Saturday, April 18, 2015

Poetry and Precepts

     Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
     Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

     The following is in no way intended to denigrate my good and gifted friend Conor, who writes free verse poetry that doesn't rhyme.
     Although I'm not very poetically inclined, being more of the "scientific" temperament than the "artistic," or more philosophical than religious, more idea-oriented than feeling-oriented, still I do write a little poetry. Much of it has been limericks and general fooling around, like this one, decomposed a long time ago:

     This is Sayadaw all worried and worn
     Who despairs of U Khema all scoffing with scorn
     Who laughed at the hpone-gyi addicted to porn
     Who ogled the woman who cooks chewy corn
     Who gave birth to the children who shouldn't be born
     Who threw rocks at the cock who crows in the morn
     Who woke the preacher all shaven and shorn
     Who married the man all tattered and torn
     To the maiden all forlorn
     Who milked the cow with the crumpled horn
     That tossed the dog that worried the cat that chased the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Also I have gone to some trouble to improve the meter and rhyme of some of my father's poetry, since he had, at the same time, a preference for meter and rhyme as well as a cavalier attitude toward doing it anywhere near to perfectly. But most of my experience with writing poetry, aside from translating Pali poetry into English prose, is with a lavishly erotic "epic" which I have tinkered with, from time to time, for years. I recently added two new verses to it. Sometimes I think fondly of John Donne, who, although one of the most respected Christian clergymen in his day, and who wrote some really beautiful religious poetry, also wrote some of the steamiest love poetry in the English language.
     Anyway, the writing of poetry, even the erotic stuff, has taught me much about the English language, and about verbal communication in general. Languages are very powerful in their capacity for conveying feelings and information, yet at the same time they are extraordinarily limited. And since we think in languages, and even feel in languages (more basic emotional ones), our own experience of life and understanding of it is very rigidly limited in certain ways. We simply cannot think what the limitations on our thinking prevent us from thinking. This idea may have ben expressed most famously in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, "that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience." 
     In English, for example, there is no exact word, or words, describing or expressing the feeling of having to take a pee. It is a distinct feeling, unlike any other, yet the only way to describe it is to say, "I feel like I gotta take a pee." There are also some Burmese flavors and attitudes which do not translate easily into English. On the other hand, in Burmese, and probably in many other Asian languages, there is a full spectrum of words for what in English is just called "rice." Rice still on the plant has one name, or set of names; rice that is harvested, yet still unhusked, has another; husked, polished, uncooked rice has another; cooked rice has another; and cooked rice offered to monks or to an altar or shrine has yet another—and that is setting aside the various names for different varieties and qualities of rice. Yet the Burmese language has no word for "lizard," or for "owl," despite the obvious fact that lizards and owls are all over the place. Each kind of lizard and owl has its own specific name, yet there are no generic terms for the categories as a whole. Some words in a language have many synonyms, while others may have none: in English, for example, there are several terms for the female bosom, even setting aside the raunchy ones, and each with its own set of implied connotations, yet there is only one word for knee. These kinds of peculiarities clearly affect the way we speak in our own languages, and also how we think in them, so that our ways of understanding the world we live in are conditioned in ways we usually do not notice. 
     With poetry the limitations are much greater—at least they are with regard to the old-fashioned kind, with regular meter and sometimes even rhyme. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say, but can come up with no way of saying it, say, in three syllables, with the accent on the second syllable. And rhyme reduces one's options drastically. There are lots of important words out there that rhyme with just about nothing. (For example, what rhymes with "nothing"?) Also, sometimes changing just a single word in a verse may start a chain reaction, with other words having to be adjusted to harmonize with the newly added one. A word too strong may require softer words around it to generate the right effect, and vice versa.
     I don't know much about the history of poetry in English literature; as far as I know, Walt Whitman was one of the first who tossed not only rhyme but also meter out the poetical window. I can appreciate that he was trying to create a style of poetry suitable for the exuberant new freedom of young America. And I personally like and respect Leaves of Grass, and have read the whole thing, including…

     When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
     When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
     When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
     When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
     How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
     Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
     In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
     Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. 

…yet I can't help but feel that Whitman's new style of free verse flung the door wide open to a subsequent deluge of bad poetry, and prose that is just called "poetry" because it is semi-coherent and the lines don't reach all the way to the right-hand margin (although I freely admit that when bad poets attempt meter and rhyme the results are even more horrible). I think Picasso did something similar to painting. Some free verse poetry is good, I freely admit that, and I read it sometimes, and enjoy it…but still, I am old-fashioned in certain ways, and have a deep appreciation for good poetry which, even if it doesn't rhyme, has the classical form of some recognizable meter. It seems to me that good poetry with meter is better than good poetry without it. It is more of an accomplishment, more of an achievement of skill and beauty.
     America, and probably Western society in general, has come to favor amorphous free verse in many of the arts of life, including religion and spirituality. Seemingly arbitrary, restricting rules are resisted with impatience, not so much because of Whitman and Picasso, but more because of a whole nebula of issues, including consumerism and a programmed aversion for inconvenience. Plus, maybe, a desire to be "free," and thus to avoid, whenever it isn't obviously necessary, self-discipline. Yet if we aren't wakeful enough in our freedom we may become enslaved to sloppy habits less beneficial than the restricting rules we dislike.
     Freedom from restricting rules may make things easier, but, in poetry for example, classical forms can be conducive to the creation of extraordinary beauty. Classical forms can also be conducive to extraordinary beauty in religion. And without the structure of such forms one's attempts at elegance and grace may simply collapse into messy chaos, or just so much mushy flabbiness.
     Besides, a skillful poet may learn to create metrical beauty spontaneously, even within the limitations of a formal tradition, much like a skillful dancer or musician may improvise masterfully. My favorite example of this is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," one of his most famous poems, which he composed, seemingly effortlessly, while more or less unconscious and under the influence of a narcotic drug.

     In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
          A stately pleasure dome decree:
     Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
     Through caverns measureless to man
          Down to a sunless sea…. 

Really, we do essentially the same thing all the time, spontaneously creating beauty and performing miracles within the infinite limitations of our language, our body's feeble capabilities, and our own human mentality.
     I see the monk's life with all its rules, regulations, traditions, and observances, and also a classical Dharmic culture like traditional Burmese Buddhism, to be poetic, in the old-fashioned way—that is, to involve the creation of Beauty within the constraints of a classical formal system. Not all monkish rules are practical, especially outside of ancient India, and some seem to be downright impractical; yet I assume that some of the monks following along with these restricting conditions have become fully enlightened, which is itself a miraculously beautiful thing. 
     The trouble is that one may easily become attached to mere form, and lose sight of the original purpose of that form, the essence that the vessel is supposed to contain. Paul of Tarsus in the Christian Bible was apparently well aware of this potential trouble, and interpreted Christianity such that he rejected the old Jewish rules and insisted that a true Christian would live his or her life in such a way that every act, every thought and feeling, would itself be the container of Spirit, and would be pervaded by it. Krishnamurti saw the danger of rules also—he once said that one could find a twig in one's garden, set it atop the mantelpiece, and offer it a cup of water every day, just for the heck of it…and within a week or two the person would be afraid not to offer the water, for fear of committing an offense against the twig, or the twig "tradition." Early Buddhism also acknowledged this hazard of confusing the teapot with the tea; the following verses are from the Mahāviyūha Sutta of the Sutta-Nipāta:

     Those who think morality is supreme say purity is by self-restraint;
     Having taken upon themselves an observance they are dedicated to it.
     "Let us train ourselves right here and now, and then there would be purity"— 
     Claiming to be adepts, they are brought up to further existence.

     If one is fallen away from his morality and observances
     He is agitated, having failed in his action (kamma).
     He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong (suddhi)
     Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.

     But having abandoned all morality and observances,
     And that action which is criticized or uncriticized,
     Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
     He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.

(Incidentally, the Sutta was composed in a regular Pali pentameter verse form, and demonstrates one intriguing advantage of verse over prose: This section of the Sutta-Nipāta contains many puns and other plays on words, which are more suited to the evocative nature of poetry than to more precise and pedestrian prose. For example, in the second verse above the word suddhi, usually meaning "purity," is also taken more literally as "well-placement," or security. Thus one may exploit poetic idiosyncrasies by saying two or even three things simultaneously, which very probably wouldn't work out so well in, say, a prose science text or law book. That is a sophistication in early Pali verse that I really like. But coming up with an equivalent pun in English is virtually impossible, which points right back to the limitations of human language.) 
     With regard to becoming attached to form and thereby neglecting essence, with poetry I can fall into this hole pretty easily. When writing a verse and a rhyme is imperfect (or just plain bad), or the meter is irregular, it bugs me. I shouldn't lose any sleep over it, and usually don't, but still, it bugs me. I may stew over it for hours and hours and hours until I finally get it right, or just give it up as a lost cause, blaming the limitations of the language rather than my own lack of imagination. Even the greatest poets have perpetrated irregular meters and imperfect rhymes. Some say that Shakespeare's verse is great because of its irregularities. But a much more dangerous hole to fall into is making the same confused mistake (confusing form with essence, teapot with tea) with regard to morality, observances, and precepts. I'm pretty sure I'm less likely to fall into that one. One teaching of Buddhism that I have really taken to heart is that Regret is always an unskillful mental state—that is, "bad karma." Living one's life is rather more like orally improvising poetry than writing it: One doesn't get to go back and change what one has already done. One may compensate, but what has been done remains done, and there's no point in sitting around regretting it. And as for living in the present moment, being Here Now, being bugged by the way things are Now isn't so good either. (I'm still not always in the present moment though.)
     Anyway, the Burmese (or archetypal Asians) are more likely to cling to the container of Dharma, confusing it with what is to be contained, while Americans (Westerners) appear more likely to reject the container before it has had much of a chance to contain much of anything, thereby being left without a suitable container—maybe nothing but bare hands, maybe just a flimsy plastic bag when something more rigid would be more useful. Ideally, Spirit needs no container; or, rather, every act is suffused with Spirit, as inspired teachers often teach; but it usually doesn't work out that way, especially for beginners, and most Western Buddhists are beginners, regardless of how long they've been practicing. (I can appreciate St. John of the Cross's idea that anyone who hasn't yet mastered contemplation is still a beginner—with Catholic contemplation apparently being the equivalent, in Buddhist practice, of at least 2nd jhāna.) 
     I suspect that the success of the Goenka system in the West is partly because ven. Mr. Goenka succeeded in creating a stripped-down version of Dhamma and vipassana practice that was sufficiently rigid to contain the fundamentals without the whole thing collapsing into fluff, yet was simple and no-nonsense enough to be acceptable to Westerners who are fundamentally non-Buddhist (that is, not conditioned by a Buddhist culture). It is true, though, that the relatively rigid container of the system has resulted in many Goenka meditators adopting an almost Jehovah's Witness attitude toward it; but Goenka seems to have found a workable middle way between Asian Buddhist tradition and Western aversion for same. It does strike me as rather elementary, though; yet orthodox Theravada as found in ancient Indian texts, although able to contain much more, is just too alien to Western culture for it to be widely accepted, thus far, even by people considering themselves to be Buddhist. For ancient Indian Theravada to be accepted by modern Westerners would be somewhat like those same Westerners accepting ancient drama acted entirely in verse, with the actors wearing masks—possibly with a goat sacrificed to Dionysus at the beginning by way of a prelude. 
     I suppose that if Theravada is ever to thrive in the West, a form of it will have to be developed, possibly a brand new form, which has enough backbone to contain enough real Dhamma to inspire, uplift, and even enlighten us, and enough difficulty to challenge us and give us the satisfaction of really attaining something, even if it's just the survival of a strictly austere retreat. We may require a new form of renunciant monasticism also, one that is not ordained Sangha, yet is much more conducive to serious practice than merely adopting Buddhism as a hobby. What America needs may be a new Buddhist lay order, with regulations more harmonious with the modern West. An amorphous, easy, no-rules approach is just too weak and floppy for the majority of Western meditators and Dhamma students to get very far with it. Or so it seems to me.
     Living a spiritual life may be viewed as a game, a dance, a poem, endeavoring to realize something profoundly beautiful within the constraints, and with the support, of a somewhat confining and rigid system of rules. With, of course, the possibility of breaking some of those rules, if it seems appropriate, with no regrets. Yet ultimately, Enlightenment cannot be held inside a container; an enlightened being may be plausibly compared to a jar submerged in water—the same water, or essence, is outside as well as inside it. The container, and any moves it makes, becomes practically superfluous. But it seems that even most enlightened beings, assuming that they exist, do not reject the traditional containers of their spiritual culture; enlightened Buddhists stay Buddhists, Hindus stay Hindus, Christians stay Christians, peyote eaters stay peyote eaters, bad poets stay bad poets, etc. The limitations of the form, as well as the effective support, remain in effect, no doubt for an enlightened reason.

Appendix: Poetry Corner

     The following little bit of poetry was composed in the form of a sonnet, and is a good reflection on the attachments of romantic love. I bet a lot of people can relate to it. It reminds me of a passionate girlfriend I once loved in college, and in the college parking lot.

     Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part;
     Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
     And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
     That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
     Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
     And, when we meet at any time again,
     Be it not seen in either of our brows
     That we one jot of former love retain.

     Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
     When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
     When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
     And Innocence is closing up his eyes— 
          Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
          From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.     (—Michael Drayton)

I consider this sad, mainly because it was written to a real, live, beautiful young woman…who grew old and died 400 years ago, as did the man who loved her. (Drayton was a contemporary of Shakespeare.) It may be sexist and foolish and all that, but still, to me one of the saddest things in the world is that beautiful young women have to grow old, and get sick, and die. My male protective instincts would like to protect them from that. Anyway.
     This next one is sad too, but in a different way.


     Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
     Over the hill between the town below
     And the forsaken upland hermitage
     That held as much as he should ever know
     On earth again of home, paused warily.
     The road was his with not a native near;
     And Eben, having leisure, said aloud, 
     For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
     Again, and we shall not have many more;
     The bird is on the wing, the poet says, 
     And you and I have said it here before.
     Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
     The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
     And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
     Since you propose it, I believe I will."

     Alone, as if enduring to the end
     A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
     He stood there in the middle of the road
     Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
     Below him, in the town among the trees,
     Where friends of other days had honored him,
     A phantom salutation of the dead
     Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

     Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
     Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
     He set the jug down slowly at his feet
     With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
     And only when assured that on firm earth
     It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
     Assuredly did not, he paced away,
     And with his hand extended paused again:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
     In a long time; and many a change has come
     To both of us, I fear, since last it was
     We had a drop together. Welcome home!"
     Convivially returning with himself,
     Again he raised the jug up to the light;
     And with an acquiescent quaver said:
     "Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might."

     "Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
     For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do."
     So, for the time, apparently it did,
     And Eben evidently thought so too;
     For soon amid the silver loneliness
     Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
     Secure, with only two moons listening,
     Until the whole harmonious landscape rang— 

     "For auld lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
     The last word wavered; and the song being done,
     He raised again the jug regretfully
     And shook his head, and was again alone. 
     There was not much that was ahead of him,
     And there was nothing in the town below— 
     Where strangers would have shut the many doors
     That many friends had opened long ago.                  (—Edwin Arlington Robinson)

I assume the second moon was his jug? 
     And partly to demonstrate that I do have some appreciation for modern free verse, I include one last one, about a man who is beyond pity.

     When in the soul of the serene disciple,
     With no more fathers to imitate,
     Poverty is a success,
     It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
     He has not even a house.

     Stars, as well as friends,
     Are angry with the noble ruin.
     Saints depart in several directions.

     Be still:
     There is no longer any need of comment.
     It was a lucky wind
     That blew away his halo with his cares,
     A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.        (—ven. Thomas Merton)

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