January 16, 2013

Does a Cow Go "Mu"?

An Interview with Buddhist Poet Dick Allen

Dick Allen is the current poet laureate of Connecticut, a position he’ll hold until 2015. Allen has studied Buddhism for over 50 years, since meeting Alan Watts one quiet autumn afternoon at Syracuse University, where Allen took the country’s first undergraduate credit course in Zen Buddhism in 1960. Allen is most drawn to “crazy Zen,” and many of his Buddhist poems are written, he says, to “Americanize Buddhism and Zen Buddhism through the use of American landscapes, American icons like Coca-Cola, and Apple computers placed alongside cloudy mountains and brooms sweeping Buddhist temple floors.”

Heavily influenced by the Cold Mountain poems of Han Shan, Allen is currently completing a 300-poem collection to be titled The Zen Master Poems, as well as a book-length epic poem, The Neykhor, based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. His poem, "After a heavy, clinging snow," appears in the current issue of Tricycle.


Dick AllenWhat about writing poetry, or being a poet, draws you to it? I’ve never really thought of myself as a poet per se, just as someone who writes poetry or someone through whom poetry is transmitted. But poetry itself? Its sounds draw me, its compressions, abilities to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I’m drawn to poetry’s ambiguity, by how poetry can touch many things at once. I’m fascinated by combinations of complexities and simplicities, computer shadows and pen strokes.

Or, to give a mundane explanation, writing poetry for the poet can be the same as the runner’s high is for the long-distance runner. When you’re writing poetry, you can begin to float as you enter a trance. Something else sobs. Or it whistles “They call the wind Maria” through you. You’re drinking Coca Cola at the same time you’re touching wildflowers and talking with river stones.

Both Buddhist practice and the reading and writing of poetry can function as powerful tools for honing the powers of observation. Buddhism, however, possesses an unmistakable ethical element. In your view, is ethics within the purview of poetry, or does it lie outside of its domain? Definitely, ethics is part and parcel of the best poetry. Even a poem that simply but mindfully describes a train whistle or a bowl of Cheerios makes an ethical statement: Pay Attention!  Different kinds of poetry—lyric, narrative, satirical, meditative—incorporate ethics in different ways.

Unfortunately, too often in the 21st century we mainly think of poetry as only lyric self-expression. We’re apt to forget or ignore that a great poem such as Robert Frost’s “Directive” (“Drink and be whole again beyond confusion”) or William Carlos Williams’ “Tract” (“I will teach you my townspeople / how to perform a funeral”) is ethical to the core.

A haiku has an ethical dimension. Ask the butterfly.

One of the things most admirable about your work is that in spite of being imbued with Buddhist thought, it more often than not eschews Buddhist rhetoric, and thereby remains fresh and, more importantly, effective. How do you hold Buddhist views without ever falling into truisms and coasting on platitudes? This may be where the cardinal “rule” of modern and contemporary poetry comes into play: Show, don’t tell. That is, the emphasis of late 20th century and early 21st century poetry is upon the object or image and what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” In such, a simple specific action image such as knocking on a door can connote an entire emotional state.

There are really only a very limited amount of themes in all literature (and in religion, too). But the best writers of each generation put them in fresh and vivid ways. These writers bring old truths out of their mossy graves while eschewing vampires.

If I succeed sometimes, it’s because the Buddhist foundation of my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs merge with my playings with language. You know how you may be listening to a dull Buddhist speaker going by rote through a litany of cherished beliefs (“cherished beliefs” is standard phrasing and should have hot water poured upon it)? Then she smiles and tells a personal story filled with herbal tea and touched with her delight in noticing a raindrop slide down a window pane in Cincinnati at the same time she’s also listening to her nephew playing a flute. You hear this personal anecdote, you straighten up on your red cushion, you listen. You see. At least your attention is gained until she falls back into dull language and expected admonitions. Fortunately, since most poetry is relatively short, a lyric or meditative poem has the advantage of being almost all herbal tea and raindrops and fingers on the holes of a flute.

It’s no accident that what we most often love and remember in Zen Buddhism are humorous stories or strange, even whimsical koans. And the most famous example in Buddhism of being specific is when, in that great sermon, Buddha smiles as he holds up a single flower. Show, don’t tell.

How might Buddhism, which has co-evolved with distinctive forms of poetry in various instances in its history, fit into American verse? It’s already well-fitted into our mainstream. The work of one of America’s leading former national Poet Laureates, W.S. Merwin, is very Buddhist. And there’s the poetry of Gary Snyder, Jane Hirshfield and Chase Twichell, among many others. Buddhism in American poetry has its foundations in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and even in Emily Dickinson’s acute seeing and feeling. Still, there’s a long ways to go in integrating Buddhism into the commercial and technological worlds that American contemporary poetry should try more to explore. I look for more of what’s called “Crazy Zen.” 

For instance, I think there are great possibilities of writing Zen odes, Zen sonnets, Zen elegies, Zen ballads, Zen villanelles, Zen sestinas, Zen rondeaus—merging Buddhist sensibilities and moments and mindfulness and even some Asian imagery with traditional, albeit loosened forms of Western poetry. One of the kinds of poems I’ve been writing in the last years is what I call “Chinese Menu Poems.” In them, I merge invented Chinese landscape painting titles and references with references to Chinese food and Buddhism. An example might be, “Looking with Calm at Mount Taishan while Sipping Egg-Drop Soup.”

I like a poem in which a computer sits alongside a small plume of incense blowing toward its screen. And on the wall above the computer there’s a calendar featuring Tara. Darkness dances outside. Someone walks down a fire escape while reciting, “Om mani padme hum.” 

What’s most important to me is how poetry, like Zen, can connote the irrational, the ineffable, the surreal, the words to communicate that true understanding just can’t be put into words. Or can it be?  Mu? Or, whimsically, does a cow go “Mu”?

Something you said in another interview—"Poetry as self-help therapy? Pah! Such a diminishment"—struck us because it's exactly the critique that some make of American Buddhism. We know what Buddhism can be if we resist the urge to diminish it to self-help therapy. What about poetry? What can it be? I know what you mean about Buddhism being diminished to its use as therapy. And I’ve heard poets accuse other poets of using Buddhism, expressly Zen Buddhism, as a fad or “ornamentation” or “California New Age mumbo-jumbo.” Sometimes this is true, but in the more serious poets and in ones who really have studied Buddhism or have been actively engaged in Buddhist practice, it’s not. As for poetry, I really believe it’s the highest genre of literature—there, I’ve said it—but only if it can find its way to once again create works other than the pervasive, narcissistic-confessional free verse lyric.

An example of a need for poetry other than the lyric confessional might be our searching for literary poems that speak to 9/11 and to tragedies such as the recent one in Newtown, Connecticut. There are too few modern and contemporary poems that deal well with large and emotion-fraught situations. A weakness in contemporary poetry is that it’s made “didactic” or truth-telling poetry something to scorn. Granted, this scorn was in reaction to Victorian morality; it mirrored distrust of the sacred so unforgettably expressed in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and that distrust of jingoistic slogans found in Wilfred Owens’ “Dulce et Decorum Est” (“The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori”). Serious poets also have learned to mock popular verse’s perpetual mawkish sentiment.

It turns out we learned to qualify everything, to say “almost” and “perhaps” and “it could be” and “it’s likely” and “maybe,” maybe too well. As befits the understandings of contemporary physics, Truth became statistical truth and never an absolute. Now, in the wake of wars and tragedies, we can’t seem to find our way back to fresh and vivid ways of saying, “Here I take my stand” and “This, I believe.”

One challenge I confront daily is how to show the Eightfold Path’s use without pushing it into an unwilling listener’s face. Chopsticks should be held far enough away from the body. However, the Four Noble Truths may be slurped.

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