More than words

Poetry to enrich your practice

Dan Zigmond


This book is not intended as an academic survey, although the introductions (one on Chinese poetry, the other on Japanese), as well as brief biographical notes on each poet, will be helpful to readers new to the material. Infused throughout the collection is the notion that poetry can be much more than a distraction from spiritual practice, and that reading it should not be merely a literary exercise. This is as much poetry frtr Zen as poetry of Zen. As Hamill puts it in the book's preface:

Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose....A good poem says more than the sum of its words, leading the reader into the practice of understanding the         great unsaid that is contained, framed in a poem's rhythms, words, and silences....All this makes poetry an excellent aid to practice.


Has anyone ever been enlightened by a piece of writing? The editors admit that "there are probably tens of thousands of readers of Zen books for everyone who has experienced Zen." Yet we are surrounded by more and more of these Zen books, from earnest manuals on how to meditate to stories and novels attempting a fictional rendering of our suffering and delusion. Poetry, however, strives for something more. Great poems, like many of those collected here, seem to transcend language, to attempt a depiction of an absolute reality beyond our everyday minds. As the poet Jane Hirshfield has written, "Poetry's work is the clarification and magnification of being." Consider this eighth-century verse, most likely by a monk writing under the name of Shih Te:

        My poems are poems;
        some people call them sermons.
        Well, poems and sermons share one thing:
        when you read them, you've got to be careful.
        Keep at it. Get into detail.
        Don't just claim they're easy.
        If you were to live your life like that,
        a lot of funny things might happen.

The Poetry of Zen is even more about Zen than it is about poetry. To paraphrase a verse by Li Po, China's illustrious eighth-century poet, these words live in the other world, one that lies beyond the human. While not every verse will appeal to every reader, there is much here on which to linger and reflect. This is a book to enrich our life and our practice, a collection that encourages us to be mindful, to keep at it. Read it, and sit.

Dan Zigmond is a contributing editor to Tricycle. He is a writer, software engineer, and Zen priest living in California.

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