Feel Better

Poetry Koan?

Poetry, as much as religion and politics, calls up strong emotions of love and hate. “I, too, dislike it,” poet Marianne Moore candidly wrote some 50 years ago, adding an equally candid qualification: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

I too dislike poetry, and yet I spend about 70% of any given day completely immersed in it: writing poems, reading poems, tweeting poems, learning poems by heart, having conversations with people about poetry, fantasising about other poets and what they’re up to. What’s going on here?!?

My way of getting my head around this conundrum has been to frame the role poetry plays in my life as something akin (I whisper these next words very quietly out of the corner of my mouth as they have a way of triggering certain people, even me at times, into even greater paroxysms of contempt than the contempt for poetry itself) as a kind of spiritual practice, as well as a way of co-existing with my own confounding, mysterious and largely unconscious mind.

Did not Caedmon, the first English poet, learn the art of poetry/song in a dream? Is not the “lesson” of poetry always a lesson in frustration, a frustrating paradox, riddle or koan, a kind of Emptiness (Mu):

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine,” surmises Ben Lerner, channeling Allen Grossman, in The Hatred of Poetry. “You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.” (Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry)

The Japanese word koan translates as “public case”, or legal precedent. But this is not an ex post facto “collective body of judicially announced principles”delivering the outcome of a contemplative process or dialogue. Instead, a koan is more of a dynamic, DIY phenomenon, just like a poem, giving us the tools to work through an existential case ourselves (big or small), with materials supplied from our own lives.

Another etymological reading of koan is that of place rather than case, a place where the “truth” might reside. A poet or teacher or journal editor presents the poem/koan as a potential site for this truth or at least for something of personal worth. The reader is then encouraged to excavate. She digs, and digs, and digs. At some point perhaps she plants seeds or thoughts in the body-shaped space she’s dug for herself into the poem. Maybe she begins writing poetry herself, or making drawings, or a podcast where she talks with other people about their koans in the form of poems. She does whatever she needs to do in order to understand more about this place where she digs this place she also calls her life.

I initially wrote in the last sentence “to get to the bottom of the truth”, but of course, unless we dig all the way through to China we already know there is no bottom there. There is never really any there there in poetry, as Getrude Stein once memorably said of her childhood city, Oakland.  Plenty of consolatory “there, theres” as in “There, there don’t cry”, but that’s a different kind of thing. For truths there are only provisional, fleeting glimpses of understanding, the kind which shift as our lives around the poems shift and change. But fleeting glimpses will do.

The poem/koan cannot be treated as a mathematical problem. What does this poem mean, is a meaningless question. What does it mean to you however is perhaps the most meaningful question we can ask. The koan or the poem is thus a bottomless site where we can dig for months, or years, or a lifetime; for as long as it takes until we alight on something that smells, or looks, or even more importantly feels necessary to us (Moore’s “something genuine”).

The koan/poem, writes James Ishmael Ford often feels like “a nagging something in the back of your head…a small pebble in your shoe…the longing inhabiting your dreams”, but it can also be encountered “like a blueberry found on a bush. You can just reach out, pick it, and throw it into your mouth.”

John Tarrant agrees with this, stating that koans/poems are often “confusing, irritating, mysterious, beautiful, and freeing, a gateway into the isness of life, where things are exactly what they are and have not yet become problems”. 

“You can think of koans/poems as vials full of the light that the ancestors walked through,” Tarrant proposes, “and if you can get these vials open you share that light.”

“By getting them open I mean you get at the light any way you can—you find the key and open the vials with a click, break them, drop them from a height, sing to them, step inside them, shake them so that some of the light spills out. Then that light is available to you, which might be handy if you’re ever in a dark and twisty passage.”

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in dark and twisty passages, so I’m happy to have all the light I can get, no matter what form it it given to me. As someone who also works in the field of mental health, I am very much aware that almost everything transcendent, wondrous, contradictory and sublime gets stripped away in our so-called double-blind, peer-reviewed, scientific therapies, in many of our self-cures and so-called self-help books. There is very little poetry in a CBT worksheet, and I find that kind of sad. By “prescribing poems” for myself and other people, perhaps this is my way of putting that stuff back in.

The koans I recite each day, my “poetry liturgy” is a way for me to explore the poems I love-more-than-hate, which I often need to learn by heart in order to find out why I love-more-than-hate them so much, as well as a repository for all the wisdom of the past and present I so treasure and don’t want to forget.

Thanks for stopping by.