Perception As Seed of Poetry

By Reed Bye

My upcoming talk for the Naropa in New York series will center on a question:

At the first moment of any sense or mental experience, is the object of the perception perceived simply “as it is,” or is there, in that moment, already an inherent split between the event and the mind noticing it? Can one’s attention to perception be total or is it necessarily divided?

In my talk, I will address this question as it relates to meditation and artistic practice—poetry in particular. In so doing, I will refer to a Buddhist view of perception and art as presented by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his teachings on dharma art and poetics at Naropa Institute in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. This view suggests the possibility of our sensing “things as they are” in the immediate moment of their experience. For poetics, the virtues of language brought as “close to the nose” of experience and writing as possible have long been upheld and promoted. “To make the stone stony” was the way Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky put it in the early twentieth century, and “No ideas but in things” is a well-known dictum of the U.S. poet William Carlos Williams from the same artistically revolutionary era. The suggestion is that perceptual experience is the direct, vivid life of the mind.

To provide poetic examples that help clarify or expand this view, I will refer to The Volta Book of Poets, an anthology of contemporary North American poetry edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, published in 2015. This contemporary anthology contains poetics statements as well as poems by its writers, and I will intersperse passages from both their poems and statements as they illuminate points related to a dharma poetics. I should say at the outset that there is nothing particularly new, or old, in the principles of dharma poetics; they touch on ordinary sense but of a profoundly direct kind that can strike one as “fresh” always.

The meaning of the Sanskrit word “dharma” is what we call a “thing” or “phenomenon” of our experience met “just as it is.” It is a directly perceived moment of visual form, sound, feeling and sensation, thought, and so on. Trungpa further defines dharmas as “norms” of experience, and “forms of experiencing reality properly.” So, from this view, seeing “things as they are” touches the edge of mental clarity and confusion. In terms of practice, artistic or meditative, the word “dharma” suggests training to meet the things of our experience directly, free of projection and/or editing. Such practice enables us to discriminate perceptual liveliness from second-hand ideas or comments about them. To confuse perceptions with ideas is to be confused about what is happening.

The word “art” for dharma art is interesting too. “Art” comes from the Latin ars meaning “character,” “way,” or, later, “skill.” It derives from an earlier Proto-Indo-European word, h rtis, translated as “fitting” and this, in turn, comes from a root word meaning “to join.” So “art” here refers to how we meet the true “character” of our experience. The joining of body and mind at the moment of perception gives a sense of clarity and wholeness to our sensory and mental experience, and often produce insights into the reality, or norms, of how things are. In this sense, art is something more than the creative production of an aesthetic object; it is a “way” of active attention, in which our mind and senses fit together.

Dharma art not does not suggest “representation” of a sensory event because to re-present already assumes a second-hand split between the object and artist. From the Buddhist view, objects of perception are not separate from the mind of the perceiver. However, they can be perceived either directly “as they are” or mixed or confused with ideas and commentary about them. To discriminate between things and ideas is the practice of dharma art. The meditative training is opening to and meeting our sense perceptions directly and unselfconsciously. The active part is to spontaneously express that meeting.

I’ll leave off here with two quotes, one from Chögyam Trungpa, and the second from poet Rosa Alcala in the Volta Book.

VCTR Dharma Art 115: “The whole philosophy of dharma art is that you don’t try to be artistic, but that you just try to approach objects as they are and the message comes through automatically. It is like Japanese flower arranging. You don’t try to be artistic; you just chop off certain twigs and branches that seem to be out of line with the flow. Then you put the twigs in the container and the flowers underneath, and it automatically becomes a whole landscape.”

Rosa Alcala Volta 4: “I remember what you wore when there are now only words.”

Reed Bye’s most recent publications are Fire for Thought (BlazeVOX 2016), What’s This (Lunamopolis 2016), Catching On (Monkey Puzzle 2013), and a CD of original songs, Broke Even (Fast Speaking Music 2013). He has recently retired after many years on the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, where he taught poetry writing workshops and courses in classic and contemporary literary studies.

Join us on November 8 for an event with Reed Bye, “Perception as Seed of Poetry” part of the Naropa in New York series.

Photo courtesy of Lurm on Unsplash

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