Use & Misuse of Poetry


The Use & Misuse of Poetry
by Art Ticknor

                     
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Over the years (decades, actually) my attitude toward poetry shifted radically. It began with indifference, which reigned through high school. Indifference then morphed into intolerance, which lasted until my senior year in college. I was majoring in math but working toward a BA, and I needed a Lit. course to complete my core requirements. I signed up for a course titled British Literature that turned out to be 20th Century British Poetry and was populated by Lit. majors. I never did figure out what "explication" – which is what they were doing with poetry – meant, but I came away from the course with a feeling that W.B. Yeats wrote some amazing poetry even though I didn't understand it. An attitude of incomprehension (and consternation) ruled during that semester then reverted to intolerance … where just the look of poetry on a page was enough to turn my head away. Listening to poetry would have been even more painful, since I learned primarily by reading, not listening. In fact that leaning was so pronounced that in all my classes I would have to take notes on what the professors covered then read the notes later in order to absorb the material.

It wasn't until a dozen years after graduation that I met Richard Rose and found poetry that spoke directly to me. Its appeal wasn't intellectual, and there was no hidden symbology that needed explication. It went directly to the core of my longing. Like the first stanza of "A Part of Thee":

Though you should seek me, or, still never know
Me, I am with thee. Look at evenglow,
At drowsy hills whose dusky dream of peace
Streams up when restless Day's hot sun shall cease,
Or in the misty glen or by the stream
Where sweetly damp the graceful breeze doth seem
To breathe its incense for your listless heart
Alone, until, like some strange hummingbird
That hovers near though scarcely seen or heard,
Enchanted by the lilac's magic spell, –
That heart of thine doth trembling try to tell
Thee glorious words no tongue or race has heard –
Of harmony eternal. Though no word
Is spoken dear, know, I am speaking there,
For I am in thee ever, everywhere.

It appealed to emotion, to the emotion of the lost wayfarer looking for his way home. My new attitude was one of appreciation.

Of my "big three" Western teachers, Franklin Merrell-Wolff said that he had no interest in poetry until his Recognition at age 48 or 49 and was surprised to find himself writing poetry shortly after that. Douglas Harding didn't produce any poetry as far as I know, while Richard Rose wrote poetry at least from his college years and is the only one of the three who published a book primarily of poetry (Carillon).

Of the two major Indian gurus of recent times that I'm familiar with, I don't know of any poetry that Nisargadatta Maharaj wrote. Ramana Maharshi wrote very little in general, but his writings include poetry as well as prose. There are five sets of stanzas he wrote at about age 35 at the request of his followers, to recite on their way to town to beg for their daily food. In addition, there are two sets of stanzas, eleven verses in one and eight in the other, which were the only poems that came to him spontaneously. There are several cycles of verses he wrote, at the request of a Tamil poet and follower, to give a synopsis of his teaching. And among the miscellaneous verses is a humorous one, "The Song of the Poppadum," giving spiritual instruction under the guise of how to make the poppadum fried cake (available in Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi).

The Ch'an masters often wrote poetry, and it was traditional to write a gatha as their death neared (see the Other Tang Dynasty Ch'an Masters and the Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination pages). Douglas Harding, by the way, described those gathas as a "poetic condensation of the insights of a long and dedicated spiritual life, a final comment on life itself and impending death." And he described his Little Book of Life and Death as his concluding gatha. In his typical humorous fashion, he added: "Or rather, it would be if I were a Zen master (or at least a Zen man), and I had obviously come to the end of my life, and I were writing in verse."

At the other end of the spectrum, in a way, from the final summing up of the gathas, William Samuel wrote an epic tale based on his awakening in "The Melody of the Woodcutter and the King," and Richard Rose described his awakening in the blank verse "Three Books of the Absolute" that came to him spontaneously and he recorded in one sitting.

As seekers, most of us are consumers of prose or poetry in our quest for clues about how to pursue our objective. From a writer's standpoint, poetry suggests itself for some expressions just as prose does for others. As seekers, then, we're limiting our sources if we exclude poetry. We have to be careful, though, not to use either prose or poetry for distraction or for sleep-inducing comfort. It requires great action to awaken to non-action. Both inspiration and irritation can goad us to act, and poetry used in the service of awakening can provide both.


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