The poet among us

Click here to read my interview with Tom about his calling as a poet and about his book, The Big Book of Ben Zen.

The cover is nice, but I prefer to judge Tom Montag’s The Big Book of Ben Zen by its paper. The book is mostly paper, and the words seem comfortable with that. They aren’t saddled with the entire book’s weight. They are free to range and return home. I am moved to say:

Some of the book is ink, but
Most of the book is paper.

But Ben is up ahead of me:

Not all of the notes,
Just the right ones
And the silence.

Ben Zen’s silence, and the space that suggests silence, remind one of Zen poetry. As Lucien Stryk says in the preface to Zen Poems of China and Japan, his joint translation with Takashi Ikemoto, silence carries its weight in a Zen poem:

[Zen painting’s] brush strokes, however few, serve to make the mind aware of the space, suggested not so much by the absence of objects but by the manner in which the objects are absorbed. And in poetry perhaps the most important things are to be found in the silence following the words, for it is then that the reader or listener becomes conscious of the calm within.

Ben isn’t trying to be anything, mind you, especially Zen. His bowling buddies gave him the “Zen” appellation anyway; maybe his Zen comes out most on the lanes. Ben’s poems likewise are most Zen-like where they are least like Zen poems – in their form. At this point, I owe the reader a very brief introduction to, or refresher in, Zen poetry.

Zen poetry can be said to fall into two categories: an older group of poetry which elucidates Indian Buddhist scriptures, and a body of poetry peculiar to Zen and more familiar to the West. Ikemoto describes a poem in this latter category as a metrical commentary on a koan, which is a question posed by a Zen master to his disciple to help him awaken to his real self, also described as his original self.

Older Zen poetry in this latter category generally took the strict forms of classical Chinese verse or of Japanese waka or haiku, each of which, like the West’s sonnet, for instance, has certain more obvious and less obvious conventions. But Zen poetry can take any form, because, as Ikemoto points out, “verse form has nothing to do with Zen poetry.”

Good Zen poetry has a certain dynamism unrelated to the poem’s form. Using Western literary terms, I may look at Zen dynamism as a step beyond irony, the way a farce is a step beyond a comedy. Unlike irony, dynamism may make no sense at all, since Zen dynamism is, as Ikemoto describes it, a “life-activity beyond all that is relative, life/death, good/bad, rich/poor, etc.” A famous Zen poem, for instance, ends with the line, “Today the very ice shoots flame.”

[book cover]I think The Big Book of Ben Zen, as well as the earlier collections of Ben Zen poems from whichThe Big Book is largely drawn, is what happened when poet Tom Montag planted some Zen seeds in his native Middle Western soil. Montag doesn’t achieve Zen dynamism in many of his poems, but he doesn’t set out to. He is looking for wisdom and truth, poetically and forcefully expressed. His poems inherit Zen poetry’s directness and concision, as well as its fresh and sometimes parable-like discoveries of truth and life in the world’s unlikeliest places – Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.”

As I suggested earlier, Ben Zen may be said to be most Zen-like where Zen poetry generally is least so – in the poems’ form. Consider the sensitive arrangement of the words in “Ben’s Poems – 7”:

Telephone wires
Sing in wind.

Corn listens,
Hums along.

Here to me is the kernel of rural America, cleanly picked out of a seed bag of potential stimuli. The two stanzas set out and resolve a tension between the horizontal and the vertical in a landscape familiar to even an urbanite from her drives in the country. The extra line of space between the stanzas may suggest the distance between the telephone poles, and somehow the bigger space makes the wires more taught and ready to sing. The space also seems to suggest the distance between the wires and the corn, between the stimulus and the response, between close observation and poetic reflection.

The form, especially the space, in “Ben’s Poems – 7” above can be said to serve a Zen-like end. Stryk’s introduction again:

In Zen poetry the phenomenal world is never treated as mere setting for human actions; the drama is there, in nature, of which the human is an active part…

Or, as William Carlos Williams, another non-Buddhist American poet who approaches the Zen spirit, has it, “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow…”

There is something like Stryk’s drama in the following poem’s concise rise of action, climax, and denouement:

More and more

I am here

Less and less.

Ben exists, sandwiched somewhere between the thin membranes of “more and more” and “less and less.” The poem waxes and wanes, and Ben is washed up and left by the resulting tide. Could this be the discovery of the formless self, hidden long ago in a sea of comparisons?

Even where Ben Zen is aphoristic, form gives freshness to the thought:

The more I know
The more I know

I know nothing.

For Ben, an aphorism is like nature itself — common as a rock, but as full of life as what may lie under the rock. Just rearrange things, and a fresh perspective may lead to satori (enlightenment). Or, if it does not, at least you can laugh at the poet. Ben laughs, too.

Ben’s words sometimes sound like the Middle Western farmer’s homespun wisdom. Montag points out that Ben might be a Buddhist monk, and he believes that the monk and the Middle Western farmer “each would understand the other’s silences.” In ancient China, one of the four “recluses” esteemed by Zennists was the farmer. Zen artists long ago used the farmer as a vehicle to achieve sabi, a feeling of isolation suggesting detachment. Montag, who grew up on a farm, finds the world itself as well as a suitable mood in the farmer’s life. Montag celebrates the farmer in his essay, “Who is Poetry For?” from Kissing Poetry’s Sister:

Poetry is for this farmer who speaks only what he has to, who knows the weight of words and how to measure them.

For Ben, part of the farmer’s measurement is made in the poem’s form. Consider:


No more than
The horse can circle

No more than
The ox can plow.

The form suggests a definition of “desire,” and the definitional aspect of the poem survives and colors the farmer’s aphorism.

Sometimes the poem’s form simply dissolves the syntax into seeming nonsense. Here’s the last of five stanzas in a Ben poem:

Are or as
Empty as.

Does the stanza stand alone? It follows this stanza: “The day as / Full as you”. But this preceding stanza barely prevents the poem — and the reader’s life, too, perhaps — empty or full — from flying apart. The final stanza asks us to examine each word — each phoneme, maybe. The dissolution of syntax, along with the breakup of the mold our syntax forces our thoughts into, would perhaps meet with a Zen master’s approval.

I think writer and Zen student Natalie Goldberg would approve. She writes:

We think in sentences, and the way we think is the way we see. If we think in the structure subject/verb/direct-object, then that is how we form our world. By cracking open that syntax, we release energy and are able to see the world afresh and from a new angle. . . . Actually, by breaking open syntax, you often get closer to the truth of what you need to say.

(Writing Down the Bones, pp. 62-63.) So what is Ben saying? Or perhaps a better question: where does “Are or as / Empty as” take you?

Ben is a mystery, even perhaps to the farmer. He is the Poet, a figure who is at once misunderstood by and engaged with the community around him in Montag’s more autobiographical prose (e.g., Curlew: Home and Kissing Poetry’s Sister). Like Montag, who interviews and enjoys the same people he wishes to reach with poetry, Ben is equally at home by himself or with his adopted community. Ben is like Basho’s spiritual forefather Kamo-no-Chomei, a 13th-Century Japanese poet who, while living in the mountains, never lost sight of his interdependence with the people in the nearby town. “Trivial things spoken along the way enliven the faith of my awakened heart,” Chomei wrote.

Montag’s poetry reflects a deep-seated concern for his fellow man as well as a quiet and self-effacing humor of the sort a sensitive Western ear may find in Eastern poetry. Is the humor (or the quiet, or the compassion, for that matter) Zen or Middle Western? It is both, and neither: it is Ben. As Ben says towards the end:

What I’ve
Is Ben.

Because there is an end of sorts, or at least a parting. Like Basho before him, Ben gives us several poems that vie for the title jisei, the poem written from the perspective of the poet’s imminent death. My own choice:

Ben’s request –

Please take care
The unicorn.

I take it back — there’s your Zen dynamism.