Notes to Poem: Soul Weight

Peter Y. Chou,

Preface: In his last Stanford Poetry Workshop (May 28, 2008), Robert Bly gave each student a copy of his The Thousands (Number One, Fall 2001). This issue begins with Robert Bly's major literary essay, "Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry". One of the disciplines is "soul weight" in poetry. Bly told us: "The universities teach mind weight to students and not soul weight. If you write only happy poems, then it's called light verse because there's insufficient sadness in them. Need soul weight in your poems, then people don't know whether it's happy or sad. In Kafka tale about a son disliked by his father, he turned one day into a beetle. That single sentence has huge soul weight. When the father found his son in beetle form climbing up the wall, he threw an apple at him, which lodged in the son's back. This apple seems to be from the Garden of Eden story. When a detail drawn from mythology is woven into art, we feel some psychic weight." Bly then read to the class Antonio Machado's "The wind one brilliant day" whose last line I've used as the epigraph of this poem. Bly favors poets such as Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiminméz, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as having more soul weight than American poets. Bly had elaborated on this theme in his 1963 essay "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry". This poem
was written (June 10, 2008) two weeks after Bly's class discussion on "soul weight". The Notes
were completed on August 11, 2008.

Machado epigraph: "What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?"
This is from Antonio Machado's poem "The wind one brilliant day". Bly loves this Spanish poet who had a lot of soul weight in his poems. Machado married at 34 to the daughter of the boarding house where he was staying in Soria. They went to Paris and lived poorly. She caught tuberculosis and died [at age 18]. Machado was devastated and wrote this poem:

              The wind one brilliant day, called
              to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

              "In return for the odor of my jasmine,
              I'd like all the odor of your roses."

              "I have no roses; I have no flowers.
              All the flowers in my garden are dead."

              "Then I'll take the waters of the fountains,
              and the yellow leaves and the dried-up petals."

              The wind left... I wept. I said to my soul,
              "What have you done with the garden entrusted to you ?"

Bly says that Machado's poem starts with his personal garden (small "g"), but at the end, he's saying to his soul about a religious garden (capital "G"). Bly writes: "Much recent confessional poetry fails to achieve psychic weight because it stays in the personal garden. Psychic weight does not require catastrophe." But it needs to point less to our ego and more to a cosmic sense of our true Self.

When asked how to judge soul weight, Bly says
"One who's always laughing is probably soul-less."

Bly told the class, "If you have soul in your poems, readers will forgive you. If you find someone who laughs all the time, he's probably soul-less. You probably will gain soul weight when you're 35 years of age. [Interesting that Bly pinpoints this turning point as it is half the lifespan alloted to humans in the Bible: Psalms 90:10"The days of our years are threescore years and ten". It was at 35 years of age that Dante (1265-1321) embarked on his soul journey in 1300, opening his Inferno with the words "Midway in the journey of our life, I found myself in the dark woods, for the straight path was lost." Surely Dante's Divine Comedy on the soul's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is the greatest poem on "soul weight".]
    Bly asked each of us to read our poems, critiquing them for "soul weight". Often he'll say there's too much "mind weight" in certain lines. When Carla read her prize-winning poem "Living By Our Lights— 1966", Bly says "You could feel soul weight there about other people's suffering." When Erin read her poem poem with the lines "On the dance floor he hands me / a box with a painted bird", Bly says "Stay with this image!" Her next lines were "Can love exist without expectation. / Every moment is a gift. / Can you look forward to / something that never happens." Bly says "The box was leading to your soul and the mind took over! Your following lines are just abstractions. Nothing you could paint or see." [Bly's telling Erin to stay with the box image reminded me of the first line of Sharon Old's poem "Satan Says" (1980): "I am locked in a little cedar box" and Satan comes to bargain with her to get her out— a poem tinged with "soul weight"]. One student read his long poem with Hindu gods & goddesses— Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati, romping around. Bly told him that he was stuck in his intellect. Get rid of the Hindu mythology and substitute the deities with animals instead. [Later, while consulting my Dante Concordance on "soul", I learned that "soul" in Italian is "anima". So Bly's suggestion on "animals" is literally adding more "soul weight" to the student's poem.] Bly liked my poem "The Aha Moment",
perhaps because it dealt with the secrets of breathing.

"Bly's all wrong— Everybody's got a soul— even my cats!
I think about Joshu's dog

My friend's contention that her cats have soul reminds me of the Zen koan "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" to which the Zen Master Chao Chou or Joshu (778-897) replied "Mu!" In Japanese/Korean "Mu" and Chinese "Wu", this term may be translated as "none" or "without". However, it does not mean a simple "no" or negative answer. Chao Chou's answer has subsequently been interpreted to mean that all such categorical thinking is in fact a delusion. In other words, yes and no are both right and wrong. This Koan is traditionally used by students of the Rinzai school of Zen as their initiation into Zen study. [See "Can a cow be Self-realized?"]

Didn't God breathe into us a living soul?
The reference here is to
Genesis 2.7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." My friend felt she gave Bly the "knockout punch" for contradicting the Bible that we all have a living soul until we die. Later, I tell her that Bly was on the right track saying that "those who laughs all the time are probably soul-less." When she asked by what authority, I replied "Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching XLI:
When the best student hears of the Tao,
he practises it diligently.
When the average student hears of the Tao,
he doesn't know if it's real or not.
When the worst student hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud,
if he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao.

(Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau
Penguin Books, Baltimore, MD, 1963, p. 102
Lao-tzu's Tao te ching, translated by Red Pine
Mercury House, San Francisco, 1996, p. 82)
Detailed portrait of Lao Tzu (604 B.C.-517 B.C.),
Chinese silk painting, British Museum

Faust legend
Faust or Faustus is the protagonist of a classic German legend in which he makes a pact with the Devil, selling his soul in exchange for knowledge. The tale is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works, such as those by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, and Charles Gounod. In Goethe's magnum opus, the Devil as Mephistopheles gives back Faust his youth to win his desire for the young maiden Gretchen. The Devil will take Faust's soul when he declares "Stay on this moment, thou art so fair." Even when given Helen of Troy, Faust doesn't utter these words. When he does say it after building schools for children and renovating a sewage project for a city, the Devil claims Faust's soul. But God realizing Faust's true intentions and continuing striving for goodness raised him to heaven.
[Rembrandt's etching Faust (1652), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

weighing of souls in The Book of the Dead
An Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum from Book of the Dead (1250 B.C.) shows the Hall of Judgment (left). Here Anubis (jackal-headed), God of the Dead and Thoth (Ibis-headed), God of Time & Judgment, presides over the weighing of the deceased heart (soul). It is balanced against the feather, symbol of Maat, Goddess of Justice and Truth. Seated at left is Osiris, God of Life (sun disk on head) decides on the weighing. If the heart is lighter than Maat's feather, then it will enjoy a blissful afterlife. If the heart is heavier, signifying a sinful life, it was eaten by the monster known as the Devourer and the deceased was gone forever. Joseph Campbell says that most people are stuck at the lower three chakras, blinded by their survival, sex, and power instincts. He then showed a slide from an Egyptian papyrus (19th Dynasty, 1405-1367 B.C.), The Book of the Dead of Kenna— the judgment scene (right), the weighing of the heart of the deceased against a feather. We see a pole marked by 7 distinct nodules below the balance beam and an 8th above it. The nose of Osiris' watchdog, the Swallower (a composite of crocodile, hippopotamus & lion, who is to swallow the soul if the heart is heavier than the feather), cuts directly across the pole between its 3rd & 4th nodules (corresponding to the chakras). Furthermore, the nose is exactly the level of a platform, across the way, supporting a seated baboon. In Egypt, the baboon is called "Hailer of the Dawn"— its uplifted hands denote wisdom saluting the rising sun, and is symbolic of Thoth, Egyptian counterpart of the Greek Hermes, guide of souls to the knowledge of eternal life. In terms of the kundalini, the message is clear: if the aims of the deceased in life were no higher than those of Chakra 3, the Swallower claims the soul; whereas, if love had been heeded in the lifetime (Chakra 4), Thoth will conduct the blessed soul (light as a feather) to Osiris's throne by the Waters of Eternal Life.

Can the soul be sold?
Faust selling his soul to the Devil for beauty and knowledge has been discussed above. Another tale is Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824). In this short story, a man sells his soul to the devil to gain wealth. Later he regrets it when he has to suffer the consequences. Irving's story influenced Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937). Here a New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone falls upon hard times. So he sells his soul to Satan disguised as "Mr. Scratch". Stone enjoys seven years of prosperity, but when Scratch comes to claim his soul, Stone is defended in court by Daniel Webster. It was made into a 1941 film directed by William Dieterie and starring Walter Huston (Scratch), James Craig (Jabez Stone), & Edward Arnold (Daniel Webster). A modern version is Ira Levin's 1967 horror novel Rosemary's Baby. Here, a struggling actor Guy Woodhouse bargains with the Devil for a successful acting career. In exchange, he allows Satan to impregnate his wife Rosemary so an anti-christ baby will be born in June 1966 (6/66). The novel was made into a movie Rosemary's Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski & starred Mia Farrow.

Can the soul be cared for?
If God created the soul, then what is there to care for? Isn't the handiwork of God perfect, so no amount of man's work can improve upon it? This is precisely the theme addressed in Thomas Moore's book Care of the Soul (1992). This book was the #1 New York Times Bestseller for 46 weeks. Its subtitle "A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life" says it all. The malaise of modern man is "loss of soul" because of his obsessions for entertainment, fame, money, power, sex, and material things. Moore's recipe is not "about curing, fixing, changing, adjusting or making healthy, and it isn't about some idea of perfection or even improvement. It doesn't look to the future for an ideal, trouble-free existence. Rather, it remains patiently in the present, close to life as it presents itself day by day, and yet at the same time mindful of religion and spirituality." Moore harkens back to Plato's "techne tou biou" ("craft of life") that care of the soul is a sacred art and service to the gods. He refers to the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino who headed the Platonic Academy in Florence that inspired Renaissance Italy. His De Vita (Book of Life) (1489) focused on balancing mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world. A glimpse of Ficino's influence may be seen in the paintings of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, who read his works. Moore quotes the Roman writer Apuleius "Everyone should know that you can't live in any other way than by cultivating the soul." In his final chapter "The Sacred Arts of Life", Moore writes: "To live with a high degree of artfulness means to attend to the small things that keep the soul engaged in whatever we are doing, and it is the very heart of soul-making. To the soul, the most minute details and the most ordinary activities, carried out with mindfulness and art, have an affect far beyond their apparent insignificance." This is an echo of Buddha's path of mindfulness and Zen action— "I chop wood, I carry water, how happy I am!", living simply the enlightened life.

Neruda's gravitas "I know the earth, and I am sad"
In Bly's essay "Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry" (2001), he writes: "Psychic weight is one of the gifts given to a work of art by the poet's ability to grieve... These Neruda lines have gravitas:

    But above all there is a terrifying,
    a terrifying deserted dining room...
    and around it there are expanses,
    sunken factories, pieces of timber
    which I alone know,
    because I am sad, and because I travel,
    and I know the earth, and I am sad.

Poem "Melancholy Inside Families"
in Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems,
Edited by Robert Bly (1993), pp. 49-50

Rilke's "Only grief still learns"
Cited in Bly's essay "Six Disciplines That Intensify Poetry" (2001):
The complete poem is "Sonnets to Orpheus VIII"
in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by Robert Bly (1981), pp. 208-209:

    Where praise already is is the only place Grief
    ought to go, that water spirit of the pools of tears;
    she watches over our defeats to make sure
    the water rises clear from the same rock

    that holds up the huge doors and the altars.
    You can see, around her motionless shoulders, a feeling
    dawns— we sense more and more that she
    is the youngest of the three sisters we have inside.

    Rejoicing has lost her doubts, and Longing broods on her error.
    Only Grief still learns: she spends the whole night
    counting up our evil inheritance with her small hands.

    She is awkward, but all at once
    she makes our voice rise, sideways, like a constellation
    into the sky, not troubled by her breath.

I recall Wang Yang Ming's sigh "When all are merry, I alone weep and lament."
Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529) was a Neo-Confucian sage in the Ming Dynasty. His conversations with students were recorded in Ch'uan-hsi lu, Instructions for Practical Living (1518), and studied by the samurai in Japan. He is my favorite sage, so it's worth noting his lament and sigh on the state of affairs: "When all people are in the depths of merriment, I alone weep and lament, and when the whole world happily runs after erroneous doctrines, I alone worry with an aching heart and a knit brow. Either I have lost my mind or there must surely be a great grief hidden away in the situation. Who except the most humane in the world can understand it?" (Section #176)
The Sage said with a sigh, "People who know how to pursue learning have only this little trouble which they cannot remove, and that is that they do not share the good with others." Ou-yang Ch'ung said, "This trouble is primarily the love for exalted positions and the inability to forget oneself." (Section #303)
(Portrait of Wang Yang Ming from Harvard Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A century ago, Dr. Duncan MacDougall weighed
dying patients and found a weight loss after
their last breath to be three-quarters of an ounce

Dr. Duncan MacDougall (1866-1920) of Haverhill, Massachusetts, did experiments in 1907 where he constructed a special bed on balanced platform beam scales sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce. When patients near-death died, he found the loss of weight was three-fourth of an ounce (21 grams). Because his sampling size was small (only 6 patients), MacDougall's experiments were dismissed as unscientific. MacDougall also measured 15 dogs under similar circumstances. When he perceived no change in mass upon the dog's death, he concluded that dogs did not have souls.
"A Soul's Weight" by Mary Roach (Lost Magazine, December 2005)
"Soul Has Weight" (New York Times, Monday, March 11, 1907)
"What Gives the Soul Weight?" by Felix Goldstein
(New York Times, Thursday, March 14, 1907)

I prefer the Upanishads rishi's insight that
the soul resides in our heart— smaller than
an atom and larger than the whole universe—

The Upanishads (circa 800 B.C.-400 B.C.) are sacred Hindu texts from sages on the mysteries of the soul. It is derived from Sanskrit upa, near, ni, below, sad, to sit. So Upanishad is a group of students sitting near and below the guru whereby their minds are awakened to spiritual illumination.
Katha Upanishad I.2.20: "Atman [soul], smaller than a barley grain and greater than the wide universe, is hidden in the human heart. One who is free from desires beholds the majesty of the Self through tranquillity of the senses and the mind and becomes free from grief." (Commentary)
The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, and Mundaka, Vol. I
translated from the Sanskrit by Swami Nikhilananda,
Harper & Brothers, NY, 1949 (Bonanza Books, NY), pp. 141-142.

Robert Bly's navy buddy Eisy Eisenstein
In Bly's interview with Francis Quinn of the Paris Review (April 2000), he was asked about his earliest connections to poetry. Bly replied: "In the Navy [1944-1945] I met the first person I'd known who actually wrote poetry, a man named Eisy Eisenstein. We conspired to flunk out of the radar program on the grounds that we were poets who couldn't be bothered with science. We didn't succeed." Another reference to Eisy is found in Rake Magazine (January 2004): During World War II, Bly enlisted in the Navy and went to Chicago's Navy Pier in a program to develop radar. "I had this friend, Eisy Eisenstein from Connecticut, and we decided we were really poets and too good to be in this group of scientists. We decided to flunk out."

the way I often felt reading poems
of Emily Dickinson— so short yet so full of soul

Although Bly's critique of American poets as having less "soul weight" than the European poets, he does have admiration for Emily Dickinson's poems with their terse Zen quality. I too have noted this in my four poems anthology of Emily's poems. When writing a prose poem on "Deodar Cedar Rosebud", I found Robert Fludd's engraving of "The rose gives the bees honey". I recalled Emily Dickinson's Poem 1154 about the Rose and Bee. Her words of "Tint" and "process" led me to Emily's Letters #618 ("philosopher's stone") and #799 (Alchimy) that are referenced in Emily Dickinson and alchemy. It inspired two haikus: "She knows the process / of the Noon, Rose Tint for Bee— / Is Emily an alchemist?" and "Red and white tincture— / Alchemy's elixir for / the Philosopher's Stone." Rosenbaum's Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson shows "soul" cited in 125 of her poems— more than "heart" (124), "mind" (79), "spirit" (38), and "brain" (26). Here are two of my favorite Emily poems on the soul:
Poem 303 (circa 1862) Discussion:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then — shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—

Unmoved— she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved— an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—

I've known her— from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then— close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

Poem 383 (circa 1862)

Exhilaration— is within—
There can no Outer Wine
So royally intoxicate
As that diviner Brand

The Soul achieves— Herself—
To drink— or set away
For Visitor— Or Sacrament—
'Tis not of Holiday

To stimulate a Man
Who hath the Ample Rhine
Within his Closet— Best you can
Exhale in offering.

Poem 383 tells us that Emily's exhilaration is from within, that no outer wine (material goods) can compare to that inner intoxication (spiritual illumination) which the Soul achieves alone. Ample Rhine refers to Germany's Rhine Valley rich in its wine vineyards. One who has a large wine cellar may offer drinks to stimulate his friends. But Emily's "exhale in offering" is her poetry to enlighten us. Poem 303 has an imperial tone much like Poem 528 "Mine— by the Right of the White Election!". Most of the web comments by college students on this poem refer to it as a love poem. Girls interpret it as when they're in love, the boyfriend is their sole attention and they shut the door to all other suitors. One even compared it to the female egg when fertilized by a sperm, shuts its door to all the other sperms and becomes like stone! Since this poem was written in 1862, Emily's most prolific year (366 poems), she appeared more withdrawn to society and became a recluse, devoted solely to her poetry (Norman Foerster, et. al., American Poetry and Prose, 5th Ed., Vol. 2, 1970). Paul Faris comments on the poem's "valve" as a bivalve: "Either as symbol or in fact, what could be more 'like Stone' than a shut oyster?" (The Explicator, 25, no. 8, April 1967, Item 65). I sense Emily is not talking about emotional love, or physical valves of the heart or oysters, but on a metaphysical level. She has experienced the Soul ("I've known her") and it is more than her Church ("divine Majority") or any earthly power ("Emperor kneeling upon her Mat"). Emily's not impressed by worldly possessions ("Chariots") for she's humbly and inwardly rich ("at her low Gate"). The "Valves of her attention" are closed to the outer world because Emily "Chose One"— the Philosopher Stone— that inner alchemical work to enlightenment. See Poem 555 "Trust in the Unexpected—" with the lines: "Through this— the old Philosopher— / His Talismanic Stone / Discerned—" What Emily has experienced is akin to the mystics who have found that inner joy exceeding all worldly pursuits for fame, money, & power. That's why Emily's bliss is so certain.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (8-11-2008)