsberg’s time many poets have argued for « the practice of … allowing fresh thoughts to arise and be registered, rather than hanging onto one exclusive image and forcing Reason to branch it out and extend it into a hung-up metaphor. » One important practitioner in this tradition was Charles Olson, whom Ginsberg quotes in Meditation and Poetics:

ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION…get on with it, keep moving…speed the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen…always always one perception must must must MOVE INSTANTER ON ANOTHER! (BSM 98)

Olson’s own language demonstrates what he’s urging on his fellow poets, surfing the breaking wave of grammar and syntax as he does so. Ginsberg also illustrates his manifesto on « letting go » by quoting Robert Duncan, who « once got up and walked across the room and then said, ‘I can’t revise my steps once I’ve taken them’ »(BSM 99). When Ginsberg advises us not to revise or deny our thoughts because « thought obliterates itself anyway »(BSM 99), he’s perfectly located for my purposes at the conjunction of Buddhism and a particular tradition of American poetry.

When we look back to the origins of this tradition of allowing « fresh thoughts to arise and be registered, » that is, to Whitman, we see all sorts of affinities between Whitman’s poetry and Buddhism — although, of course, Buddhism was no more to Whitman than any religion or religious practice. « Drinking mead from the skull-cap, » he gloats of himself, « to Shastas and Vedas admirant, minding the Koran »(64) — the point is they’re all good, they’re all great. And yet reading as a Buddhist I find in Whitman many Buddhist tendencies: a strong emphasis on non-dualism; a feeling for emptiness; an antagonism to origins and ends as vampires of the present; a cosmological sense of interconnectedness; and so on. His masterpiece, « Song of Myself, » begins

I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.(22)

The central issue in the poem is the relationship between the self and the not-self, yet in the opening lines the poem behaves as if this is a non-problem based on a non-distinction. Whitman does not say « but what I assume you shall assume, » he says, « and what I assume you shall assume. » There is no contradiction, he says over and over, between self and other; no dualism even to be resolved.

I have said that the soul is not more than the body
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral
drest in his shroud. (70)

With Whitman it’s all « and…and…and, » parataxis as manifesto. His relationship to emptiness is even more interesting. « Loafe with me on the grass, » he implores his soul,

loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not
even the best
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. (25)

In this passage Whitman refuses form, preferring the « hum » of emptiness. Another metaphor for form is « perfume »:

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation,
it is odorless
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me. (23)

This is Whitman at his nutty best, drunk on emptiness, silence, the « atmosphere. » (It is typical of him that he wants to experience this abstraction physically, even erotically. The dualism « abstract/concrete » is under constant challenge from the way he imagines bodily contact with the dharma.) Elsewhere he insists on the equal interplay of form and emptiness, rather than the priority of emptiness:

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn. (24)

This interest in the fluctuation between form and emptiness is a theme to which we shall return.

Whitman may not have been a Buddhist practitioner, but in section 4 of « Song of Myself » he has written the best description I know of the Buddhist subject of choiceless awareness. He begins with what this subject is not; with the ordinary, samsaric self and the things that define it:

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folds, or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

One thing to notice about this description of the relative self is its disproportions. It includes enormous things like « the horrors of fratricidal war » (i.e., the Civil War — in which Whitman was intensely and personally involved) and « the effect on me of my early life » but also something as small as « my dinner. » The disproportions create a sense of spontaneity in the verse, as if he is writing things down exactly as they arise in the mind, which, as we know from our moments of mindfulness, is anarchically uneven, often dwelling on dinner as long as on war. The disproportions are not just thematic but formal; sometimes the elements of self are defined in a single word (« dates » or « dues »), and sometimes in lengthy careful qualified phrases (« the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love »). In any case, Whitman here describes all the things we attach to and turn into our identities. Then he describes the Unborn self, free of attachments:

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Note that the Unborn self is not unimplicated but rather « both in and out of the game. » Note, too, that the furniture it rests its arm on is described as being both « impalpable » and « certain. » Why do we base our lives, asks one Buddhist joke, on unreliable « somethings » instead of on « the firm ground of emptiness? » Here Whitman describes the firm ground of emptiness as a kind of ghostly podium that an invisible being rests on as he watches with amusement and curiosity the show of his own life. What he sees arouses his compassion, as our lives inevitably do when we observe them mindfully.

Next Whitman remembers his life before enlightenment:

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait. (25)

There is a biographical basis for Whitman’s claim here. He does seem to have had some kind of conversion experience in his 30’s, after which he abandoned his career as a journalist and political « linguist and contender » and invented American poetry. His literary work, which had been conventional and constrained, exploded into the astonishing, original, liberating thing it became:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs! (41)

But we don’t need to know Whitman’s biography to know that in section 4 he is speaking from experience. He has known what it is to « witness and wait, » and he describes it with unmatched precision and pleasure.

Even more interesting, perhaps, than establishing lineages for contemporary « Buddhist » poets is trying to understand why so many non-Buddhist contemporaries seem so richly to repay reading as a Buddhist. A perfect example is Mark Halliday. « I am not at all a Hindu, » he says in « 64 Elmgrove, » « I’ve never been a Hindu, I want to keep things »(27). But this disclaimer is also a flag, marking the site of an intense and pervasive interest in the operations of the ego when faced with impermanence. In « Green Canoe, » for example, the speaker has an experience he attaches to and therefore suffers from.

If I were sitting in a green canoe on a hot morning
having drifted gently into an odorous swamp, alone
with the speckled gross density of yellow-green slime
all around me and the sun on my head
I might then say
« It’s not about books »
aloud to the plants and the muck and a swimming frog
« It’s not about books »
with the sun on my head and shoulders and the world
odorous and its oeuvre oozing and green
and my saying so then might be very beautiful —

So far what is being described is a moment of enlightenment in which the speaker, whose competitive advantage in life is based on his relationship to books, realizes, « It’s not about books. » For an instant he doesn’t need this interest, this pleasure, this sop to his identity. The joke, of course, is that it’s not women and booze he renounces, but books, wonderful books. It’s also a joke that nature, the agent or object of the realization, is represented not by cherry blossoms, etc., as in traditional Asian poetry, but by odorous American slime. Nevertheless, it’s « very beautiful. » But

… no one would hear it —
no one would keep it —
my voice washing instantly into lost molecules in the
warm air over the swamp —
I could speak again, « It’s finally not
about books » but still no one hearing it
and less beautiful now,
my hand tightening cautiously on the paddle (TS 9)

This is a perfect description of what Chogyam Trungpa calls « spiritual materialism. » When we have an experience of egolessness, the ego grabs hold of it, returns to it, turns it into currency. What is being observed is something we may see in meditation but don’t usually find in literature. It’s a « meta » thing, an experience OF an experience. The level and precision of the awareness — as well as the topic — seem very Buddhist.

It is worth noticing that in this poem we are never completely « there » where the experience is happening. It is written in the subjunctive voice, so the enlightenment experience is presented as hypothetical; and it ends irresolutely, without even a punctuation mark, so the loss of this experience is also an unfinished, not-quite-present experience. Halliday is, in fact, the poet par excellence of the problem of Being There. « The Fedge, » for example, is a comic complaint about how much of life we feel displaced from. « If I am he, » he says,

…who said on a bench in Waltham one deep true thing
of Emily Dickinson or Gregoire Turgeon
and if I am he whose son stood
happy, central, conversant
in Orlando Magic peejays with his hand on my shoulder (J 41)

then why can’t I stay there? Why do I spend most of my life in « the fedge and the drammel…with the main thing away »? Why all this « waf-waf near drained of What truly For? » In his great, hilarious « Lionel Trilling » Halliday represents himself compulsively seeking a Being There experience that never happens — unlike the experience in « Green Canoe, » which at least sort of happens before it gets lost.

…I say there is some one book one book I need
and [Greg] says for what, need for what, and I say
to make things take shape, to make a shape,
I can feel that there’s this one book for me to read
today, not next week, not next month but what is it
so Greg says well what would it be about would it be
poetry or a novel or what and I say maybe it’s by
Lionel Trilling —

and so on. If in « Green Canoe » Halliday explored an experience of an experience, here he goes one better and explores an experience of a non-experience. That second level experience, like all experiences, is happening in the present, in circumstances that seem disappointingly ordinary:

…feel small with out coffee
and walk out into the dizzle of traffic, the brumble of
students and cars and signs just glimpsed
and it’s that ol’ gray river of time, we say one thing or
another and Greg happens to mention that
the cover of his new book will be purple and I say
purple that’s good, purple, it’s of the heart. (TS 16)

But there we are, as Buddhists know, in the dizzle, the brumble, the ol’ gray river of time. The brilliance of « Lionel Trilling » is that it makes poetic capital out of our sense of being beyond the realm of poetry, in some kind of world of non-Being. Buddhist teachers are always assuring us that there is no such place. In « Lionel Trilling » Halliday silently puts us there where we think there’s no There — at the epicenter, as it were, of the non-moment. Is this what our teachers mean us to do when they tell us to get interested in boredom?

In 1991 Mark Halliday published a critical book on Wallace Stevens. If we are looking for a lineage for the interest of poets like Halliday in being and not being There, truly we need look no further than Stevens. « If we were ever, » he yearns,

…just once, at the middle, fixed
In This Beautiful World of Ours, and not as now,
Helplessly at the edge… (302)

Stevens’s speaker objects to « writhings in wrong obliques and distances » and longs for « an intellect in which we are fleet: present Everywhere in space at once. » In « The Motive for Metaphor, » however, there is some ambivalence about presence or « thereness. » At first the speaker seems to be scolding himself for preferring « the half colors of quarter things » but soon this « obscure world » turns out to offer opportunities we crave. The « you » (himself) is described as

Desiring the exhilarations of changes
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound —
Steel against intimation — the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X. (240)

This is very interesting. What is « X »? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? « Vital » sounds good, as do « noon, » « A B C, » and « red and blue »; but « hard, » « steel, » « arrogant, » « fatal » and « dominant » make things iffy. « X » is some kind of full presence: X marks the spot. In this poem the speaker seems to challenge himself to Be There and to chastise himself for liking it « under the trees in autumn, Because everything is half dead. » But the alternative, « X, » requires an impossible mental muscularity, with at least a touch of crudeness.

The point is not, then, that Stevens is in favor of presence as opposed to absence — or, in Buddhist terms, form as opposed to emptiness. In fact, he explicitly says, in « Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, »

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after. (20)

Inflections: form, things said. Innuendoes: emptiness, things implied. One is not better than the other. The point is that Stevens persistently, almost obsessively, thematizes the question.

The connection I want to make goes beyond Halliday and Stevens. I want to say that High Modernism, of which Stevens is a stellar exemplar, is an antecedent or influence on one strand of the poetry that reads so well from a Buddhist point of view. The modernists were acutely conscious of dismantling what Derrida calls the western « metaphysics of presence »(411): God, Nature with a capital N, patriotism, the stable, knowable, self-conscious Self — and so on and on. On the other hand, they, unlike many post-modernists, retained an interest in (and sometimes a longing for) these absolutes. They were both attracted and repelled by the possibility of a basis for identity, morality, meaning, etc. The result was a dance of form and emptiness, an irresolvable alternation between affirming and denying the possibility of Being There. Just as Buddhists resist the temptation to cling to The Void, the modernists rejected nihilism as an alternate foundation. This created in their work a sense of constant movement, of no resting place, that is strongly reminiscent of Buddhist practices.

A case in point is Stevens’s « Metaphors of a Magnifico. » The poem begins with a philosophical question:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty village,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village. (35)

The question is whether we are each at the center of our separate worlds or whether human beings are all the same. « This is an old song, » Stevens says, « That will not declare itself. » It certainly is. It’s the problem of the One and the Many, and it’s been around as long as philosophy itself. We know we can’t resolve this question but only move back and forth in an irresolvable journey between our options. Stevens’s speaker, therefore, immediately gives up on the search for an answer. « Twenty men crossing a bridge, Into a village, » he says, « Are Twenty men crossing a bridge Into a village. » This sounds conclusive. Just as, after saying that form is emptiness and emptiness form, we say that form is form and emptiness is emptiness, Stevens’s speaker resorts to a Higher Tautology to get out of his trap. Why doesn’t the poem end here? Surely we can find no firmer ground than this. But the beauty of this poem is the discontentedness of the speaker’s mind. It returns to the fray, as we restlessly do, moths to the flame:

That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning …

The next solution is one favored by many « Buddhist » poems: the abandonment of the abstract issues for the actuality of something in the physical world:

The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.

Once again we seem to have come to a conclusion. This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking familiar from koans and Zen teaching stories. We change the terms and arrive with a leap at something simple, obvious, and irrefutable. But the speaker still can’t help himself. « Of what was it I was thinking? » he asks himself, like someone picking at a wound. Yes, indeed, this is how our minds work. Answers and solutions are beside the point. « So the meaning escapes, » he laments; and even that isn’t a conclusion:

The first while wall of the village …
The fruit trees …

We leave the mind at its business, trying and failing to Be Somewhere. Just as Halliday’s speaker repeats to himself, « It’s not about books, » Stevens’s speaker tries to return to an insight whose time has passed. We abandon the search for meaning and return to it; the mind goes on and on, constantly getting nowhere. The poem is the trace it leaves of its interesting, beautiful, somewhat stressful activity.

Parenthetically, I’d like to mention the tendency of both Stevens and Halliday to allow language to devolve in the direction of pure sound, nonsense, « words without meaning, » as Stevens says in « The Motive for Metaphor. » Examples are Halliday’s « the world odorous and its oevre oozing, » « drammel » and « fedge »; or this from Stevens’s « Bantams in Pine-Woods »:

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt! (75)

Language, as Ferdinand deSaussure argued in his Course in General Linguistics, is never a matter of full presence either, but dependent on difference and absence, a matter of slippage and metaphor. The X of the word never really marks the spot of meaning and therefore need not be taken so seriously.

Emily Dickinson is neither a modernist nor a poet with a specific influence on « Buddhist » poets. And yet, as Albert Gelpi pointed out in « Emily Dickinson’s Word: Presence as Absence, Absence as Presence, » an aspect of her work is indeed proto-modernist. Many poems snatch the rug of presence (or form) out from under us, none more fiercely than the following:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The « Golden Fleece »
Fourth, no Discovery —
Fifth, no Crew —
Finally, no Golden Fleece —
Jason — sham — too. (414)

The « Golden Fleece » is whatever we attach to. It could be a person, a state of mind, a possession, an ideology — anything we want. The standard plot of a narrative — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — seems to be definitively subverted in the fifth line, « Fourth, no Discovery, » in which boy doesn’t get girl The sixth line, in which we learn that there’s no such thing as a « Golden Fleece, » is the out-of-the-box ending-beyond-the-ending. Stunning enough, one would thing But with the annihilation of the subject — « Jason — sham –too » — Dickinson reaches truly sublime heights of deconstruction. The whole story has been about desire and its vicissitudes when there has been no one to desire all along.

But although this poem seems to arrive at anatta, and even to do so with some of the comic speed and violence of a Zen tale, its mood is anything but Buddhist. I hear in this poem the controlled bitterness, the romantic excess that Dickinson favored in much of her greatest work. Unlike « A Walk, » « Finding is the first Act » has no intention of eliding the drama but rather of making it howl and crash. A much more relaxed investigation of form and emptiness is « Within my Garden, rides a Bird. » Here a hummingbird is the amazing Being that turns into non-being. It shows up in her garden and then disappears, leaving the speaker wondering if it could ever have been there in the first place. The speaker whimsically asks her dog to help her ponder this question; brilliantly, he

Refers my clumsy eye —
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An exquisite Reply!

The pleasure the speaker takes in the dog’s great answer is a metonymy for the pleasure of emptiness, just as the hummingbird is a metaphor for the pleasure of form. The sentiment here is exactly the same as in « Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird »: « I do not know which to prefer The blackbird whistling Or just after. » It’s worth noting, though, that even when the hummer is present he’s also partly absent. First of all he’s never named. We have to infer him from the « dizzy Music » his wings make and from the non-existent « Wheel » he rides on. Secondly, « He never stops. » This Being can’t be pinned down and possessed. Even his departure is a non-event, since one minute he’s there and the next he’s in « remoter atmospheres. » The garden tempts the bird with its own symbol of transcendence, the « Ripest Rose, » but the bird, who both understands and symbolizes the ol’ river of time,

Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes. (242)

In American modernism and proto-modernism,then; in Whitman, the father of American poetry; and in Asian sources we find antecedents for the current relevance of Buddhist ideas to contemporary poetry. Why does this matter? Perhaps it doesn’t. Whitman, after all, advises us not to talk « of the beginning or the end. » « There will never be any more inception than there is now, » he says, « And will never be any more perfection than there is now. »(23) Perhaps there has never been any more reason to read as a Buddhist than there is now. Perhaps there never will be.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. L’Ecriture et la difference. Paris: Seuil, 1967. English trans.: Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Gelpi, Albert. « Emily Dickinson’s Word: Presence as Absence, Absence as Presence » in American Poetry 4 (2), Winter 1987.

Ginsberg, Allen. « Thoughts Sitting Breathing » and « From Meditation and Poetics » in Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich. Boston: Shambala, 1991.

Halliday, Mark. Jab. Chicaco: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

_______. Tasker Street. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

_______. Wallace Stevens and the Impersonal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Norton, Jody. « The Importance of Nothing: Absence and Its Origins in the Poetry of Gary Snyder » in Contemporary Literature XXVIII, 1.

Proust, Marcel. « Sur la lecture. » Proust’s preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies (Sesame et les Lys, Paris 1906). See facing French and English in On Reading, translated and edited by Jean Autret and William Burford. New York: Macmillan Co., 1971.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours de linguistique generale. Paris: Payot, 1973. English trans.: Course in General Linguistics. London: Peter Owen, 1960.

Snyder, Gary. The Back Country. New York: New Dimensions, 1968.

_______. No Nature: New and Selected Poems. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, edited by Holly Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala, 1973.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The 1892 Edition. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.


Gary Snyder, « A Walk »

Sunday the only day we don’t work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I’ve eaten breakfast and I’ll
take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
Piute Creek —
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky. Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to a belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
and ambled on.
Quail chicks feeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake — after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope —
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
A lone duck in a gunsightpass
steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, waking a wide smooth stream
Into camp. At last.
By the rusty three-year-
Ago left behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.

Mark Halliday, « Lionel Trilling »

After one of those library hours that decompose into
a bummer, the vast bummer of the unread, I bump into
Greg and we go to the Honeydew for coffee and I say
there is some book, I mutter this several times
so Greg says what book what do you mean some book
and I say there is some one book one book I need
and he says for what, need for what, and I say
to make things take shape, to make a shape,
I can feel that there’s this one book for me to read
today, not next week, not next month but what is it
so Greg says well what would it be about would it be
poetry or a novel or what and I say maybe it’s by
Lionel Trilling — essays, then, Greg says
you feel a need for good literary essays. Maybe,
maybe, I’m not sure, for a minute I thought it was
a novel by Shirley Ann Grau, then I thought maybe
some book of poems with the word Door in the title
but then I saw, I just glimpsed a book by
Lionel Trilling — I was on my way out of the stacks
I just glimpsed the spine but something about his name
so Greg says you’re getting yourself rattled, relax,
you can go back and check out Trilling this afternoon
but I say no I have to go home and besides it’s as if
the chance has passed, the moment has passed
and he says you’re a sick mystic. We drink more coffee
and I eat a brownie and we lapse into our ambition talk
about what we wish or don’t with we could write
and I say greatness is finding the ideas you really need
(or something) and we mention Eliot Pound Yeats Stevens Frost
as usual and feel small with our coffee
and walk out into the dizzle of traffic, the brumble of
students and cars and signs just glimpsed
and it’s that ol’ gray river of time, we say one thing
or another and Greg happens to mention that
the cover of his new book will be purple and I say
purple that’s good, purple, that’s good, it’s of the heart.

Wallace Stevens, « The Motive for Metaphor »
You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.
In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon —
The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,
Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound —
Steel against intimation — the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Emily Dickinson, #500
Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel —
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As ‘twere a travelling Mill —
He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose —
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,
Till every spice is tasted —
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres —
And I rejoin my Dog,
And he and I perplex us
If positive, ‘twere we —
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity —
But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye —
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!




Étiquettes :


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *