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Zen poetry is everything you might expect it to be, and less. An interview with Seido Ray Ronci.
Why is metaphor, part of the bedrock of Western poetry, absent in most Zen poems? I think metaphor is the bedrock of Western poetry because we’re never satisfied by what just is. This is why nonpractitioners often regard Zen poetry as trivial or overly simplistic. We love to complicate things, and we take delight in our imaginations and our creativity. Metaphor carries us over to another understanding; but that suggests that our present understanding is insufficient, doesn’t it? This is why people have such difficulty with koans. In the search for “understanding,” the mind grapples with ideas. And yet it’s only when ideas are exhausted that any breakthrough can occur. I’m a great fan of metaphors, as any poet or reader of poetry is bound to be. But from a Zen point of view, I think it helps to remember that metaphor can also be like putting a head on top of your head. Isn’t one enough?
I’m reluctant to say that Zen poetry doesn’t rely on metaphor—that seems too broad a statement. But usually the thing itself is sufficient, and it resonates in a profound way. There is a Buson poem that goes something like this: “The piercing chill I feel / my dead wife’s comb / under my heel.” What more do you need? The roaring resonance of such a poem occurs in the belly, not in the brain. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not putting down metaphor. But where do metaphors come from? In a word: thinking.
I want to go back to the problem of nonpractitioners finding Zen poetry “trivial or overly simplistic.” Do you believe that only a zazen-trained mind can fully apprehend a Zen poem? People often mistake profound subtlety for simplicity, and often equate simplicity with triviality. So a poem like the early-nineteenth-century poet Issa’s “Farmer / pointing the Way / with a radish” tends to get glossed over or ignored. I guess it’s not imperative that a person need be a practitioner to appreciate a Zen poem, but it sure helps. Why? Because one learns through zazen that enough is enough. The untrained mind starts to ruminate: What farmer? An old farmer, a young farmer? What does he farm? What “Way” is he pointing out? To whom?
Are Zen poems written for a different purpose than other poems? I’m inclined to think that Zen poetry does indeed have a unique function. The Zen poem, as I see it, functions much like the koan—it is just a point of departure. The reader is eliminated, the ego drops, and what’s left is just the farmer pointing the way with a radish. For most readers, this is not enough.