[How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America . Rick Fields, Shambhala, Boston & London; 1992 (1981)]
Back to 1975, and another in our on-going series of fugitive Ginsberg interviews. This one’s with the much-missed Rick Fields, author of How The Swans Came To The Lake (A Narrative History of Buddhism in America). It’s a transcription from his radio show, Open Secret. The subject, the curious connection between Buddhism and William Carlos Williams.
RF: ..Naropa was founded in 1974 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
in order to provide an environment in which the Eastern and Western intellectual traditions, as well as sensory and intuitive approaches, can interact, and in which these disciplines can be grounded in the students’ personal experiences. My name is Rick Fields, and today we have Allen Ginsberg who teaches Poetics at Naropa Institute.
RF: Thank you Allen. What is the relationship between Buddhist meditation and the kind of poetry you’re teaching at Naropa?
AG: Well the meditation and the poetry being taught both have in common the cultivation of basic awareness or noticing of details. In Buddhism, sometimes, the basic forms of sitting, (which involves sitting in a chair quietly, paying attention to the breath coming out of your nostril and dissolving into space, as a place to put your attention and watch your thoughts) interrupt that. That kind of exercise in sitting and watching your breath leads to greater awareness of the thoughts going through your head, or remembering of the thoughts going through your head, and also greater awareness of moments when you’re not thinking and just there, watching, not analyzing, but just watching. So, in American poetry we have a very similar practice, especially one of the founders of our American realistic poetic practice, William Carlos Williams
, because he paid a kind of bare attention to the details of his everyday, ordinary mind existence around him also. And there’s moments when there’s a kind of intersection between Buddhist meditation practice and the kind of things you’d notice or experience in that, and American poetry noticing practice and the kinds of things you’d notice about yourself or the outside world in that. And a good example is a little poem called “Good Night” in Williams’ Collected Earlier Poems
, in which he’s come downstairs, the house is quiet, what does he see? and what does he remember that he sees?. So, I read this to my class (Allen reads Williams’ “Good Night” – “In brilliant gas light/ I turn the kitchen spigot/and watch the water plash/ into the clean white sink./ On the grooved drain-board/ to one side is/ a glass filled with parsley -/ crisped green./ Waiting/ for the water to freshen – / I glance at the spotless floor -:/ a pair of rubber sandals/ lie side by side/under a wall-table/ all is in order for the night. Waiting/ with a glass in my hand/ three girls in crimson satin/pass close before me on/ the murmurous background of/ the crowded opera/ it is/ memory playing the clown -/ three vague, meaningless girls/ full of smells and/ the rustling sounds of cloth/ rubbing on cloth and/ little slippers on carpet -/ high-school French/ spoken in a loud voice!/ Parsley in a glass/ still and shining,/ brings me back. I take a drink/and yawn deliciously./ I am ready for bed.
Now, what he did there, Williams, was he came downstairs and he was mindful and attentive and right there in the room, completely present, noticed and appreciated the bright green parsley, crisped, the glass on the grooved drain-board and then he even appreciated the slow carefulness of himself waiting for the water to freshen. I remember the day after I taught this poem, the next session, all the students came in and they had stood by the sink slowly and attentively and watched and observed themselves while they waited for the water to freshen. So Williams observed the details of his ordinary life.
Later on, there’s a funny little poem that is just like Buddhist meditation, it’s like an intersection in which he, just by his own practice of bare attention to the details of his own life, mindfulness to what was going on around him, and in him, came to do something that all people who sit on pillows and meditate on their breath also do. It’s called “Thursday”, because he remembered it on a Thursday – “I have had my dream – like others -/ and it has come to nothing, so that/ I remain now carelessly/ with feet planted on the ground/ and look up at the sky -/ feeling my clothes about me,/ the weight of my body in my shoes,/ the rim of my hat, air passing in and out/ at my nose – and decide to dream no more.” – So what you have there is that Williams, just by being completely mindful of his body, of his mind, of his speech, of the panorama of the space around him, came to a moment when he was completely open, with no idea in his head, disillusioned in a sense (“I have had my dream – like others – / and it has come to nothing..”), so that his attention and his observation fell back to the most basic experience he was having, standing in space in Rutherford, New Jersey, with the weight of his body in his shoes, the rim of his hat, the clothes about him, feet planted on the ground looking up in the sky, and the continuing ongoing process of breathing, of the air passing in and out of the nostrils. It’s a poem (which) when I read (it) to a class of hip Buddhists or Buddhist practitioners, people who know the inside of meditation, they all laugh immediately, because they recognize that spot, that place, where they have all been, where they’re supposed to be paying attention (especially if they’re practicing meditation in the Zen Japanese style, or in the style practiced at Naropa, which is sitting paying attention to the breath going in and out of the nostril).
RF: Do you think that Williams knew anything about Buddhism or meditation in that sense, in a formal sense?
AG: No, I don’t think he knew very much about it. It wasn’t very much known in those days in America when he was writing. I suppose he knew a little bit about yoga from Sadakichi Hartmann
, or whoever it was, or the Bohemians, or the Theosophists that he would have run into in Europe or America, but he didn’t know anything about this kind of meditation. But he knew his own mind and he knew his own speech and knew his body, that is, he was completely devoted to being observant of particular detail, and he keeps saying (that) he’s against theory – “No ideas but in things” – No ideas but in the facts. So he wants poetry composed strictly out of facts
RF: He seems to be working with the ordinary or common world very much, rather than some kind of general spiritual…
RF:..sort of thing.
AG: Very much. Like he’s got a little poem saying what’s going on in the common world in the street in front of him. “To A Poor Old Woman”
– “munching a plum on/ the street a paper bag/ of them in her hand/ They taste good to her/ They taste good/ to her. They taste/good to her/ You can see it by/ the way she gives herself/ to the one half / Sucked out in her hand/ Comforted/ a solace of ripe plums/ seeming to fill the air/ They taste good to her.
Or, another thing he calls “Proletarian Portrait” – looking out – “A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron/ Her hair slicked back standing/ on the street/ One stockinged foot toeing/ the sidewalk/ Her shoe in her hand. Looking/ intently into it/ She pulls out the paper insole/ to find the nail/ That has been hurting her.” – So, there couldn’t be anything more ordinary than what he saw on the street, and there couldn’t be anything more extra-ordinary than the precision and rapidity and humor with which he was able to sketch it, or notate it. But he was insistent on ordinary mind and ordinary world, rather than some big cloudy spiritual freak-out scene. Of course, he was a doctor, and he’s very good medicine for young poets because it grounds them, brings them down to earth, or, as he says, “clamps the(ir) minds down on objects”.
RF: Which is where we live.
AG: Which is where we live. Well, this place, where we are, yeah, which we all have to deal with, the objects.. “Waiting”
– William Carlos Williams – “When I am alone I am happy./ The air is cool. The sky is/flecked and splashed and wound/ with color. The crimson phalloi/ of the sassafras leaves/hang crowded before me/in shoals on the heavy brances./ When I reach my doorstep/ I am greeted by/ the happy shrieks of my children/ and my heart sinks./ I am crushed./ Are not my children as dear to me/ as fallen leaves or/ must one become stupid/ to grow older?/ It seems much as if Sorrow/ had tripped up my heels./ Let us see, let us see!/ What did I plan to say to her/ when it should happen to me/as it has happened now.”
RF: Thank you, Allen. This was Open Secret.