Zen and Poetry
Can you comment on the place of “self” in this poem—or in your poetry in general—and how it might mediate the anger you express over our “poor stewardship of the planet”? Yes, the self is nothing but a broom going about the business of the moment, which happens, after the work is done, to be cleaning up. I was trying to get at the surprising realization that the poems write themselves; they use the self—by which I mean the poet’s consciousness—as a door to the world. This sounds like hocus-pocus, I know, but if you think about it, who writes the poems? The self that’s constantly mutating? Did “I” write the poems that “I” wrote twenty years ago? I certainly couldn’t write them now. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the first-person pronoun in this context. From the conventional vantage point of the song lyric, it’s a tricky part of speech because it carries the assumption of one kind of intimacy, that of the personal confidence, or confession. I think that’s why so many people assume that poetry is personal expression; in our culture, the first-person pronoun invites that reading. But I was interested in quite another kind of intimacy. When the self in a poem is seen as a door and not as the room to which the door leads, the relation between self and world is radically changed. The “I” becomes like a leaf floating down a stream. It’s not a repository for the world, nor the source of its resonance or meaning. It’s just a leaf floating, just a broom sweeping.
As for my rage about the decimation of Eden: I used to see myself as a good guy fighting the bad guys (corporate greed, corrupt governments). But guess what? The bad guys turned out to be anger, ignorance, and greed, of which I am full. So whom was I fighting? All of humanity, including myself? One line I wrote, before I figured this out, was “If humanity’s the enemy, the enemy is me.” Well, duh! So my cells are part Eden and part destroyer, the whole shebang. Anger has a hard time getting a grip on that.
It’s said that there’s nothing to learn in zazen, and therefore nothing to teach. Does the same apply to writing and teaching poetry? As soon as one begins to categorize the experience of zazen, it slips out of the net. Zen says that we are already buddhas, we just don’t realize it. Realization is seeing what’s there rather than the innumerable scrims with which we overlay it. I try to pry poetry students loose from their notions of what a poem should be, and suggest instead that they regard each poem as a chance to trick themselves into a new perception. Students at Princeton, who can be very disciplined and goal oriented, are often uncomfortable at first with the intellectual and emotional lawlessness this notion presents. Yes, they say, but what do you want us to write about? And I say, what are you wondering about? What do you want to know that you don’t know? After a while, I actually have to take the opposite stance and try to rein them in a little, but at the beginning that’s what the work is about. I want them to be more interested in the process of writing than in its products. When Picasso was asked which of all his many works—paintings, sculptures, pottery, drawings—was his favorite, he said, “The next one.”
Imaginary Dokusan: Perfume
by Chase Twichell
Crushed lime halves in the sink,
a wood match's sweet-acrid strike...
I keep looking for things with a beauty
that's not incidental, but have found none.
Because of this, the difference between sensuality
and being fully awake in the moment
is often unclear to me, for example
the sun's smell of ripening
even in things still immature—
which of the two pleasure is that?
"Imaginary Dokusan: Perfume," originally published in The Snow Watcher, © 1998 by Chase Twichell.
Reprinted with permission of Ontario Review Press.
Images: © Emma Dodge Hanson