Jack Kornfield is well known as a meditation teacher, storyteller and poetry lover. In this June 2006 interview, Alan Fox began by asking him about the beginnings of his appreciation for poetry. A longer version of the interview first appeared in Fox’s poetry journal, Rattle.
Jack Kornfield: I discovered the world of poetry around the same time that I became interested in Buddhist practice. I was attending university at Dartmouth. I was beginning to study science and pre-med. Dr. Wing-Tsit Chan, an emeritus professor from Harvard, came to start a philosophy department at Dartmouth. I took a course in Asian philosophy from him, and he sat cross-legged on the desk on occasion and would hold forth about Lao-tzu and the Buddha. I found it touched me in a way that organic chemistry didn’t. [Laughter] Although, there is a poetry in chemistry as well.
Then, living for years as a Buddhist monk in Ajahn Chah’s monastery in Thailand, I found a deep tradition of poetry as an expression of the awakened heart. The very first words that the Buddha uttered after his enlightenment were,
“Oh house-builder, thou art seen at last. . . . Smashed is the ridgepole, broken the rafters, open to the freedom of the world, no more imprisoned by sorrow am I.”
So the Buddha’s very first enlightened words were a poem. As I began to study in the monastery, I saw that poetry was really the linguistic voice of the inner life.
Alan Fox: In regard to the inner life, how does poetry differ from other types of writing?
JK: It’s spare and tough and tender and gets under your flesh down to someplace deep in the psyche and in the bones. But I’m not so much a poet as a kind of “poet groupie,” a follower of poets. Some people follow their favorite rock star; for me it would be much more thrilling to go and hear my favorite poet. And I use the poems of others in my teaching, to help remind people of the possibilities in their spirit and in the world.
These days I love reading from Middle Eastern poets because we’re in this insane war in the homeland of poets like Hafiz and Rumi. Hafiz says a poet is someone who can create a goblet out of words and fill it with the most delicious wine for your parched lips to drink. Something like that. I think Rumi is now the most popular poet in the U.S. due to Coleman Barks and all the wonderful translations.
I especially honor all these fantastic poems of Rumi, who described in The Mathnawi that his poetry was like an ocean. He was like Mozart. I don’t think Mozart wrote his symphonies, he heard them—there was a divine inspiration. Rumi would walk around “cooking the joy soup,” as he said. Someone would walk next to him with a notepad and write it down while Rumi would spew forth language of divine inspiration and vision.
And so for me poetry is a force that has risen out of our cultures worldwide. Today we’re in this amazing position because we have the greatest poetry of the ages available to us—Rilke, and Rumi and Kabir from India, and Li Po from China, to name a few. Actually, it’s kind of intimidating for me in terms of writing poetry because we have these masters, and they touch me very deeply. Then I just want to pass that poetry on to people.
AF: But you consider yourself more of a storyteller than a poet.
JK: Yes, and I really like stories about poetry and poets. There’s a story I love about Abdul Kassem Ismael, the Grand Vizier of Persia in the tenth century, who couldn’t bear to part with his 117,000-volume library of sacred texts and poetry when he traveled. So he had the books carried by a caravan of 400 camels trained to walk in such a way as to keep the library in alphabetical order. I like that story for its humor, but I also like it because it suggests how when we become poets or when we read great poetry, we’re really part of a lineage of thousands of years of human beings trying to give voice to something that’s inspired or heart-breaking, and often both.
One of the posters I carry when I teach is from a photograph of Vedran Smalovic, who was known as the “cellist of Sarajevo.” For the three years that Sarajevo was under siege in the Balkan War—with mortar fire and snipers, no one could get in or out, and many died—every afternoon Vedran would put on the tux that he wore to the Sarajevo national symphony, take a folding chair and his cello, and go out into the square to play music for the residents of Sarajevo so they wouldn’t give up hope. He played in spite of the fact that he could have been easily killed by a sniper or mortar fire. I see Vedran doing what a poet does, offering art in the face of both the beauty and horrors of life.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who’s been under house arrest for fifteen years in Burma, counts the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore as one thing that has kept her alive. Tagore was one of the first poets to win the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s a passage Suu Kyi quotes from Tagore:
“If they answer not your call, walk alone; if they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall, oh thou of evil luck, open the mind and speak out alone.”
Suu Kyi writes, “When I feel alone and I read his words, I realize that I have to keep the flame of my heart alive in this place, for myself and for the people that I love. And it’s poetry that keeps this flame alive.”
AF: That raises a question for me about whether the flame of poetry itself is still alive. Do you think the wisdom of poetry continues to find expression in this age of cell phones, television and the Internet?
JK: I think poetry remains a voice that can heal and transform. I watched Martin Scorsese’s film history of Bob Dylan not so long ago, which I loved. A friend put the tape in my hand and said, “This is the life of a poet.” When I watched it through those eyes, I saw Dylan stand up not as a rock singer or as a cultural icon but as a man who simply wouldn’t be caged. He had a poet’s voice that had to speak the truth.
I have worked in men’s groups together with some poets like Luis Rodriguez and Michael Meade, who’s a mythologist as well as a poet. We work with youth coming out of gangs, out of juvenile halls. One of the forms that Luis and Michael use quite a lot is to get young gang members to begin to listen to and write poems. When you first say to these young kids, “We’re going to talk about poetry,” their eyes roll, they pull their backward hats down further on their heads, and they seem to disappear. Then Luis will stand up and read a poem about shooting heroin down in the viaduct in L.A., or about the agonizing loss of community and dignity for the immigrants. Luis reads like a Mayan sacrifice; it’s like he opens his veins, and passion and love and desperation and eloquence pour out. The eyes of the young men start to open wider and wider. Then Luis reads another poem, and by the time he’s read four poems and starts to pass out paper, the youth realize there is a voice that’s also in them that wants to speak, and their own voices start to come out. I hear it in popular music and in rap music. There’s some terrible rap music, but there’s a voice in it that comes out of desperation, and that has to be heard.
So I see poetry as plants growing out of the sidewalk, in unexpected places, because it’s really the voice of people who need to say something wildly important to them. And I trust it. William Carlos Williams wrote,
“You can’t get the news from poetry, but men and women die every day for lack of what is found there.”
There is an account that I read, I think out of Harper’s magazine (and this talk is jazz for me, now I’m just doing jazz): not long after 9/11 a professor at Columbia University was walking down the hall in the school of the arts and ran into someone who said to him, “It all feels so absurd making art; what’s the point?” Obviously this person was in a great deal of trauma from the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings and the thousands of people who had died. The professor’s reply read: “To which I couldn’t answer any more than I could have answered if he’d been arguing about the redundancy of breathing or beauty. What could I say? That in June of 1945, workers reclaiming the Reich’s prisons in Buchenwald found poems folded into thick squares, stuffed up into the electrical wiring, so that a person locked in a cell awaiting interrogation or death would choose to write a poem on a piece of toilet paper so that their spirit facing death would never die.” So there’s a kind of responsibility in poetry, if we take it—not just a political responsibility but a responsibility to love, a responsibility to our children, a responsibility to the fading iris in the vase on my poet’s desk that shows me the declining cycle of my own sixty-one years.
I remember asking my dear friend and editor Jane Hirshfield what it meant to her, what poetry was for. One of the things she said was that she would like to have a few lines she wrote remain on the tongues of others after she’s gone. Then I told her one of my favorite poetry stories. Pablo Neruda, toward the end of his life, was invited to read in Caracas, Venezuela, in the great national theater there. Since he was the icon and the conscience and voice of much of Latin culture, the theater was filled with people celebrating him as only can be done in a society that still loves poetry in that way. He got up and read, gracious as he was, for quite a long time, and then he asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to hear?” Someone raised their hand and said, “Would you please read the last love poem in the book 20 Love Songs and a Song of Despair?” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t bring that with me.” Then 400 people stood up and recited the poem to him. As I tell this story, I think, Oh, what a culture that is, to have the voice of the poet in the hearts of so many people.
AF: You said earlier that poetry was really the linguistic voice of the inner life. Would you say poetry is more a way to connect with oneself or to connect with others?
JK: That’s like a koan. If you connect with yourself, do you connect with others? If you connect with others, do you connect with yourself? The answer is yes. That’s the good thing about koans. They can have all these incredible paradoxes, like poetry itself. So the answer is yes, yes.