Letter on aesthetics
Originally published in brief 21 (September 2001): 6-8, in response to editor John Geraets’ call for a discussion of aesthetics among contributors to the magazine.
Thank you for your invitation to be part of the discussion about aesthetics. I appreciated reading the contributions in the last issue.
After a number of goes at putting something together I realise (or remember something I used to know) that the ideal mode for talking about aesthetics, for me, is in pieces of writing which are neither fiction nor non-fiction but a mix of both. The main difficulties I've come up against have had to do with overstating the case or understating it.
So I thought instead I'd offer some authors' names and some titles.
At the top of my list would be Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, which I was fortunate enough to uncover in the glovebox of my brother's transit van in the mid-eighties. It's been the largest shaper (other than my family) of my sense of aesthetics. After being woken by some Dylan Thomas poems as a teenager I had formed the notion that somewhere someone had written down exactly the script I needed. After over a decade of looking I was beginning to despair of ever finding it. This was it. It made so much sense I started practising zazen almost immediately.
Lately, another volume of Suzuki's talks has been published – Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen talks on the Sandokai, University of California Press, 1999. This is also a fine read.
Currently, I'm making my way through Thomas Cleary's Rational Zen: The mind of Dogen Zenji (Shambhala, 1995). Dogen is the thirteenth century teacher Suzuki often refers to. Cleary's copious notes are often easier to understand than his translations of Dogen. He comes out with such smart stuff as the following:
Although we say that Buddhahood, which means full awareness, is the birthright, the original nature, of all living beings, nevertheless the manifestation of this nature is inhibited by taking in and internalizing external influences during the course of mundane life. Therefore the stable manifestation of the original nature of Buddhahood can only come about through effective conditions, the conditions of consciousness-refining practices that will purify the mind of randomly acquired habits, and will also immunize the mind against arbitrary conditioning and will-less behaviour. (135-36)
Because individual mind-body equipment and life experiences are different, therefore the conditions that will manifest the original nature are also different for each individual. (136)
According to universalist Buddhist doctrine, the Buddha-nature . . . is none other than the real nature of human beings.
Also, the Buddhas may be taken to symbolize the transmundane, or absolute, while the child symbolizes the mundane, or relative. If one does not know the transmundane absolute, one has no objective perspective on the mundane relative. On the other hand, perfect knowledge of the relativity of the mundane ushers consciousness into knowledge of the transmundane absolute: ‘Anyone who knows a three-year-old child would know the enlightened ones of past, present, and future.’ (144)
Among the poets whose life and work I've had the most sympathy for and therefore who've probably had the biggest effect on my sense of aesthetics, in terms either of shaping or confirming it, foremost would be James K. Baxter and George Oppen.
Something of Oppen's that springs to mind is this from 'Two Romance Poems' (Collected Poems, 255):
. . .
but the pebbles on the beach the sense
say as much as I dare, as much as I can
I say all that I can What one would tell
of the scene I said the small paved area,
would be the poem
if one wrote it . . .
But the whole of the Collected Poems is a great read, beginning with the intense moments of presence of Discrete Series, which require and reward an intense presence of mind from the reader. As is Oppen's last book, Primitive.
There are some excellent publications on his work – Not Comforts//But Vision, Interim Press, 1985; Ironwood 20, ed. Michael Cuddihy, 1985. The following are some excerpts from his notebooks gathered by Charles Tomlinson to accompany his selection of Oppen's poems:
All speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape. I do not know why. Perhaps we may call it music . . . the mystery is that the ear knows . . . The word in one's own mouth becomes as strange as infinity – even as strange as the finite, strange as things . . . the poet learns almost everything from his own verse, his own prosody . . . meaning is the instant of meaning – and this means that we write to find what we believe . . . it is a music, quite simply, of image and honest speech – image because image is the moment of conviction . . . prosody is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in music . . . It tests the relation of things . . . it carries the sequence of disclosure . . . it is possible to mock poetry . . . but, eventually, I think, there is no hope for us but in meaning.
There's probably no need to draw attention specifically to anything in Baxter, he's so well known (and perhaps overlooked or taken for granted, sometimes sneered at, but mostly, I suspect, not that well understood).
There's the fantastic biography by McKay; # 13 of the Journal of New Zealand Literature from the University of Otago's Baxter Conference; O'Sullivan's Oxford monograph and his contribution to Pat Lawlor's The Two Baxters. There's the poetry itself, of course, which is always interesting to revisit.
Baxter never let go of his sense, or vision, of our 'original nature' (the words he used are not all that different, and to my mind amount to the same thing). It's all through his work, from him talking about the circumstances of the composition of his first poem:
I climbed up to a hole in a bank in a hill above the sea, and there fell into an attitude of listening out of which poems may arise – not the sound of the sea, but to the unheard sound of which poems are translations . . . (reprinted in Frank McKay's The Life of James K. Baxter, OUP, 1990)
through The Cold Hub, which really needs to be felt entire, but here are a few fragments:
And something bust inside me, like a winter clod
to the extraordinary prose of the Daybook and the concept of Wahi Ngaro of Autumn Testament:
Wahi Ngaro, the void from which all life comes . . .
Wahi Ngaro/ The limitless, the silent . . .
A homegrown version of Lu Chi's 'the void eternally generative'.