Kay Ryan (born 1945)
U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010)
Poetry Day (April 1, 2010)
Poetry Day:
Questions for Writers

Conversation with
Kay Ryan

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2010

Peter Y. Chou
March 9, 2010

Calliope, Muse of Poetry
from Muses Urania & Calliope (1634)
by Simon Vouet (1590-1649)

Preface: Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010) gave the Stanford Poetry Class on March 2, 2010 her "Notes for Poetry Day" upcoming video simulcast to the nation's community colleges from the Library of Congress (April 1, 2010). She shared her eight pages of handwritten drafts of "The Other Shoe" before typing up the final version (Niagara River). It was fascinating to see her creative process at work— trial and error, crossing out words and sentences, even sketching a shoe on one of the drafts. In her "Some Advice to Student Writers", Kay listed four under "Habits" and four under "Process". Our homework assignment for next week is to answer one of the eight "Student Writer" questions. Three of the questions appealed to me, so in this essay I will focus on habit of work, most distant poles of reading, and a word, phrase, or thought attracting me lately.

Poetry Day— April 1, 2010

I like the logo "Poetry for the Mind's Joy" showing golden light glowing inside the orange human head. The flower petals and wheels appear as mandalas for meditation. Light snowflakes fade faintly into a field of blue symbolize purity in the sky's expanse as a metaphor for poetry. The phrase "Birds that love high trees and winds and riding..." pouring from the lips could be the first line of a poem. It's a beautifully designed logo, fitting for inspiring students to write. May this logo launch me off for this week's essay.

How have you created a "habit of work" for yourself?

    As a writer, I have not disciplined myself to read widely contemporary poetry in books and magazines to improve my craft. When I began my spiritual quest for enlightenment at Cornell (1967), I devoured the writings of mystics, saints, and sages, so my mind would be uplifted to experience the supernal realms. When studying protein structure, I read voluminously biochemical papers in journals on amino acid sequences and X-ray crystallographic analysis of proteins, so I could predict their conformation accurately (1970-1980). When I ceased to write rhyming verse (1987), I typed up a few hundred free verse poems to learn how to write modern poetry. But I've not kept up this fervor to read more poems. My best experience in poetry writing came at Foothill College Thursday Poetry Workshops (1987-1995) with Dick Maxwell and classmates who provided good feedback in polishing my poems. I've participated in the monthly Palo Alto Waverley Writers Poetry Reading (1987-present), but I've not submitted my poems for publication. Emily Dickinson's 366 poems written in 1862, averaging a poem a day inspired me to write a haiku a day in 2007. Thanks to the classical music on KDFC 102.1 FM that wakes me each morning, I've composed haikus on my mood to the music played. I've also added web links to the composers, music, performers, and YouTube files for my own references as well as sharing them with readers. These haikus were written as exercises in mindfulness— an attempt to catch the fleeting moment in my daily walks, while reading, listening to music, and pondering about life. So far, I've managed to write two haikus a day for the last three years and am enjoying this daily discipline (Haikus: 2007; 2008, 2009, 2010). I've also written haikus to accompany photos of my hikes in the Bay Area (Nature Walks 2008, 2009). Last year, Mark Doty told his Stanford Poetry Workshop students to imitate Whitman's Song of Myself, so I wrote poems with long Whitmanesque lines. Although Kay Ryan did not ask us to bring poems in for class critiques, her weekly essay assignments and reading Calvino's "Lightness" inspired several short poems where I strove for lightness. (Image: Photo of "Stone Face" from an Easter hike (March 23) at Pulgas Ridge, San Carlos. On the Dick Bishop Trail, someone made a "Stone Face" with six simple twigs. The surprise discovery inspired this haiku: "Stone Face smiles at me / from his dreams enlivened by / artist's magic touch.")

What are the most distant poles of your reading? (From the "slight" to the "profound")

    I read the New York Times daily and bookmarked some 50,000 articles from May 2000 to July 2007. I loved the Tuesday Science Section and William Safire's Sunday column "On Language". I did this religiously for almost seven years in honor of my Dad who read New York Times daily for over 50 years. I composed a web page on Charles Schulz & Peanuts when he died (Feb. 12, 2000) and Comics on the Internet. However, I don't read comics online and prefer the hard copy in San Jose Mercury News after dinner. It's light reading and my favorites are Peanuts, Blondie, Rhymes with Orange, Frank and Ernest. I enjoy the latter for its humorous puns and philosophical insights (Image: Bob Thaves, Frank and Ernest, June 2, 2002). Another comics favorite is Henry Botinoff's Hocus-Focus, the two-panel cartoon that asks the sharp-eyed reader to "Find at least six differences in details between panels." This feature appears in Daily Post, and I try to solve the puzzle during my nightly ride home on Bus #22 (2:00-2:15 am) after leaving Stanford Green Library at 1 am. While comics provide pleasure and relaxing reading for the mind, books on metaphysics require a more strenuous endeavor. Foremost among these are the writings of Wei Wu Wei (1895-1986), pseudonym for Terence Gray, a self-enlightened Irish sage who pointed me to the writings of Ramana Maharshi and Paul Brunton. Discovering his book Open Secret in the Cornell stacks (1968) was a lightning bolt to me as I was just beginning my spiritual quest following Buddha's Eightfold Path to enlightenment. I've told this story in "Wei Wu Wei: Open Secret and will instead cite an example of his writing— Ch. 46: The Illusion of Enlightenment— If you have the basic understanding that the primal Buddha-nature is that of all sentient beings, it follows that anyone who thinks that any action can lead to his 'enlightenment' is turning his back on the truth: he is thinking that there is a 'he' there to be 'enlightened', whereas 'enlightenment' is a name for the state wherein there is no separate individual at all, and which is that of all sentient beings, a name for what the are, but which cannot be recognized by anyone who believes himself to be an autonomous individual. That is why only the action of non-action, the practice of non-practice, unmotivated non-volitional functioning, can lead to that recognition or awakening, and why any kind of action, practice or intentional procedure is an unsurmountable barrier to such awakening." (p. 100) Image: In 1980 Wei Wu Wei sent me a gift copy of Open Secret (1965). (Here's another web posting from Ch. 72: Dialogues, pp. 153-155).

What is a word, phrase, or bit of thought that has attracted you lately?

    Kay Ryan began our Stanford Poetry Workshop (January 5, 2010) with Italo Calvino's "Lightness" which prompted me to look for lightness in poetry (George Oppen's "Chartres", 1962), music (Erik Satie's Gymnopédia #1, 1888), painting (Monet's The Seine at Giverny, Morning Mists, 1897), and sculpture (Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space, 1923). Pondering on the theme of lightness inspired four poems— "Lightness", "Tree of Lightness", "Lotus", and "A Sea of Steps". While I'd like to give more examples of lightness in poems discovered recently, another thought has surfaced after my essay on "Mother Goose". I found a new gem in Mother Goose Rhyme #590— Go to bed first, / A golden purse; / Go to bed second, / A golden pheasant; / Go to bed third, / A golden bird." What I like about this poem is that no matter whether you go to bed first, second, or third— your reward is golden! Is that not the nature of sleep— for peace and silence are golden. Suddenly the word and thought of "gold" occupied my total attention. Soon I was writing a poem "Three Epiphanies of Gold" for the chemist, astronomer, and philosopher. On the microscopic scale, Gold (chemical symbol Au) is next to Mercury (chemical symbol Hg) as atoms with atomic numbers 79 and 80 in the Periodic Table of Elements. It just dawned upon me that AuHg is an anagram for "A Hug". On the macroscopic scale, the Sun is next to Mercury the planet, so they're practically hugging each other. Mercury's caduceus can turn things to gold. So as a symphony conductor, Mercury waves his winged wand, and all he sees is the Sun's pure golden light. Since man is midway between the atom and the star, is there a Mercury & Gold connection is us too? Since mercurial means inconstant and ever-changing, it symbolizes our body that's temporal, aging and dying. But our soul is sun-like and eternal, the golden treasure within this mercurial body. The Hindu Vedantic sage Ramana Maharshi would remind us of the Mandukya Upanishad (circa 500 BC) on the fourth state of consciousness turiya that is our true essence. Joseph Campbell in explaining this idea to Bill Moyers on PBS's Power of Myth used AUM to respresent our three states of consciousness— A (waking), U (dream), M (deep sleep). Yogis chanting OM or AUM to experience enlightenment finally realize the fourth state turiya is the silence between the AUM's. It took me awhile to realize this insight through the example of H2O as the essence of ice, liquid, and vapor. Likewise silence is the substratum out of which arises the waking, dream, and deep sleep states. Since "silence is golden", our true Self is golden! (Images: Constanin Brancusi, Bird in Space (1923), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; William Blake, Glad Day (1794), British Museum, London, Blake's Notebook). It is interesting that the Poetry Day Logo shows an orange head filled with golden light— this is the poet's delight weaving words on paper to gold for flight of the imagination. That's why Blake's painting Glad Day shows an exuberant youth with arms outstretched surrounded with golden light.

Final Reflections:

After writing the Notes to "Three Epiphanies of Gold", another poem blossomed "Golden Bough". It was Mother Goose Rhyme #590 that made me aware "sleep is golden" for peace and silence experienced in sleep is golden. It occurred to me that Kay's first assignment on "Lightness" prompted me to Dante's Purgatorio Canto 9 where Hypnos (God of Sleep) and Lucia (Patron Saint of Eyesight), symbolic of Yin-Yang (Night-Day or Darkness-Light), took their leave after setting Dante down on top of Mt. Purgatory. Since the sleep state (golden silence) is empty, it is devoid of objects, hence lighter than the dream and waking states. When writing "What Makes a Poem Lasting?" and Housman's organ for poetry, I cited Plato's organ of the soul that outweighs 10,000 physical eyes (Republic, VII.527e). Blake would agree that this organ is golden. I was not aware of gold themes in my essay "Poetry and Prayer" until now. Reading Day by Day with Bhagavan (1968), Ramana Maharshi said "Sleeping or stilling the mind is real prayer" (March 5, 1946, p. 178). Hence prayer = sleep = golden. Writing on "Narrative & Eposidic Minds", I paid homage to my first spiritual mentor, Anthony Damiani, founder of Wisdom Goldenrod, and Paul Brunton whose words always appear golden. So in "Three Epiphanies of Gold" and "The Golden Bough", I've come full circle to that treasure— the golden thread running through these essays. Thanks to Kay Ryan for teaching us this semester in Stanford's Poetry Workshop for she is such a wonderful gift of gold. (Image: Adam McLean's Alchemical & Hermetic Emblems: A066— Woodcut from Johann Sterhals Ritter-Krieg, Erfurt, 1595. No title given for woodcut, but it appears to be the Sun-God Apollo with his caduceus before he exchanged it for Mercury's lyre to become the god of poetry.)

— Peter Y. Chou, March 9, 2010

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| What Makes a Poem Lasting? | Poetry & Prayer | Nonsense Rhymes in Mother Goose |
| Three Epiphanies of Gold | Notes: Three Epiphanies | Poems 2010 | Haikus 2010 | Home |

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