Panel Discussion at 1995 CPITS Conference1

by Peter Y. Chou (August 26, 1995)

My favorite quote on poetry & power comes from President John F. Kennedy's Speech at Amherst College upon receiving an Honorary Degree on October 26, 1963, exactly four weeks before his assassination in Dallas:

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.2

Duane BigEagle started this panel talk with definitions of poetry, power, and culture. I'd like to explore these definitions using Chinese ideograms3 to provide some additional insights. The Chinese word for poetry, shih(), is composed of yen (): "word; language" & szu(): "temple, monastery." Hence, poetry is a "temple of words." Yen is composed of t'ou() "above" (heaven, Tao), erh () "two" (earth, duality), & k'ou() "mouth" (pass). Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in A Midsummer Night's Dream V.1.12 (1595):

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The poet's glancing from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven may be discerned in the picturesque Chinese word Ch'üan() meaning weight or power. It has 22 strokes and is composed of the ideograms Mu() for wood and Kuan() for heron. The latter ideogram is composed of Ts'ao() for grass at the top, two K'ou's() for mouth or hole at the middle (like our two nostrils breathing in & out, or the two chambers of our heart pumping blood to nourish our cells, or our two eyes seeing beauty all around us), and Chui() for short-tailed birds at the bottom. I like this Ch'üan image for power with the heron next to the tree, especially with the grass above and birds below. It reminds me of the Tao Te Ching,66: "the reason that the river is the lord of a hundred mountain streams is because it knows how to remain below them."Thus, Lao Tzu reminds the ruler that real power comes from serving the people.4

The Chinese words for culture is wen hua() meaning "literary" & "change" or "transformation." In Chinese, hua hsüeh means chemistry or the study of transformation. We'll see how culture may be connected to alchemy or an inner transformation. I like the first definition of culture in Webster's Dictionary5— "the art or practice of cultivating: tillage." It comes from the Latin cultura composed of colere(to till, cultivate) + ura(more at wheel). yogi, chakras The images that come to mind are the farmer on his oxcart tilling the soil for crops and the ceramic artist at his potter's wheel making a vase to hold flowers or a cup for drinking water. But these are outer activities. What I see in cultura is an inner tillage at the wheels— the chakras of our spine according to yoga philosophy, the awakening of the kundalini or serpent power that's dormant within us. I was fortunate to attend Joseph Campbell's lecture & workshop on the "Kundalini" at Harvard University on January 8, 1982, where he outlined the first three chakras— the 1st at the spine's base for survival, the 2nd at the genitals for sex, and the 3rd at the navel for power.6 It reminded me of the BBC interview where the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung contrasted the psychology of Freud, Adler, and himself. For Freud, man's greatest drive is for sex. For Adler, it's power, being in his master's shadow for years, life seems always a struggle to get to the top. For Jung however, man's greatest desire is for immortality, to live forever. While we may classify Jung's survival instinct to the 1st chakra, his research on medieval alchemy and his insight that "Where love is absent, power occupies the vacancy"7 leads me to believe that he is talking about the 4th chakra of the heart, that of love and compassion.

Egyptian chakra scale 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 BC), The Book of the Dead— the judgment scene, the weighing of the heart of the deceased against a feather.8 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,9 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)10, Thoth will conduct the blessed soul (light as a feather) to Osiris's throne by the Waters of Eternal Life.

Hermes, Mercury, caduceus What I find fascinating is that the Greek god Hermes (Mercury) carries this serpent power in the form of the caduceus, which Hippocrates (460-377BC), the father of medicine adopted as the physician's logo. We may see the twin serpents as the DNA double helix, the genetic messenger of life, or the serpent power rising from the base of the spine to the crown chakra of enlightenment symbolized by the wings at the top. Mercury received this winged wand from Apollo in exchange for his lyre. Thus, Apollo became the god of poetry with the nine muses dancing to his music on Mt. Parnassus. But Mercury became the messenger of the gods.11 The caduceus's rod corresponds to the axis mundi or sushumna (central column of the spinal cord), and the serpents to the ida & pingala (right & left spinal nerves). The yogi's goal is to awaken the kundalini (serpent energy) at the spine's base (lower instincts), so the inner fire ascends to the upper chakras (higher consciousness) as symbolized by wings. The caduceus should remind physicians of their higher calling— to care for their patient's physical as well as their emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Power has often been associated with physical might and control over others. But the poet Gary Snyder tells us:

We all know that the power of a great poem is not that we felt that person expressed himself well. We don't think that. What we think is, "How deeply I am touched." That's our level of response. And so a great poet does not express his or her self, he expresses all of our selves. And to express all of ourselves you have to go beyond your own self. The Zen master Dogen said, "We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things." And that's why poetry's not self-expression in those small self terms.12

As poets we are indeed priests in a temple of words, our power is our voice linking heaven with earth. In writing about culture, we pay homage not only to the diversity of our ancestral heritage, but also to the universality of our inner selves, the cultivation of our mind & heart, tilling our chakras for spiritual illumination. This is our real work.

George MacDonald (1824-1905), a 19th century author of children's books says: "To have what we want is riches; but to be able to do without is power." I recall giving one of his books to my niece, and finding this beautiful poem in At the Back of the North Wind, "Baby", Stanza 1:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into here.13

I see the baby as the new poem which we help our students give birth— coming out of the everywhere into the here and now. So let us be thankful, and celebrate.


1 Poetry, Power & Cultural Definition— Panel Discussion with Joseph Bruchac, Duane BigEagle, Max Benavidez, Piri Thomas, Peter Y. Chou and Osa Hidalgo (moderator) in the Fiesta Room, Francisco Torres Building, UC Santa Barbara, August 26, 1995 as part of the 1995 California-Poets-in-the-Schools Conference.

2 Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy 1963, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1964, p. 817

3 C. H. Fenn, The Five Thousand Dictionary (Chinese-English), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1963

4 Lao Tzu also reminds us "Conquering others requires force & power; Conquering oneself requires discipline & strength. One who knows contentment is rich; One who knows perseverance has power" (Tao Te Ching, 33).

5 Philip Babcock Gove (Ed.), Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, MA, 1986, p. 552

6 The contents of this lecture has since been published in Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Harper & Row, New York, 1986, pp. 63-68. Discussion on this theme may also be found in Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers), Betty Sue Flowers, Ed., Doubleday, New York, 1988, pp. 174, 214

7 quoted in Marie-Louise von Franz, Psychotherapy, Shambhala, Boston, 1993, p. 243

8 Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p. 85

9 J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p.17.

10 Chakra 4 is called anahata, meaning "not hit" or "sound not made by any two things striking together." Joseph Campbell notes that "every sound heard by the physical ear is of things rubbing or striking together... the voice is of breath on the vocal cords", thus hinting that our human voice cannot reach the heart chakra. Then what about the poet's voice? I find inspiration in Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn, stanza II:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone

What is this "spirit ditties of no tone"? Is it the sound of one hand clapping of Zen? Is it the true Tao that cannot be told? Is it the silence between chanting the AUM? Or is it the power of the poetic spirit touching the reader's heart?

11 Lemprière's Classical Dictionary(3rd ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984, pp. 61, 115. [Notes: Apollo gave the staff surmounted by a pine cone with wings to Mercury in exchange for the lyre. One day, Mercury laid his rod between two serpents in deadly combat. They curled themselves around his wand, and became peaceful. Since then, the serpents were added to the rod.]

12 Gary Snyder, The Real Work, New Directions, NY (1980), p. 65 [Note: Dogen (1200-1253) founded Soto Zen in Japan, stressing zazen (sitting meditation) to attain enlightenment. This quote is from Genjo Koan, Shobo-genzo (1233)].

13 George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, Books of Wonder, Morrow & Co., NY, 1989, p. 294 (original edition, London, 1871).

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