AG: We’re on (page) 39 (of Pictures From Brueghel by William Carlos Williams). Now, does anybody know the poem by Emily Dickinson, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” ? Does anybody remember the full poem? ( I don’t know if we have a (copy of) Dickinson(‘s poems) around
Student: There is a copy in the library
AG: There is, ok, so we can find it.
Student: I’ll go get it.
AG: I think Deborah (sic) went to get it just now. I saw her alert body just get up there and zap out! – I’ve always liked that (poem) because that seemed to me like a combination of the visionary and practical – [to Deborah, on returning] – did you try for that and it’s closed? – okay.. That line. It’s a line of Emily Dickinson’s that goes – “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” – [turning to Steven Taylor] – do you know that line, Steven? – Meaning – in that highest state of awareness, in the total silence and stillness of the mind, all of a sudden…bzzzzzz – well, that was real! – and whatever else that means – that death may be reduced to just a fly coming in..but, at any rate, “The World Contracted To a Recognizable Image” – [Allen reads, in its entirety, Williams’ “The World Contracted To a Recognizable Image”] – “at the small end of an illness/ there was a picture/ probably Japanese/ which filled my eye/ an idiotic picture/ except it was all I recognized/ the wall lived for me in that picture/ I clung to it as a fly” – It’s very odd. It’s Williams in extremis. His method of observation and concentration, his vipassana poetics, or vipassana mind, reduced to being in a hospital in bed, the only recognizable object that he had (was) “the wall lived for me in that picture”. Odd last line (I don’t know what it means) – ” I clung to it as a fly” – Does that mean I clung to it as a fly would cling to a wall, or, I keep hearing that Emily Dickinson line, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”. But, at any rate, it’s Williams’ attention, and all the world contracted to one recognizable image.
Student: What page are you on?
AG: Page 42 – called “”The World Contracted To a Recognizable Image” – When I was thinking of him around that time, I suddenly saw that poem and said, “My God, he’s really got it focused. Even in an illness or on a death-bed, he’s got his mind really focused now”. But the most he could get was just that one (image) out of a whole hospital experience and a stroke. He was able to retrieve just one fact. He was lying in bed and the only thing that he could see was that picture. That was the one thing that kept him to reality, (as a mantra might keep somebody else in their sane mind, or as breathing might keep one balanced, in extremis). He says,”at the small end of an illness”, which is an odd, medical, (or) doctor-mind, thing (to say) – “at the small end of an illness/ there was a picture/ probably Japanese/ which filled my eye” – Pretty literal – “which filled my eye” – I don’t think that was very poetical, I think it really filled his eyeball, literally, lying in the hospital bed. So it’s amazing how literal his description is – “an idiotic picture/ except it was all I recognized/ the wall lived for me in that picture/ I clung to it as a fly”
(Next ), “A Short Poem” – They are very minimal, these things during time of a stroke. [Allen reads “A Short Poem” – “You slapped my face/ oh but so gently/I smiled/ at the caress”] – Just keeping his hand in with little noticings, noticing little things and making the best of them, so to speak. But also he’s sort of mellowing. [Allen reads next “Poem” – (“on getting a card/ long delayed/ from a poet whom I love…”)] -“on getting a card/ long delayed/ from a poet whom I love…”….”no matter/ his style/ has other outstanding/ virtues/ which delight me” – and “To Flossie” – Flossie, his wife. His wife is Flossie – “To Flossie/ who showed me/ a bunch of garden roses/ she was keeping/ on ice/ against an appointment/ with friends/ for supper/ day after tomorrow/ aren’t they beautiful/ you can’t/ smell them/ because they’re so cold/ but aren’t they/ in wax/ paper for the/ moment beautiful” – I guess, the heart of that is , ” you can’t/ smell them/ because they’re so cold”, which is actually so fresh and clear a perception. It’s like Williams waiting by his sink for water to freshen, turning on the tap and waiting for the water to freshen. Just a really ordinary piece of phenomena, a very ordinary experience, except that he saw it clearly, so (by) transcribing it clearly, it becomes a moment of high consciousness. – “aren’t they beautiful/ you can’t/ smell them/ because they’re so cold” (this, referring back to those who have been listening upstairs [here at Naropa] to the observations on perception and reality, on seeing things directly, the practice, the mindfulness – in Buddhist terminology, there’s samatha, which is.. well, what did we decide yesterday? we were talking about this – it’s samatha, but it’s concentration on…one point. That’s the kind of breath meditation that’s practiced as a basic Buddhist yoga, so that might be equivalent to “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/barrow/ glazed with rain/water/ beside the white/chickens”.
Student: One point. samatha, or shamata, is what any concentration practice is called in the Southern school
AG: Okay. Any concentration on a single thing.
Student: The specific breath thing is called anapana
Student: So samatha is a larger group of…
AG: Okay, so on the samatha, you concentrate on breath, (or on a candle, or on a coin..)
Student: or on an image..
AG: or a red wheelbarrow!
Student: or a mantra
AG: or on a red wheelbarrow?
AG: That’s the point I’m trying to make without getting too redundant. So I would say, in that sense, certain poems of Williams, if you made a equivalency of the operation of the mind when it observes itself , or observes itself observing, “The Red Wheelbarrow” might be a samatha practice, or illustration of a samatha practice, extending that awareness out from the one-pointedness to include more space, maybe detailed observance. (Observance of detail outside, which would be vipassana, is that right?)
Student: Any awareness technique that moves you off the point..to a general awareness..is vipassana
AG: So we might say that this poem that Williams wrote, standing in his kitchen, waiting for the water to freshen in the faucet, and observing the parsley in the glass is….