An Organ for Poetry?
Do I possess the organ by which poetry is perceived? A.E. Housman asks in his
1933 Cambridge Lecture "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (p. 33) and concludes that most
people don't have the organ for poetry. Housman says (p. 40) "For me the most poetical of all poets
is Blake... and I call him more poetical than Shakespeare." Since Housman has such high
regard for William Blake, I browsed through my The Portable Blake (1968) and found this interesting
passage (p. 518)
The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men,
whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer
the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy
supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all
that the mortal and perishing nature can produce... The painter of this work asserts that all
his imaginations appear to him infinitely more perfect and more minutely organized than any
thing seen by his mortal eye. Spirits are organized men.|
A Descriptive Catalogue, Number IV (1809)
From the above statement, we see that Blake regards Prophets, Apostles, and the visionary
painter (himself) as having imaginative and immortal organs that are more perfect than
mortal eyes. This harkens back to Plato's Republic, VII.527e:
"there is in every soul an organ or instrument of knowledge
that is purified and kindled afresh by philosophic studies when it has been destroyed and blinded by our ordinary
pursuits, a faculty whose preservation outweighs ten thousand eyes, for by it alone is reality beheld."
That Blake admires Plato may be seen in his "Eternity is in love with the production of time"
(The Book of Urizen)
which he borrowed from Plato's Timaeus, 37d:
"Time is the moving image of Eternity." If poetry describes reality better than other forms of literature,
Plato's organ in the soul that outweighs 10,000 eyes seems to be the perfect instrument for perceiving poetry.
Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to this organ of perception as from God:
Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual. A certain wandering light
comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself
the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life. That is one
fact, then; that in certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were,
his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He.|
Emerson's Journal, May 26, 1837|
Housman, Blake, Plato, and Emerson all mention this "organ of perception" that is superior to mortal eyes.
This Divine Eye within us is also alluded by Christ
"The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light."
This "singleness of eye" is none other than single mindedness, the attention which poets need to focus upon in their craft and readers
when studying great poetry. Ezra Pound says
"Poetry is heightened intensity, simplicity, and precision born of concentrated attention." William Carlos Williams
says "Poetry is a lifetime of careful listening." William Stafford says "Poetry is invitation to attention, an
alertness about life right at the time of living it, a dizzying struggle with the Now-ness of experience."
Mary Oliver ends "Upstream" from Blue Iris (2004) with this insight: "Attention is the beginning of devotion."
In Merging with Siva (2002),
Subramuniyaswami outlines five steps to enlightenment:
"Attention, concentration, meditation, contemplation, and Self-Realization." Being
attentive to our daily task is the first step to enlightenment.
What Makes a Poem Lasting?
A second topic discussed in class was "What Makes a Poem Lasting?" Housman mentions the Christian poet
John Keble [1792-1866]
admired for his beautiful poetry (p. 34), but we don't read him anymore. Kay told us that
Helen Hunt Jackson [1830-1885] was a popular writer in her day, but her works didn't last. Her contemporary Emily Dickinson and a classmate
was virtually ignored during her lifetime, but now we consider Emily's poetry immortal. Kay said "If you write
in the comfort zone of your time, then you'll be doomed in the future." Jeff then said "I'm chasing the secret
so people will read my poems!" Kay told us her answer to an Entertainment Weekly interviewer:
"I would like to have my poems burned into the code of the universe." Then we discussed what makes a poem lasting.
Poems about gender inequality or those dependent on historical settings may be outdated with time. Although
Allen Ginsberg's poems are popular in the 20th century, several students felt his poems will be dated
by the drug culture. Kay doesn't believe that Howl will last
because it is too loose. Kay says Robert Frost is deeply ingrained in our culture, and
stands a better chance to be lasting.
I wondered about enduring literature back in 1964 at Cornell.
During the 1964 Presidential Election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson,
Time Magazine cited
Barry Lyndon, a 1844 novel by William Thackeray (1811-1863). I was curious
that Thackeray's book forecasted the names of U.S. Presidential candidates 120 years ago. I went to the
Cornell Olin Library stacks and found copies of Barry Lyndon and was surprised at the rows of Thackeray's
novels. I wondered to myself "Obviously, here's a writer extremely popular in the 19th century, but we don't
read him anymore." However, his contemporary Charles Dickens (1812-1879) is still popular today.
What are the ingredients in literature that make a work a classic that will be read for hundreds and even
thousands of years? Is there something in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe that makes their works
everlasting? It can't be professors making college students read these classics, but that these authors
evoked something that is eternal, transcending culture, space, and time.
Around 1967, I found an answer in Richard Bucke's
Cosmic Consciousness (1901).
No wonder the works of Balzac, Blake, Buddha, Dante, Lao Tzu, Plato, Whitman, and
Wordsworth are classic these authors experienced enlightenment. Instead of espousing their
egocentric views of likes and dislikes, they tapped into the human soul that's eternal.
I learned from the Chinese sage Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529) who wrote:
The mind is like a mirror. The sage's mind
is like a clear mirror, whereas that of the ordinary person is like
a dull mirror. The theory of the investigation of things in recent times
says that it works like a mirror reflecting things and the effort is to be
directed toward the passive role of reflecting. They don't realize that
the mirror is still dull. How can it reflect? The investigation of things
in our Teacher's theory is like polishing the mirror to make it clear.
The effort is to be directed toward the active role of polishing.
When the mirror is clear, it does not cease to reflect.|
Instructions for Practical Living or Ch'uan-hsi lu (1518), I.62|
I realized that if one's mind is like a dull mirror that's dusty and foggy,
any work produced will not be accurate and not long lasting. I began
meditation to clear my mind so I could do better research in analyzing
protein structures. In Kawazu Awase (1686), the haiku master Basho (1644-1694)
wrote: "Go to the pine or bamboo if you want to learn about the pine or bamboo.
Leave your ego behind, otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.
Your poetry comes naturally when you have become one with the object. When you
plunge deep into the object, you'll see a hidden glimmering there."
Rilke did this on Rodin's advice, went to the Paris Zoo and wrote his in-seeing "Panther" poem
(see "First Poem in Paris")
that has become a classic.
Dante completed La Vita Nuova (1294) when he was 29 years old. Yet he felt that his love sonnets
still did not do justice to honor the beauty and blessedness of his dear Beatrice. So he vowed to write
a poem to honor his beloved that has never been written of any woman. Dante fulfilled this promise 27 years
later just before his death, when he finished La Commedia (1321) the greatest love poem about
the soul's ascent from Inferno to Purgatory to Paradise. What's insightful about this journey is that the
poet Virgil took Dante only up to the heights of Mount Purgatory. From that point onward, only Beatrice
could guide Dante to Paradise. Here Dante would learn about universal gravitation as he flies through
the heavenly spheres, sharing with us his celestial vision, and concluding Paradiso with
by Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars. When I had
with Professor John Freccero, I told him that Dante's gravitation ideas preceded Newton's
Principia by 366 years,
Freccero told me to look up Mark A. Peterson's "Dante and the 3-Sphere" which I found in
American Journal of Physics, Vol. 47, 1031-1035 (1979).
After reading this paper in the Stanford Physics Library,
I was awed that Dante's account of ever increasing
momentum of the outer stars can only be explained by Einstein's relativity equations
for the 3-Sphere. So Dante's Paradiso
is not only poetically beautiful and breathtaking, but is also scientifically precise 650 years
after he wrote it. Because Dante had experienced cosmic consciousness, he perceived
the infinite and eternal, so his poem is a classic and everlasting.
Where do you feel poetry? Where is the organ?
Near the end of our class, Kay asked "Where do you feel poetry? Where is the organ?" Since we have
five organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin) for the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch),
is there a sixth organ for the sixth sense (ESP or extra-sensory perception) to experience poetry?
In the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas",
the line "5 golden rings" is given special prominence when sung.
It is the only line in the song devoid of birds or humans. As such it forms a link from earth (people on
the ground) to heaven (birds of the air). The 5 rings also remind us of the 5 fingers on our
hand and the 5 senses our window to the world. However, if we forget Christ's parable of the
"5 wise & the 5 foolish virgins"
(Matthew 25:1-13), we may be too
engrossed in the material world with our 5 outer senses,
that when the Bridegroom cometh, we're unprepared without oil, our candle wicks unlit. Meditation prepares
us for the angelic calling, when we tune into our 5 inner senses "Eye of the eye, Ear of the ear,
Voice of the voice, Mind of the mind, Life of the life"
The Hindu philosophy teaches us that there are 5 body sheaths: Food, Air, Mental, Intellectual, Bliss,
or classified as the Gross Body (Food, Air), Subtle Body (Emotional, Intellectual), and Causal Body (Bliss
or Vasanas). When our attention is focused on the Subtle & Causal Bodies, then our mind and heart
are ready like the 5 wise virgins ready to be enlightened, to experience Cosmic Consciousness.
Once awakened, the sage returns to the market place and shares his visionary gifts with the world
(Tenth Oxherd Painting),
as in the case of William Carlos Williams' poem "The Great Figure".
I feel the organ for poetry is a pure mind comparable to a spotless mirror alluded by
the sage Wang Yang Ming or a clear lake that reflects true images from the world.
One of the most powerful definitions of poetry and my favorite may be found in
Emily Dickinson's 1870 remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,
I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
When one's head is chopped off, where are the sense organs? Is Emily having an out-of-body
experience (OBE) when she's
reading and writing poetry? This would be similar to what Basho said "Leave your ego behind...
Your poetry comes naturally when you have become one with the object." Then, we find that
sudden glimmering embracing us, that even Dante has to drop his pen
Peter Y. Chou, February 2, 2010