Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Opening the Gates...

I've been reading Jane Hirshfield's remarkable book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She is one of my favorite poets and the Buddhist spirituality that lies beneath so much of her work really resonates for me right now.

I don't claim to be a poet, and yet I have written poetry mostly to help open some of my own gates, to make me a better writer. There is something writing poetry does to you, if you are willing to plumb the depths, go to the depths fearlessly, or, if with fear, bravely, to see what you find there. The poetry that changes everything is the poetry that does what Buddhism invites us to do: it looks deeply. And, as Thich Nhat Hanh has written, "Looking deeply requires courage."

The poet must have courage.

We are swimming in this!
In his book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, he writes, "Everything in the cosmos is the object of our perception, and, as such, it does not exist only outside us but also within us...Because of the nature of our mindfulness, our deep looking, the nature of the cosmos will reveal itself. It is not a matter of imposing our ideas on the nature of the cosmos." And, he says, "it wakes us up to what's happening."

If poetry does this, if any work of art does this, it can become quite dangerous. If we get underneath all the manufactured falseness of the reality we have created, the foundations of the world begin to crack. We begin to get very impatient with the superficiality of life, with the small role we in this culture have been given - to consume, to purchase things, to participate in the market, so that the market can organize and run the world, keep the economic machine in which we all live functioning.

No wonder poetry and fine arts have so little place in that world. They reveal it to itself. At times they rip it to shreds. At its best, we begin to 'see,' and when that happens, depression, dissatisfaction, hidden longings for deep meaning and deep living, long repressed, begin to come to the surface. That unsettles things.

"To look closely with the attention of questioning changes everything," writes Hirshfield. "It is, if undertaken fully, revolutionary."

I have found that the practice of writing poetry opens spaces within the subconscious and unconscious mind that can be more than a bit unsettling, even terrifying, as well as vivid, vibrant, and more alive than any other sort of spiritual search. It's right up there with standing all alone on top of a mountain, arms open to the vastness all around one, or throwing dirt on top of the casket lowered into the grave that holds a loved one, or waking in the morning to the lover next to you, or watching that lover drive off and away from your life forever...

It wakes up all sorts of stuff...a lot of stuff we buried for a reason, often because this deep looking just makes it too hard to continue living in this harsh, deadening world of ours.

Which is why more people should read and write poetry. We need to awaken from the dead.

"The activity of poetry is to tell us we must change our lives," writes Hirshfield. "It does this by posing again and again a question that cannot be answered except with our whole being - body, speech, and mind. What is the nature of this moment? poetry asks, and we have no rest until the question is answered. Then it is asked again..."

Walk through...
That's not what we are looking for in this culture. We want the final answer. We want that in religion, in affluence, in life savings accounts, in relationships, in military power, in our work, in our identity politics, in the racism that has again reared its ugly head, and in our endless consumption of things, the manufacturing and marketing of which becomes the only thing we can think of to put people to work so that they can be the good consumers such a world needs them to be. And then we want all that to reach some point of stability that makes the future safe and secure.

The world, the cosmos of which we are a part, like it or not, doesn't work that way and cannot be tamed that way.

To live in the chaos of questions never answered, or in certainties that never come, in searches for meaning that never resolve themselves - this is feared here in the U.S. of A. It implies terrifying impermanence, and implied in impermanence is what we fear most: our mortality and the mortality of all that is. And so we manifest the reality of this unending ferment in our constant restlessness, dissatisfaction with what we have, our enclave way of life, the way we run from diversity and complexity into made-up certainties that satisfy - nothing.

The role of poetry being, then, to tell us that we must change our lives, to become fully revolutionary - not in the small political sense, but in the far larger immensity of that great unfolding in which we all participate, like it or not. If we don't allow ourselves to go to the depths to find what is hidden there and what we have repressed, to find the deeper wisdom in all that is, it's not as if that goes away; it seethes.

In such a world, poetry ought to put us in touch with that seething.

To my great surprise, I will have three poems published this fall in our state poetry journal, Verse Wisconsin. My writers critique group tells me that since I write poetry I am a poet. This surprises me even more. I intend to keep plumbing the depths.


Photo credits: 
Center of our Galaxy - Spitzer Telescope NASA JPL Caltech, Susan Stolovy (SSCCaltech)
Margaret Swedish, on a foggy day

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