Thursday, March 6, 2014

Andrew Schelling's "The Wisdom Anthology of Contemporary North American Buddhist Poetry": Review

The contributions of the Beats (see the complimentary collection Big Sky Mind ed. by Carole Tonkinson a decade earlier) to Buddhist culture continue to gain documentation. Naropa Institute professor (and former chair of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) Andrew Schelling lists those who follow the pioneers. He explains in his preface that he encounters in many contemporary poets here a more casual diction "as though one reasonable person were conversing intimately to another."  He compares this style to that of ancient Chinese verses that reminded listeners of  "gnawing on withered wood'": the results tend towards a calm, unhurried approach. While some poets strive for levity, straining to shake one awake, to shout, to beckon, to entertain, most settle down to ponder and ruminate, as this context would lend itself to further, of course.

Schelling shifts attention to thirty living poets; a few Beat veterans (Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, and the exception, the late mentor of many, Philip Whalen) feature here. The alphabetical order ensures that the new and the old share pages; this directs a reader to surrender expectations, to find fresh names. Still, Gary Snyder stands out as one who conveys vividly the power of nature and the presence of people, in suburbanized or remaining rural landscapes of California, through the eyes of those of us who burrow into both locales.

The first selection in his section, "Breasts" snaps to attention with a vivid image:
". . .So we celebrate breasts
We all love to kiss them
            --they’re like philosophers!
Who hold back the bitter in mind
To let the more tasty
Wisdom slip through
            for the little ones.
            who can’t take the poison so young. . ." (excerpt qtd. 300)

Shin Yu Pai's "Office Feng Shui" evokes the artificial nature (literally) of transplanting Eastern sensibilities into Western space. She uses a prose-poem block to force the meaning into a package, imitating the pressure exerted by expectations of conformity, suitably limiting form into content. As Schelling notes in his introduction, the energy of those schooled by heritage as well as initiation into the Asian contexts infuses many of these poems, and represents a wider basis for future progress among Americans (despite the subtitle, Canadians aren't much to be found, but one Chilean exile is.)

Similarly, if with a looser, more typically modernist line, the more fragmented approach of other poets, younger ones influenced (as are their forebears) by the Beats and the far older Asian writers continues. Hoa Nguyen's sensibility filters a broader heritage, one shared by her counterparts in this anthology, but rarely achieved as well, and as succinctly, as here, in one Schelling justifiably singles out in his introduction. [Roll in Your Skull Gone Green]

"Roll in your skull gone green
like a mossy cog that wings
Sing the good times
You seem a tiny wrecked thing to me
something sacred           where time has gone
old and green       Norse
hymns bringing dawn" (qtd. 195)

Dale Pendell's rambling but engaging prose exegesis on "Amrita" explores entheogens and argues back and forth the benefits or drawbacks of stimulants compared to meditation practices taught by traditional Buddhists. This entry broadens the intellectual value of this collection, and perhaps a follow-up volume with more essays on such topics might be a fitting venture for Wisdom Publications. This one, appended with a helpfully annotated bibliography, guides the seeker to the few previous anthologies and to key works by many contributors, and venerable Asian and Western predecessors. Schelling emphasizes translations, and he includes prose studies as well as verse.

Whether the top thirty playlist that comprises most of this volume soothes the audience today or lulls it to sleep depends on your sensibility. This fills a need, but does it peer far enough outside itself? The imprimatur of the small press, the adepts who leave home whether in Asia or Brooklyn to find their way to the Bay Area, and a zendo there (or sometimes a Santa Fe/ Boulder Tibetan teacher) imprints itself heavily on those whom Schelling knows and who print and support and mingle together.

While this editor (and contributor himself) is well-placed to assemble this anthology on these merits, the results favor M.F.A. earners, grant wranglers, the footloose but somewhat secure students able to enter monasteries for awhile or devote themselves to intense practice. This may be expected, for who else would be sought out, visible enough, to be chosen for inclusion? A necessary beginning, but where are the rebels? Maybe it's a tautology.

However, for most folks, who rarely read poetry, who must make a living by means other than poetry, one wonders--when perusing the biographical bylines before each writer--where the rest of America is when it comes to Buddhism, the creative arts, and those not in the zendo in the usual Western (American: moving to if not staying in the Bay Area appears nearly a prerequisite for admission) settings. Outliers appear rarely in these circles. Are there better entries unsolicited, from those trapped in a cubicle 9-5, who struggle with laundry and carpools, commutes and cable t.v. options?

Maybe they lack tutelage to write worthy poems. Maybe they need workshops, retreats, and contacts. I did not find enough of my own experience in nearly four hundred pages of verses draped down, crammed tight, floating and measured, but that may be, poet-practitioners may correct me, the fault of my own lack of insight compared to theirs. I hope I'm humble enough despite my critique to acknowledge this lesson, even as I try to examine from a curious but distant perspective this volume. (Amazon US 8-29-12)

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