Saturday, May 17, 2003

More on the Buddhism and poetry symposium...

Buddhism and American poetry--especially experimental poetry--obviously have a long and distinguished association, at least from the Beats onward; and there's no question that American writers' encounters with Buddhism have produced some of the most interesting writing of the past 50 years. But discussions of these connections always make me slightly uneasy, for many of the same reasons I mentioned being weirded out by my experience at Naropa. Uncritical discussions of Buddhism and American poetry can run the risk of slipping into a kind of orientalism, whereby a simplified notion of the "Asian" serves as mere material to enrich American writing.

Michael McClure unwittingly stepped into this trap on Thursday through what was otherwise an admirable attempt to actually address the topic of the symposium--how Buddhism has actually influenced American poetry, historically and in the present, which the other speakers declined to take a direct position on. He talked at length about the Pound/Fenollosa concept of the Chinese ideogram, not knowing that there was a graduate student in the audience who was writing a dissertation on the topic and who promptly jumped on him for accepting Pound's simplified characterization and ignoring the greater complexity of Chinese language. He also suggested that Asian languages "dropped the frame" around expression, in contrast to discursive Western constructions ("I saw this, I felt that"); at which point another grad student (rightly, I thought) argued that there was no such thing as "frameless" expression, that even the haiku, supposedly a model of directness, was a highly formalized and ritualized form.

The point was, though, that "Buddhism" had become a synecdoche for "Asia"--its language, culture, and literature--and McClure had, in fact, demonstrated how closely Pound's orientalist notions of China were linked to the Beats' attraction to Buddhism.

Buddhism's usefulness for American poets, in fact, may be precisely in its becoming a relatively free-floating signifier. Carl Bielefeldt, a Stanford professor who directs the Center for Buddhist Studies, noted that while American Buddhists don't think that meditation is a ritual--it's just a practice that can be done without reference to Buddhist doctrine--Asian Buddhists do think it's a ritual, performed only by priests and not by laypeople.

The morning was taken up with readings, the afternoon with discussion. The poets' reading styles were as divergent as their aesthetics. Fischer was low-key and earnest; Scalapino nervous and intense, having a great deal of trouble with the microphone, often running her commentary right into the poem; McClure was the consummate performer, getting right up in the mike, growling and purring, sometimes starting a poem over again several times to get the inflections just right.

We'd been asked to write up some questions for the speakers; scraping the bottom of the intellectual barrel the night before, here's what I'd been able to come up with:

Norman Fischer

1. I was interested to see poems from Precisely the Point Being Made dedicated to Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein. I wondered if you could say a bit about how you see the aesthetics of these poets in relation both to your own poetic practice and to Buddhist practice. I've seen Silliman describe himself in an interview as a "Buddha-atheist," but I wondered if you could be more specific about what connections you see, e.g. does Silliman's new sentence represent a Buddhist aesthetic? Were your poems to Silliman and Bernstein conscious imitations of those poets' styles, and if so, in what ways did you feel yourself departing from your own usual style?

2. In "Do You Want to Make Something Out of It?" you quote Dogen: "To study Buddhism is to study the self." One might argue, based on this, that a Buddhist poetry would be what we've come to call "confessional," grounded in self-examination and self-expression. Some of your work does have elements that might be called confessional--say, in your reportage of your daily activities--but overall I wouldn't say that your work has a confessional aesthetic. How would you relate your own writing to this confessional impulse in contemporary poetry?

Michael McClure

1. In several of the selections from your work that we've read for this symposium, I've noticed the phrase "Even Dada failed." I assume you're referring to the early 20th-century avant-garde movement here (though I suppose I could give it a more Freudian reading--"Even Father failed"), and I can certainly see how your writing might have certain affinities with Dada, particularly in an attempt to get at what might be called an elemental or pre-linguistic speech, through the use of "nonsense" words or the spreading of material across the page. What do you mean, then, by saying that Dada "failed"? Did it simply not go far enough in its probing of the unconscious? Was its conception simply too limited--did it need to go even beyond the realm of human consciousness (as your remarks on animal speech suggest)?

2. At the openings of many of your books you provide a brief note on how to read your poems, suggesting that they should be seen like calligraphy on a scroll. For me there's an interesting tension here between seeing them and reading aloud. In the note for Touching the Edge you write that the poems are "as much for the eye as for the voice," yet you also suggest that if the poems looks strange, "read them aloud and the ordinariness will appear." In the note for Plum Stones you insist that "Capitalized lines are not intended to be read louder"--which was surprising, since this had been exactly what I was doing in reading them. Does the oral or the visual have priority in these poems? Do you imagine the poem as a kind of scoring for the voice? If so, how much control do you wish to exert over oral reading practice?

Leslie Scalapino

1. What is the role of assertion in a writing that is, as you put it in R-hu, "continually undercutting the writing's own basis"? For all its indeterminacy, your writing is frequently filled with forceful and seemingly authoritative claims: "the mind is action literally," "Objects are not similarity," "Nomadic space is socially based on courtesy." Are these to be read as provisional statements that are then undercut and complicated? How are we to understand their truth value, if at all?

2. Your writing is quite literally self-referential, often commenting upon itself and even quoting from other texts of yours. I wondered if you would relate this practice to what you call in R-hu "a use of the self a continual allusion." How does one keep such a practice of allusion and self-reference from becoming hermetic and private? In what way can self-allusion open the work to a wider world?

The only one of these questions that actually came up in the discussion was my second question for Fischer, which was answered pretty much as I expected: Fischer pointed out that Dogen went on to say, "To study the self is to forget the self." Fischer suggested that a Buddhist poetry was not confessional because it didn't privilege the author's own feelings or experiences, but simply tried to "investigate" what was going on at a particular moment without preconceptions.

The symposium also gave me a chance to try to come to terms with Scalapino's work, which critics seem to talk about more and more but which I've never quite been able to get a handle on. Looking back at my questions for Scalapino, I realized that they were much more pointed than my questions for the other two poets, in part because the ambitions of her work are so grand and so explicit. Scalapino's work seems most appealing in the way it creates a field of consciousness with different levels, so that you have the sense of a mind constantly watching itself at work. I wonder, though, if this is a self-consciousness that makes a bit too much of itself at times, that spends so much time telling you precisely what it's doing and what it's going to do that the execution of that doing seems almost beside the point. It's a problem I also see in the work of an entirely different poet, Frank Bidart, who often seems to me so insistent on the agonies of Cartesian thought ("This I is anterior / to name; gender; action; / fashion; / MATTER ITSELF") that the product of that thought comes to seem narrow and dissatisfying. But perhaps I still haven't grasped what Scalapino is trying to do.

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