Dharma Poetics – 3

Walt Whitman – Steel engraving that served as the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published on July 4, 1855

Allen Ginsberg’s 1982 Naropa Dharma Poetics lecture continues from here

AG: But in terms of our first teacher (Chogyam Trungpa)’s suggestion that we begin to appreciate our own country, America, which could either be taken as a vipassana development  (appreciation of the detail around you and the phenomenal world) or as a patriotic chauvinistic suggestion (I assume we were all taking it on the level of appreciate our own perceptions and our own world).

The obvious example of that was set by Walt Whitman:

“By the city’s quadrangular house – in log huts, camping with lumbermen,/Along the ruts of the turnpike, along the dry gulch and rivulet bed,/Weeding my onion-patch or hoeing rows of carrots and   parsnips, crossing savannas, trailing in forests,/Prospecting, gold-digging, girdling the trees of a new purchase,

And so forth for pages and pages of detailed appreciation of the activities of his fellow Americans or himself, little anecdotal line-by-line vignettes, “Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass,” was my favorite, actually.  It’s like a little haiku in itself.

You all know Whitman’s catalogues of American detail.  Or, if not, should.  And one obvious one you might check out is Part 33 of “Song of Myself,” which is a song in appreciation of his own self-hood, self-ego,  a sort of benevolent, indifferent, attentiveness to his own ego.  A detached appreciative view of his own nature, self, thoughts, activities, inklings, involving acceptance of self, appreciation of self.  And thus, appreciation of others,

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I shall assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

That’s his initial statement

As (Fyodor) Dostoevsky, great artist, appreciated Russian and wrote long, thick, interesting novels about Russian politics and epileptics and rapists and saints, and as (T.S.) Eliot developed an appreciation of England and English countryside, and as (in) Guillaume Apollinaire‘s famous poem “Zone” there’s a great exposition of nostalgic imagery of Paris, and as Thomas Wolfe expounded America, you have a tradition among great poets and prose writers of appreciating their own childhoods, their own mythologies and then extending that to an appreciation of the nation and extending that to appreciation of the universe.  Beginning at home, in other words – beginning “close to the nose.”  The difficulty of that is that naturally you might appreciate your nation but you’re plunged into the struggle of conflict of politics or of culture change or change in technology and not have any sense, at least in the West, of a tradition to appreciate.  And there is a point of distinction here between Western culture and Oriental culture that’s been discussed on and off in this neighborhood, and I’d like to sharpen it just slightly.  The tradition in Oriental culture seems to have been in the past, or the thing that is most appreciated in Oriental tradition, is continuity.  Lineage, continuity, ancient pattern, ancient practice, unvarying workable hand-craft, workable, close to the nose, direct, say, gardening, or flower arrangement, or archery.  Any of the traditional disciplines which involve actual positioning of the body and recognition of the body and recognition of phases of mind, phases of activity.

On the contrary, in the West the main tradition seems to be chaotic to the stereotyped dharmic mind, or stereotyped Oriental view, because our tradition has been of continuous change, from (Isaac) Newton, through (Albert) Einstein, through (Werner) Heisenberg, the basic axioms of our metaphysics, or physics, have changed.  In visual art from the very beginning (from Byzantine painting up through Renaissance painting) there were changes of approaches to actually physically reproducing the notion of perspective, or the optical illusion of perspective.  And from (Nicolas) Poussin, through (Paul) Cezanne, through the Cubists, there’s been a definite progression, one building upon another — rebellions against… (you might call them revolutions or rebellions, but they’re actually cumulative insights).  That Cezanne wanted to repaint Poussin, but from nature, and in so doing broke the optical field on the canvas up into hot colors which advanced and cold colors which receded and thus created the illusion of space by the eyeball refocusing and shuttling from one plane of color to another.  And that the Cubists picked up on that in the 20th century and abstracted from his landscapes and then made pure Cubist constructions in which the optical space in the canvas – very similar to Cezanne’s – was done with little abstract blocks.

Well the point, of course, (or) the point I’m trying to make, is that Western art and our tradition is that of change rather than stable technique, unvarying, say, as in Tibetan painting, where masters to disciple century after century is basically the same technique.  And it’s the perfection of that technique and the freedom within that ancient technique that’s celebrated or prized.  Here in the West there seems to be some kind of honor in advancing some sense of progressive evolution of perception or registration of perception – progressive evolution of the way you register your perceptions.

Obviously in science and also in painting  (but) it’s been so in music from (Johann Sebastian) Bach, through Bach’s treatment of harmony and structure, through (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart, and through (Ludwig van) Beethoven, (through Beethoven’s last piano sonatas where the entire structure is broken and you have a sonata of only two movements.  Or with the Grosse Fuge you have a very similar breakthrough in the middle of the second movement and the entire structure unfolds right on the spot. and there is no third movement for the great piano sonata and the great fugue.  Then from Beethoven onward through (Richard) Wagner and (Arnold) Schoenberg, there’s obviously been… what’s been prized is the change.  And that’s something that dharmic art will have to relate to in Western art, and it’s a new dialogue that’s rising, I think.  It’s been brought up here because exactly here, say, (not only in science and music and painting but in poetry too), the notion of invention and change is something that’s still a Western impulse that seems to be healthy, as far as Western art is concerned – or sane, as far as Western art is concerned.  I’m just raising issues as well as expounding solutions in this.

to be continued

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