Talk about hitting my sweet spots — here is a blog about poetry and neuroscience! I think I found it via Don Share’s (Poetry Magazine) Twitter feed. Comes at a good time for me, since I’m writing an essay that touches on poetry & brain science.
I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.
In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
Barney Rosset, Grove Press Publisher, Dies at 89 – NYTimes.com. Rossett demonstrates the incalculable effect publishers can have on what gets read & on what readers think matters. Talk about the materiality of the text! And isn’t is a wonderful thing when a publisher combines courage & imagination?
I’ve been meaning to say how much I enjoyed being a judge at the poetry slam sponsored by Spectrum at Clarkson with MC Rives. The quality of the poems varied considerably, but the quality of the spirit held up very well. At least until the end when some of the poets who had been eliminated chose to leave before the winners performed. Not a lot of class in that move, kids. What I noticed, also, was an almost universal tendency to go on too long. Several of the poets / performers presented pieces that made their point effectively in, say 90 seconds, but then felt compelled to go on for another minute with what almost always amounted to explanation, commentary, or mere repetition. Still, an enjoyable evening that we need to repeat.
Steve wished me “bon voyage” in a comment to my last post & that wish must have done some good since the “voyage” part of my trip downstate did have some adventurous moments, but turned out well in the end. I had meant to post something about my experience at the Zen Mountain Monastery as soon as I returned, but the semester began, classes, heated up, meetings had to be attended & so I’m just getting a chance to makes some notes about the retreat now, almost two weeks after the event. There is also the fact that describing religious experience is extremely difficult — most such descriptions disintegrate into cliché or bathos. The writings of the great mystics — Western & Eastern — astonish us at least in part because they manage to communicate the ineffable in ordinary human language.
The most adventurous part of my adventure occurred before I ever got to the monastery, but I think that “bon voyage” must have helped, but the trip very nearly became the Zen Mountain Massacre. Fortunately, I was helped by a couple of bodhisattvas along the way and made it to the monastery in time to begin the retreat despite my GPS unit, usually very reliable, trying to take me down a road with a washed-out bridge. I had driven happily through the Adirondacks and down into the Catskills, avoiding the Northway (I-87), which would have been more direct. Around sundown I found myself in Lexington NY on a road that both the satellites and my new iPhone said would get me where I wanted to go. What neither of these smart devices knew was that floods last spring had washed out a bridge. The road ended in a barrier. As it turns out, Zen is all about barriers, but I’ll come to that later.