Let it be the flower

The great American poet Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was a religious man who referred to his grandfather as his “guiding light.”  His grandfather happened to be a Unitarian minister who advocated for religion without dogma and was open to the concept of evolution. I am not sure what Aiken’s concept of God was, whether he believed in concept of a literal supreme being or not.  Aiken once told the Paris Review he viewed himself as “a preacher” of “new knowledge.” Of course, he did not mean he was a preacher in any conventional sense. I think his true religion was poetry.

However, from his poem “A Letter from Li Po” I presume he admired Chinese poetry (Li Po was a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty), and I imagine that he must had some understanding of Eastern Philosophy. To me, a number of his poems evince appreciable Buddhist/Taoist-like aspects.

In honor of the 116th anniversary of his birth, here is one Aiken poem that I have always thought might have been inspired by the famous story told about a time when the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak and everyone expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk but instead of speaking he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who communicated his grasp of the Buddha’s message by smiling.

I shared an excerpt from this poem once and you can find other posts of mine featuring Aiken’s poetry here and here.

XI

Mysticism, but let us have no words,
angels, but let us have no fantasies,
churches, but let us have no creeds,
no dead gods hung in crosses in shop,
nor beads nor prayers nor faith nor sin nor penance:
and yet, let us believe, let us believe.

pink_rose_closeupLet it be the flower
seen by the child for the first time, plucked without
thought
broken for love and as soon forgotten:

and the angels, let them be our friends,
used for our needs with selfish simplicity,
broken for love and as soon forgotten;

and let the churches be our houses
defiled daily, loud with discord,–
where the dead gods that were our selves may hang,
our outgrown gods on every wall;
Christ on the mantelpiece, with downcast eyes;
Buddha above the stove;
the Holy Ghost by the hatrack, and God himself
staring like Narcissus from the mirror,
clad in a raincoat, and with hat and gloves.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let it be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached–
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall,–
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.

Share

A Woman’s Way

A woman named Alice Duer Miller was born 141 years ago today.  She was a woman’s suffrage activist and during her time, a very popular poet. Miller was also novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and (with Dorothy Parker) one of the two female members of the famous Algonquin Hotel Round Table, that “Vicious Circle” of writers, critics, actors, wags and gladflies who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s and ‘30s

ADMillerHer first novel, Come Out of the Kitchen, published in 1916, was a best-seller. Soon afterward, in addition to writing more novels, she became a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, and Scribner’s magazines. Many of her stories were turned into movies such as Roberta (1935), a musical with Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Irene (1940), another RKO musical.

Her most famous work is The White Cliffs, a verse novel published in 1940 that also showed up on film, as The White Cliffs of Dover, again starring Irene Dunne, along with Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. The film transformed one of England’s most recognizable landmarks into a reassuring symbol of hope during the WW2 years.

Miller campaigned for women’s suffrage and her mightiest sword was the written word. She published a series of satirical poems in the New York Tribune that were later published as Are Women People? in 1915, five years before women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It is probably as the suffragist poet that Alice Duer Miller is best remembered. Her Are Women People? poems were thought to be clever and brilliant during her day. I am not sure how they are viewed by contemporary readers, nor how her non-feminist poetry is critically appraised. I suspect most of it is considered undistinguished. I am a poor judge of poetry myself. I only know what I like, and I have always thought the best poems are the simplest ones, not simple in meaning but in language, for as Walt Whitman said, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.”

“The Way” is a term used quite frequently in Buddhism and here at The Endless Further. This is Alice Duer Miller’s short, simple and expressive take on The Way:

The Way

There is a magic pathway through the wood,
There is a current in the troubled stream,
A happy course to steer, if one but could,
A meaning to the dream.

And some in love and some in dogma find
The hint eternal as they kiss or pray;
Some through the crystal circle of the mind
Discern the way.

And some no hint, no pattern of the whole,
Nor star, nor path, nor channel can perceive –
Attempt no answer to the questing soul,
And yet believe

There is a magic pathway through the wood,
There is a current in the troubled stream,
A happy course to steer, if one but could,
A meaning to the dream.

Alice Duer Miller

Share

Lastness

This blog is about Buddhism but as regular readers know I occasionally veer off in other directions, one of which is poetry. I am an eclectic reader, and so my taste runs from e.e.cummings to Dylan Thomas to poets such as Galway Kinnell who passed away Wednesday at the age of 87.

galway_kinnellI met him once. I don’t remember what year but sometime during the 90s, at the Chateau Marmount, the place where John Belushi died. Kinnell was giving a poetry reading there and it was a rather bizarre afternoon. Before the poet himself got up to read, Jennifer Tilly read one of his poems. Now, I had always assumed that her dumb/dizzy persona was just an act, and I don’t want to say that it’s not, or that she is unfamiliar with poetry, but it was clear she was unfamiliar with Mr. Kinnell’s poetry. What she was doing there is anybody’s guess.  But she was fun to look at. In fact, all the Tilly girls were there and they were all dressed in black, and a bit rowdy as I recall.

Some writers cannot read aloud. They are either monotone or they possess a terrible speaking voice.  Kinnell’s voice was pleasant to listen to, middle-ranged, and his oral presentation engaging. I’d brought a copy of his Selected Poems with me, that he signed afterwards, and we had a brief conversation.

In an appreciation for The New Yorker, fellow poet C.K. Williams goes into more detail about Kinnell reading aloud, and offers these words about the man’s work,

there’s no one whose work has so often and with such consistency brought into the world a sense of wonder and exaltation, no one who so often discovered rich new harmonies of poetic language, no one who devised so many metaphors that resonate through so many levels of materiality and spirit, uniting the physical with the moral and passion with thought. In short, there’s no one whose work has elaborated so ample and comprehensive a vision of the lives we’ve lived.”

That is a summation hard to improve upon. I won’t try. As far as his life is concerned, read his obituary at the LA Times. You can also visit his website.

As for the poetry . . .

Lastness

A black bear sits alone
in the twilight, nodding from side
to side, turning slowly around and around
on himself, scuffing the four-footed
circle into the earth. He sniffs the sweat
in the breeze, he understands
a creature, a death-creature,
watches from the fringe of the trees,
finally he understands
I am no longer here, he himself
from the fringe of the trees watches
a black bear
get up, eat a few flowers, trudge away,
all his fur glistening
in the rain.

And what glistening! Sancho Fergus,
my boychild, had such great shoulders,
when he was born his head
came out, the rest of him stuck. And he opened
his eyes: his head out there all alone
in the room, he squinted with pained,
barely unglued eyes at the ninth-month’s
blood splashing beneath him
on the floor. And almost
smiled, I thought, almost forgave it all in advance.

When he came wholly forth
I took him up in my hands and bent
over and smelled
the black, glistening fur
of his head, as empty space
must have bent
over the newborn planet
and smelled the grasslands and the ferns.

Galway Kinnell, “Lastness (part 2)” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by Galway Kinnell.

Share

Belated Farewell to an American Poet

This is a bit late, but as they say, better late than never . . .

Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, died this September 14 at the age of 89. According to his daughter, he had Alzheimer’s disease.

Simpson published 20 volumes of poetry, one novel (Riverside Drive), and numerous non-fiction books. For more than half a century, he was a respected figure in American Poetry. Whether writing in traditional verse or free verse, his work is characterized by the simple, spare style in which he fashioned his observations on war (he was a combat infantryman in WWII), the American Dream, and the complexities of modern life. “I write about feelings people share, in language that can be understood,” he wrote in The Character of the Poet (Poets on Poetry), published in 1986.

Russian author Anton Chekhov was a major influence. When Simpson’s name appeared on the International Shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004, the judges in their citation wrote, “If Chekhov were reincarnated as a poet into the world where we live, this is surely what he would sound like.” Walt Whitman was an important influence on Simpson as well. Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” inspired the title of the collection At the End of the Open Road, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1964. In a later poem, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” Simpson laments how the earlier poet’s American dream had been detoured:

Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

Buddhism was another influence. I don’t believe Simpson was a Buddhist per se, but he studied Zen Buddhism, and Zen concepts and imagery seeped into his poetry. His 1976 volume, Searching for the Ox, takes its title from the famous Zen Ox Herding pictures. Once in an interview [1. Hank Lazer, Ed., On Louis Simpson:Depths Beyond Happiness, (University of Michigan Press, 1988)], Simpson talked a bit about Buddhism, and his remarks help explain why Buddhism appealed to him, for as a poet, his primary subject was the everyday things of this saha, this mundane, world:

Buddhism teaches that your physical existence and your mental existence are one thing; in the West, we tend automatically to split them apart, as in the Christian idea of the body and the soul. I prefer the medieval idea – they had a term for the body which recognized it as a form for the soul, which I take to mean that the body is the outward garment of the soul. Whitman says that, too, that there is no split between the body and the soul. And this is what the Buddhists say also. This way of thinking leads to a poetry that is very physical in its orientation, a poetry that concentrates on ordinary life.”

Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1923. His mother was Russian and his father, a lawyer with Scottish ancestry. He came to the United States when he was seventeen. He was an American poet who wrote of contemporary American life, relying on strong, stark imagery to convey his themes:

After Midnight

The dark streets are deserted,
With only a drugstore glowing
Softly, like a sleeping body;

With one white, naked bulb
In the back, that shines
On suicides and abortions.

Who lives in these dark houses?
I am suddenly aware
I might live here myself.

The garage man returns
And puts the change in my hand,
Counting the singles carefully.

Louis Simpson, “After Midnight” from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. Copyright © 2003 by Louis Simpson.

————–

Share