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The Zen of Poetry

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

I like the phrase…to express oneself.

In Zen it implies the true self actualization of experience. Before speech was developed, gestures dominated. I suspect it was a series of “charades” acted by humans that signified objectives, action, expectations and collective meaning.

Common gestures of our ancient ancestors were accompanied by grunts or sounds. Using the same sound with the same gesture allowed understanding without seeing the person thus expanding the reach of communication.

One of the first poems I learned speaks to rhyme as a memory technique. This technique probably was a mainstay for retaining volumes of information. A mind “App” for categories and details. Here is the poem:

M, I,

Crooked letter, crooked letter I

Crooked letter, crooked letter I

Hump-back hump-back, I Mississippi

Flowing down to New Orleans

Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes an interesting point about this (What is poetry) — that there are two origins. ( the underling is by Sangaku)

  • One is that the use of devices like meter and rhyme help us memorize things

  • — and there is always much that we need to commit to memory in a community that needs a shared body of settled ideas.

  • The other origin is the need to find a means in the medium of language to take full possession of intense emotions. In this role, language also retains the formal qualities that make it memorable, but that memory is now dedicated to momentary experiences that we wish to keep in that frame of a specially adapted speech.

  • Then we can return to them and relive them. And not only the person gifted with the ability to commit them to speech, but to another person whom that speech can also address.

  • This role of memory takes on its great importance because in the first appearance of those emotions or impressions, we were not yet ready to grasp them in full. And in this form we crack the tyranny of time.

  • The moment of an experience persists as something to which the experiencer can return, but also as something that can be communicated to a person who was not in that moment him or herself.

  • It becomes the possible possession of all who hear or read it. And humanity accumulates a great fund of wealth in this experience.

It has only within the past three years that I became aware of the moving poetry of Therīgāthā:

These poems of early Buddhist nuns strike me in the way of the kyōsaku. These women speak in a way that seems both liberating and integrating, liberated from their past life and fetters of attachment, while becoming part of the sangha of women, who together, are compelling the practice of the Buddha.These poems resonate into my marrow. Therīgāthā - Wikipedia

Here is Vilma’s Way-Finding poem from 6th Century BCE:

Intoxicated with my complexion

figure, beauty, & fame;

haughty with youth,