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Interview

Koan Ranger

The latest Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner talks about spontaneity, Whitman's influence on Chinese poetics, and saying "thank you" in Japan.


Gary Snyder. Photo by Leon Borensztei.

Alan Williamson: Reading Passage Through India, your recently published journals from your travels there with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Joanne Kyger in the 1960s, brought back my own much briefer, more sheltered trip to India and Japan in 2004. I’d been warned that I would be put off by the flashy capitalism of Japan, overwhelmed and depressed by the poverty in India. Yet my first reaction was to like both cultures, and I find yours was too. How would you describe their appeal?

Gary Snyder: I always suspected that my ability to fit in, flow through, watch and observe the cultures of both India and Japan (and, in a rather uncritical way appreciate them both) was a sign of my irresponsible nature and maybe a lack of moral seriousness. But it helped me to get along.

The appeal that both worlds have, for me, is that they don’t offer any chance to make excuses. The challenges are real and clear, tough, unapologetic, and demanding. They also are each open and helpful to the resourcefulness and nerve of those who opt to swim on through the rapids. Bharat [India] is a congress of religions and cultures and is infinitely more tolerant of the marginal and bizarre, the diverse and the lost, than monolithic Japan. Look how Calcutta deals with the homeless: [it provides] a parklike place to go, with hose-bib standpipes and buckets (for laundry and bathing), and some toilets. And nobody rousted off the sidewalks for sleeping at night. A terrible country. A beautiful country.

Japan’s strength is that under all its “strength” is a softness and warm craziness, an almost poetic semihysteria that unofficially and informally allows deviant thinking and behavior. Just don’t talk about it. This translates into great art and design, and all those charming silly manga books.

One of the things I learned in India was that religion is not art, and won’t always be beautiful. And I learned that sometimes you shouldn’t say “thank you” (I once knew how to say it in Hindi, but shopkeepers would get annoyed and tell me not to thank them: “It’s our business.”)

In Japan I learned that no matter how many times you say “thank you” (arigato gozaimasu), you should always try to mean it.

You have probably done more than any poet—even Rexroth or Pound—to bring the conventions and attitudes of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry over into English. What was it we needed from Far Eastern poetry, that our own traditions didn’t offer?

Well . . . I don’t know about this. I think it more likely that all of the above suspects plus myself and more add up to a certain force for an interest and regard for East Asian poetry and art.

To be accurate, I have done very little to bring the conventions of East Asian poetry into American poetic practice—those conventions are quite formal. As I once wrote,

 

Twentieth-century English language translations make Chinese poetry into “plain tone and direct statement,” and in this form Chinese poetry has had a strong effect on Occidental poets tired of heroics and theologies. That this actually elaborate and complex poetic tradition should have made such a contribution to Occidental modernism is rather curious. Yet it can be understood as having something to do with the twentieth-century thirst for naturalistic secular clarity. Chinese poetry provided the exhilarating realization that such clarity can be accomplished in the mode of poetry.


The East Asian tradition also offered the possibility that poets could be involved in public service, policy, or business; might be priests or bureaucrats; and could write poems on history and friendship as well as nature. The example of Su Shih, who was a lay adept in the Zen tradition, the governor of much of South China, and one of the two or three top poets of the Sung dynasty, is a case in point. In Japan, for another sort of example, the practice of haiku-writing permeated throughout much of the nation’s large literate class, and haiku are still being produced and published daily in the newspapers of the land.

Haiku poetry has its own strict aesthetic standards, plus it demands attention and observation; it is both impersonal and refreshing. East Asian poetry teaches an unembarrassed engagement with both art and society (and allows that many artists will also be critics of the state). It has done this for centuries. It isn’t necessarily modern, but it seems that way to the Occident.

I did make one small contribution to the “conventions” of Chinese poetry, too. I started translating the poetry line by line, with no enjambment or run-on or broken-off lines. I tried to respect and employ the caesura that is found partway through every line in shih or lyric poems. My largest-scale example of this is in my translation of Bai Chü-I’s “Ch’ang hen ko” (“Song of Long Sorrow”) or, as I translate it, “Long Bitter Song.” Every line matches a line of the original. Whenever possible, I use a monosyllabic word in English to match the Chinese monosyllable. It is the longest shih in the canon. It can be found in The Gary Snyder Reader.

Final thought: I have been told that Walt Whitman was a great liberating influence on Chinese poetry in the early 20th century. Modern Chinese poetry goes its own diverse ways; witness the wild and playful poems of Bei Dao.

You and I have both done koan study in Rinzai Zen. How would you say the state of mind of working on a koan resembles that of working on a poem? Or does it?

I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to talk about this question, which is sort of “What is the nature of the koan?”

As I think about it, I realize what a tricky task the koan has. It must challenge the student and draw her into it, but not give away enough to make her think she understands it. Koans are not poetry as a rule, and do not aspire to being poetry, but are some type of simple teaching story that is a little bit like a riddle.

If bright people could read koans and then simply “get it,” they wouldn’t be koans.

The intention of a koan is to make people who are bright in an ordinary way, or ordinary people who are bright in an odd way, work harder and go further into themselves. The language presents an opportunity to perceive a metaphor that calls one not to “thought” but to work. Work is performance. Performance is embodiment, and not subject to ordinary rational analysis—it must spring forth freely and spontaneously, as does life for most working people, who are always dealing with the immediate. That’s one kind of koan. So in a way we’re not talking about “language,” we’re talking about the theater of life.

For this to actually work, it needs the relation of student and mentor, in this case a qualified Zen Roshi in the Rinzai tradition. Going into the teacher’s room and trying out your view of the koan on him or her is the only way to move through it. Without the mentor, you only dig yourself deeper into the hole, or you make up your own answer, which is invariably wrong.

This remarkable practice, developed and handed down for 1,000 years and more, is very refined and does not fit any exact paradigm of philosophy, rational analysis, or aesthetic strategy. Yet it throws light on them all.

I have no doubt that the Buddhist teachings are grounded in the remarkable, almost unique, exquisitely relevant insights of Gautama Shakyamuni, who is well-named “the Buddha,” the realized one. The koans—also known as the kungan, public cases, or teaching phrases—of Chan / Zen Buddhist practice go back to his mind and his insight.

 

Related

  • Poet, short story writer, and critic Alan Batcher Williamson was born in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a BA at Haverford College and a PhD at Harvard University, where he studied with Robert Lowell. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected...

Interview

Koan Ranger

The latest Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner talks about spontaneity, Whitman's influence on Chinese poetics, and saying "thank you" in Japan.

Related

  • Poet, short story writer, and critic Alan Batcher Williamson was born in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a BA at Haverford College and a PhD at Harvard University, where he studied with Robert Lowell. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected...

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