The topic of the interaction between Buddhism and modern poetry is a vast one, involving as it does several continents, and a huge variety of different approaches to writing. However, we can make a useful start by observing that it is in North America that the influence of Buddhism on literature has gone furthest and deepest. In fact it would not be going too far to say that the ‘Oriental Renaissance’ foreseen by the 19th Century Romantic thinker Friedrich Schlegel, as a result of the discovery of Eastern literature, is budding if not blossoming on North American soil.
Meanwhile, over here in Europe the promised Renaissance, if it has begun at all, is much less obvious. There are many reasons for this, but in many ways the turning point was the poet Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese classical poems, which turned American literature towards the East from the time of the First World War onwards.
Much, much later, in the melting pot of nineteen-sixties New York, we find the likes of John Cage, and the movement of Zen-influenced minimalism and Expressionism in which art becomes gesture, or silence – language as a non conceptual ‘happening’, image as pure marks on the paper – freed from all restraints of cultural reference.
Between these two points a profound transformation of values took place, one which continues to this day. The aim of this essay will be to give an overview of the main streams of influence within this cultural ‘turning about’.
In thinking about modern Buddhist poetry, the San Francisco Beats, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac naturally spring to mind. They have become, to their detriment perhaps, cultural icons; but they were and are hugely significant, the first modern poets who actually took up the practice of Buddhism and wrote out of that experience.
However, neither the Beats, nor the San Francisco Renaissance which took place around them, would have happened without the pioneering work of Ezra Pound. So to begin this survey I will look briefly at Pound and his influence on modern poetry in America, something it would be hard to underestimate.
Pound was born in 1885 in Idaho, USA. By 1908 he was in London and soaking in the neo-Romantic occultism which saturated the Avant-Garde at that time. During the First World War, Pound and that arch-poetic occultist, W. B. Yeats, lived together at Stone Cottage in Sussex. To pass the time they studied Japanese Noh plays, and also the works of Ernest Fenollosa, whose work on Chinese linguistics fascinated Pound. He began to have a strong sense that there was something in these ancient cultures that could provide a way out of the decorative, emotionally facile decadence into which he felt modern literature had fallen.
This bore fruit in 1915 with the publication of Cathay, a sequence of poems based on Fenellosa’s notebook-jottings on the work of the Tang Dysnasty poet Li Po. How much relation Pound’s versions bore to Li Po is still a matter of debate, but what is certain is that this effort fed directly into instigation of the Imagist Movement by Pound, Aldington, Rose Flint and HD with their famous three principles:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
Pound’s note on imagism in the Chicago magazine Poetry opened with a definition of an image as that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. The image was to convey a world of meaning. The method favoured was that two or more juxtaposed images, with no direct connection, would catalyse an intuitive perceptual leap across the pause or boundary between them. The phrasing would be fresh, natural, apparently spontaneous, not too far from ordinary speech.
These notions shows strong traces of the poetics of the Tang dynasty poets such as Li Po, who if not necessarily Buddhist themselves were strongly influenced by a mixture of Taoist and Chan principles. In their work that intuitive leap, and the fresh, spontaneous phrasing by which it is communicated, are above all concerned with a non-conceptual glimpse of the true nature of things – the ‘unborn’ of Buddhism or the Tao. This is also clearly a vital element in the aesthetics of the Zen Haiku form of Japan.
To what degree Pound (who favoured Confucianism) saw the full ramifications of what he had discovered is not entirely clear, but certainly some sense of this ‘glimpse of the essence’ comes through in his beautiful translations.
It is a little hard now, perhaps, to imagine how fresh and radical this approach seemed at the time, how it was able to blow away the stale cadences of late Romanticism and bring new life and energy to literature. We can get some idea by looking at one of Pound’s versions in Cathay:
Blue mountains to the North of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go through a thousand miles of dead grass.
Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances.
The mood is not so different from Robert Burns, is it? The parting of old friends is a universal theme, but nothing in Romantic literature or before compares with that fresh, unimpeded movement from one simple, crystallised image to the next, nor the likening of the entire mind/heart to one unadorned, naked image – the floating cloud.
Imagism, despite the short life of the original movement, went on to influence deeply the course of modernist poetry in America. Over in Europe Pound soon turned away from imagist purity towards the huge erudition of his Cantos, in which swathes of translation and complex imagery are spliced together in a grand anti-narrative. Here (as in Eliot’s Wasteland) things Eastern jostle with many other influences and play their part in suggesting that all is not lost in the ‘heap of broken images’.
However, in America after the First World War, William Carlos Williams was forging a sparse, pared-down modernist style which owed much more to the original Imagist collections. Williams’ work is hugely significant in terms of future developments in American poetry. His famous Red Wheelbarrow poem presents a barrow covered in raindrops simply as itself, with no comment other than ‘look!’:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This simple, bold poem is a useful symbol of the parting of the ways between European and American modernism. There are no garden implements, red or otherwise, in The Wasteland. Nor do we find in Eliot William’s willingness to construct a poem out of plain, pithy, apparently non-poetic language, close to how an educated American would have spoken at that time. Think of William’s famous poem in which he eats the plums in the fridge and writes a note for his wife to apologise – it is both completely ordinary and deeply poetic at the same time: ‘forgive me, they were / so sweet and so cold.’
To my mind this poem celebrating an absence which is charged with presence has a touch of Zen about it. Although Williams knew little of Buddhism he took Pound’s example seriously, and something was carried across from the Tang Dynasty poets.
After the era of Williams and Pound there is then a strong line of influence in the USA to Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivist poets of the thirties. This then goes onwards to both the Beats in San Francisco and the poets associated with the famous Black Mountain college of the arts in the fifties, notably Robert Duncan, Robert Creely and Charles Olson.
And here the story comes full circle in a sense, for both the Beats and the associated Black Mountain poets went back to the roots of the Imagist poetics and began to study the writings of Zen and Chan masters, as well as in some cases an eclectic mix of Western occultism.
Back in the thirties the more down-to-earth Zukofsky developed the Imagist lineage by putting emphasis on detail, image and thought, including political thought, combined with a vernacular diction: “Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody”.
Although few have heard of him this side of the Atlantic, in America Zukofsky was tremendously influential on a whole generation of poets from the sixties and seventies, including John Cage, Denise Levertov and also the Language School.
So I think it is clear from this survey, brief though it may have been, that without a vital impulse from the poetry of the far East, which was thoroughly steeped in Chan and Taoist notions of poetry as a Way, or path to spiritual freedom, modern poetry as we know it would not exist.
An intriguing line of enquiry is to ask why the far Eastern / Imagist strand was downplayed in the British Isles, while it did so well on American soil. A strong factor was certainly what W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece and co. were up to in the thirties. Like Zukofsky, they wished to bring in a kind of vernacular erudition which allowed for a full range of political concerns. However, in place of the emphasis in the ‘thing in itself’ we find an anxious, highly wrought formalism which disdained the free flowing and spontaneous.
Then in the fifties, in the trend usually known simply as The Movement, Philip Larkin and many others came to the fore. Drawing on the native English tradition of bleak but homely ruralism stemming from Thomas Hardy, they favoured a poetry of quotidian hopes and disillusions involving a sophisticated updating of traditional lyrical forms.
No doubt this earthy lyricism, in which the flow of imagery is always woven into some kind of narrative of the self, was and is one of the great strengths of English poetry (think, for example, of the new Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy), but it did not provide fertile ground for any influence from far Eastern poetics, still less Eastern philosophy.
Modernism with a demotic flavour, which might be open to American influence, did not really arrive in the UK until the sixties. The best known figures were Michael Horovitz and Christopher Logue, who took part with Ginsberg and Co. in the famously wild Poetry Happening in the Albert Hall in 1965. The Beats were much discussed, but Jazz, booze and utopian socialism with a Blakean flavour were much more emphasised than Buddhism or meditation.
Since then British experimental poetry, such as that of J. H. Prynne in Cambridge, has generally been concerned with highly abstruse Language poetry – philosophical perhaps, but strangely uninterested in the Eastern roots of modernism.
However, in the last ten years or so, poetry with Buddhist influence has emerged in more mainstream circles. The highly regarded contemporary Scottish poet John Burnside, along with Spanish influences, has a flavour of both Zen poetry and Taoism in his concentrated, rather mystical nature lyrics.
Also based in St Andrews is that poet of quotidian revelation, Don Patterson, who declares himself a ‘spiritual materialist’ but betrays his experience of Buddhist meditation here and there in his work, especially in the long poems of erotic dream-reverie.
There are a number of lesser known but talented Buddhist poets currently at work in England, and a Buddhist anthology ‘The Heart as Origami’ was published recently. In Manchester Grevel Lindop is working on a long poem about the life of the Buddha. The Bristol poets David Keefe and Stephen Parr have been running Buddhist-inspired writing workshops for over ten years now, and Parr has written a modernist-style sequence ‘Tantris’, with strong Buddhist imagery, set in the ruined Docklands of East London.
Nevertheless, since the sixties American Buddhist poets have, thanks to the Beats, been blessed with much greater cultural credibility. There have been two major anthologies of American Buddhist poetry from the last three decades. Back in the eighties the anthology Beneath a Single Moon was published by Shambala. Then a few years ago we had The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry.
From these one gets a broad impression of Dharma poetry in North America: exuberant, often playful and spontaneous, experiential and colloquial. Its strengths are sincerity and abundant energy. To someone who loves English poetry, with its self deprecating wit and narrative lucidity, American Buddhist poetry may seem very loose, expressionistic and lacking in conceptual tension. However, there is certainly also some very fine, fresh writing being produced.
The rest of this talk, therefore, will consist of a brief look at three living American poets. Between them they illustrate what I see as the three main strands of Buddhist poetry since the fifties. These three are Jane Hirshfield, Robert Kelly and Diana Di Prima. They represent respectively what I call the reflective Zen strand, the Black-Mountain modernist strand, and the Beatific-Visionary strand.
Diana Di Prima was born in New York in 1934. She is known as the most prominent female poet who came to be associated with the original San Francisco Beats. In their milieu the ideas of Pound, Eastern poetics and Buddhist meditation were very much in the air, as well as, of course, copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t at all easy to be a woman on this wild and rough scene; in fact it wasn’t easy to be a poetic, sensitive male either.
It was out of this struggle to be alive and in tune with modern America, yet open to the spiritual, that Ginsberg’s Beat-epic Howl and Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity were written. They are both exuberant modern prophecies which blend the mythos of Mahayana Buddhism, with its golden Buddhas and interlacing beams of light, with the poets’ very modern concerns for a reformed, visionary America.
Kerouac was the more mystical of the two: in his work, golden Buddhas really do abound as he attempts to wrestle with his demons and combine his love of the Dharma with the Catholicism of his youth.
Ginsberg was more gritty and sensual, with a Blakean touch – as this excerpt from the Sunflower Sutra section of Howl, set in a railway stockyard, illustrates:
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery…
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust –
…So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter, and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
– We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset…
Ginsberg was in fact the major 20th century inheritor of Whitman’s ecstatic self-mythologising lyricism. Like William Carlos Williams he mimics the speech of his time, but this is the speech of an extroverted, Jewish Bohemian, who has worked himself up into a state of visionary prophecy. It is speech for a deranged, restlessly energetic century, wild yet urbanised, ecstatic but full of dark fears. Quintessentially American.
Many since have imitated Ginsberg’s gritty, confessional, self-dramatising voice: it has become the hall-mark of everything that is anti-formalist in American letters, but very few of his successors have risen to his prophetic intensity.
Di Prima was one of the few who attempted it – in her own earthy way. Her major work is an epic poem in 16 parts, Loba, first published in 1978. ‘Loba’ is Spanish for ‘she wolf’. Around this central elemental image Di Prima arranges a huge range of archetypal figures, mixed in with gritty snapshots of urban life. The figures evoked include Kali, Shiva, Hermes and the Buddha; there is an alchemical flavour, but the main point it is simply to evoke liberated feminine energy, untrammelled by monotheistic structures:
Who will describe the triumph streaming
out of her pelt, the symphonies
wind carried to her fine nose?
Her walk, graceful but never feline,
shoulders moving as she strode
through undergrowth, dew from the ferns,
wet her tits, her short, clear barks?
And if she bends, eternally, at tables
at wood tables in factories, fashioning
crosses of silver…
Here the she-wolf is both emissary of the wild and symbol of oppression, caged in a factory, making religious artefacts. Perhaps Loba has not aged so well as Ginsberg’s Howl. Di Prima was not able, single-handed, to forge a continuing tradition of modern Buddhist-prophecies, but this probably says as much about the culture around her as it does about her own poetic talents.
The Buddhist modernist Robert Kelly also has occult influences in his work, but his writing is a world away from Di Prima’s. Playful and formally inventive, he eschews self mythologizing. Kelly was born in 1935 and educated in New York. Since 1982 he has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism under Kalu Rinpoche. He says that ‘a poem is a nest of sounded deeds’, which is a fine way of expressing the Buddhist concept of wise, selfless action in the field of literature (from his introduction in The Wisdom Anthology).
As a young man Kelly came under the influence of the Black Mountain poets Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. In them he found a way of, as he puts it, keeping a ‘lifeline with the old music [i.e. the magic of Milton and Coleridge] while cutting free of its habits of diminished attention. I wanted to see as vividly as haiku but cast a musical spell like a Druid.’ (From an interview for the Modern Review on his personal web site).
The Black Mountain poets differed from their friends the Beats in terms of their strong interest in techniques of playing with the structure of language, and attempting to lay bare, especially in the case of Robert Duncan, its hidden, occult energies. Very much taken on from Pound was a concern with the musical structure of each ‘breathable phrase’ of a poem. This is much closer to a pithy but musical prose style than conventional metrical structure.
Here is the start of a poem by Kelly which illustrates this:
is what I am about, the verso,
the other side that means
the thing that pierces through
changing the condition of the other it beholds
changing the beholding.
O’s lying on their sides
eggs or eyes
to see through
the crack of vision
into the new world
the old one just out of sight
around the corner
of your shoulder
your tender upper arm.
Oriental sapphire our primal sky,
color that renews the eyes
We find here many twists and shears which defy the usual expectations of syntax. For example: ‘The other side’ demands a noun, ‘the other side of’… something, but instead it gets ‘that means’. It’s referring to magic and poetry – the verso – magic is the other side, as a deep symbol, the side that means not a particular meaning, but the quality of meaning in general.
This is playful and cerebral in a way, but unlike the post-modern Language poets, the games are being used to point to a visionary or occult sense of some hidden structure underneath the surface play, ‘the crack of vision into the new world’.
Kelly, who has published over thirty collections to date, is rather like the grand old man of Buddhist modernism. More recently quite a few younger Buddhist writers have picked up on related kinds of experimental formalism. For example, the light, spontaneous and expressionistic ‘stream of ideas’ writing of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and the New York school has influenced such writers as Norman Fisher and Philip Whalen, both of whom are Zen priests.
‘Let us eat sandwiches / A solo for Flugelhorn / Abysmal Dante rise again!’ declares Whalen in his 1983 poem ‘For Sunko Enjo’. Here the stream of influence from the Classicist Pound has been joined by a somewhat surreal, expressionist Zen of the kind championed by John Cage, in which each phrase is a gesture or event in itself, with no objective reference.
To what extent this is really Zen is debatable. But such ideas were certainly part of what gave rise to the Expressionist movement in painting and literature in New York in the sixties. In this brashly-sensual, cosmopolitan movement (think of De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ashbery and many others) the Buddhist influence is rather diluted, but Whalen and other younger poets have taken Expressionism and its later developments back to their source.
For example, poets such as Leslie Scalapino have picked up on the ideas of the American Language school but used their foregrounding of Language structures and dislocation of meaning (much more extreme than the methods of Kelly and Duncan) to convey meditative states.
However, many non-Buddhist poets have also written in similar styles. It is only in our third stream, of reflective Zen inspired nature poetry, that one could say a definitely Buddhist style has been moulded and continues to be developed.
This articulation of a style was greatly assisted by the fact that a Buddhist tradition of nature poetry was available from the East. From the forties onwards Rexroth, Snyder and a few other pioneers had studied in some depth Chinese and Japanese originals. Snyder was never greatly concerned with formal techniques. From the Chinese masters, especially Han Shan, he took up the idea of being a wilderness poet, someone who sets down, with as much spontaneous sincerity as the moment demands, his experience of being a human being, Out There, away from the distractions of civilisation.
And Snyder, of course, often really did go off into the mountains to write and to practice Zen meditation. Furthermore, he has been able to influence and guide a whole generation of poets, Buddhists, or those very sympathetic to Zen and Taoism, who have written in similarly sparse and pared down styles – poets who have attempted to ‘tell it as it is’ when someone faces the elemental facts of existence in solitude.
Perhaps the most accomplished of those writing at the moment are Chase Twitchell and Jane Hirshfield. But there are many others such as Sam Hamill, also well known for his translations of Japanese poetry, and Joanne Kyger who was Snyder’s partner for some years. Of these, Twitchell (a poet of glittering encounters with the dark forces of self and nature) is notable for the grit and emotional honesty of her writing, though she is not as down to earth and engaged as Snyder, who after all was a forester and an eco-activist as well as a poet.
I will focus here on Hirshfield. Born in New York City in 1953, she has been a Buddhist for many years and has studied at the San Francisco Zen Center. Like Snyder, she has translated Japanese poetry. Her language is noted for its clean transparency but also for its ability to build up, out of very simple elements, a complex metaphysical probing. In this she is unique amongst the Zen poets of the West Coast. She has lived in the wilderness, but there is also a charming and rather mysterious domestic quality in much of her work. I choose these two stanzas more or less at random from her Selected Poems:
What appears to be stubbornness,
refusal, or interruption,
is to it a simple privacy. It broods
its one thought like a quail her clutch of eggs.
Mosses and lichens
listen outside the locked door.
Stars turn the length of one winter, then the next.
There is a deceptive simplicity here. Hirshfield’s work invites reflection and self-examination. An ethical quality shines through; a sense of balance, of possibilities and responsibilities. To a devotee of the Beats, or for that matter of Ashbery and O’Hara, her work might seem a little drab or even preachy. To those who love her work, they are quietly illuminating poems of the Path. Passion and sensuality are not pushed away, but they are to be reflected on, not expressed in the raw.
There is little more to say. I have avoided being partisan for the most part here. But it is probably clear by now that I believe that the related, though very individual talents of Hirshfield, Snyder and Co. represent the deepest and strongest current in American Buddhist letters. It is one that any objective account of American poetry in the last fifty years would have to include as a major force. They and their associates have articulated a genuinely inspired wilderness poetry, in which a Buddhist view of the fleeting, self-arising thus-ness of things is of paramount importance.
Or, to use more Western language for a moment: they have discovered a modern route to the sacred, one which is non-doctrinal, deeply earthed, and of great relevance to a century which faces ecological peril and religious dogmatism as never before.
Ratnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson) is the editor of Urthona Buddhist arts magazine. He is a poet and freelance writer in the area of art and the evolution of consciousness. He loves Bach, Vaughn Williams, Gothic architecture and the wild places of England. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
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