This week in my “Buddhism, the Beats, and Beyond” class, we talked about Buddhist poetry. I told my class I am not a poet; I told my class I didn’t understand all the poems we read, either. But we talked about poems anyway, and we tried a version of the Natalie Goldberg exercise where you freewrite a list of statements all starting with the same opening phrase.
We took as our lead Allen Ginsberg’s “Why I Meditate,” which several students had been confused by. In our poems, we chose some other thing we do daily–why I walk, why I sing, why I dance, why I read–and we each made our own spontaneous, sometimes illogical list. The logic of our lists didn’t matter; what drew us in was the litany of the words themselves, ever-echoing that opening phrase: “I ______ because…”
I walk because the earth is round
I walk because my feet touch earth
I walk because my lungs breath green air
I walk because it rains invisible mist
I walk because you are here
I walk because sitting is too still
I walk because the earth is love
I walk because my body never tires
I walk to pump the billows of my heart
I walk because some people can’t
I walk because outside is bigger than inside
I walk because the afternoon is long
I walk because life is short
I walk because death nips our heels
I walk because the dog paces and whines
I walk because it is cheaper than gas
I walk because my feet can’t be still
I walk because the body is made to move
I walk because my brain never stops
I walk because I can’t stop
I walk because you aren’t here
I walk to find things I haven’t lost
I walk to chase the sunset
I walk because time marches on
I walk to meet a future version of myself.
My students are open and forthcoming, so a question soon arose. What makes a poem? How is a poem different from other things? Can a quick-jotted list be a poem? What about a story told in ordinary language like prose, but with line breaks?
We talked about Walt Whitman and his lists, and we listened to several of Diane Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters.” What makes a poem different from a letter, and what makes a poem different from a political rant? Sometimes the two sound the same, so what makes a poem unique?
My students and I quietly drafted our own ideas about what a poem is and what a poem is not, and we compared the results, which were remarkably similar. We seemed to think poetry is looser than other literary genres: poetry can take a form, but it isn’t limited to that form. We seemed to think that a poem isn’t defined by the particular arrangement of its words and rhythms–it can follow the format of a haiku or epic, list or refrain–but it is defined by the fact that its words are arranged with some sort of intentionality (whether formal or informal) chosen by the poet to express some sort of truth.
We read Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” after having listened to Snyder read several other poems, and we concluded that Snyder’s definition of poetry is as good as any. In “Riprap,” Snyder suggests poets lay words like rocks–carefully, intentionally–to create a path to truth. The way up Cold Mountain is slippery and steep, but a path cobbled together with whatever rocks are close at hand–shattered shards or polished river rubble–can make the way more passable. You still have to walk the path yourself; your experience of the mountain of truth will be uniquely yours. But a line of carefully laid stones can save your life along the way.