February 19, 2007

Poem Workshop Continued, plus new poem

Here is A's second poem, followed by an analysis and basic pointers. At the bottom is my new poem, in its latest draft.

Following the Buddha

for my father

My mind collapses—on virtual shutdown,
when it comes to rise from bed in the morning
for meditation at the Zendo. Oh, that long cold walk
at 7 a.m. Slam the alarm clock off—five more
minutes to sleep.

No discipline…absolutely none.

At the Zendo, I sit, I walk, I sit
I bend and rise in an informal bow,
trying to clear my thoughts, the chatter,
become enlightened.

Nirvana is a process.

No one can reach it because we are already there.

We must learn to become aware.

Walk in awareness. Walk in awareness

of self and mind,
says the leader.

I squirm on my black cushion, counting
my thoughts. I think about the vagrants
and mentally ill people standing outside
the nursing home begging
as I passed on my way to the Zendo.


My final thought.

© A M 2007

Well, first of all, the title tells us that this is a poem if not about Buddhism itself, then having something to do with Buddhism. Indeed the first sentence tells us that the narrator, A or some persona she is taking on for necessary artistic purposes, goes to the Zendo, the hall where Zen meditation is practiced, first thing in the morning. But it isn't that easy. It is as if her mind has been active all night, because now it "collapses" when it is time to get up and go out on a "long cold walk" at 7am in order to meditate. She hits the snooze button for five minutes more.

Then, in the next stanza, standing alone, she judges herself negatively with four words: "No discipline, absolutely none." Note that this is for sleeping five minutes longer, not for skipping meditation altogether, or for quitting Zen altogether for being "too hard" or anything like that, but for sleeping five extra minutes and suddenly she has NO discipline...So in the poem, the movement is from feeling that fatigue and need to sleep and sympathizing with it (since she is obviously not sleepy now, writing the poem, she must be sympathetic to it) to suddenly snapping her head back and judging what she was so sympathetic to and judging it very harshly.

Next stanza: At the Zendo the narrator now attempts to have the discipline she says she lacks, the ultimate aim - enlightenment. To clear one's thoughts, the internal chatter, is extraordinarily difficult, though, so it is not an easy discipline, even though it sounds simple enough.

The next several lines are statements of Zen wisdom: Nirvana is a process, the leader tells her. No one can reach it because we are already there. Walk in awareness.

But in the end, A, as the poet, tells us, can't do it. Her mind is already dragged outside the Zendo as she squirms on the cushion, not just thinking but counting her thoughts as she does so. She thinks about the vagrants and mentally ill begging outside as she passed them on her walk there. She doesn't tell us what she thought, only that she thought, and that her thoughts were of those particular people.

Now Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and that suffering arises because of constant change. So when A writes that "Suffering" is her "final thought" she is referring to this idea. I'm not sure what is meant by "final thought," though. Does the narrator mean to imply that she reached enlightenment by clearing her thoughts, stopping the chatter? Or merely that she truly learned to meditate? In any event, suffering stops her incessant thinking, it is the "answer" that clears her mind of extraneous internal dialogue that kept her from a truly quiet state of mind.

So the poem moves from not wanting to get up to meditate, and that sudden and harsh judgment of the self, to the attempt to meditate, craving enlightenment, to the leader's maxims to teach one how to "think" about Nirvana and awareness and finally, amidst the turmoil of thought upon thought, suddenly the last thought, and the implicit state of no thoughts.

Now for A, poem pointers and suggestions:

I like the way this poem moves from "normal language" -- the way you'd write an ordinary poem -- to "zen language" -- very simple, spare, whittled to the bone -- depending on where you are, at home or in the Zendo. Do more of that, esp at the end. Poets have made a career out of this sort of "Zen" writing style!

Maybe flesh out the thoughts you have about the vagrants etc. Or, that is, tell us what you think about , but in a few words, not a whole lot of extra lines. I like the Zen spareness of the poem as is, so don't clutter it up with a lot more words. Cut something when you add something else, if possible. In general, try to declutter any poem, get rid of as many unnecessary words as possible. For example: "My mind collapses -- on virtual shutdown/ when it comes to rise from bed in the morning..." Now, collapses and virtual shutdown say the same thing, so I'd choose one or the other. (Verbs are better than adjectives...Nouns are as good as verbs.) Then "when it comes to rise from bed" what is "it" and "comes to rise"? What comes to rise from bed? And what does that mean? Anyhow, this is where you could look at the whole stanza and probably cut it down to three lines, giving you room for three others, three other thoughts! Be economical, and you can squeeze in more material, and be very Zen about doing so.

Although I analyzed this, most readers will not, and will want this to be clear to them upon their first reading. You need to be very careful with each word in this poem, as careful as you are with your meditation. Every word should mean exactly what you want it to say, no less. So when you write my mind collapses, you should mean collapses and know why. Do you? Do you mean, or did you, that your mind was active all night and then collapsed in the morning, or was that just my interpretation of an imprecise word? If so, find another word to express exactly the movement you want. A mind collapses after it is full then emptied; it is usually relatively shut-down when asleep, so maybe you want to find an image, that is to say, a word or phrase that shows this, to express the need to remain shut-down and asleep, stuck there, not wanting to wake. Rather than the reverse, of going from a full state to a collapsed state, you want a word or words that actually go from a collapsed state to a collapsed state (refusing or rejecting the need to go to a full or awake state). I'm using your words, collapsed, and full to mean awake or the opposite of collapsed (thinking of a balloon here because you said, your mind - brain - collapsed...). I apologize if I've confused you with MY terminology! 8D

About that "my mind collapses -- on virtual shutdown" being the same thing repeated again: it is emblematic of a common problem for beginning poets, that of saying the same thing in several ways, or repeating something unnecessarily. When you say, "No discipline" is it really necessary to say "absolutely none"? These things may work or not, but I'd go through a poem searching for them and trying to X them out, and reading it without the repetitions to see if it is not stronger without them...Usually it will be. Usually unecessary repetitions only weaken a poem.

This poem has real promise, especially if you pay attention to the words you use. You needn't know all that you express. Like me, others will find things in your poetry that you didn't know were there (it's a pleasant surprise usually, but not always) and that is fine and as it should be. But you (meaning any poet) should know at least what YOU intend to express by each word choice. I do not agree with anyone who says that a poet can use a word simply because it sounds good, or a thought because it "seems" thoughtful. A word has a meaning, and while you can use it weirdly, and poets often do, you should KNOW that you are using it weirdly...And thoughts that are confused and poorly expressed are not poetry, but simply thoughts that are confused and poorl... You get my drift, I'm sure. Sure, poems can be difficult to understand, but the poet him or herself ought to understand them, if anyone can!

All of this advice is good for all poets just starting out. Hope you find it helpful to you, A. And as for these poems, keep up the good writing. Do work on these. I like them, and see a lot of potential in both of them. If you write further drafts and want me to comment, I'll be happy to do so, though again, my comments will be in general, because I want you to do the specific work at the in-person workshop, okay?


My newest poem, as of tonight. Probably will be edited later on, but I wanted to put up this draft now...


They are learning to foxtrot at PS 115 in the Bronx.
Eleven years old they bungle and bump, make it
through merengue, rhumba, swing, then – tango,
and how their feet tangle. Unable to
face eye contact, only children after all, they look
everywhere but at their partners. They miss
all cues. The girls lead, better dancers
used to using their bodies for attention.
At first, most of the boys are hopeless, all big toes,
though the shortest is blessed with the ego to say yes
– to dance, to girls – and take charge,
making him a better partner, perhaps,than dancer,
but never mind. These were children
about to be lost to poverty, gangs, drugs, pregnancy –
yet by the end of the year, they are actually dancers,
bowing to one another, promenading
straight and tall and arm in arm. They sleek merengue,
showing off how well they feel the beat,
and when it comes to the tango, become par excellence
the gentlemen and ladies that ballroom dance
has surprised us-- them all in making of them.

Posted by pamwagg at February 19, 2007 09:44 PM


Hi Beth,

Thanks so much for your encouragement of my poetry. You would be surprised at my lack of confidence, despite what it seems like on the page. I'm always sure each poem will prove what a fool I am.

To answer your question, it is "poet". "Poetess" was invented by men as a put-down for women poets, whom they thought incapable of writing "real poetry". Read Mary Oliver or Linda Pastan or Elizabeth Bishop or Tess Gallagher or Emily or Amy Lowell (the list goes on) and judge for yourself! :)

Posted by: Pam W at February 20, 2007 04:15 PM

Pam -

You are, without doubt, the Queen Poet. Or is it Poetesse? Hmmm....serious question.

Posted by: Elizabeth Grace at February 20, 2007 03:58 PM

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