Notes to Poem: Call to Poetry

Peter Y. Chou,

Preface: This poem was inspired by Elaine Scarry's lecture "The Call to Poetry" at Stanford Humanities Center on February 4, 2008. She focused on Seamus Heaney's poem "Lightenings: vi & vii" from Seeing Things (1991). Heaney's poem tells about Thomas Hardy as a child laying down on the ground in a field of sheep. During the Q&A session, John Bender asked about "the divine calling of poet as priest", why Elaine didn't cover "the religious dimension of poetry." Elaine said she didn't go there— "The more otherworldly the poets are, the less they attribute their poems to their creativity. They give credit to God. Blake says he's taking dictation for his poems. Hardy has a skeleton form before he writes the lines. He has 800 different metric structures in the 1000 poems he wrote. To be aware of one's act of creation intrudes on the veracity of what's created." Elaine Scarry's talk on "The Call to Poetry" stirred up my imagination. When I began learning poetry writing, I bought the Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, and loved his poem "Convergence of the Twain" on the meeting of the Titanic and the iceberg that caused its sinking. Especially memorable were his lines: "And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." I also loved the art and poetry of William Blake, feeling that he had an experience of cosmic consciousness and shared that vision in his writings. For my poem "Call to Poetry" I began with the cave paintings of Lascaux Caves— a bull waking me to poetry. I chose this image because the Hebrew letter Aleph is the father of the alphabet (Aleph-Bet), whose pictograph represents an ox. Its numerical value is one and alludes to the ineffable mysteries of the oneness of God. Later, I found an invocation in the Taittiriya Upanishad, I.iv.1: "May He (Om) who is the bull of the Vedic hymns, who assumes all forms, who has sprung from the immortal hymns of the Vedas— may that Indra (the Lord) cheer me with wisdom. O God, may I be the possessor of immortality!" (translated by Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads, Vol. IV, 1959, p. 18). Joseph Campbell's remarks that the Lascaux Cave is like the Notre Dame of Chartres cathedral where we enter a magical realm of transcendence. I followed this with Lao Tzu riding a water buffalo which alludes to the Ten Oxherd Drawings of Zen. Riding the bull is symbolic of mastering our emotions and stilling our mind for illumination. Lao Tzu's "uncarved block" is the blank page writers face each time we write. Lu Chi's Wen Fu advises: "Out of non-being, being is born; out of silence, the writer produces a song." Rumi and Dante share the "bread of angels" so we are treated to the beatific vision. Basho tells us to become one with the object if we wish to see its inner glimmering. Goethe says we must be a child again to experience nature anew. Blake opens the doors of perception so we could see the infinite. Beethoven, Keats, Baudelaire, Emily, and Rilke are all in tune with nature and invite us to join in the celebration of life. My last stanza is from Attar's Conference of the Birds where we are called back home to experience true freedom and transcendence right here on earth. This poem is a sonnet of 14 haikus with 42 lines. I will not go into the symbolism of 42 now except to quote Louis MacNeice's "Star-gazer" (1963): "Forty-two years ago (to me if no one else / The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night..."

Haiku in Poem Notes to Sources

France 1204, Prehistoric Painting,
Lascaux Cave, "The Hall of the Bulls"
1 franc, multicolored, issued April 13, 1968

Cave art is calling!
A bull rouses me from sleep—
Wake up to poetry!

Lascaux Cave Paintings (circa 14,000 B.C.)

In the great cave of Lascaux is a frieze of animals. On the left corner is this strange beast with these strange horns... In the lower chamber is a shaman with masked head of a bird on his baton de commandement... This is the men's sacred ground, the men's cave, is continued in ceremonial huts which are associated with rebirth. You enter the tiny little door as though it were the vulva and go into the mother body and everything inside is magical. We're in a magical field. When you go into a cathedral today, you are in a magical field. And the men who are in there are not the individual, they are in a role. They are the experiencer of the energy of nature coming through them. In a great cathedral such as Notre Dame de Chartres, our mother church, the mother body, you're in the magic realm again. The imagery is that of dream. The imagery is that of myth. The imagery is that of reference to transcendence.

Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth through Time
Harper & Row, New York, 1990, pp. 16-19

My experience at Chartres

Lao Tzu Riding Water Buffalo
by Chao Pu-chih (1053-1110)
appeared on a postage stamp—
China 1943 issued June 18, 1975
$4, Black, yellow, vermillion

Lao Tzu tosses me
an uncarved block— Polish it
and make your words shine!

Lao Tzu (604 BC-517 BC)

Tao Te Ching, Verse 37

The Tao never acts
yet nothing is left undone.
If rulers can hold fast to it,
people will change naturally.
Having changed, if desires rise again,
I'll rid of them with the uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
is free of all desires.
Being desireless, it is tranquil,
and the whole world will be at peace.

Translated by P. Y. Chou, "Tao of Writing" Seminar
Writers Connection, Cupertino, CA (April 23, 1988)

Uncarved block is like the rain-stained marble none would touch until Michelangelo chiselled and polished it into "David" (1504). In poetry, the uncarved block may be a rudimentary seed idea which is nourishted in the mind before it is inscribed on a blank page and fashioned into a poem after countless revisions.

Lu Chi advises
to keep still and silent
before your poem blossoms.

Lu Chi (261-303 A.D.)

The poet stands at the centre of the universe
contemplating the Enigma. He draws sustenance
from the masterpieces of the past...

He gathers his words & images from those unused
by previous generations; his music comes from
melodies unplayed for a thousand years or more.
The morning blossoms bloom;
soon the night buds will unfold...

Out of non-being, being is born;
out of silence, the writer produces a song.
The writer spreads the fragrance of new flowers,
an abundance of sprouting buds.
Laughing winds lift up the metaphor;
clouds rise from a forest of writing brushes.

Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (circa 302 A.D.)
Translated & afterword by Sam Hamill
Breitenbush Books, Portland, OR, 1987, pp. 10-11

Syria 1574, Jalal al-Din Rumi
25 Syrian pound, Multicolored,
issued Sept. 25, 2005, a joint issue
with Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan
to commemorate the 800th anniversary
of the birth of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207).

Rumi writes and whirls—
his joy of light dancing
from wheat to bread to you.

Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273)

God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground...

Part of the self leaves the body when we sleep
and changes shape. You might say, "Last night
I was a cypress tree, a small bed of tulips,
a field of grapevines."...

Tatatumtum tatum tatadum.
There's the light gold of wheat in the sun
and the gold of bread made from that wheat.
I have neither. I'm only talking about them,

as a town in the desert looks up
at stars on a clear night.

Rumi, "Unmarked Boxes"
translated by Coleman Barks,
The Essential Rumi (1995), p. 272

Sufi Dancer; Whirling Dervish;
Rumi founded the Mevlevi Order
of the Whirling Dervishes (Photos; Story)

Mexico C308,
Dante Alighieri by Raphael
Mount Parnassus, Vatican
2 peso, henna brown,
issued Nov. 23, 1965

Dante shares with us
the bread of angels while
soaring up to the stars.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Paradiso, II.1-12
(Translated by Allen Mandelbaum)

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.

You other few who turned your minds in time
unto the bread of angels, which provides
men here with life-but hungering for more—

The "bread of angels" is cited in Psalms 78.25 "Man did eat angels' food" and Wisdom 16.20 "You gave them the food of angels". In his Notes to Paradiso II.11, John Ciardi writes: "The bread of angels is the knowledge of God. It is by that, Dante says, that we are able to live, but no mortal man can grasp enough of it to become satisfied, the Divine Mystery being veiled from man." Dante writes: "Blessed are the few who sit at the table where the bread of the angels is eaten." (Convivio I.1.7). On his ascent to the stars, Dante says none has made such a journey. So he invokes Apollo, god of poetry as pilot and guide. He asks Minerva, goddess of wisdom to fill the sails of his ship, and the nine Muses to help him navigate to "the Bears" (Ursa Major & Ursa Minor, where the Pole Star resides).

Portrait of Matsuo Basho
by Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Basho sounds like a frog
croaking before plopping
into the pristine pond.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

The original Japanese:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Translation (Alan Watts):

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

30 translations of this haiku

In Kawazu Awase (1686), the haiku master Basho writes: "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 ("First Poem in Paris").
Commentary on Basho's frog haiku.

Germany 10NB9, Wolfgang von Goethe
50 pf + 25 pfennigs, Dark blue,
issued July 20, 1949 to commemorate
Goethe's birth bicentennial.

Goethe says only
children and birds know how
cherries and strawberries taste.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

"One must ask children and birds
how cherries and strawberries taste."

Conversations with Eckermann
(Sunday, June 15, 1928)
translated by John Oxenford,
introduction by Wallace Wood,
M. Walter Dunne, Washington, 1901, p. 260

No science experiments have been done comparing the taste buds of birds and humans. But scientific research has shown differences in tastes between kids and adults. Recent studies have shown that children have more taste buds than adults and are more receptive to bold flavors, but can often turn away from over-spiced foods. (Boston Globe, Jan. 30, 2008)

I admire Goethe as a poet and scientist and have tried to emulate him in my life. For Robert Pinsky's "Poetry Anthology", I've included two of Goethe's poems: "Harzreise" and Faust. My poem "Meeting Goethe in Heidelberg" is in appreciation of his exemplary life of continual creativity that has inspired much of my work.

Portrait of William Blake (1807)
painted by Thomas Phillips
National Portrait Gallery, London
This William Blake portrait
appeared on a postage stamp—
Romania 1220, 40 bani,
Deep blue, (May 31, 1958)

Blake opens the doors
of perception so we can
see the infinite.

William Blake (1757-1827)

If the doors of perception were cleansed
every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
all things thro' narow chinks of his cavern.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1792)

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Auguries of Innocence (1794)

"Exploring Silicon Valley" essay (1996)— fulfilling of Blake's prophecies on the Web in his poem "Europe" (1794):

My roots are brandish'd in the heavens,
    my fruits in earth beneath...
And who shall bind the infinite with an eternal band?...
Awake the thunders of the deep!...
Spread nets in every secret path...

France 1059, Ludwig van Beethoven
Birthplace at Bonn, Germany & Rhine River
20 centimes, Ochre, slate & bright green
issued April 27, 1963 to honor famous men
of the European Common Market countries.

Beethoven unveils
the hero within us—
Let the joy pour out!

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven's Letter to Karl & Johann van Beethoven,
October 10, 1802 (Heilgenstadt Testament)

As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered, so, too— my hope has dried up. Almost as I was when I came here, I leave again— even the courage— which often inspired me on lovely summer days— is vanished. O Providence— let a single day of untroubled joy be granted to me! For so long already the resonance of true joy has been unknown to me. O when— O when, Divine one— may I feel it once more in the temple of Nature and of mankind? Never?— no— that would be too hard!
(Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, Edited by Michael Hamburger, Anchor Books, NY, 1960, p. 34)

    After his depth of despair and near suicide, Beethoven made his breakthrough in his Symphony #3 "Eroica" (1804)— a new outburst of creative energy that changed symphonic music. Beethoven's "Heroic Symphony" may be dedicated to the hero in all of us. We too can rise from the valley of despair to heavenly heights if we dedicate ourselves to our art and love our work. Beethoven's 9th Symphony (1824) composed when he was totally deaf celebrates his "Ode to Joy" in song to cheer us all.

Great Britain 651, John Keats
3 pence, Dull blue, black & gold,
issued July 28, 1971 for the sesquicentennial
of the death of John Keats.

Keats invites us to his
philosophical garden
to watch falling leaves.

John Keats (1795-1821)

* John Keats, Letter to James Rice (March 24, 1818):

"What a happy thing it would be if we could settle
our thoughts, make our minds up on any matter in five
Minutes and remain content— that is to build a sort
of mental Cottage of feelings quiet and pleasant—
to have a sort of Philosophical Back Garden, and cheerful holiday-keeping front one— but Alas! this never can be: for as the material Cottager knows there are such places as France and Italy and the Andes and the Burning Mountains— so the spiritual Cottager has knowledge of the terra semi incognita of things unearthly; and cannot for his Life, keep in the check rein— Or I should stop here quiet and comfortable in my theory of Nettles."

* John Keats, Letter to John Taylor (Feb. 27, 1818):

"If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves
to a tree, it had better not come at all."
  (Tree Poem)

France 666, Charles Baudelaire
8 francs, Purple, issued October 27, 1951

Baudelaire's poet—
an albatross with giant wings
monarch of the clouds.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

"The Albatross", Les Fleurs du Mal (1857)

Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders upon the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side...

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

— translated by Richard Wilbur

United States 1436, Emily Dickinson
8¢, Multicolored, greenish,
issued August 28, 1971

Emily whispers
to the bee and butterfly
who inspire her poems.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Poem 111 (circa 1859)

The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially—

The Brooks laugh louder when I come—
The Breezes madder play;
Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists,
Wherefore, Oh Summer Day?

— Thomas H. Johnson,
    Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
    Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1960, p. 53

Emily Dickinson Celebration

Austria 1049, Rainer Maria Rilke
3 schillings, Deep violet
issued December 29, 1976
on the 50th anniversary of
the death of the poet Rilke

Rilke listens to
Apollo who teaches him—
You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

"Archaic Torso of Apollo", New Poems (1908)

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell
Random House, New York, 1982, p. 61
Commentary by Mark Doty

Conference of the Birds (1177)
painted by Habib Allah

The call to poetry—
Conference of the Birds
calling us to return home.

     — Peter Y. Chou
          Mountain View,

The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-Tayr) is a book of poems in Persian by Farid ud-Din Attar (1142-1220) of approximately 4500 lines. The poem uses a journey by a group of 30 birds, led by a hoopoe as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment. Besides being one of the most beautiful examples of Persian poetry, this book relies on a clever word play between the words Simorgh— a mysterious bird in Iranian mythology which is a symbol often found in Sufi literature, and similar to the phoenix bird— and si morgh— meaning "thirty birds" in Persian. Its most famous section contains this quatrain:

        Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
        And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
        Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
        Return and back into your Sun subside

Birds symbolize spirits of the air, ascent, freedom, the soul, and transcendence (animal symbolism).

The theme of returning home is echoed in William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" (1804) where he hears the call of birdsongs:

"Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call" (IV),
"Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!" (X), and

        Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
        The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,...
        But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home...
(stanza V)

It is interesting that Elaine Scarry's talk focused on the call to childhood. She cited Wordsworth's 6-year old as the best philosopher in the "Intimations Ode" and the 3-year old Thomas Hardy on the ground sleeping with the sheep.
Zen Master Mang Gong would say he's like a Buddha!
("What is your star?")

Note: The postage stamps above were downloaded from the Web or scanned from my collection.
The numbers, color description, and date of issue are from Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (2-27-2008)