Friday, November 1, 2013

What Are Words Worth?

William Wordsworth, along with Samuel Coleridge, changed the landscape of Poetry during the 18th Century in England.

Heady times were afoot, both in England and abroad. The philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Burke et al were challenging both the Rationalism and Empiricism that had been championed in the Enlightenment (quite different from the Buddhist concept of “buddha”) of the preceding centuries following the Italian Renaissance from the so-called “Dark Ages” of ignorance.

Wordsworth, oft associated with the Lake District of England, was a harbinger of the movement that would nominally be called “Romanticism.” Nominally in the fact that those involved in said movement, specifically the German polymath Goethe, refused such nomenclature and taxonomy for what they were doing.

The limits of Reason and Logic were beginning to become quite a fly in the ointment of Man as the Measure of all things…Nature seems, as Parmenides was wont to say, to have more things up her sleeve than our feeble minds are able to either perceive, much less conceive of due to our limiting nature of prejudices and a lack of adequate language for describing the “Truth” of reality.

Poets and writers and artists of the so-called Romanticism era came to embrace the unfathomable of Infinity and the Sublime. In other words, one can either become paralyzed by the thought that we cannot truly know something “as it truly is,” or more disturbingly, communication between people is inherently flawed. Language fails us. Words are arbitrary.

Wordsworth’s most famous work is perhaps “The Prelude,” in which he goes down memory lane to some extent and reflects upon a life of reflection.

In the section named “Books,” the poet relates a dream that he has had in which a mysterious, nameless Bedouin Arab appears:

A lance he bore, and underneath one arm
A stone, and in the opposite hand a shell
Of a surpassing brightness. At the sight
Much I rejoiced, not doubting but a guide
Was present, one who with unerring skill
Would through the desert lead me; and while yet
I looked and looked, self-questioned, what this freight
Which the new-comer carried through the waste
Could mean, the Arab told me that the stone
(To give it in the language of the dream)
Was “Euclid’s Elments”; and “This,” said he,
“Is something of more worth”; and at the word
Stretched forth the shell, so beautiful in shape,
In colour so resplendent, with command
That I should hold it to my ear. I did so,
And heard that instant in an unknown tongue,
Which yet I understood, articulate sounds,
A loud prophetic blast of harmony;
An Ode, in passion uttered, which foretold
Destruction to the children of the earth
By deluge, now at hand. …

Traditional logic and reason may serve us with textbooks and making good grades, and at best, describing the world as we experience it, but, as with the unknown tongue of the seashell, there is much that we do not know, or fail to understand if it is provided in a means other than language.

Humans seem to tirelessly stem the tide of the Ocean with words, and yet, Nature has something to tell us, but it is not necessarily in the form of words, and names, and grammar.

But, are we listening?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Foolishly Wise

Last evening, I was able to attend a very special performance.

The Japanese man of Zen Renaissance, Kazuaki Tanahashi, aka Kaz, has recently finished a translation and introduction of the poems and life of Ryokan Taigu, a Zen Master Calligrapher and Poet (1758-1831), which is published by Shambala publications out of Boston, under the title of Sky Above, Great Wind, the title being derived from four ideograms that Ryokan once drew upon a child’s kite. Ryokan is somewhat of a folk hero in parts of Japan and is known for his playfulness, naïveté (perhaps in the manner of Socratic irony…) and unconventional approaches to life, signature characteristics of the more colorful characters in Zen lore.

A long-time friend and collaborator and sensei of the Antwerp Zen Dojo, Luc De Winter, a celebrated Flemish composer, set the poems to music with his original score. Further repeat collaborations with Els Mondelaers (mezzo) and Veerle Peeters (piano) resulted in what became last evening’s performance Songs From Five Scoop Hut, which refers to the five scoops of rice that from local legend was the ration of rice for a monk who had once lived in the hut that Ryokan inhabited on Mt. Kugami.

The result was quite intriguing, at times haunting and melancholy, at other times playful and enthusiastic, echoing the austere meditation of Ryokan complemented by his playful social aspect. Unlike many monastic traditions, in Zen, one is not to abandon the market place, but rather, to remain engaged (though perhaps with disinterest—not to be confused with apathy) with the world around you. Ryokan was a staple figure in the nearby town. His funeral was attended by many luminaries and admirers. He was a beloved part of the community, beyond the solitude of his simple hut dwelling.

The poems are, as Ryokan proclaimed, not “academic,” in the sense that they do not adhere to a system of poetics. For lack of a better word, they are free verse. They range from a simple stanza to slightly longer, expository poems. I was quite reminded of Robert Frost.

Out of respect for recent copyright and the hopes that this post may by the impetus for people to go out and get the full book, I will refrain from quoting a poem in full here.

Instead, I want to touch on two aspects that really spoke to me last night as I read his poems and listened to the performance.

One is from a poem, which talks about the fact that although each season has the moon, we are often most drawn to it in Autumn. The moon figures heavily in Zen stories and meditation, and one of the first images from Zen that I latched onto was the title of Kaz’s book about the writings of another well-known Zen figure, Dogen, which is called moon in a dewdrop, which I believe was the first book I got on Zen nearly 30 years ago. It reminded me of the William Blake image from “Auguries of Innocence,” which I chose for the theme of the blog I have written for my daughter. As such, the Ryokan’s poem talks about how there are “many” moons, though there is in fact, only one. It is the relative perspective that we all bring to something that gives the illusion that there are in fact more than moon, though the reality is quite the opposite. Even the distinction between the New Moon and the Full Moon is spurious at the core.

The other conceit that took hold of me was a poem that in essence is an extended paradox. It challenges us to reconsider what we hold as true today as perhaps being contradictory that which we believed yesterday, and vice versa. Furthermore, those who are too foolish will root themselves in their foolish pride and not adapt to the vicissitudes of life, and yet those too wise will continue to wander around, mired in self-inflicted Mind Games, both of them being incapable of finding the Way.

The final line of the performance last night was from a very brief poem, which concluded with,

“I am awake, as are all things in the world.”


Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Nondependence of Mind

This weekend I had the Honor and Joy of meeting Kazuaki Tanahashi, or simply Kaz, as he is known around the world.

I had not realized when I signed up for the workshop I participated in this weekend that this "Kaz" was the same person whom I have had several books on my bookshelves about zen for some 20 years. I have been reading his words and admiring his artwork, and then only the second day of the workshop did I realize who he was. Why? Because despite being a world-renowned artist and vastly published author, translator and editor, Kaz is incredibly humble, giving and sincere. He taught us the rudiments of ancient Chinese/Japanese calligraphy, joined us in zazen meditation, ate with us, and most importantly, reminded us to laugh and to smile.

When I got home, I went for the first book of his I ever got, (of course, without knowing him), called moon in a dewdrop, which is a collection of essays by and about the eminent zen monk, Dogen from the 13th Century. In addition to the prose that Kaz translated and commented upon, there are a few poems in the back.

It would betray the nature of zen to explain/comment upon them, so, he did not. In addition, neither will I, but merely let it be...

"On Nondependence of Mind"

Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's the End of the World

REM hit the world stage with ironically "It's the End of the World (and I feel Fine)" as one of their biggest hits, albeit in my mind, one of the least deserving as such. 

It is strange what makes one popular and what makes one obscure. One such obscure poet is Robinson Jeffers, a naturalist and rather man of solitude, two things I can surely relate to in my life. 

There is also a line in a lesser-known REM song when Michael Stipes sings "when I was young I spirited a rattlesnake," which to anyone not from the South or Southwest sounds odd, but being a child of New Mexico, this sounds perfectly normal to me. To spirit an animal is to become one with it, or for it to become you. I get that. I get that about a rattlesnake. Being here in Europe, and listening to those lyrics again, it sounds so distant, almost made up, fantasy-like. But, when I was living in India, this would have been so visceral, so cogent to my daily existence. 

Europe is cold. Europe is very stale and full of BMW's as the standard of life. It is like the 80's of America. There is a false sense of superiority here as well that really grinds on one's nerves. 

There is that same sense of superiority that Jeffers' must have felt...that we are above Time...and yet, we are not. A fancy car and a cushy job with 35 days of holiday is not the ultimate goal of life. I have been asked several times of late "Does Philosophy/Literature answer any questions?" or is it merely a band-aide? Well, I don't believe there are definitive answer that it does answer, but it can give us the feeling that we are not alone, that others have thought such thoughts and that it can at least give us solace in that simple fact. 

Currently, I am rather disillusioned by Europe. The tribal atmosphere is asphyxiating. The false sense of having "open minds" is ludicrous. The hypocrisy is rampant. The future is elsewhere.

End of the World

When I was young in school in Switzerland, about the time of the Boer War,
We used to take it for known that the human race
Would last the earth out, not dying till the planet died. I wrote a schoolboy poem
About the last man walking in stoic dignity along the dead shore
Of the last sea, alone, alone, alone, remembering all
His racial past. But now I don't think so. They'll die faceless in flocks,
And the earth flourish long after mankind is out. 

Robinson Jeffers

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Innocent Auguries

With poetry, music and literature as well as any of the other so-called "arts" there is a presumption that all that one does is something that will be lasting, despite the modesty, despite the renunciations of pretension. Why perform, why write, why compose if it is not for an audience that is beyond your physical jurisdiction? I find that hypocrisy if one says that it is not. We strive for an audience larger than ourselves, we strive to be heard.

When someone recently questioned me about "why I write?" I was only reminded of my throwback answer, that from the ending of "Shadowlands," the story of C.S. Lewis, and a sad story it is, and that the voiceover says, "we write so that we know that we are not alone."

I guess, in short, that is why I write, and that is why I blog. For the most part of my life, I feel quite alone. I work alone, I think alone, and I am alone in a foreign country, though it was not much different when I was in my native country, I was, for the most part, still alone. So, I write.

Perhaps you are out there. Perhaps you follow some of my words, and maybe, just maybe, you might empathize. I don't know.

One of the most power invocations to seeing if we are alone, however, is William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence," from which I derived the post title for the blog dedicated to my daughter. It reminds us both of the temporality and the vastness of our existence. The dichotomy of the infinitely small with the infinitely sublime that we live each day. We do. Look around. Take stock of every detail of what has come before you and you will be amazed. Take a moment to stare a flower in its face and tell me you are not moved.

But, we revert to complacency, which is truly sad. This universe, this world before us, this moment that we have at our hands is infinite if we let it be, or, it is a mere trifle, a passing, and how sad is that?

The famous opening lines of Blake's "Auguries of Innocence":

To see the World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,
And Eternity in an Hour...

I dare you to live life as such. I dare myself each day to do so.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Do Not Go Gentle

On my birthday, something that is somewhat bittersweet is the memory of my father. My father, like me, was an Aries, and boy, he could be an Aries.

One thing that I am pretty sure of though is that my father never knew my actual birthday. He once "bragged" to me that he was out riding motorcycles with his buddies that night. I was born at 1:32 am, so, that should tell you something, and this man was a highly respected surgeon, but just happened to be born in a Marlon Brando character.

So, every year, (well, actually there would be many years I did not hear from him), when he did call to wish me a Happy Birthday, it would always be either a week or so early, or late. I honestly do not think that once he actually got it on the right date, but that is what we learn about people. That was who he was, and when I got older, I just accepted it, and realized, "that's my dad." 

And, that is the best we can do sometimes. 

When my dad died, it was around my birthday as well, in fact, was last week 8 years ago. I just happened to be visiting the US as we were living in Italy at the time, and one of my sister's friends found me wondering the streets of Austin, as  I am wont to do, and let me know my dad was in the hospital, where he died a few hours later in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was a professor of Cardiovascular Surgery, and resident red-neck dragster with his Grand National.

Birth and death days then remind us of our mortality, from beginning to end. At my father's funeral, I met many people who respected him dearly, but who were surprised to meet me as they did not know he had a son. Something he seemed to have forgotten to mention, though they all knew who my two sisters were.

There are many misgivings that I could have for this man, but, without him and my mother, I would never have seen the light of day. So, what I have learned over the years is to be grateful for what we do have, and not to regret what we do not.

I don't know how my dad died exactly, meaning the last moments of his life, but I imagine it might have been something along the lines of Dylan Thomas' message.

Thinking of birth and death, as I celebrate my own birthday with my daughter today, and remember my father.

From Thomas....

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

How to get (creatively) booted from Cambridge

Leave it to Lord Byron to be famously infamously booted from one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Lord Byron, the bad boy of Romantic Poetry, was known for dragging his more “innocent” friends, such as Percey Shelley and his wife Mary into mental hijinks and events of laudanum-induced night-long hallucinatory nightmares (supposedly the origin’s of Mary’s Frankenstein) in his country manor, which he ultimately lost due to his bohemian ways.

Byron would have felt a bit more at home perhaps at the present-day L’Università di Bologna, a rather bohemian hotspot of the time, though probably he would have not indeed like the less-than-pleasing aesthetics of the environs. Byron was a big “fan” of Italy, needless to say, though Rome and the Northwest Coast were more his cup of Espresso. (I wonder if the St. Eustachi coffee was already famous at the time…? It is such a secret recipe that they have screens in front of the bariste so no one can see how it is made.)

But, back to getting expelled. Cambridge has a very rich history of writers, poets and essayists, amongst whom are Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Coleridge (another dabbler in hallucination-inspiration), Sir Isaac Newton, and more recently the poet Ted Hughes and Physicist Stephen Hawking, and on and on. So, one would think that Byron would see that his ticket would be punched if he could just toe the line, but, then he would not be Lord Byron, but merely another Cambridge man who “came down” from the Ivory Tower to the “real world.” Like Bill Gates, isn’t it better to get kicked out and then be taught in that very institution? So, Lord Byron did not come down to the real world, he brought the “real world” to the Tower. Apparently, to get the boot, Byron had a live bear in his room at Trinity College. Now that is what I call being creatively kicked out of Cambridge.

In Byron’s irreverent honor then, here is “Who killed John Keats?”:

Who killed John Keats?
‘I,” says the Quarterly,
So savage and Tartarly;
‘ ‘Twas one of my feats.’

Who shot the arrow?
‘The poet-priest Milman
(So ready to kill man),
Or Southey or Barrow.’