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The Wilds of Poetry

Review by Scott Lawrance

The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in mind and landscape
David Hinton
Shambhala Publications

“We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from” – Robinson Jeffers

Sometimes, to see the bird, one must adjust the glasses. And then, while the warbler shifts into focus, a new field reveals itself; a screed of branches, now stands, transformed, in relief. And so it is with some books, clarifying that which was already present, but unrecognized.

Variously thesis, diatribe, manifesto, anthology, Hinton’s “The Wilds of Poetry” reminds one of such works as Bly, Hillman, and Meade’s “Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”, composed of short introductory sections interspersed with well-chosen, illustrative poems. But, while that book cast a similarly broad net, capturing works on a variety of related themes, this one illuminates a particular poetic trajectory, and link a range of poets who may previously have seemed quite disparate in both form and intention, into a vital and necessary lineage.

Wilderness, poetry, and meditation – these three domains have held my attention since adolescence. A fourth subject, psychotherapy, has similarly occupied my time and my bookshelf, and vocation. But that first triad precedes and indeed holds within its net the latter, a fish that shimmers and shape shifts like Proteus. Like other wilderness vision fast guide and meditation teachers, there are a range of poems that I have drawn upon in my teaching capacity, poems that have become catechismic within those communities.

The poems of Mary Oliver, David Whyte and a smattering of other “spiritual” poets, such a Hafiz and Rumi function as a virtual catechism in a range of workshops and retreats. Here, they offer relief from the prosaic and predictable, albeit “inspirational”, discourse of the teacher, guide, or facilitator of the wisdom (or techniques) being offered. I have nothing against these poets and their poetry per se. It often moves me quite profoundly, but upon reflection, I invariably find something lacking. Or rather, it is not that there is a “lack”, but rather a surfeit, an overabundance of certainty, a stridency whether the subject is grief or jubilance. It is like “the weekly wisdom that inspires you.” Not exactly Hallmark cards, but with the same self-assured and somewhat complacent tone.

At heart, this problem belongs not to the poet, or the person writing (with Mary or with David, and for sure not with Rumi, but then we are never reading him in the original so we don’t really know him). The problem is with the medium itself, our written English language, itself now rapidly morphing with the pressure and pulls of Insta-grams and emojis. As Martin Prechtel (And David Abram, perhaps) point out, a language rooted in the verb “to be”, gives rise to, and maintains, an alienated stance toward and within the world; a perpetuation of what Steven Foster called “the Big Lie.” White and Oliver, whatever ambivalence they may have toward the written word, seem comfortable enough there, reporting and evoking epiphanous experiences from the front lines where they are embedded with the Verb Police. I know I am being too harsh here. I would go as far as to say that there are poems of Mary Oliver’s that I truly love and gladly share with others, such as “Wild Geese”, “The Journey”, and “The Summer Day”. But Hinton’s book takes us “further”, or on a different flight.

While he has a new book of poems out (Desert, from Shambhala), Hinton is best known for his translations from the Chinese: Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yun (New Directions, 2001), Menciu (1999), The Analects of Confucius (1998), Chuang Tzu: Inner Chapters (1997), Forms of Distance by Bei Dao (1994), The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien (1993), and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu (1989). Anne Waldman describes Hunger Mountain as a guidebook, “a beautiful and compelling meditation on consciousness and the cosmos through a series of peregrinations around and beyond the intricacies of Chinese philosophy and religion.”

In The Wilds of Poetry, Hinton provides us with (a Lonely Planet guide, a Fodor’s guide) a map upon which the journeys of (the ancestors of the lineage) are traced. His approach is grounded in a decades long engagement with Chinese poetry as an expression of an East Asian philosophical tradition that is not so much “spiritual” or “mystical”, but thoroughly empirical and muscularly pragmatic. Analogous to the systemic thinking of Gregory Bateson and elaborations from Maturana and Varela, Hinton’s work is grounded in the insight that ““the cosmos is a spontaneously self-generating organism whose basic nature is change. All things are always changing, one growing out of another. That’s the basic truth of reality.”

Here, he advances his contention that, “in the early twentieth century, American poets began abandoning Victorian abstraction and embellishment in favour of a clear, precise language of unadorned experience, and Chinese poetry helped bring about that change. It remained influential for decades after that, especially in the work of Kenneth Rexroth, the so-called father of the Beats, and Gary Snyder, who combines poetry and environmentalism.” The collection gathered here serves to not only illustrate, but to embody the shift in world culture referred to as “avant-garde”. He argues here that the avant-garde, consciously or not, sought to develop a “non-mimetic language”, whose presence they detected within Chinese poetry. Engaging with the practice of this poetry evokes contact with the primal energy of experience, as manifest in the range of poems here.

The heart of the book, the center section, is devoted to beat writers, specifically Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, along with the aforementioned mentor, Rexroth. This core is preceded by older ancestors (Thoreau, Whitman) and followed by a range of contemporaries, some of who are less well known than others and indeed often associated with significantly different styles. Preceded and followed, but in in ways it would be more accurate to imagine all of the writers presented here as rings in an old growth tree, both surrounded by and surrounding kindred voices.

For example,"Mind Wilds," on the work of Charles Olson, lays out the relationship between the physiological basis of Olson’s projective verse and Hinton’s central thesis regarding “contact”: his “poetics suggest that a wild, unmediated, and improvisational response to experience produces the deeper complexities an orders of contact, that it is a way of belonging fundamentally to Tao.” From here, it is a short leap to the more explicitly Taoist and Buddhist informed work of Snyder and McClure.

Of Snyder, is work “gives individual voice to the mystery of a universe that is a “vast breathing body” (Tao), using that primitive breath energy-in all the ways Olson describes to create something akin to an oral poetry at once primitive and modern in its incantation of that ecstatic “Ah!” And, of McClure, “to reinvent thought/identity at a fundamental level means reinventing language. McClure’s poems, with their cascades of language and idea and image, are meant to induce a revelation experience in which we feel ourselves at this primal level of existence as mammal, as a swirl in the galactic onslaught of interpenetration and transformation.”

Following McClure’s section, “Mammal Wilds”, is a section devoted to poet and anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg, entitled, “Primal Wilds”. Rothenberg, of course, is most notable for his forays into the realm of ethno-poetics, which in Hinton’s treatment becomes one other aspect of the underlying philosophy that he is tracking here. Beyond that, Rothenberg’s sense of the anthologist is entirely relevant here: “From these I sensed the possibility of the anthology as (1) a manifesto; (2) a way of laying out an active poetics – by example and by commentary; and (3) a grand assemblage: a kind of art form in its own right.”

In effect, the text functions as an interlocked series of sadhanas (ritual practices of invocation and embodiment) introducing the reader to a full range of the possibilities of “wildness”, including in addition to those already mentioned, “nameless wilds” (Merwin), “no-mind wilds” (Cage), “contact wilds” (Eigner), “mosaic wilds” (Johnson), “China wilds” (Pound), and “coastal wilds” (Jeffers) to name a few.

Quibbles with the book as involve exclusions, those who get left off the list. The poets contained herein are primarily white, male, and American (a shortcoming addressed in the Rothenberg anthologies.) Significantly, Hinton also neglects the role of women poets in the development of this trajectory. He acknowledges this lack in the introduction, alluding to “the well-rehearsed reason that women were largely excluded from the intellectual and literary world through the years discussed in this book.” He contends that the book, indeed, is “an attempt to excavate a female dimension in the tradition.” It is therefore unfortunate that he did not see fit to include some of the significant female voices in the development of relevant “avant-garde” such as Dianne di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, and Jane Hirschfield (and from an earlier generation, even H.D. and Gertrude Stein). There is also the absence of other male writers who would readily come to mind, such as Philip Whalen.

That stated, Hinton’s work nevertheless remains a brilliant display of a necessary gestalt within contemporary poetry, a corrective impulse that answers the anguished cry that arises from the dislocations, political and environmental, that permeate our world. Williams wrote that, “it is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Here is Hinton’s news announcement: ““Tzu-jan is a very different manner of thinking about the universe than what we’re used to in the West. We think of time in linear terms, whereas in ancient China they thought of existence as a burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change. And this constant birthing goes on both in the physical world and in human consciousness, for consciousness is as much a part of that process as surf or a rainstorm or blossoms opening in an almond orchard.” We ignore this at our peril.

Scott Lawrance continues work on epic Turtle Island while trying to find how to stand on the shifting sands of the Anthropocene.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24