The Buddhist Poetry of Joanne Kyger

It’s April and that means it’s also National Poetry Month.   An opportunity to remember the Buddhist inspired poetry of Joanne Kyger, who passed away March 22 at age 82.

Kyger became interested in Buddhism when she was living in San Francisco during the late 50s and involved in the Beat Generation poetry scene there.   Her obituary in the NY Times quotes her as saying,

“My own interest in Zen came about because I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger in Santa Barbara. Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing.”

She met fellow poet/Buddhist Gary Snyder in 1958, and in 1960 they went to Japan and got married.  They also went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and met with the Dalai Lama.

Upon her return to the U.S., she published her first book, The Tapestry and the Web.  Kyger went on to publish more than twenty books of poetry and prose during her life.

Her work was a mix of dharma and the Beat Generation scene that became a part of the whole counter culture scene during the 1960s, including experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

Robert Creely said of Kyger, “There is no poet with more whimsically tough a mind… She’s the best of the west.”  And David Meltzer:  “No other poet of my gen­eration has been able to make the pleasures and particu­lars of the ‘everyday’ as luminous and essential and central.”

Basho Says Plants Stones Utensils
     have individual feelings
     similar to those of humans   
 
A zillion little butterfly thoughts
      simultaneously flap.

You are the sum
      of all you ‘know’
        and the more you forget
          the more ordinary
             you are really nothing
                 special   so why
                    all the anxious push-push
                      just hang

the clothes on the line
   Put the black ones
       in the washer
         Feel the myriad little bits
             of sensation
               that make up emotion

                            As the Sun
                           rises high
                         in the sky
                     so does the arrogance
         I’m still  waiting
           for the ‘Buddhist’
              poem to arrive

                 Darn it takes so long
                      for the Dharma
                      Up in arms
                  on the moral high road
              wanting to sum it up
          and END it

April 2002

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Bestsellers

In the wake of the inauguration, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has become a best-seller, topping the Amazon, USA Today, and iBooks bestseller lists.  Since it was first published in 1949, the book has remained in print and has enjoy strong yearly sales.  Last year, 1984 sold around 221,000 print copies, according to BookScan, a group that tracks sales for physical and digital books.  Last week, Signet Classics reprinted 500,000 copies of 1984.  Seems they expect this surge of interest to continue.

In 1973, David Bowie wrote a song called “1984.”  Inspired by Orwell’s novel, Bowie originally planned for it to be a stage musical, but that idea fell through when Orwell’s wife refused to give permission.  The song ended up on the Diamond Dogs album.  Now, the hit London stage adaptation, a non-musical, will open on Broadway in the summer.

As much as I like Bowie’s 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album, I prefer Spirit’s 1984, written by Randy California in 1970. (Had to put in a plug for one of all-time favorite rock bands.)

Just last week in San Francisco, a “mystery benefactor” bought 50 copies of 1984 at Booksmith, a bookstore in the famous Haight-Ashbury district, and asked that they be given away free to anyone who wanted one.

Evidently, it is not only Trump’s presence in the White House but also Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” comment that has sparked the spike in 1984 sales.  The parallels to our present political climate are obvious, and have been since before the rise of the monster, and the lessons the book provides are stark.  The specter of authoritarianism is always knocking on the door.  Alternate facts, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Big Brother, clickbait.  Where does 1984 end and reality begin?  What about all the Big Brothers out there…  listening…  watching…  recording…

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

– George Orwell, 1984

A runaway bestseller in poetry might sell around 2000 copies.  Most poetry book sales are much lower than that.  But in recent years the works of a 13th-century Muslim poet have sold millions of copies.  Late last month, the Washington Post declared, “How wonderful it is that Rumi… has become the best-selling poet in the United States! He might enjoy knowing that Trump’s America is snapping up translations of his homoerotically tinged work even as the country toys with banning Muslims and rolling back gay rights.”

Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi, aka Rumi, was born in Persia in 1207.  He was a Sunni Muslim, Islamic scholar and  theologian, and Sufi mystic.

Why is Rumi suddenly so popular?  Lee Briccetti, executive director of the nation poetry library Poets House, suggests that it is because “Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive.”  And it’s not just the US, the BBC says, “Globally, [Rumi’s] fans are legion.”

Rumi’s poems are wise, spiritual, beautiful, and at times, puzzling.  Although he was a Sufi teacher, his work moved beyond the confines of blind faith and exclusivity.  In the Post article linked above (about a new Rumi biography from Brad Gooch, “Rumi’s Secret”)  there is a lovely quote from Rumi: “The religion of love is beyond all faiths.”

A US poet, Coleman Barks, has been one of the folks responsible for popularizing the Persian poet.  Yet, Barks has received criticism because he is not a translator (he paraphrases from existing translations) and because he has contributed to The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.

From what I have read, I understand the older translations are more literal.  Newer translations have been produced with an eye toward rendering Rumi’s verse in a way that is compatible with free-form modern poetry, and therefore, more accessible.  I usually lean toward translations that are closest to what the poet or author originally wrote.

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) was one of the best Rumi scholars in the English language and his translations are considered authoritative and literal.  Yet, the archaic language he uses (“thou” “dost” etc.) does seem get in the way for this modern reader.  I gave up trying to learn who translated the following poem.  It seems very modern, so if it is true to Rumi or not, I don’t know…

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.

Rumi

– – – – – – – – – –

Miniature painting of Rumi by Hossein Behzad

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We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet . . .

I heard someone say on television this week that 2016 was a gut punch.  I believe he meant the hell of the election, and the torture of it’s aftermath.  Or, maybe he was referring to the number of notable deaths we’ve experienced.  For me, the year started with the death of my father.  A punch that keeps on pounding.  And my father’s best friend, my uncle, passed away…  Now, before I get all maudlin here…

Let me say that I’ve never felt too sentimental about the New Year.  I don’t care what year it is really, it’s just a number, a change in the calendar.  That’s not to say I haven’t done my fair share of partying on New Year’s Eve.  On many of those nights, I’ve heard the same song sung after the stroke of midnight, and I’ve sung along, not even remembering what Auld Lang Syne means.

It means ‘for old times’ sake.’  It’s Scottish and the entire world knows this tune.  But not the original tune.

When Scot poet Robert Burns put the lyrics together in 1788, he sent them to the Scots Musical Museum with a note that read, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland’s National Bard, a poet and lyricist associated with the Romantic literary movement.  You may know some of his famous poem/songs, such as “A Red Red Rose,” “Tam o’ Shanter, and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”  While poetry was his primary occupation and he was Scottish by birth, I suspect he may have had a wee bit of the Irish in him, for his other two passions in life were drinking and chasing women.  He died very young, following a dental extraction at age 37.

As Burns mentioned in his note, “Auld Lang Syne” is an old song; in fact, he probably took the first verse from an earlier piece “Old Long Syne.”  The rest of the lyrics are thought to be Burn’s own composition.  However, the melody that we know so well is not the melody Burns used.  A few months ago, I stumbled upon the original melody, and I prefer it.  It seems more tender, and haunting.  And it has awakened my interest and appreciation in the song.

Here is “Auld Lang Syne” sung with Burn’s melody by Paolo Nutinia, a Scottish singer, songwriter.  Below the video are Robert Burns’ lyrics.   You’ll also see the original manuscript of “Auld Lang Syne” penned by Burns on December 7, 1788. which you can click to view in a larger size.

Thank you for for reading The Endless Further.  Regardless of what the new year means to you, let us all take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne…

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .

So here’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .

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Te Deum

Te Deum is an early Christian hymn often attributed to St. Ambrose, the songwriting bishop of Milan in the fourth century.  The title comes from the opening line, Te Deum laudamus (“Thee, O God, we praise”).

This hymn is associated with New Year’s Eve because those who recite it on the last day of the year can receive a plenary indulgence, in which God forgives the sinner and removes all punishment.  I don’t believe you get it directly from Her (or Him), but from the Catholic Church, and there is a condition attached, that the person who receives it must maintain a state of grace or non-attachment to sin.

Te Deum is also wonderful little poem by Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976).  He was a lawyer and legal editor, who as a poet spent most of his career in obscurity, until New Directions put out a collection of previously published poems in 1962, when he was 68.

Reznikoff was associated with William Carlos Williams and Objectivist movement.  He wrote in a spare style that I like.

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

To me, this poem is not a hymn of praise to God.  I feel Reznikoff is expressing admiration for the commonplace, for daily life, a simple poem celebrating the simplicity of the natural.  Another way of interpreting it, though, is that he saw God everywhere in the everyday world, or as the everyday world. Well, maybe it is praise to God after all.

Reznikoff’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States.  Much of his work examined Jewish faith, and Jewish life in America, particularly the experience of emigrants in the tenements of New York city.  Buddhists do not share the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions.  In the literature you will see the word “divine,” (as in the Buddha’s Divine Eye), but it shouldn’t be taken to imply that it emanates from some godly source.  Strip the dharma of all the mystical verbiage and you find teachings genuinely rooted in the soil of everyday life.

A quote I’ve shared before from Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school:

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Dharma in Buddhism usually refers to the teachings, but can also mean the truth, or reality.

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Leonard Cohen: It’s Darker Now

A few weeks ago, in an interview for the release of his latest album, You Want It Darker, he said , “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

But I don’t want it darker, it is dark enough, and that’s no way to say goodbye . . .

Most of us first heard about this songwriter-poet from Canada, Leonard Cohen, from Judy Collins.  She had hit with his song Suzanne, originally a poem, Suzanne Takes You Down, from his collection Parasites of Heaven.  

cohen-sel-poemsMy parents gave me his Selected Poems 1956-1968 for my 17th birthday.  That was cool.  They could have given me a book by someone lame, like Rod McKuen.  I’ve had that book 47 years.  It’s been to New Orleans a couple of times, Nebraska, California, and it’s still in good condition.

Born Jewish, you know in the late 70s he began an involvement with Buddhism.  He became an ordained Zen priest in 1998 and lived at the Mount Baldy Zen Monastery for some years.

I loved that voice.  Deep, dark, haunting.  Instantly recognizable.  Beautiful and disturbing.

I’m glad he passed through this way and touched our perfect bodies with his mind.

Here is a poem from Selected Poems, and after that, a video of Tower of Song.  The poem was published in 1966 and the song written in the 80s.

I’ve Seen Some Lonely History

I’ve seen some lonely history
The heart cannot ignore
I’ve scratched some empty blackboards
They have no teachers for

I trailed my meager demons
From Jerusalem to Rome
I had an invitation
But the host was not at home

There were contagious armies
That spread their uniform
To all parts of my body
Except where I was warm

And so I wore a helmet
With a secret neon sign
That lit up all the boundaries
So I could toe the line

My boots got very tired
Like a sentry’s never should
I was walking on a tightrope
That was buried in the mud

Standing at the drugstore
It was very hard to learn
Though my name was everywhere
I had to wait my turn

I’m standing here before you
I don’t know what I bring
If you can hear the music
why don’t you help me sing?

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