John Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (No. IV) & the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination

As part of my project to revisit some of my boyhood favorites (poets, novelists, ice-cream flavors, etc.) I’ve been rereading John Donne, though in this case I take up my project with a slight difference: Since I was in high school & began reading poetry seriously, I’ve admired & studied Donne’s poems, especially the lyrics & Satires. Those are the poems of a young man, bursting with energy & invective. But this week I’ve been reading Donne’s Devotions— a work I had no more than glanced at previously; written in prose, they represent the thoughts of a dying man. So I am revisiting the writer, not by rereading pieces I already know, but by taking up something new of Donne’s. The Devotions are written in a prose that could be cut into a block of granite:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.

I offer this excerpt not only as an example of Donne’s mastery as a prose stylist, but because they suggest to me certain ideas familiar from the central Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. As for the style, read carefully through the sentence that begins “If only . . .” & then look at the way it is framed by the three short sentences that precede it.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects everything else. Everything that is, is because other things are. This is the teaching of Dependent Origination. [ . . . ] No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist.1 

99% of bacteria, by far the most numerous organisms on the planet, cannot be cultured in isolation in petri dishes for the convenience of scientists & graduate students. There is a microbiologist named Slava Epstein profiled in the June 20th, 2016 New Yorker, who is trying, with a few others, to study the 99%. In fact, I would argue, he is studying a concrete example of dependent origination, not just as empirical science, but as metaphysics.

Let’s step back & look at Donne’s metaphor, if that’s what it is, that links a person’s body with the earth. If we unwound the veins in our bodies, they would become rivers, our bones quarries. So far, this is only an example of the kind of elaborate extended metaphor Donne was & is well-known for. But a metaphor, to more than decorative, should plunge the reader into uncertainty, should point toward genuinely unsettling possibilities. Donne is considering his own approaching death in the Devotions, and with it the dissolution of his body. Part IV bears the Latin title Medicusque vocatur. (The physician is sent for). Renaissance scientists had begun doing actual post-mortems, so the imagery of veins & bones has an immediacy it would have lacked a couple of hundred years before Donne wrote. 

Buddhism famously sees everything in the universe as interconnected. Some misconstrue this as meaning there is no difference between one thing & another–a weird kind of epistemological relativism. All things are not one thing–just look around you. “But in their essence . . .” the guru objects. There are no essences; Buddhism insists on a profoundly existential way of looking at the world. And the world is staggeringly multitudinous. The doctrine of dependent origination teaches that the multitude of things, phenomena, processes, objects cause each other to exist. One might say that only the relationships between things exist, not the things themselves, in any essential sense. But even this is a hedge. Even the relationships are empty. From the Dhammapada:

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.

Donne clearly wants to demonstrate the deep interconnectedness of things, but he is caught in a hierarchical system of thought. It was the Renaissance (& A.O. Lovejoy) that gave us the Great Chain of Being, with God at the top & worms, I suppose, at the bottom. Beneath God are the Angels of various sorts, and then Man. Donne explicitly evokes this system of thought in the opening sentences of the fourth Devotion: “It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing.” This would seem to run counter to the idea of interdependence (Thich Nhat Hanh names it interbeing) so central to Buddhist teaching. So if I am asserting a similarity between the Great Chain & Dependent Arising, where do I see it & how do I surmount this particular difficulty?

First, the Renaissance was drunk on correspondences between the macrocosm & the microcosm. Ideas of this sort saturated the air Donne breathed. Even so, look how he slyly reverses the expected relationship: instead of Man the microcosm representing Earth the macrocosm, Donne writes, “man is diminutive to nothing.” This observation gives my assertion a little breathing room, at least in so far as it shows Donne willing to mess around with parts of the prevailing paradigm. But the poet is still stuck with two (at least) fundamentals that he cannot abandon:2 Those is stuck with his hierarchy & with an eternity in which things actually exist. It is only in the sublunary world.

In consequence, he cannot get to something like dependent origination, despite his metaphor’s demands–at least from the point of view of this reader. I haven’t proven my case, then. Donne’s metaphor is suggestive of interconnectedness & dependent arising, but he is blocked for approaching more closely by the fundamental structure of his society & in particular the intellectual climate of the aristocracy. We do not know what was going on in middle class households, or the huts of peasants. Locations for invention & change–especially the former–that should not be ignored.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Barbara O’Brien, About Religion. See also: BuddhaNet (1) & BuddhaNet (2).
  2. I’m not blaming Donne here; he could no more do away with these concepts than a leopard could change its spots.

A Good Day (& A List of Four)

I wrote more lines of poetry today in two sittings that I have probably written in the last decade. A long set of “cantos” is just pouring out of me, assisted by some randomizing methods of composition. I had been tearing pages out of a first-draft notebook I use to jot down anything from grocery lists to lines of poems or to-do lists. The pages are perforated to make this easy & this notebook is not intended to be an archive–when something is no longer current or relevant, I rip it out, Some of these pages had diary-like passages that I wanted to preserve, but not where they lay in the notebook. (One of my great pleasures is starting a new notebook, which may be why I have six or seven half-finished notebooks lying around.) I tore them out & stuck them in an envelope, then I remembered those surrealist games in which poems are constructed by randomly collocating lines from different sources, which in turn reminded me of my teacher Donald Justice’s experiments with “chance procedures.” I pulled the pages out of the envelope, cut them up into more or less equal strips, then shook these up & put them in three enveloped marked A, B, C.


I next opened a blank document on my laptop & began pulling strips out of each envelope in turn, transcribing & improvising freely, wadding up the strip & throwing it in the trash when I had gotten what I wanted from it, which was mostly a jog sideways into another diction or realm of discourse. I wrote for a little over two hours pretty much non-stop. I have never written this way, though when I was younger I used to write & revise three or four poems over the course of an afternoon. When I ran out of steam I had four pages of irregular three-line stanzas with enough material yet to digest to fill another page or two. Is all this talk of quantity unseemly? Could be, but I make note of it here because my writing valves have been so restricted over the last decade–never shut off completely, but often slowed to a thin trickle. As for quality, I know when I have written well & today I wrote well.

I think what prompted this outpouring today was:

  1. Lots more time on my hands to read & write,
  2. a desperate situation.
  3. Last night I spent an hour making some notes on poems my friend A. had sent me for comment. A. is one of my oldest poetry friends–one of my oldest friends of any sort–and though she lives on the west coast, we had renewed our friendship a couple of years ago at a meeting in Seattle. Reading & responding to her poems put me back in our old undergraduate poetry workshop’s frame of mind: Write a lot & share fiercely. I have become much less fierce in subsequent decades, but what joy to just dig into a poem to see what you find.
  4. A new sense of optimism about my cancer–not a miracle cure, just some new insights on how to manage it, both mentally & physically. (More about this in a subsequent post.)

Making Art (A List of Six)

What’s the point of making the collages, the drawings, or the poems I work on sitting up in bed beside the window overlooking the river? Well, I have been making poems my entire adult life, even making a profession of it, though I would prefer that word be taken in the sense of profession of faith. (Full disclosure: I have made my living as a teacher of poetry.) And I have made little visual things almost as consistently. So, even though I am now limited by my disease, why shouldn’t I continue?

And yet, reader, you know what I mean–Now that the end of my life sooner rather than later is a real possibility, why bother with these trivialities? This is the question, in a bleak mood, with which I began the first draft of this post last week. Here is how I answer the question, as of the middle of June, 2016:

  1. It is what I have always done.
  2. It distracts me from the bleaker aspects of my situation.
  3. Other people have found them pleasing.
  4. For the poems: I have been working on a book for more than ten years that I should have finished long ago & I now feel a particular pressure to bring that project to a close.
  5. Who knows? Perhaps there will be another book after that–I’m writing fast these days.
  6. For the collages & drawings: I couldn’t really stop if there were a reason to.

Written on the Body?

For radiation therapy, the nurse & technician drew little targets with a pen on my abdomen & hip, then used those diagrams to write inside my body with radiation. The metaphor of writing (or, since Derrida, of inscribing) for these professional, routine physical actions feels in retrospect vitiated as well as pompous. Oh, he’s a professor—he can’t write about his treatment in plain terms. It’s not writing, then, though done with accuracy & precision. Both the pen strokes & the focusing & calibration of the photon beam.

The marker with which they drew the target left broad lines & was not cold to the touch during application. The mark, going on, felt slightly oily, not like an ordinary alcohol-based marker. Unlike the MRI, I felt nothing during the treatments themselves. (In the MRI I could actually feel warmth generated in my tissues as the magnets worked. The x-ray photons passed right through me–might as well have been neutrinos for all I could feel. But they had a noticeable effect on the tumor in the bone, shrinking it (I’m told) & thus relieving pressure & pain. My left hip is quite stiff but the back pain, especially while bending, has been reduced by ninety percent.


And here is a picture of the back pain itself. I drew it while lying on my back at night with the lights out, not looking at the pen or the paper, a day or two before the radiation treatments began. Tonight, perhaps, I’ll see if I can draw a picture of how that same area of my back feels now.


Pain drawing
Spine & Shoulder

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, much of it abstract, but also trying to get down the branchings of the trees I see while lying in bed & looking out the window. And just now I’m feeling my way toward the fundamental difference / similarity between drawing & writing. What I’m doing now, using a keyboard, is very obviously writing, but when I scrawl a note using a pencil (whether a line of poetry or a note when the pharmacist calls about how to take a new drug) that feels a little bit like drawing. And then of course there is drawing: I look out the window & try to capture the curve of a branch. What, then, of a drawing like the one above? Done without looking but trying to catch the phenomenon of a specific pain? And what was the nurse doing in making marks on which to line up a beam of high-energy photons? Her marks contained very precise information. Were they writing or drawing?

Finally, though we are far beyond the “picture theory” of language, even this writing done on a keyboard is a kind of drawing. I want you to see what I can barely see myself–for us to picture things together, with picture being a highly transitive & collaborative verb.

Necessary Limits

Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1

Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.

My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.

The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.

Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:

Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]

But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.

I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.

Show 1 footnote

  1. There are of course limitations that artists do not control, though they should be aware of them: economic conditions, certain forces of personal history, the politics of the state in which the artist lives / works, etc.

Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.



Show 1 footnote

  1. See “John Paul Sartre on Bad Faith,” Neel Burton, M.D. Psychology Today, 2012.