Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher and priest (formerly the Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center) as well as a poet and author. His most recent book, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion, is a collection of essays about experimental writing as spiritual practice. This statement on meditation and poetry talks about how the two activities can compliment one another and lead us to a deeper experience of both through our engagement with truth and humor.
Poetics Statement: On Meditation and Poetry
At their best, both of them, meditation and poetry, are ways of being honest with ourselves. Only by honesty can we see anything because honesty opens the eyes or cleans them. Without it we’d see what we’d like to see, or what we think we’d like to see, or what someone else would like us to see.
Meditation is when you sit down, let’s say that, and don’t do anything.
Poetry is when you get up and do something.
I don’t think there is any escape from these activities: all of us have to do both of them. And both of them are involved with the imagination, that human faculty that creates, envisions, or transforms a world.
Somewhere we’ve developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and that meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression; it is a way to be free, finally, of self-expression, to go much deeper than that. And meditation is not a form of thought or reflection; it is a looking at or an awareness of what is there, equally inside and outside, and then it doesn’t make sense anymore to mention inside or outside.
Experience, I think, is a never-ending adjustment.
Practically speaking, I would say that meditation gets you used to failure and gives you great familiarity with the mind’s excitement, to the point of boredom, and so much so that there is a great acceptance of all experience, and there is no wish to favor one kind of experience over another. It is all pretty remarkable. This attitude is an aid to poetry.
So you are not interested in “poetic” experience or in “poetic” language. These seem unnecessary exaggerations. Only that you know, as a human, that you live intimately, intensely, with language, honestly with it, in it, as it, and it is necessary to keep that up, to clarify and deepen it.
That is why some aspects of poetic form are not helpful. And that is why, with your eye on the main purpose of the poem, you feel compelled at first to challenge poetic form, and then later to simply do away with it (by which I mean to stop being concerned with it terribly).
How do you do this? Practically speaking, I think meditation offers a feeling for or sense of experience, very broadly, that allows us to find a way to do this. The grip on self can very naturally loosen, the grip on meaning loosens, and there is the possibility of entering whole-heartedly into a dark or unknown territory. That, and talent, a little, familiarity with poetic form, a little more, courage, and luck. An interesting footnote is that it is not a struggle; it is the release from struggle.
I imagine that no really amusing (a word Ted Berrigan [a mentor, teacher, supporter, and friend of my early years] insisted on, and I understand, as “from the muse”) literary work was ever conceived without meditation. Without an insistent, intent, single-minded holding in mind of a single object until it dissolves. I am convinced every poem involves this process, at least narrowly conceived. And the broader we make our meditation, the more implications it has for our poetry.
Do not imagine that I am advocating a particular approach or that, even worse, I am suggesting a “meditative” verse modeled on the Oriental or Occidental [sic] poetry written in previous centuries by meditators or contemplatives. I read and learn from this poetry but much of it I do not like very much.
No, I am talking about a life in which we can be radically simple. And out of this great simplicity or honesty, one does what one can.
I think if meditation can show you that there is really no such thing as, nor would one want, a poetic voice, then it is already worthwhile.
If I am recommending one thing that can be clearly understood, I suppose it must be an unerring sense of humor.