One of my best friends started seminary this term. He recently emailed me (his atheist friend) the following:
Want to help me with some homework? I'm taking a class on Poetry and the Religious Imagination. This week, we're to strike up a conversation with a friend outside class about the creative moment over a poem by Wallace Stevens.
"The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain"
There it was, word for word.
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen.
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
So, maybe the question to ask regarding creativity or the creation of a poem is why? What does the poem, the creative act of "recomposing" and "shifting" give us? Hmm. I think of Stevens as modernist in the sense that he's looking for wholeness, but recognizes the world as fractured. He doesn't have God out there somewhere to whom he can go for reassurance. He goes to the poem, "turned in the dust of his table," to find his home. Hmmmm. What do you think?
Here’s my response:
This is a great assignment, especially that you must get outside input. The last of the demons preventing Buddha from enlightenment was his own ego. This is among the most revealing statements ever written about spirituality. Some things just can’t be seen from ourselves.
I’ve climbed a lot of mountains. When I needed to get into a difficult issue, to solve a troubling problem, to sort out which things were important, I went climbing. Walks, while peaceful, don’t accomplish this in the same sense. Nor is it the view--driving to the top is not equivalent. Six/eight hours of tiring climbing, however, clears the mind, leaving choices and situations apparent, courses of action clear. Some of this is activity, perhaps, but long hikes aren’t the same either. Some of it is activity mandated by survival--a very effective way to focus priorities. But most of this is getting outside one’s own mind. The experiences and memories it yields are deeply meaningful, so clear I can revisit the summit at will (and do when I need this focus), something very personal that cannot be taken away but something not mine nor me, now or then. It is more than such things. As Lao Tzu observes, “Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know.” It is beyond telling. It is a knowing that is more whole than the knowing we speak of day to day. And I immediately recognized this in Stevens’ poem.
When a Zen or Taoist painter shares his work with a friend (a work born of a moment of meditation, the painter anticipates that the friend will add a poem born of meditation on the image (this is why Chinese/Japanese painted scrolls typically have so much writing on them). Similar to what you’re doing now, the viewer gains perspectives outside his own mind (and even his own mindlessness). I see poetry this way too. A poet shares a fresh perspective, a different way of viewing our world, our experience, our nature, or even just the possibility of those other perspectives, that there indeed CAN be “thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird,” for example. This too takes us outside of our own minds, beyond our experience into views we cannot see alone. I think of an amoeba-shaped lake, its shores heavily wooded, with observers standing at various points and coves, unseen by each other, all looking at the same lake, but seeing in each case a very different lake. For a more complete view at any given moment, they will need each other’s descriptions. They simply cannot view all these perspectives at once themselves. A poet can shift through these in time.
You turn to literary theory, a tool which, though I understand it (as a musician, for example, I recognize technically everything happening in a performance), I’ve always found limiting. Yes, it can inform the context. It can also posit the arbitrary. While I notice the technical aspects, it’s not what I hear--it’s not the music, in the way that I see the world as a musician, in the way that I write like a musician, that I see “mountain” in the same sense as I see music, as who I am, yet not me nor mine. When on stage, reaching down for that difficult passage, 3000 people listening quietly, expecting perfection, counter-intuitively calming my breathing to met the challenge, pressure on, knowing it will flow of its own accord, fruits of all my years of practice and yet from a place that’s not me nor mine--this is what I hear when I listen to such a poem. It’s the “It” described in “Zen and the Art of Archery” by the Zen masters, fruits of their skill, but nothing to their credit, beyond them. Questioning the nature of language and exploring it by writing is from the inside, and yes, worthy of a theoretical examination. Seeing how the movements of our age might measure such a piece is an exercise.
The creative moment? That moment is long past. The poem itself is all past tense. When, amid all the work and angst and struggle did those difficult parts of music become “easy” for me? I missed the moment. When did complicated literature become apparent? I didn’t notice the day. These things happened far before my awareness of this--outside my mind and perception. When I did notice, they were already long established history. Why write? Why create? Reminds me of “Why climb mountains?” Modernism “in the sense of a search for wholeness” would really be wishful thinking, a preconceived “connect the fractured dots” exercise possible somehow whatever the dots, if pointless beyond fiction once connected. But that captured moment of mountain, that point in music that freezes time even as it moves through it, that meditative glimpse recorded on a Taoist painter’s scroll, that snapshot of poem--these are moments past our daily post of ego driven mind.
Ever hear of the Johari window? It’s a communications construct exploring the importance of others’ perceptions in understanding ourselves. I can see some things about myself, but not other things. You too, can see some things about me, but not other things, yielding four quadrants: things we both see, things I see that you don’t, things you see that I don’t, and things we both miss. Point is--I cannot truly understand myself by myself. I need the perspectives of others as well. No one truly understands how the world looks to you--not your family, not me, not your wife. The moments you can capture are enlightening insights, parts of creation otherwise unavailable to us. Why indeed? Those most personal moments also tend to be most universal. Capturing them for others shows them to ourselves--along with their significance. It’s a process, a journey up the mountain, not the view, the recomposed pines and shifted rocks pointing their direction during their transition, not once composed, that yields this completeness “in an unexplained completeness.” Inexact and exact merge. Even though the book lays turned it yields its oxygen. The poem is mountain.
I’m always saddened when people-of-faith lament that atheists don’t have God to turn to for reassurance. How much they are missing! How many can truly live their truth? How many know with certainty anytime, anywhere, they can reach down for that difficult music passage? How many are on that mountain every moment of every day? And why would such people need reassurance, or to label it anything, God or otherwise? As Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers when asked whether he had faith: “I don’t need faith; I have experience.” Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know. Mountain, music, zen painting, poem.
I see a poem as a crystal. Multiple observations and experiences are condensed, pressed tighter and tighter, until they crystallize in “the view toward which they had edged, / Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea, / Recognize his unique and solitary home.” Physics tells us we are not slaves to time and space. Such creations let us glimpse the timeless. That’s why it cannot be told--the mountain isn’t really the point, even as it’s entirely the point. It’s why I’ve never shared this with you before, and why I don’t talk to people about my understanding of music in that sense. It is beyond telling, so we create art.
The museum has a great show, “Turner to Cézanne,” a collection on loan until Jan. 3. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will make it a point to do so, and more than once. Why? Not simply because they are very well done paintings. Paintings like these go beyond craft. Painters like these aren’t simply about superior technique, but about capturing that element of the timeless. I’ll be going to see music, mountain, poem, the fractured pieces that already are the whole--and “a place to go in my own direction.”