Feel Better Maslow Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #9: The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Start by-hearting poems and soon you’ll find yourself in a conversation with someone on Twitter wanting to know what technique you’ve been using to commit your 12,000 words of verse to memory.

“Have you tried the method of loci?” enquires Ian (“Poet, Artist, and Writer. @UCBerkeley alum slummin’ in Dublin”) stopping one May morning to inspect a fresh rabbit dropping otherwise known as a tweet in which I’ve mentioned my project.

The Method of Loci (MoL for all you budding cognitive neuroscientists out there) is a mnemonic device that uses visual imagery to link together a series of tangentially related bits of data in a way that the human mind can contain more information than you would expect this lump of meat we call our brains might hold. Data such as a portion of the trillion digits following a decimal place which is used to represent π is an example of this. Milton’s Paradise Lost is another.

The ardent Memory Master or Mnemonist will allocate information such as numbers or words to the loci (locations) of a familiar route or maybe the layout of rooms in a building she knows well, or even to objects and furniture in those rooms. Thereafter, by mentally retracing the route, the Mnemonist will have a series of retrieval cues for this data, “so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves” as the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero explains in De Oratore, a text that first introduced us to this technique 2,000 years ago.

The reason Ian is asking about MoL is not because MoL is particularly useful for remembering a poem. A poem is not a series of random digits or facts, it already has a somewhat cohesive shape and music to it, and even a specifically poetic narrative which might assist us with our memorising.

But as with most exchanges on Twitter, Ian’s main purpose for enquiring about MoL is as a pretext for him to showboat his own use of MoL to memorise Merwin’s 12-line poem Rain Light, which seems to me a bit like using a jackhammer to crack a walnut. I don’t say this to Ian however because Poetry Twitter, unlike the rest of Twitter, is a predominantly supportive and benign environment, populated for the most part by time-wasting neurotics and blatherskites, myself and Ian being two lesser-known illustrations of this, all of us publicly tolerating each other whilst pro-socially backslapping our inconsequential and largely unread outputs in prose and especially in verse.

Of all the memorisation techniques out there, MoL doesn’t seem especially useful when it comes to learning poetry. Not even Akira Haraguchi, who has memorised over 100,000 digits of pi uses MoL. Instead he turns those 100,000 digits into a kind of poem! He does this by associating each number with a syllable and then creates poem-like narratives from the words produced by those syllables. 

“I have created about 800 stories, whose lead characters are mostly animals and plants,” he explains. “For the first 100 digits of pi, I have crafted a story about humans. Here is how the first 50 digits, starting with 3.14, reads: “Well, I, that fragile being who left my hometown to find a peace of mind, is going to die in the dark corners; it’s easy to die, but I stay positive.”

His quest to learn as many of the pi digits is not that dissimilar to my own more diminutive challenge of memorising 100 poems. For both of us it is a spiritual practice at best, but also a time-dissipator, a wordy or digity mantra, helping us to focus our wayward minds by calling into being, if only as an echoing abstraction, the whole known and unknown universe, including that of consciousness, through a rotating prayer of atoms and spinning electrons, circumvolving planets and galaxies. Which in one way is wonderful, and in another way completely nuts. Haraguchi’s family are not interested in pi, and my family are not interested in poetry. They see his quest rather, as no doubt do mine, as “an enormously harmless hobby”.

But I think R.S. Thomas would have appreciated Haraguchi’s quixotic focus of interest, which also chimes so well with this poem.

My experience of learning poetry by heart is that the relationship between the words to be learned and the arbitrary psychogeography one might choose for those words to be associated with, functions antithetically to traditional MoL. Often when I am reciting certain poems, the landscapes I had unspooling around me whilst I learnt the poem return as confederates to the words that once inhabited them.

In my mind, Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things will always be associated with the river Chess near Latimer Park farm. Similarly James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota reminds me of walking on a narrow path, hedges on both sides near Leyhill Common, unaware that the route ahead was going to be closed by roadworks, resulting in half an hour of scramble with a small dog in my arms over 3 metre high temporary mesh-fencing panels in a bid to break out. I don’t know why I am telling you this. Maybe just to reiterate that I’m not at the moment using any formal system for learning the 10 or 12,000 words that will eventually make up my 100 poem Poetry Liturgy.

How I learn a poem is like this. I read the first line or two. I repeat it, I repeat it, I repeat it. I think about it, savour it, play with different ways of saying it, often imagine what is being presented a visual image. I repeat the line again and again. I then add another line and do the same. I go back to the first line and notice I’ve forgotten that, so I begin again: repeating, savouring, thinking, visualising, trying out different combinations of emphasis and articulation. I do this for a while until I have a few lines going. I then add a bit more, until maybe I’ve got what feels like one semantic unit. In Bright Field, that first unit might be:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.

I start to notice the unique physicality of each clause, as you might recognise the ways in which another human being walking alongside you uses their limbs, and how those limbs are shaped.

Thomas’s language is pared down to the bone: it is taut, and wiry and matter-of-fact. You see this especially in “and gone my way / and forgotten it”. The discursive mind wants to add other words to these two clauses, perhaps repeating the auxiliary verb “have” in the first line alongside an adverb to make “and have gone on my way”. The mind is always doing this when learning poems: coming up with more fleshed-out, sociably padded additions (“and forgotten about it”?). The poem reminds its learner again and again, this one certainly does, that it is not a Barbie Doll or Action Man to be dressed up or prettified, but rather exists as a Hepworth or Moore, or Giacometti statue exists: with only the most necessary, elemental contours present to us. Which works especially well for this poem as so much of it is about working out what really matters in our life: those transitory but intrinsically meaningful illuminations which disturb, often serendipitously, the grinding mundanity of being alive.

So I work on that initial unit until each line comfortably cues the next in my memory. Whilst doing this, my mind might wander, so that when I come back I find only a few words have remained. I might get annoyed at myself at this point, at my blob-of-meat mind and start all over again. Because I have already introduced the words before, spent some time with them, the second time around they are more swiftly retainable. I then try and work on the next semantic unit, and see if I can solder it in some way to the first.

But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it.

“OK, so there’s a contrasting preposition here,” I show myself, “remember that the next time you come to the end of the first unit. Notice also,” I tell myself, “the alliterations “pearl of great price”, also hurrying/hankering and Moses/miracle.” Alliterations are a godsend to the poetry mnemonist, as are all conjunctions, often rendering two into one.

While I am caught up with the physicality of each line, its structure and articulation, the act of repetition begins to drive the import of the words deeper and deeper in my mind and heart. These underscore key lines like an exclamatory, concordant YES!!!, a euphoric primal punctuation of core understanding.

But that was the
pearl of great price, [YES!!!]

(I decide to really stress the “that” in this line)

the one field

(ditto with “one”)

that had
treasure in it [YES!!!]

I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.


This is what it feels like (from the inside) to learn by heart a poem that you love. Perhaps, not by mistake, all those ecstatic YESes start sounding like the soundtrack to a disincarnate porn film. And maybe this is not a glib analogy. For just as evolution has shaped us to feel most apropos (literally, to purpose) when we are feeding the animal body, fucking or being fucked with the animal body, moving it in pursuit or play, so the “treasure” of committing words to the heart, words that are closely in sync with our own experience, and maybe even numbers as in Haraguchi’s pi-quest, feels very much on par with the Peak Experiences of both transcendental religious worship and sex, as sketched out by Maslow about 50 years ago.

Peak experience, of which this poem not only seeks to give us a taste of, but also exemplifies in itself and as itself can be described through a number of different variables. Some of these include:

  • a disorientation in time and space, alongside a non-comparing acceptance of everything, as if everything were equally important
  • an ego-transcending, self-forgetful, unselfish vision of the natural world and our place in it
  • a self-validating, self-justifying perception which carries its own intrinsic value with it lending itself to the operational definition of the statement that “life is worthwhile” or “life is meaningful.”

Pretty cool, huh? Which is why I continue to spend at last an hour, 10% of each awake-and-conscious day, “giving all that I have” to possess the 100 words or that make up poems like this one.

Specifically, what I think I give to the process is patience, or an attempt at patience (not my strongest suit), which is perhaps more about tolerating the Sisyphean frustration of forgetting, accompanied by a kind of relentlessly romantic stick-to-itiveness. Stick-to-itiveness, resilience, grit, is a virtues that I possess for only a two or three things in my life. But maybe that is enough to reconcile me to the burden of being alive.

I’m not yet sure if it is enough to take me into a consciously transcendent state akin to the utopian promise of heaven alluded to at the end of the poem. Non-theist that I am, I would prefer to perceive that illuminated eternity as available to me intermittently when I am in the flow of reciting words that have become, through thousands of repetitions, as germane to my lived experience as a glass of water when thirsty, or food/sex when hungry for it. It doesn’t always feel that way, but when it does, this reinforces my desire to keep on doing this.

But like all peak experiences: as the moniker suggests, the only way to know it, is to experience it. Which is why, evangelical-like, I urge you when you’ve finished reading these words to find a poem you love and start learning it by heart.

By Heart Ethics Living A Valued Life Maslow Pleasure Poetry Koan Transcendence Values

I Have Wasted My Life

32030865198_3e9f731e1a_bThere is a well known poem by James Wright with a title so long it sounds almost silly at first: Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. The poem, I think, gets to the heart of what I’m trying to understand here. It shares the experiences of a human creature, Wright (?) having a series of devotional, almost otherwordly moments, and yet the poems also stays profoundly embedded in this world, the world of nature. It also ends on a real humdinger of a last line. If poems had ‘plot twists’ a la The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, this would be it.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The poem commences with an incredibly evocative visual palette of bronze and black and green [2], before moving into the more abstract realms of empty spaces: the ravine, the empty house, the sound of cowbells seemingly unattached to any cows. Notice the use of the definite article in the first two lines (“the bronze butterfly…the black trunk”), as if this was the only bronze butterfly and the only black trunk in existence.

Often with transcendental experiences, there is a sense of the utter rightness and revelatory significance in an impression or a thought, accompanied by an ineffable slipperiness in how to communicate this understanding to anyone else, even a future self who is no longer in that state anymore. There is also a kind of alchemy at work here too: of turning shit (“the droppings of last year’s horses”) into gold. Surely whatever we do with our lives, no matter how productive they are, we are always going to be comparatively lacking compared to the numinous perfection of this pastoral scene?

I’m curious to know more about Wright and the making of this poem, so read a bit from James Blunk’s biography of Wright. I read of how in August 1960, Wright (alcoholic, philanderer) [4] brought his family out to Robert Bly’s farm in Minnesota to be near to his friend and mentor. One day the two drove to Bill Duffy’s farm on Pine Island, a city that also numbered Ralph Samuelson, inventor of waterskiing (FYI) as one of its inhabitants. Duffy had gone off to Tangier to teach, which is perhaps why the house in the poem stands empty. Bly had been asked by Duffy to do some maintenance work on the farm, and so explains Blunk, “while [Bly] and a carpenter drained the plumbing and built a new cellar door, among other chores, Wright retreated to a green hammock that hung between two maple trees at a distance from the house” and wrote this poem.

As I attempt to learn this poem by heart (it’s a great poem for by-hearting by the way – while learning/reciting it, you and 1960 Wright are one – eerily so) I keep on returning to the following question: what is the opposite of “I have wasted my life”? If waste is to squander, misuse, spend like water, be prodigal with, blow, mishandle, fritter away (which is also inbuilt into the process of living a life), what would it mean to do the opposite? A thesaurus suggests a list of stingy alternatives: to hoard, to save, to accumulate, to profit by, to take advantage of, to exploit. Are these in any way better options?

Maybe the opposite side of the Life-Well-Lived/Used spectrum might be:

“I have utilised my time on this earth profitably”?


“I have made the most of my life”?

Or what?

Maybe these sentences would resonate more if presented as a series of ‘nots’: I have NOT squandered, misused, frittered away my life, LIKE OTHERS HAVE, AND DO! So where’s my pat on the head for that? Who is going to give me that pat on the head?!?!

Once again, we’re back to one of the earliest and most fundamental of ethical questions, which is also the title of that frustratingly unreadable book by Sheila Heti: How Should A Person Be?

Be, not do. For being (in this case: lying in a hammock mindfully) doesn’t necessarily lead us to feeling we’ve used our time meaningfully whilst embodied here on this planet. But how should a person live, if living is more than just being? Especially when that living is gifted to us in limited quantities? Bernard Williams opens his classic book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with the following statement: “It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live.” Simon Blackburn in his primer Ethics: A Very Short Introduction notes how tricky it is to even listen to the self-appointed moral philosophers, both those in academia, and individuals who play this role for us in our family of origin or friendship circles:

“We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them.”

This is particularly true for the psycho-active substance user, whether that substance is sugar, coffee, nicotine, cannabis, or alcohol. Our default position is generally one of “don’t tell me how many chocolate digestives, lattes, cigs, joints, pints I should consume!” when perhaps the more interesting response, if we can put our defensive outrage on hold is: let’s think philosophically and psychologically about all of this stuff, because it’s at heart a really, really interesting question and affects us all in one way or another.

I like writers who remind me of how tenuous and unfounded our notions of who we are are, how shaky (because temporally and culturally specific) the foundations of our ethical universe are. Paul Bloom in his book How Pleasure Works marvels at the fact that “Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing….This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, two-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: “I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends.””

Which is perhaps to say: we all spend our evenings Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, whilst someone else (for Wright it was Robert Bly and the carpenter), are  no more than ten feet away, sawing, hammering, and constructing something far more important (at least in terms of Maslow’s triangle) for human existence.  

The question that interests me is whether at the moment of being immersed/lost in our respective imaginative worlds, the neurochemical functioning of our brains is really that different when all of us are engaged in states of flow, either substance/conversation/exercise-enhanced or not? Would it change the way you feel about Wright’s spiritual (for want of a better word) experience at William Duffy’s farm if you knew that he had been assisted or “led” into that experience via a psychoactive substance like a strong coffee, or a chocolate bar, or tobacco, alcohol, cannabis?

I don’t think so. But then I’m the guy who pays a lot of attention to people’s dreams, as well as the their unconscious motivations expressed in their fantasies. And there’s clearly nothing self-possessed or abstemious about our dream worlds.

Why do we feel the need to be so categorical? The novelist David Mitchell has Wright’s poem stuck to his wall “as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see…”

“I forget this all the time,” he writes, “all the time. If I remember to do what the poem ask for 0.1 percent of day—slow down, look closely—then that’s a great day. An enlightened day. Usually, though, it’s nowhere near even that.”

What Mitchell is suggesting, and what another commentator Patricia Hampl draws out more explicitly is the negative-capability at work in the piece, to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenges. This lies at the heart of the being productively unproductive and vice-versa: “He has wasted his life precisely because he sees he has not wasted his life enough. Or really at all until this moment. That was his mistake. He has not failed.”