The 1950s in America was not a period known for its religious diversity. The spiritual consumerism that we know today had yet to be established and the post-War era was defined by adherence to familial and traditional values, including a religious conformity of traditional Catholic-Protestant beliefs (Ellwood 172). The Beat writers were among the minority of spiritual seekers in America at that time who pursued alternative forms of spirituality to supplement the existential longing that they were encountering in their own lives (Edington 3). Buddhism, though far removed from the American mainstream, offered each writer a method for reconnecting to the lost sense of spiritual nourishment their traditions and culture failed to provide. Each writer pursued his own path within Buddhist philosophy, and arrived at a distinctly different place as a result of his exploration. The Beat writers contributed to the development of American Buddhism through methods of appropriation and study, resulting in a body of literary and poetic work that reflects the ways in which the writers integrated Buddhist philosophy both in their personal lives as a spiritual practice and as a stylistic element used to enhance and inform their writing. Continue Reading…
Archives For Gary Snyder
“From a certain point onward there is no turning back. This is the point that must be reached.”
The Six Gallery Reading
They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. From Lower Burnside. Cross-country. Cross-town. There was talk of a renaissance.
On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east. It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless. The sun means nothing in San Francisco. It’s all about the wind. It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool. It would be very cool. Continue Reading…
Sometime in the early 1950s, the Beat Generation helped bring Buddhism to the West, or at least they popularized it and expanded its influence. The world saw them as obscene hipsters who eschewed responsibility, but they viewed themselves as roamers of America and characters of a special spirituality. At least for Kerouac and Ginsberg, Beat had a quasi-religious connotation.
In the modern era the sustainability of both our daily lives and global systems has become an increasingly important issue. The world finds itself in sight of, and surpassing, certain “planetary boundaries” which mark the limits of a planet which will continue to be inhabitable by humans. These boundaries include ocean acidification, climate change, and biodiversity loss, and they mark a complete break from planetary sustainability. Although personal choice and advancement in resource production may take some steps towards a sustainable future many critics have noted that the blame can be placed primarily on the dominant economic system, capitalism (Foster, 18). For this reason, among others, environmental concerns have increasingly entered into the political sphere. Continue Reading…
The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men.
October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
On Dave Moore’s wonderful Beat Generation Facebook group – a partner to the very active Jack Kerouac group – there is at present a thread discussing the following cover for Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums.
(The discussion actually revolves around the front cover and not the whole jacket as featured above.) Continue Reading…
From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:
The Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius. Continue Reading…
by Charlie Canning
Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills
Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural. Continue Reading…
Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori, or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.
This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.
The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.
Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.
Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.
Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.
Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.
There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”
1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.” This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers. When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.
2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. You can buy it on Amazon (as a paperback or ebook).