Allen Ginsberg begins his essay titled “Meditation and Poetics” with this paragraph:
It’s an old tradition in the West among great poets that poetry is rarely thought of as “just poetry.” Real poetry practitioners are practitioners of mind awareness, or practitioners of reality, expressing their fascination with the phenomenal universe and trying to penetrate to the heart of it. Poetics isn’t mere picturesque dilettantism or egotistical expressionism for craven motives grasping for sensation and flattery. Classical poetry is a “process” or experiment—a probe into the nature of reality and the nature of the mind.
And the poet Philip Whalen makes the same point in a poem when he says something like “I don’t want to be another pretty poety-boo; I want to be a world.”
For me this sense of making poetry—or art, any art—as a heroic undertaking whose cost and goal is everything, sounds about right—providing you don’t get too excited about it, seeing it as anything more or less than any human being is doing, or would do, if he or she reflected for a few minutes about what is a worthwhile and reasonable way to spend a human life. So: 1) art isn’t just another job, it’s an endless exploration, and as with any exploration there are proliferating avenues of pursuit and no final successes; and 2) art is a necessity for humans, and we all need to find a way to participate in it.
The reason we need art so desperately I would say is that the world and we ourselves persist in being made. There is something exhausting and troublesome in the madeness of the world and in the madeness of ourselves. What is made has always the quality of limitation or unsatisfactoriness. Madeness captures us into a vicious cycle of desiring more madeness or better madeness, and the madeness we get only makes us want to make improvements or additions. Art-making is an anti-making. It is an anti-making because it is a making of what is useless. This is what makes art art, that it is useless, that it doesn’t accomplish anything beyond simply being what it is, and that this is the source of its liveliness. Any piece of art stares us in the face as a record of a person’s commitment to the confrontation with the made, a confrontation one is bound to come away from second best. And yet one does it, and reaches a peak of exaltation in the doing of it, and the artwork facing the viewer or hearer is a phenomenal testament to that useless confrontation, which by virtue of its supreme failure calls our life into question.
If you really look at a piece of art, hear a piece of music or poetry, or see a dance, you walk away wondering about your life. This is what these objects are supposed to do; this is why artists make such sacrifices in the doing of what they do—because this doing is the undoing at least temporarily of what was done to them in their lives and would do them in to the point of death or madness if it weren’t undone in the process of making art.
One of the qualities of artwork that has always impressed me is its unstable nature. The artwork is its physical presence—its words or notes or paint—and yet it isn’t that. If you are hit in the face by a plank, you will definitely be hit by it and will feel the effects of it no matter whether you believe in planks or not, no matter whether you are in the mood for the sensation of pain or not. But if you make an effort to experience an artwork, you may not experience anything at all—it may strike you as a meaningless hunk of this or that, hardly worth a second look. Imagine an artwork sent from one gallery to another for a major show. Of all the people that will come into contact with that work—movers, curators, technicians who hang the work, security guards, the perhaps thousands of people who will file by to see it—of all these only a few, a very few, will actually experience it as an artwork. And even those few might come back to the gallery the next day and not at all be able to fathom why the day before the work moved them so; or even if they could say why it moved them, that would only be a memory. The actual experiencing of the painting has occupied only a few seconds or perhaps minutes in the hours and hours of human contact with the work.
In other words, real experience of art is extremely rare, and it is fleeting, unstable. The poet Paul Valéry said of poetry that it is “completely irregular, inconstant, involuntary and fragile, and that we lose it, as we find it, by accident.” I think it is a fantastic thing that people place such enormous value on something like this, something so evanescent that we are really hard-pressed to say whether it actually exists or not. To some extent, we value art out of long habit, or perhaps because it has become a good business. Yet, at bottom, there remains the mystery of the uselessness of art, of the shifting and unmade quality of it, and of the tremendous need that we have for the unmade and the undone, no matter how unstable or accidental our experience of it may be.
I want to go a little further in considering what the actual experience of this unmadeness might be. In all our acts of perception we make clear and hard and fast distinctions, literally creating with our minds and sense organs a world of separate things that pile up until there is a great weight of them. We make ourselves in the same way, as objects among or within other objects, and we get buried in the process, overcome with all the conflict involved in all those objects bumping into one another. So there are decisions and considerations. And, above all, there is the constant desire for more organization, although there is always less organization, because as soon as the world gets a little organized, along comes something else and there is disorganization again, and the need to make something else to counteract that, and the weight of it wants to pull the house down.
The work of art, by contrast, is entirely organized and therefore peaceful. Artistic form is the expression of this peaceful, contemplative organization that is essentially an unpiling of the piling up of distinctions that make up our lives. The work of art unpins everything, undoing us in the process; it raises a million questions that amount to one question: who are we and what are we doing here? This question seems to soothe us if it doesn’t disturb us. What I mean by organization is a feeling of pattern or completion beyond thought. In the light of the experience of the work of art, the world makes sense because it is no longer made of weighty and disparate parts; it is a connected, integral and yet insubstantial world of nuance and shimmer—what we call beauty. Beauty is not necessarily pretty: it is, rather, this accidental sensation, before we think about it and therefore make something of it, of connection, perfection, freedom. Beauty literally hypnotizes us, catapults us into another world.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once held a duck’s head down on a straight white chalk line drawn on a billiard table. When he lifted his hand the duck remained motionless. Hopkins wrote, “They explain that the bird fancies she is still held down and cannot lift her head as long as she looks at the chalk line, which she associates with the power that holds her. . . . But this seems inadequate. It is most likely the fascinating instress of the straight white stroke.” “Instress” is the term Hopkins coined to refer to the power of direct perception, free of definition and habit. He considered it clear evidence of the existence of God. The duck, Hopkins is saying, was mesmerized not by becoming habituated to the hand on her neck but by virtue of her total engagement with the unmade, instressed experience of the chalk line. For us, art is that chalk line: it points to the transcendental quality of everything in our perceptual world.
All of what I have been saying is perhaps a Buddhist perspective on art, although I have a strong resistance to the idea of a Buddhist perspective on anything for reasons that are probably obvious from what I have said already. So please take the words “Buddhist perspective” with a grain of salt, and understand them as shorthand for a way of looking at the world that is essentially unmade and undefined. We can’t get away with that of course. We will always have to be someplace and be called something, so we will have to use terms somehow in the hope that we remain willing to have them deconstructed right before our eyes and to find their deconstruction amenable.
• • •
In the practice of meditation we are not trying to do anything other than to undo everything and simply be present as directly as possible with phenomena that arise. This necessarily involves a moment-by-moment letting go of definition and perception and thought. I do not mean that we would attempt to become stupid, blank-minded and unthinking. Rather that we would let the world come and go as it naturally does, without trying to stop it at some arbitrary point of our own conscious or unconscious choosing. Which, of course, is what we try to do by making a world up, piling it up, as I have said, and becoming its victim.
In meditation we happily enter a radically simple, even absurd, situation—just sitting still and breathing—so that we have the possibility of seeing how this troublesome world is made. Although we may not be able to do anything with this meditation practice, it does serve as a kind of training, helping us, by familiarity, to become directly used to the actual situation that prevails more or less within being. Meditation practice is a return, over and over again every moment, to the world’s vacant center, to its freedom from all our ideas and wishes. As I see it, the job of all art, or living, is to appreciate and authenticate what is—life simply as it appears—to serve as a reminder, an instance or exemplar, of that. The Russian literary theorist Viktor Shlovsky said, “To make a stone stony: that is the purpose of art.” One might say the same of meditation practice.
Why don’t we experience a stone as stony? Why do we persistently resist coming alive to the world as it is in front of our faces? Why must we practice Buddhist meditation or go to all the trouble of making art simply to return to where we are and have been all along? I think it is because of the way thought works in us. To be present in the midst of being what we are is a pure sensation that we can never exactly apprehend. It is fleeting and ungraspable. Thought is always coming a second afterward, telling us something, singing a song of the past. Thought includes the aroma of our being alive, but it also includes so much that is made, so much of doing and piling up, that it tempts us necessarily away from ourselves. To find within our thought and perception (for perception is already thought) a settled, free and unmade place takes effort, and this is the effort of art, and also the effort of meditation practice. Valéry again: “Between voice and thought, between thought and voice, between presence and absence, oscillates the poetic pendulum.” This reminds me very much of the saying of the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
Zen master Dogen wrote a well-known text called Genjokoan, which I translate as “Koan of the Present Moment.” In it, Dogen points out that we do not need to take on some old saying of the masters in order to confront directly the issue at hand; in fact, each moment of our lives, if we would let go of our definitions and protections and elisions and lean fully into it, begs the question: What is to be done? What is this moment after all?
Here is a well-known passage from Genjokoan:
To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be confirmed by all things. This confirmation is the dropping off of body and mind of oneself and all others. It is enlightenment that dissolves all its traces, and the tracelessness goes on endlessly.
“To study Buddhism is to study the self.” This means that one looks deeply and honestly at the way in which one’s life actually unfolds—looks, enters and allows. This is always interesting, always provides a path forward, no matter what it is that arises. That anything arises at all is always miracle enough, whether we like it or not, so there is no judgment or resistance necessary, and even where there is judgment or resistance there is a settling into that with appreciation and awe.
“To study the self is to forget the self” means that once you practice in that way, your definitions and hedges against yourself fall away, and you can be perfectly happy going on with life, simply life, without any need to make anything out of it.
“To forget the self is to be confirmed by all things.” Allowing things to be as they are without any protection is to appreciate the materials at hand. In everyday living, as in art-making, which might not be so different after all
from everyday living, there is a sense of form and presence in each and every thing that comes forward.
“The dropping off of body and mind of oneself and all others” is harder to see, for it expresses the freedom that one would feel in the renunciation of everything, being willing to live as one is right now, without any need to hold
on to life now or in the future, and to see that everything shares in this already.
Finally (“It is enlightenment that dissolves its traces, and the tracelessness goes on endlessly”), this sense of life as anything distinctive dissolves. It doesn’t look like anything. In the useless and unmade space and time of actual living, there is a subtle endlessness and namelessness that is delightfully available to everyone at all times.
I take this vision of Dogen to be more or less descriptive also of the process of making art—of the sense of art-making that I am advancing here, anyway, which is, following Ginsberg and Valéry, an inherently religious one. I do not want to conflate art and religion. I recognize that they are not the same thing, and yet I suppose it is inescapable that I am arguing that what we call the aesthetic impulse is at bottom identical to what we call the religious impulse.
Insofar as both art and religious practice always manifest in the world as we know it as particular things, both have serious built-in problems. Religion solidifies into doctrinaire narrow-mindedness or institutional power-brokering, or usually both, and art solidifies into money if it is successful and despair if it is not—a defeat in either case. I do not think I am the first to point out that art in our radically mercantile society is more or less doomed to become commodified, and that it is generally made for the wealthy and becomes for them in various ways a kind of sanitized and enriched currency. Even artists who do not make economically valuable artwork must create economically attractive explanations to attract funders to pay for the generally high costs of the art habit. Despite this, I do not think the situation is hopeless. Because if the artist can be clear about the nature of the project that he or she is finally concerned with—and can actively work at being clear about it, for clarity is never a given, it needs constant revision—just as the religious practitioner, which is any of us, can be clear about the project he or she is engaged in, it is possible to proceed with liveliness and integrity, despite the difficulties.
A final quote from Valéry:
The mind is terribly variable, deceptive and self-deceiving, fertile in insoluble problems and illusory solutions. How could a remarkable work emerge from this chaos if this chaos that contains everything did not also contain some serious chance to know one’s self and to choose within one’s self whatever is worth taking from each moment and using carefully?
And a poem of Dogen:
Being as it is,
In a waterdrop
Shaken from a crane’s beak: An image of the moon.
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