Southern Baptist Zen

This is a stand-alone essay, but wound up included in Practicing Zen without a License, my fifth novel.  I call it a novel because it’s fiction, and it’s as long as a novel.  A short novel.  And I don’t know what else to call it.

It purports to be a 25th-century collection of original writings on a form of zen called Easy (for Early American Zen). Worse, it purports to present itself as a computer interface, since nobody writes or reads any more except with the help of computers. The “collection” has editors, all of whom I’ve invented.  The gimmick is that the “original” writings are from the U. S. in the late 20th or early 21st century–our period, in other words.  Which allows me plenty of room for satire and parody, including satire and parody directed at the “editors;” some of the “famous” gurus I’ve invented (as I have invented the koans, anecdotes, and sayings, except for the MU koan); current U. S. social, political, and religious behavior; and many another topic, including how we babble on about zen in order to make ourselves feel profound and wise.

I tend to think that even the masters are human beings, and that humans are inevitably silly.  I suspect even the masters compete to see who’s the farthest off the wheel of existence.

I do not consider myself an expert, by the way.  I’m an amateur, always will be.  Lately, for example, I’ve begun to suspect that the admonitions of those who practice zazen are not so much doctrinal as practical.  Maybe sitting zen is the only way that really works. But I love the stuff, and couldn’t resist writing about it; and I decided long ago not to correct the opinions of my earlier selves, however ridiculous some of them may come to seem.

This preface is partly to say that I plan to start placing all or most of my other stand-alone essays, none of which have so far been included in any books, on this blog.  Some of the essays, especially the ones on math, physics, and the philosophy of science, may strike you as too dense to bother with.  Just ignore them if so.

In case you’re interested (against all odds?) in reading more of this sort of zen-humor, you can buy the novel. It’s listed by  Amazon, and won’t cost you much.

 

Here’s my favorite Southern Baptist joke: Do you know why Southern Baptists don’t like making love?

It’s too much like dancing.

In high school they called me Jack the Baptist. Well, okay, only a few people did, but one of those few was the best public school English teacher I ever had, Lois Blackwell. She smoked cigarettes, which was scandalous for a woman in Mississippi at the time, and she was Catholic, which was weird.
She taught us “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which I hated. It was the single most famous example of that “obscurity” widely held to be the problem with modern verse. I came to love it later, and it no longer seems obscure. We were witlings, untraveled in words, and like the ignorant everywhere, located the fault in what baffled us rather than in the puny scope of our own learning.

Her claim to fame was that she had published a poem in Poetry. As I remember the first line, it went, “What fabulist writ these pages . . . .” Something about fog, I think. Strikes me as lame now, but I was impressed then, though the archaicism bothered me (and the poem was a bit obscure).

I got the moniker because I had been foolish enough to express doubt, within her hearing, that Catholics were Christians. It was a witty derogation and fully deserved. True, the opinion was common among my fellow Southern Baptists, but it was idiocy and I had accepted the idiocy without skepticism.
Mrs. Blackwell disliked me for other reasons as well, which I will not go into here, but which were also fully justified. I’m the better poet, but she was the better person. One hopes my character has improved since.

It has been my lot to be seen as a rebel by the people who raised me and as a reactionary by the more radical strangers I’ve encountered. I sustained long bitter arguments with my preacher father over racism and the Viet Nam war, and have found myself contending just as passionately with PC intellectuals in Santa Fe that, despite its glaring faults, the U. S. is NOT the Great Satan.

My father himself was neither racist nor sexist. It was clear he and my mother thought all people were equal, and thanks to their example, I have always known that bigotry and misogyny were nonsense. I thought of my father as a rigid fundamentalist then, but he preferred caritas to hellfire and damnation, and I think now he sought God in the only way he knew how.

Similarly (if with less exculpation), I point out that the Southern Baptists of that day were not the Southern Baptists of this. Now they are (predominantly if not entirely) a fattening tribe of slick-haired selfrighteous suburbanites, masters of architectural monstrosity and money-grubbing televangelism. Then they were a ragged band of country faithful, rude and unsophisticated, and, as I came to think, disastrously mistaken, but nonetheless honorable.

My father was the youngest of nine. The Butlers, sharecroppers turned landowning cotton farmers, were Methodist, but when I was six Dad began attending the little Baptist church founded and built by my grandfather, Doc Niland (called, naturally enough, Niland Baptist Chapel). Soon Dad had converted, and by the time I was eight, he had, as we put it, committed to the ministry.

Doc was half-Irish, a former Catholic whom I suspect had become a Baptist for love of my melancholy grandmother and then become apostolic in his fervor. Like mother like daughter. Mom, who was a beautiful young firecracker of a Christian, probably had more than a little to do with Dad’s transformation from hard-drinking harum-scarum wild boy into sobersided preacher.

But after all if we were to try to disentangle the ways of God from the ways of romantic love, we would end in utter confusion.
From then on, we were Baptists. Regular attendance at the Methodist church in Alligator had never seemed necessary, but the next decade and a half provided enough churchgoing to last the rest of my life. Suddenly I was obliged to attend a minimum of five services a week—on Sunday morning, Sunday School and preaching until noon; on Sunday evening, Training Union and more preaching; and on Wednesday nights, prayer meeting. This count does not include the frequent two-week revivals, choir practice (usually held just before Training Union), long sessions in summer camp, or Vacation Bible School.

Speaking of the latter, I still cannot abide sugar cookies or Kool-Aid, and it was decades before I could throw off the pall of somber organ-music amid the dark pews and begin to enjoy Bach and other classical composers.
Church was monumentally boring. It was supposed to improve us somehow, but mainly it hurt my butt and drove me wild for sleep—children were not allowed to sleep during church, though deacons were. We worshipped a God of love with glumness and mortification, and though we professed every word of the Bible to be immutable law, we refused to make a joyful noise or to praise His glory and His mercy with harp and psalter and dance.

There were the usual logic-choppers, who insisted that if we had the proper devotion, being in God’s house would be the highest joy. They also swore by once saved, always saved, a strangely comfortless doctrine when combined with the principle that if you had really been saved, you would have given up your sinful ways, so maybe you hadn’t been saved after all.
Children know bafflegab when they hear it. It’s only adults, becoming accustomed to double-speak, who can no longer tell the difference. Our theology demanded behavior completely at odds with human nature, and justified the demands with circular argument: The fact that nobody could live up to such impossible standards was proof of “original sin,” and the fact that we were born in sin explained why we couldn’t live up to the proper standards.

I had other conceptual problems, which were invariably glossed over in our Sunday School classes. Fornication was evil, but it was okay for Jael to seduce the enemy captain so she could drive a nail through his head while he slept—an act which frightened me more than any forbidden horror comic.

And what about spooky old Abraham, who would have butchered his son to please God? Was he the ideal father? Made it hard to sleep at night.

Why did the God of love command His people to kill all the women and children when they took over Israel (and all the cattle too)? Was “Song of Solomon” really about loving the Lord? It sure didn’t sound like the way a person would talk to God: “Thy belly is an heap of wheat . . .”

I believed the reported words of Jesus wholeheartedly—among other things, they made sense—but could not help noticing that very few church members ever actually observed them (especially with regard to race).

I loved reading and thinking big thoughts, but imagination was suspect and asking questions was heresy. Science fiction thrilled me, offering incomparable vistas, majestic speculations, but it was taboo of the worst sort.

So I stifled my doubts, repressed them, tried to be obedient to my elders. By the age of sixteen, thanks to Shakespeare, I knew I would be a poet, but I followed through on the creed anyway. Outwardly, I was Jack the Baptist, went to Bible Club, did supply preaching. I felt guilty for not wanting to be a foreign missionary, our equivalent to Jack Armstrong or Alan Quatermain.

They licensed me as a student preacher, and then I became, when I was a mere twenty-two, an ordained Southern Baptist minister with his own half-time church. But the theological energy had been steadily failing. My stewardship of Bethlehem Baptist, near Sedalia, Missouri, represented the last few ergs. In 1966 I quit the ministry and gave up my ministerial deferment.

It was a matter of principle, I thought. Why should I enjoy the protected status of believer when I could no longer honestly believe?

Then, too, I had developed a taste for beer.

Plus which it was obvious I was not cut out for shepherding the flock or visiting the sick and afflicted. And I hated coming up with sermons. The last sermon I remember preaching was based on the exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves. I had had a late-night brainstorm. What good did it do to love our neighbors as ourselves, I thought, if we didn’t love ourselves?
That was the burden of my message the next day. In fact, that was the entirety of the message. I repeated the theme in as many ways as I could think of and concluded. All my sermons were short, but this one was really short.

Afterwards, in the traditional if unwritten Southern Baptist ritual, I stood by the door and the members filed past, shaking my hand and murmuring “Good sermon, Brother Butler, Nice sermon, Brother Butler,” and so on.

But one of them had decided the youth needed correcting, even though I was pastor and therefore the nominal authority. She was probably younger than I am now, but I still remember her as a little old white-headed lady. “Good sermon, Brother Butler,” she said, “but”—and I could see the resolve gathering in her eyes—“but I really don’t think God wants us to love ourselves.”

I had performed one wedding and one Baptism, the latter of a three-hundred pound redheaded giant who was later to sling a strap around a small refrigerator and hoist it on his back up a cramped stairwell to our new apartment.
Within a year of resigning, after thousands of lesser efforts, I finally began to write poems I thought were good enough. Within two years I was in grad school working on an M. F. A. in writing at the University of Arkansas. Maybe it helped not to have to devote so much creative energy to the contradictions.

I held on to the ordination for a while, though, long enough to perform the wedding, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, of my first girlfriend (and ex-wife of my best friend—this is a Southern story) to her new husband. By then I was a longhaired pot-smoking war protestor, but I was registered and the ceremony was entirely legal. I remember closing: “By the authority mistakenly vested in me by the state of Arkansas, I now pronounce you man and wife.”

I thought I was funny at the time. Now not so much.

I suppose I am still ordained, since the denomination doesn’t have a synod or council of elders to declare excommunication, but I haven’t registered anywhere else, and that ceremony was the last time I acted as a minister (which should be a relief to any Southern Baptists reading this, I would think).

Shortly after surrendering my deferment, I was told to report for my physical. We were three hundred young men bunked overnight on cots in the basement of a Kansas City church. What I remember is looking around at all those young men in their underwear and dreading the next few years. I couldn’t imagine how living without the company of women would make a man of me, or how unquestioning obedience would teach me character and independence.

Late in the next day’s examination, a bored doctor asked me the usual medical history questions, including the one about epilepsy. As a teen-ager I had suffered a half-dozen or so unexplained seizures, none of which I remembered and each of which had visited me with a strange euphoria, but I had hated being susceptible, and in spite of my mother’s pleading refused phenobarbitol because it made me sluggish. Now the memory dawned like salvation.

A letter from the doctor who had treated me, and I was out of the draft for good. I’d had scruples about the ministerial deferment, but felt none about being classified 4-F. One glimpse of the military life had been enough.

Just for the record, because I see the lie repeated endlessly: I protested the war, yes, but neither I nor anyone I knew blamed the grunts. Maybe you were a vet and you got spit on, but I didn’t do it and neither did anyone I know.

I remember only two experiences from grad school that may have influenced my gradual turn from “Western” to “Eastern” spiritual thought (and never mind that both democracy and Christianity began in the Middle East).

The first was that I took karate, briefly, from the poet Frank Stanford. He was an undergraduate whose talent had catapulted him into the graduate creative writing program. He was supposedly a black belt. I had read a bit about karate and was taken, in a Tom Sawyerly way, with its mystique, especially the proposition that when two opponents of equal abilities sparred, the aggressor inevitably lost. Suited my lingering New Testament notions.

Before each session Frank took us through a set of stretches which I remember as excruciating, but which now, after years of yoga, would be child’s play. Then he had us assume sparring stances one by one. When my turn came he shoved me in the chest and I fell over backwards. I was outraged in the manner of the fellow clocked in a street fight who jumps up spluttering about the Marquis of Queensbury. This wasn’t the noble art of karate!

Soon afterward he broke my toe with a downward block against an attempted front snap kick, so I left to develop my own martial art, which was never get in a fight. I had enjoyed tackling a fullback twice my weight in football practice in high school, and in basketball was never afraid to take a charge or drive hard into a moving defender, so it wasn’t that. It’s just that intelligence was far more effective than empty-handed combat. Adherence to a few simple principles will improve your odds enormously: Don’t frequent bars full of angry drunks, for example. Resist the urge to make fools of the bellicose. (After all, they do a fine job of it all by themselves.) Why attempt to cultivate, through machismo, the admiration of those whose opinion you do not otherwise respect?

The second experience was a course in Chinese and Japanese literature taught by a man who became my hero and the chair of the University of Arkansas English department (in that order). Ben Kimpel was rumored to speak twelve languages and had done intelligence work during World War II. He was a globular fellow who lamented to me once that although science had performed many miracles it was apparently incapable of producing a chocolate pie that was a real chocolate pie but had no calories. He had been a slim fine dancer as a youth, chainsmoked unfiltered camels, possessed a devastating wit, and knew everything. Years later Johnny Wink asked his spiritual beliefs, and he said he was a Confucian. The course required a term paper. I submitted a mustard seed in an envelope. He took me aside and began, “About your paper . . .”
I caved, expostulating nervously about my intentions, about my desire to show a zen simplicity of understanding, blah blah blah.

He told me later I would have gotten away with it if I had shut up.

Next came the almost obligatory sixties freak-out. Details are not useful here, but mine was spectacular. It may have been precipitated by the marijuana or the few tabs of reputed acid or mescaline I had ingested, but if not for profound fault-lines in my psyche or the terror-engendering theology which I had ostensibly rejected but still clung to, it would never have happened.
I tried getting back to basics. I moved to the countryside near Jasper, Texas, where my grandparents and immediate family had relocated, and became a member of my father’s church. I told myself there was great virtue in these salt-of-the-earth types, that my mistake had been thinking myself superior to their moral code because I could poke holes in the theology. (That was not my trouble at all, but even apostate Baptists have a weakness for self-castigation.)

There were good people there, but there are good people in San Francisco and New York and Uzbekistan and Tehran too.
There were good people, and good things happened: Lynnika, the first of two beloved daughters, was born. I continued to write and publish, placing several poems in The New Yorker and Poetry. I returned to fiction. We lived in a ramshackle old farmhouse, walked the woods, and swam in B. A. Steinhagen Lake. On the church bulletin board I saw the mimeographed notice of a meeting of the Judo for Christ club, which triggered the narrative speculations that eventually became my first novel. (That and the episodes with Stanford.)

But there was nobody to talk to. The local preoccupation was bass fishing. And no way around it, the level of spiritual understanding was not high. Upon the untimely death of a young man, the funeral speaker based his eulogy on the story of Zaccheus climbing the sycamore. In his version, Jesus looked up at Zaccheus with “the bluest pair of eyes” Zaccheus had ever seen.

Many years later my father’s own funeral was held in the church he had pastored for so long, its current pastor doing the honors. The terrible events near Waco had just occurred, in which Koresh and a number of his followers, including women and children, were killed. Fundamentalist sensitivities were inflamed. The reverend seized on the occasion to declare that any government agents who showed their faces in Texas were in danger of being shot. I’m no defender of the FBI—they bugged Martin Luther King, remember?—but my father would never have masked such personal malice as the will of God. What kept me from marching up to the front and punching that sorry son-of-a-bitch in the face was he was a favorite of my mother’s, and she would have been embarrassed.

No epiphanies occurred in the decade and a half after we left Jasper. Following the jobs, we moved first to Arkadelphia and then back to Fayetteville, where I finally finished the M. F. A. I had bailed on earlier. The marriage (my first and probably best) came apart. An ill-advised second marriage flared into brief existence and exploded. I began raising Lynnika as a single parent. (Sarah, the younger daughter, stayed with her mother.) I fell for Jayme Thomas, and Lynnika and I moved to Little Rock so I could be near her. I entered upon the nine-to-five phase of my career (eight-to-five, more like), employed, in sequence, as an actuarial analyst, a depreciation specialist for the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the assistant dean of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and director of creative writing at The College of Santa Fe (now defunct).
After a couple of years, Jayme and I married. We moved to Conway when I got the position as assistant dean five years later. Hendrix is Methodist. Every summer it sponsors Governor’s School: selected high school juniors from all over the state come to gain exposure to the heady world of ideas, science, and art. Many of the faculty are passionate defenders of free thought and civil liberty (and as such are given hell by rightwingers). The school has been responsible for some of the finer minds in Arkansas business and politics.

I respected it tremendously, but there were problems.

We lived in a pleasant little permastone across the street from the girls’ dorm. I threw a birthday party for Lynnika, inviting her boyfriend’s band to play, as a result of which I can claim the distinction of being one of the few deans in the history of the U. S. whose students called the police on him for loud music.

It became apparent Hendrix felt every waking minute and each least scrap of devotion belonged to the college and the college alone. Anything less was unforgivable. Employees were expected to attend every single basketball game (and cheer enthusiastically when they did).

All of which and more led me to the opinion that Methodists, southern ones anyhow, tend to be socially liberal and personally tight-assed.

After five years, I was looking around for a more suitable job and had begun, without realizing it, the next stage of my quest.
I had had a few lucid dreams. You probably have too. Dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming. Sometimes joy overwhelms you. You know the world around you is entirely imaginary but it’s as intense as waking life—frequently more so, since for most of us most waking life is tedium and stupor.

Now I read a book on the subject, Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LeBarge, and was fired with longing. I began a dream journal, as LeBarge recommended, in order to remember my dreams better and to increase the number of lucid episodes. (It works. Write in the early mornings, before the dreams fade.) Takes a lot of time to set down even a brief dream, though, so I developed a shorthand, keying on the scenes and images, yes, but trying to get at the way those scenes and images felt, the evanescent sense of their importance. I wanted a record that would trigger a vivid memory of the dream even years later.
Soon the journal began to serve a purpose LeBarge had not mentioned. It helped me to inhabit my dreams more fully—to be there. After the first flush of excitement wore off, I continued studying dreams for my own reasons. LeBarge’s book had struck me as too boosterish, too full of cheerleading, anyway, like all the other books that promote a fad as if it were finally THE answer (Omar and the Howlers have a wonderful song on the subject, “The Next Big Thing”). LeBarge had implied that the most significant aspect of lucid dreaming was power and control, the ability to do anything you wanted.
He was no Freudian but had this in common with the doctor: the assumption that the purpose of dream life is to serve waking life. I came to disagree strongly, in the way that I later disagreed with the conventional assumption that the purpose of spiritual awareness is to make sense of mortal existence.

More on that later.

For me dreaming (and not merely lucid dreaming) was instead a way to explore the nature of awareness, the nature of identity, and therefore the nature of existence itself. I read everything I could find. I read Freud’s huge dense tome on the subject, The Interpretation of Dreams, which struck me as resembling literary theory more nearly than science. (It skimped on evidence, relying heavily on precedent and declaration instead. I swear, the man must have cited everyone who had ever written anything about dreams, no matter how nonsensical.)
In the meantime, we had relocated to Santa Fe, where I had taken a position as director of the creative writing program at The College of Santa Fe (a serious mistake, but not one that is not particularly relevant here).

Santa Fe might seem at first glance the perfect environment in which to explore higher consciousness. After all, the city is supposed to be extremely spiritual, the capital of New Age sensibility. One of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo is nearby, and the locale is thickly populated with alternative practitioners, yogis, latterday hippies, wannabe gurus, UFOlogists, and in general the wildest variety of mix-and-match religious outlooks available anywhere on the planet. Hard not to feel exhilirated at such altitude, in such incredible light, and I did. You will not be surprised to hear, however, that the meme of Santa Fe as an Aquarian mecca is about as accurate as any other popular cliché.

What actually happened, in spite of my intensifying dream research, among such a horde of uncritical thinkers, for whom apparently anything was credible, the more outlandish the better, was that I relied more than ever on fact.

I had always had a powerful interest in science and math, which are supposedly antithetical to creativity. (Yet another popular cliché. In my experience imagination and rigorous thought are complements, not antagonists. Be wary of that which sums reality too conveniently, splitting it into neat polarities and simple opposites. Cold is not the opposite of hot. Women are not the opposite of men). I had gotten a Bachelor’s in math as well as in English, and reason had saved my sanity after my flame-out. It had taught me that some fears could not possibly be true, no matter how they urged to panic and despair.
(Most people oppose faith and reason as well, but I see strong similarities: Reason is quite often, for example, the evidence of things unseen.)

I had developed a fiery distaste for fundamentalism (not, I hasten to say, for the Bible, whose books, by many authors of widely differing outlook, were never intended as physics manuals). It was and still is incredible to me that there are people who believe this Earth is only six thousand years old.

It was not so much the famous Question of Evil: How can we come to terms with the fact that right now hundreds if not thousands are dying in terrible pain and millions more suffer the starkest injustice? How is it conceivable that in the very same universe, possibly as next-door neighbors, there can be someone ecstatic with new love and someone else desperate to the point of suicide? Our culture is handy with a sort of glib reassurance which is as about as helpful as instructing cancer patients to think positive thoughts and whose actual purpose, in my opinion, is to allow nonsufferers to avoid the pangs of empathy.

Is it even humanly desirable to comprehend such disparity? God told Moses he would die if he beheld the Lord Himself. Krishna warned Arjuna that he did not want to see the terrible majesty of the truth. Every now and then someone suggests that there is a “superior” morality, in which the existence of evil is seen as somehow necessary for the existence of good (Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, for example). Such constructions strike me as just more cockamamie theorizing. I suspect that evil coexists with good simply because there is nothing preventing it from doing so, and there is no way to tell what sorts of things can happen except by looking at the sorts of things that have happened.

There may be a way in which all things work together for the good of them that love the Lord, but if so the way is beyond my ken. For further mature consideration of the matter, I recommend Miller Williams in “The Question of Evil” or Richard Wilbur in “Another Voice.”

No, it wasn’t The Question of Evil. It was physical fact. Hell is not a lake of fire under the Earth (invisible fire presumably, since hell is also outer darkness). Heaven is not in the sky. Nearly all theologies command us to believe in impossibilities. Within the theologies those impossibilities can be rationalized, though only within the theologies. Until the creationists came along, I had thought that favorite of my youth was finished, the claim that God could have put the bones of the dinosaurs in the Earth when He created it. Yes, leaving aside the question of why God would want to play mind games with us, He could have.

The question isn’t whether anything is possible given a universe in which anything is possible, but whether we live in such a universe. I could find no basis for junking evidence and reason except the threat of hellfire. I remember the moment, soaking in the bathtub, when I decided that although I could not prove there was no such deity, I would never worship a god of fear.
The decision frightened me of course. But I’ve held to it.

Without skepticism, since nearly every theology claims to represent absolute truth, how do we judge the relative merits of any belief system? Are we not, without skepticism, without reason and judgment, condemned to live our entire lives inside of whatever system we happen to be born or persuaded to?

I agree that human reason and human judgment are limited and fallible. But are they more fallible than emotionalized credulity?

Sarah once described to me the formulation of one her fellow church-members: Faith, this person said, is believing in things that don’t make any sense. Believing that is pure insanity and miscontrues both faith and reason.

Science was important to me, but there were other influences. I doubted the Virgin Birth not so much because biology argues the unlikelihood of mammalian parthenogenesis, but because the story struck me as a familiar literary technique: an after-the-fact invention to “explain” a mystery weak minds cannot otherwise contain. The real mystery, I felt, was that someone could persist in love even at the cost of his own existence. That was all the God I required. (Some people still just don’t get it: Dan Brown, for example, locates the power of Christ in the bloodline, the gene plasm, rather than in the extraordinary spirit.)
Like I say, there were other influences. Jayme and I had met Alvaro Cardona-Hine and Barbara MacAuley when we visited Truchas on earlier New Mexico vacations. Alvaro is the greatest painter I have ever met, a genius on the order of Monet or Mondrian. You look into his paintings, into a world more real than this one, into spaces larger than imagination, into dream, myth, passion, whimsy, the majesty of true holiness. I cannot do them justice.

Alvaro and Barbara practiced zen.

I had thought I had some acquaintance with the subject. I had read the western popularizers, Watts-his-name and The-other-guy. I could talk Buddhism and Taoist roots and zen’s founding incarnation in China as ch’an. I could parrot “The way that can be told is not The Way.” (For the record, a Taoist dictum, however sympathetic it may be to zen.) I had read The Practice of the Natural Light, by Nhamkai Norbu, a dissertation on Tibetan Buddhism.

Maybe my impressions were a bit more intelligent than average, for whatever infinitesmal value such a comparison may have. But I suspect my understanding was still largely typical : Zen was that ineffable mystical awareness which grants its followers incredible powers. Woo-woo Eastern voodoo. Zen archery, zen tennis. Zen golf, for crying out loud. Be the ball.
But Alvaro and Barbara practiced zen, which is something else entirely. They rose at six and meditated in an unheated studio. Practice is the key. If I don’t practice zen, I don’t have it, however profound I may think my utterances are. In this it is like yoga. One doesn’t know yoga. One practices yoga.

From Alvaro and Barbara I learned that zen considers self to be an illusion created by the bundling of the five senses, a concept with striking parallels to the indications of contemporary neurology and cognitive research.
(Perhaps a tiny point, but I’ve come to dislike the word “illusion,” which I feel connotes deception. Human misperception is certainly involved, but I cannot imagine the holy wishes to deceive us. I prefer the word “appearance.”)

From Alvaro I learned The Diamond Sutra (also the title of one of his paintings): Form is emptiness, emptiness form. That sutra has meaning for me now on more levels and in more ways than I can possibly suggest, but herewith one tiny example: If you are instrospective and have a conscience, there are times when your life turns suddenly inside out, when what you had been thinking of as nobility appears cruel and selfish instead. The Diamond Sutra reminds us that both the nobility and the cruelty are interpretations.

In one of Alvaro’s novels, Frankenstein in Love, a character meditates on the Buddha’s declaration: This world is not this world because it is this world.

Because, the character thinks.

It makes sense. Deep sense. Just not immediately.

Okay, I’ll give a hint of how it makes sense to me: Have you ever had one of those moments in which you realize, intensely and immediately, not abstractly, that this is the way things are? The actual way, not somebody’s opinion or an item of theological dogma, but this, right now, this is what is?

That was apparently the Buddha’s insight. What is does not have to be justified because, well, it’s what is. Justification is after the fact.

If you have had such a moment, you knew immediately that it was holy. You felt an overwhelming joy and freedom and release from the world.

Like I say, there were problems. For one thing, I wanted to impress Alvaro and Barbara, a typical beginner’s mistake. You learn a lot faster and better if you drop the self-consciousness, the posing, but try explaining that to a tyro.
For another, I thought Alvaro insisted zen required abandonment of conscious thought (actually he didn’t), and I loved thinking and was proud of my intellectual skills. Now I would say there’s no more wrong with talent at math than there is with talent at singing. (Surely no zen master would declare that a mathematician cannot have zen?) The problem was the pride.

It is necessary to quiet the ceaseless brain-chatter, the meaningless mental noise so habitual we hardly notice it. The beginning of meditation is learning to hear that cacaphony. Eliminating it is one of the goals.
Thought, magnificent though some of it may be, does not explain mystery away. Theory, for me, is a subtle form of worship. The point is not to discover the final truth, which I think is meaningless delusion, and hubris to boot, but to see more deeply into existence. The more deeply I see, the more awe I feel.

A further difficulty was that Barbara and Alvaro were devotees of zazen. Zazen means sitting zen (as zafuton means a cushion for sitting), and any zazen master will tell you there is no other way. You have to be able to sit, just sit, for hours upon hours. Only by that means may one confront the essential emptiness of being. There’s no trick, Kosho Uchiyama says. Just sit.
There’s something to it. Sitting is hard, especially for people who have been trained to think their only value is in keeping busy (e. g., just about any current inhabitant of the U. S.). When I first entered grad school I realized that although I had grown up in open country, I had gradually became accustomed to spending all my time indoors. I resolved to recapture the ease and freedom of my youth. I went outside, sat down, and put my back against a tree. In a matter of seconds I got so anxious I couldn’t sit still. It took everything I had to stay for ten minutes and months to relearn a degree of peacefulness.

Though the certainty of the zazen masters intimidated me, I had resisted similar declarations from Baptists in my youth and saw no point now in trading that absolutism for one from a less familiar culture. Besides, I knew there were other approaches. (I might not have been so intimidated if I had been certain my unwillingness was honest doubt and not vanity.)

The realms of my various studies began to overlap. From dreams as well as zen, I was learning the insubstantiality of ego, what Buddhists call “the small self.” I thought of ego as the mind’s model of its own workings. We have internal models of the body’s workings. Why would there not be such a model for the mind? Ego was a virtual self, a “manager” created by the rapid repeated sampling and integration of sensory and intellectual reports. The same process, I felt, also created the appearance of locality and duration, so that ego, space, and time were a single inseparable phenomenon.

In that sense, ego truly would be appearance only, a construction (although useful for prediction and governance, the function of any model). Ego was not the self, since no model can be the thing it models. The problem was not that some people have “big” egos, but that most of us have mistaken egos—egos that don’t get the facts right, that don’t understand their own nature, that don’t function properly. The idea is not to get rid of ego, but to use it wisely.

Why is desire foolish? Why do Buddhists speak of nirvana as leaving the wheel of desire? In my formulation, what we desire is what we desire for the model, and since the model is not the self, desire cannot succeed.

The concept is easy. Perceiving the reality is far more difficult, training oneself to act on the reality more difficult still. Which is where practice comes in. One quiets the mind because the twitter of concept clouds perception. We look at our concepts instead of seeing what is. It’s a simple principle, but one which runs counter to most of the supposed wisdom of the culture.
In a similar way, most westerners treat yoga as a competitive activity, how many tricks you can do and how difficult they are. But the point isn’t impressing others or winning medals. The point is personal benefit.

It’s amazingly hard to retrain lifelong perceptual habits, habits reinforced at every turn by the culture. By comparison, quitting smoking is easy.

Zazen works. So does the asceticism of the Christian mystic. It’s almost impossible to train the mind without a rigorous training of the body (the two are not separate, after all). I don’t practice zazen, but I use yoga for a similar purpose. As far as I’m concerned, “Be still and know that I am God” and “Meditate on the blessed feet of Vishnu” are the same message.
What I oppose in any tradition is the zealotry which would declare that unless someone repeats exactly the “proper” words and behaves in exactly the “proper” fashion, that person is anathema. The only unforgivable sin, Christ taught, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I think of the Holy Spirit as the living truth of existence, and consider blasphemy against it as “unforgivable” not so much because it offends God—if you’re God, are you going to be offended by some presumptuous pipsqueak mortal?—but because, in refusing to acknowledge it, we refuse to acknowledge the source of healing and forgiveness.

(A brief but related digression on karma: The way we typically conceive it is indistinguishable from the concept of sin. You do something “bad,” you accumulate bad karma, and you pay the price. But I suspect karma is the more profound and subtle concept, a spiritual equivalent to Newton’s law of action and reaction. Karma is the inevitable result of any action, “good” or “bad.” There will be results, and if you don’t think so, you fool yourself.)

When I speak of “the holy,” I refer to personal prediliction, by the way. Zen does not require a belief in God or the gods. It’s perfectly possible to be an atheist zen master (though I doubt there are many). I read recently online some blogger pontificating that the Buddha had said there was no God. He said no such thing. He said it would be a mistake to use his teachings in support of either the contention that God exists or the contention that there is no God. I have not said there is life after death, he told us. I have not said there is not.
As for me, ever since I was a child, it has been impossible for me to see the universe as anything but a living being, a glimmering awareness, the unmistakable mystery of existence itself. For a time I distrusted such perceptions unless I could provide an explanatory mechanism. I explained my mystical experiences away. Not the scientist in me, but the reductionist in me. Gradually I understood that my perceptions were themselves facts. (Just as dreams are real experiences: Have you ever felt a sudden wave of anger on meeting a friend, only to realize the anger came from last night and not from any waking dispute?)
This is not to say any old idea which comes into your head is as good as any other. Reason retains authority. Just not absolute authority.

(Here’s a handy principle: If you think God is commanding you to hurt another creature or damage something beautiful on behalf of His will, you’re wrong. I don’t know what’s in your head, but it aint God.)

All of which leads me back to the question of faith: I have faith in what I call “the holy,” not because I believe in things that don’t make any sense, but because the holy does make sense to me. I do not believe that which is contrary to evidence—as the Dalai Lama said, “If science contradicts Buddhism, Buddhism must change.” But I do believe there is that which transcends explanation.

It seems to me that faith must be, ultimately, pragmatic. What use is it if it isn’t? What use is a religion that exists only as a set of “noble” injunctions which have no practical application? As I’ve had a character say, “I don’t believe in ‘believe in.’ ” What you believe is what you do. Only the insane behave in ways contrary to the way they think the universe actually works.

As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.

By their fruits shall ye know them.

Existence is holy and eternal, I would say. It’s also terrifying, tedious, physical, embarrassing, mortal. Somehow it is all of this at once. There are not two separate lives, one for the holy stuff, one for all the other.

This is what I actually think. It’s the best conclusion I can come to. I could be wrong, but wouldn’t it be stupid to bet against my own best estimate?

One of the things that has occurred to me is that the very distinction we make between “existence” and “nonexistence” is a human concept and nothing more. Perhaps the universe is not obliged to behave according our notions. Perhaps God neither exists nor fails to exist.

Maha-Vishnu, the mother of all existence—and therefore the mother of the God of all Gods, Vishnu—is described as timeless blissfulness, as nonbeing. That would seem a deeper understanding than our customary polarities.
My conception of the holy got a transformative jolt on our first visit to Japan. It was 1998. We had been living in Santa Fe for five years. Lynnika had grown up, graduated from Williams, spent a year in Atlanta, and moved to the big island. She was teaching English to Japanese students in Nagaoka.

(She stayed in Japan for six years, became fluent, as she already was in Spanish and Italian—pardon a father’s pride—met and married the estimable Alex Navas of El Salvador, and is now ABD in linguistics with the University of Arizona and working with the Wiyots of seacoast Northern California, helping to preserve and restore the tribal language. It may interest readers to know that she is an atheist, though at least as moral as her mystically-inclined father.)

I’m not proposing the Japanese as the font of all spiritual wisdom. Those momma-charlies will run you down on their tinkling bicycles, sexism is way more pervasive than in the states, and the whole country is desperately polluted, especially the horrifying concrete-clad beaches.

But there are refreshing differences in perception.

On a trip into the mountains, we stopped at a country shrine. We passed through the red-lacquered wood of a torii (a sort of gigantic pi but with two horizontal bars, which traditionally marks the transition from profane to holy ground—you’ve seen them), and wandered up a winding road. There was a pool of water fed by a rivulet, and a path though a small canyon to a waterfall cascading from an unseen level down black rock over a small sacred statue in a niche. The water fell through layers of sunlit leaves as if from the blue sky itself.

It was impossible not to feel the presence of something greater than the human or mortal, and I saw that in our culture, we build structures of bricks or wood or steel and declare them holy. In Japan, they recognize the holy breaking through the mundane and build a shrine where it happens.

On our next visit, three years later (Lynnika was living in Yamagata with Alex by then), on our way by bus to the temple district of Kyoto, a straphanger told me that when he died he would be the Buddha. He also explained the difference between a shrine and a temple. A shrine, he said, was for the gods. A temple was for the ancestors, and might be as small as a cigar box.
During that same visit, we went into the countryside to visit Shigeyoshi, who was director of a blacksmithing factory, where all sorts of cutting instruments were made. (He himself forged and hammered a blade as a present for us). Shigeyoshi took us down the road to meet the priest at the local Buddhist temple. On the way, I asked him what his faith was. He told me he was one-third Buddhist, one-third Christian, and one-third something else. Probably Shinto, but since I didn’t remember, I reported him in a poem as saying one-third air.

The priest, who had a teen-aged son as lovingly disrespectful as I had been of my preacher father, and who apparently helped out around the temple in much the reluctant way I had once been obliged to mow the church graveyards, shared tea and rice with the gaijin, and explained the Buddha.

He stood up to demonstrate. “The Buddha steps here,” he said in his limited English, demonstrating. “I step here,” he said, placing his feet in the Buddha’s indicated steps. “I am the Buddha,” he concluded.

As I am so shall you be also, Jesus said. Even greater things than I have done shall you do. But imagine the reaction if you were to tell a fundamentalist that in following Jesus you became Jesus.
I remember wishing to communicate that I was no ordinary clueless westerner, that I understood a bit on the subject.

Like I say, try explaining to a tyro.

In the meantime, my life had begun to self-destruct, which may be what finally pushed me over the line from theorist to practitioner. The crash began in 1996, viewed from some perspectives, in 1998 viewed from others. Reading this, you may imagine me as a wild-eyed liberal heretic, but because I wrote formal poetry, my fellow campus poets regarded me as a hide-bound reactionary.

Academic politics. What more need be said?

I had a terrible bicycle accident, and after that my health got worse and worse. Soon every day was exhaustion, pain, nausea. The best I could do was retreat to a sunlit stack of bricks in the back yard and moan, over and over, “Jesus, Dios, por favor, ayuda me en mi dolor,” or distract myself by writing poems (which, since they were about my despair, no one wanted to read).
I was convinced I was dying. I went to specialist after specialist—osteopaths, endrocrinologists, serologists, neurologists (even to kinesiologists, acupuncturists, and people who claimed to be able to leach toxins from my body by immersing me in muddy baths)—but never received either relief or a credible diagnosis. I was tested for lupus, for arthritis, for fibromyalgia (which, by the way, is not actually a syndrome, but a collection of symptoms whose causes are not understood but are almost certainly not simple nor singular).

I was forced into early retirement, with my health as the excuse.

A publishing house that had contracted for my collected poems bailed, claiming they were closing (turned out not to be true, but I never heard from them again). I had, in my confusion and on bad advice, left the agent who had sold my last three books, and any success I had once enjoyed evaporated.

Then, for all of the above reasons and others, the longest marriage of my life ended in bitter divorce, and all my savings were taken.

Meantime I had concluded that dreaming, not waking, was the basic state of the mind (one contrary indication, I think now, is sleep paralysis, those moments in a dream when you cannot open your eyes or move your arms or legs). That is, dreams do not exist for the benefit of waking life, but simply exist, the mind in a freewheeling associative state, and waking experience is a special modification of those associations, a selected category: The category of those experiences which bear certain consistencies, certain invariables. We are always dreaming, I wrote. I extended the thesis: We are always dead, I wrote, from the perspective that life is an infinitesmal interruption of eternity. I studied the way my persona varied in dreams—or, just as often, did not appear at all, apparently unnecessary. I became convinced that zen was right, that ego was mere appearance.
I needed every bit of insight I could muster. There were hours, days at a time, when all I could do was endure till the next instant. And the next. And then the next. There were seldom any intervals of relief. I wound up alone in a downtown apartment, crippled by pain and near-total despair, unemployed, forgotten, broke, consoling myself with the thought that I was appearance only, that I didn’t finally matter, that however long it lasted, when it was over it would be over for good. I prayed that at least my misfortune might be mine and alone, that enduring it in some way allowed another to be spared.
(I still cursed God and prayed to Jesus. That persistent behavior was one of the clues that however fervently I might protest, I still believed.)

The story wasn’t over, though. I had fallen in love with Kirsten Mustain. She was not frightened away by what for a while seemed to both of us my imminent death. And she loved poetry and fiction and the holy.

Kirsten taught yoga not far from the apartment, in a place called YogaSource, and as her friend, I could get free lessons. I had been dabbling in what I thought of as yoga ever since my hippie days in Fayetteville, had learned a few poses, and had thought of myself as far more flexible than average.
Now I took classes and learned how much more there was to it than I had imagined. This stuff was hard, and it hurt. But it helped.

We endure a little pain now, she said, quoting one of her masters, in order to avoid worse pain later. To me, she herself was a master, capable of astonishing feats, but she steadfastly refused the notion: She was only a pupil.

I began to see yoga not as an exercise, but as a way of life: a practice. It was impossible to separate the physical from the spiritual. One did not change oneself piecemeal, as if one were a machine made of replaceable parts. We marveled at the blindness of those who wanted the physical benefits but sought to steer clear of what they saw as dangerous Eastern heresy.
In February of 2005 we moved to Oklahoma, to 125 acres of family ridge-land (her family) overlooking The Grand Lake of the Cherokees, and lived together in a dark and disintegrating house built by her grandfather.

It was an idyll of sorts, though we were desperately short of money. We wandered the woods. We went out at night for stars, the Milky Way a gigantic spill of splendor overhead, Venus lingering in the south above the headland. (There were no nearby cities, no polluting lights to dim the brilliant skies.) We walked up to the point to see the full moon rippling far below on breeze-blown lake-water. In the daytime I built flowerbeds and walks and patios. She weeded and planted roses and petunias and fed the hummingbirds and finches and cardinals and nuthatches. We had wonderful views of flocks of wild turkey, herds of deer (who ate the petunias and the peaches from the trees) wandering from the woods into the yard. We counted the new younglings both springs. A bobcat lounged on the hillside and watched us all one morning. We saw a mountain lion.

We lived together only seven seasons, but they were perhaps the most important seven seasons I have ever known. For the first time in my life, I lived with someone who was as much a seeker as I was—even better, she seemed to have found a few things. For the first time in my life I engaged in regular practice. We did yoga in the mornings three days a week. I was far less adept than she was, but she was patient. Her practice usually lasted two hours. Mine was shorter, so I would begin the oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal and blueberries, and tea for her, and coffee for me. Long talks at the breakfast table. Poetry, science (and the obliviousness of the sort of scientist who thinks animals don’t think), the mysteries of faith, marvelous occurrences, her demented beloved Schipperkee, Wolfie, the crippled and coyote-taunted stinky yellow pit bull, Clyde, whom somebody had dumped and who had adopted us and couldn’t understand why Wolfie was allowed inside but he wasn’t and who slaughtered any groundhog or cat he could catch, and birds, birds, birds—she loves birds, knows their names, their calls.
It was here that I first began to ask myself why anyone would imagine the purpose of faith was to justify and explain this existence. All religions agree that the world of the spirit is much larger and more majestic—more real, as I came to think of the matter—than the world we call the world.

Again—if it aint, why bother with religion?

But we persist in acting as if this life were the center of all meaning. As if the holy existed primarily for our benefit. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Isn’t that backwards? Isn’t that vanity and hubris?
It was here, after a nearly a lifetime of supposed fealty to the saying “perfect love casteth out fear,” that I finally began to understand it. The very best way to escape the delusion of self is to fill your being with concern for others. This approach has the advantage of being positive rather than negative. Instead of attempting an impossible denial, you embrace a regenerating plenty. Fear is all about fear for the individual self. I came to feel there was no difference between enlightenment and perfected love, that God was God precisely because God had let go of selfish fear and given himself or herself or itself over completely to love.

It’s difficult to speak plainly of love without being thought an airhead. On the other hand, the point isn’t what others think of you.

There is this about love: It cannot be cheated. There are no off-the-book accounting strategies. You cannot stockpile it. You cannot get more of it by manipulating the market. You may temporarily deceive a few, but you will be doing yourself no good, and it will not be there when you need it.

Kirsten not only practiced yoga, but meditated an hour or more in the mornings. She had an altar with images of her gurus: Yogananda, Yukteswar, Jesus. She had been raised Methodist and still revered Jesus, but she was no tight-ass. Images of Krishna, blue and joyful, hung throughout the house. She had been to India, the source, had sweltered in 120-degree heat. Yogananda was her especial guru. For a present I bought leatherbound copies of his twin volumes on The New Testament and the Bhagavad-gita, and she studied them daily.

For her matters of the soul were matters of fact, not matters of theory. God was in plain sight and permeated all existence. Life itself was miracle. Enlightenment was the point of meditation, and in enlightenment there was complete love. The small self went through fear and doubt and suffering, but these things were to be mastered. They were your mind fighting itself.

She was careful to make it clear she was not a Buddhist (and she certainly was not a follower of zen, for all my chatter on the subject). She had studied the Buddhist masters, she had studied the vedic literature, she had learned a good deal of Sanskrit (we chanted in Sanskrit before our yoga, and I still do), but her faith was personal, not adherence to an existing orthodoxy.
Her example made me long to mean what I said as much as she did. I wanted to see as clearly. I wanted to treat myself as dispassionately, have done with delusion and selfishness. Because of her I took the final steps to trusting my own vision, understanding the limits of rationality.

None of which means that life was perfect. I was still subject to the sort of vanity that made me want to be as good at yoga as she was. I wanted her to recognize me as having significant spiritual status. I was envious of Yogananda’s certainty in Autobiography of a Yoga. My life had been lived in doubt, and now I felt accused by his very lack of that doubt. Most shamefully, perhaps, I was jealous of the boundless love she felt for her master.

Then too, I could not shake a certain skepticism. For her, Yogananda was a master, and you followed your masters in total trust. I couldn’t manage that. When Sri Yukteswar promulgated notions that I felt went against physics, I said so. When Yogananda declared that he had actually seen the actual Jesus in his meditations I was skeptical.

Then there was the fact all her gurus proclaimed the superiority of Sanskrit to any other language, but I was stubbornly proud of English.

And so on. I could iterate ten times as many shortcomings, but that would be as vain as proclaiming myself flawless. The point, I have finally come to think, is not punishment, not the fixing of blame, but abandoning behavior that simply doesn’t work. What other point could there be, really?

We separated eventually, though we have never quit loving each other. There were reasons and reasons. No doubt some had to do with my faults or even (though I cannot conceive such a thing) hers, but this is not soap opera. Probably the truest explanation is that we were different people and had different paths.

And so the latest stage of my development. I won’t say last, because I am still not entirely free of anger and fear and self-concern, and am certainly a long way from enlightenment and the perfection of love. I’m mortal, and as a mortal my only hope is to improve, to keep learning.

My health has improved dramatically, thanks largely to yoga. Kirsten gave me the gift, but I’ve made it my own now through years of steady and solitary practice. The asanas teach patience and self-discipline. They teach that fear is physical, can be mastered only by recognizing and relieving its manifestations in the body, especially the tightness of the breath. That it cannot be mastered by even the most powerful logic. They teach that no matter how adept one becomes there are always greater masters. Sometimes in the practice of the asanas one loses the small self and glimpses the infinities beyond mortal existence.

And I have gradually reverted to something I call zen. What is zen? One of the most accurate descriptions, in my opinion, is “Not that.” Whatever you say zen is, you can be certain it is not that. Perhaps it may be thought of as the difference between preprogrammed reaction to artifical categories and the response of unfiltered being, not to theories of the world, but to the world itself.

Maybe such statements are useful. But I call what I practice zen because I have no better word, and because I live, as well as I can manage, according to the four pillars of zen and the one principle I take as its moral core.
The four pillars are these: 1) Everything changes; 2) nothing exists independently (that is, everything that exists depends on the existence of everything else); 3) life is suffering; 4) things are what they are (as opposed to what we think they are). I won’t attempt explanation or example here. Explanation and example can be found in many places if you really want them.
No doubt the four pillars will strike many as highflown moral sentiment. To me they are simply the four most accurate statements ever made about the nature of existence. Some may argue that life is not suffering, though my experience conduces otherwise—even when I have succeeded, success has not helped me. But the other three seem inarguably factual. And if they are, once again: How does it make sense to live in contradiction to the way things actually work?

The moral principle: The purpose of zen is the end of suffering for sentient beings. Notice that sentience is not defined. Definition is left to your own conscience. Nor does the principle claim that you, acting alone, will be capable of ending suffering. It only declares the purpose. Fix your being on the purpose, not your own success in promoting the purpose, and a great simplicity ensues.

I must admit, finally, that there’s nothing official or authoritative about my approach. All of the various sects I have studied (and there are surely as many Buddhist and zen sects as there are Protestant denominations) emphasize direct transmission: Enlightenment may be transmitted only from master to pupil, from one who has it to one who seeks it. I revere the masters and have studied them earnestly but have never received such a transmission.

Which is where the Southern Baptist angle comes in, I suppose. One of the few youthful doctrines I still adhere to is immediacy. It’s in the creed. Jesus declared that after him the relationship between the mortal and the holy would not require intercessors, presbyters, or priests.

No human interpreters necessary.

Which is not to say there are not masters it would be foolish to ignore. Which is not to vaunt untutored individualism above wisdom and truth, above the experience of those who have spent their lives to learn The Way.
The way that can be told is not The Way: I once imagined that as semantic paradox, a warning to be wary of words and explanations. But perhaps it also means that nobody can tell you which way to go because you are the only you who has ever existed and must find your own path. You can observe the lives of others. You can study their reported sayings. You can get a general picture. But the map isn’t the territory and your life is not a formula.

You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yo self.
I still have doubts and fears, I still get the shakes. (Though not so often.) It seems obvious that one must live the life one has, not the life one may imagine or desire or envy. It seems obvious that regret over vanished youth or missed opportunities is just a way of wasting whatever time is left.

I continue to waken each morning, sustained not by my own efforts, but by life itself, justified not by my own achievements, but by the fact that existence still has a use for me. Pain is a more familiar companion, but more trivial. Aging and mortality are more obvious, but less frightening.
That’ll do. May not be zen exactly, but it will certainly do.

Researchers Hail New Grammatical Discoveries

Uttboro, Indiana: Grammatists at the famed University of Indiana at Uttboro Institute of Grammatically UnLikely Physics (UIUIGULP) have announced startling new discoveries in the farfetched realms of extreme grammar.
“The new discoveries may completely change the way we think about grammar,” said Dr. Klaxon Toodlehorne, Palin Professor of Experimental Linguistics at the famed University of Indiana at Uttboro Institute of Grammatically UnLikely Physics (UIUIGULP). “While theorists have understood the implications for decades, it is only now that we have been able to observe these new entities in, so to speak, the field.”
The new discoveries have been made possible by the creation of the Astonishingly Long and Lame Best Seller (ALLBS), a work of such prodigious extension that 123,000 copies of Ulysses could be fitted into it end-to-end.
“Theoretically speaking, of course,” says Toodlehorne. “If one were actually to bring Joycean material in contact with the exotic grammars achievable in the Astonishingly Long and Lame Best Seller (ALLBS), they would annihilate each other in a burst of nonsense radiation that would wipe all meaning from the face of the Earth. And don’t even think about Nabokov.”
Many of the new findings are counter-intuitive.
The grammatists at UIUIGULP say they now have evidence that all syntactical phrases are combinations of quirks in seventy-leven “odors,” or varieties, including the martin, the individual, the irresponsible, the smart-ass, the hot buttered, the doowackadoo, and the strange quirk of fate.
Even such familiar grammatical units as personal pronouns have been proven to have high-cacaphony counterparts. There are distinct families of pronouns for every human on the planet. My personal pronouns include ig, buk, gnoto, deludon, gark, and pheb. You can’t have them; they’re mine. I would tell you what they mean but that information is on a need-to-know basis.
Another example of the weird behavior of grammar at levels of incomprehensibility achievable only within the ALLBS is the prevalence of garbled sentences (sentences created when fragments with completely different structures collide). “Grammatists have wondered for a long time,” says Toodlehorne, “why most of the sentences in literature to date have made sense. Logic dictates there should be an equal number of sentences that don’t make sense, but where are they? It turns out they are observable only when conventional grammar is subjected to extraordinary stress in a thought-vacuum, the sort of vacuum which can be maintained for any length of time only within the ALLBS. Though,” he appended, “the fleeting occurrence of such extreme conditions within the minds of certain individuals, primarily politicians, lawyers, fundamentalist preachers, and financial analysts, has been theoretically posited.”
Grammatists now think that unusual conditions during the first micro-seconds of the Big Gabfest, when all of language originated, may have selected for sense instead of nonsense. “There’s no other imaginable reason,” Professor Toodlehorne expostulated, “that we should find ourselves in a primarily functional discourse.” Sentences composed of garble resemble ordinary sentences in every respect, he went on to say, except that they are impossible to understand.
“And don’t get me started on comma splices,” he commanded this interviewer. “Did you know that one comma can support the weight of ten thousand overblown sentiments?” As evidence, Toodlehorne cited a recent sentence-like element discovered in the ALLBS: “ . . . completely crapulous fandoogle, the weight of ten thousand overblown sentiments.”
“Just think,” he whispered dreamily, “what would happen if we could splice thousands of commas together. We would have the world on a string.”
The ALLBS was constructed by a team of grammatical engineers who mated John Grisham’s talent, Stephen King’s prolixity, and Michael Crichton’s politics with a supercomputer programmed to churn out unfathomable prose at rates never before possible.
“A new paradigm is upon us,” Toodlehorne chortled exultantly. “I predict even more incredible findings ahead of us in the future. The world we thought we knew is being replaced by the world we never knew we thought.”

Working the Wonkets

I was once the director of an undergraduate creative writing program granting a true liberal arts degree. The freshmen were intelligent, gifted, and willing, but entirely innocent of grammar, syntax, or etymology.

Either the high schools don’t teach these subjects or they do a bad job. Most of my students were puzzled when I asked, so I assumed the former.

If they’re helpless falling into college, they have to be walking disasters by the time they stumble into grad school. Grammatical incompetence worsens with altitude, like a decaying trajectory that’s off just a hair at the outset.
Let’s face it—there’s no such thing as a good writer who doesn’t have excellent command. How many successful writers can you think of, in whatever categories you wish, who mangle sentences as a matter of ignorant routine?

My student writers understood the situation. They fell on the few crumbs I offered, devoured them greedily and gladly. They preferred real knowledge, as it turns out, to bullshit assurances, however frequently repeated.
The problem is that I am writer, not a grammarian. My feel for grammar is just that, a feel for it. I can say, Nope, that’s wrong a lot easier than I can explain how I know it is wrong. I mean, I can reconstruct the problem, but it takes a lot of time, and I am better at watching motion; and anyway I have explained to students for years why their sentences are broken without seeing much improvement in performance, so I doubt the approach.

-0-

Something of a tatty little secret, what, the linguistic ineptitude of our pupils? A matter we’d best not discuss frankly in public though we may groan among ourselves in the coffee bar. Teaching the stuff is not in the job description thank god, and where would we find the time anyway after our other classroom responsibilities? We must praise fire and heart, and hope for the best.

What a sad attitude.

The inner structures of language are beautiful, like the pulse of fluid in the translucent veins of the leg of a wasp in the sun. All that continual arrangement and rearrangement, all those mirrors and hallways and windows branching into the bluest of distant possibilities and the strangest of thoughts.

I can’t imagine being passionate about language and not being fascinated by its workings and waybelows and wonkets.
So this is how language fascinates me, and grammar. As living systems, always adapting and creating. I am not a grammarian because I am not a classifier. But this doesn’t mean I don’t like grammar.

Consider that we begin decoding sentences in subunits and recombining the subunits into more and more refined levels long before we know what we’re doing, so that meanings flower whole at our first awareness.
Since there is an initial period when we are deciphering a sentence unawares, time and meaning are mysteriously and cunningly related. With regard to comprehension, time runs backward—we get the whole first and figure out the structure later if we figure it out at all.

There’s no “right” grammar, of course, no absolute grammar. Every dialect and speech has its own innately correct grammar: So goes the modern truism, too self-evident to argue. Grammar on the page is another matter and yet the same. Grammar on the page ought to be understood as an overgrammar, a usable synthesis, a set of convenient mutual agreements.

Its purpose is the same as any other grammar’s purpose: Communication.

Grammar on the page subsumes all or many of the spoken variants of a language. As with spoken grammar, it’s a matter of conventions and of clarity of intent. Grammatical signals—punctuation, parallel constructions, imbedded constructions, et cetera—ought to be understood as plain and simple switching devices. The closer our agreement with a mutual convention, the clearer and more quickly we can communicate. I trust we all understand the vast difference in skill between deliberately contravening conventional grammar or syntax for specific effects and being unable to control one’s sentences. But to illustrate:

I once wrote a short story which pretended to be an essay from a freshman English class (“Without Any Ears,” from the collection Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories). It wasn’t a snotty attack on lack of standards, by the way—it made fun of the teacher and praised the spirit of the colloquial student.

Naturally, the copy editor corrected all my “errors,” and wrote an incensed note to the main editor for accepting such a misbegotten piece. I took this as praise of the highest sort—I had gotten “wrong” right.

Grammar on the page is also a transcription or scoring of grammar for the voice. In voice, there is no punctuation. We use pitch, pause, emphasis, rhythm, duration, and other vocal cues to indicate distinct units of meaning. For this reason, every English sentence is a tune. It can be a good tune, harmonized and rocking, or it can be a clumsy broken tune—but it will be a tune.

Unfortunately or not, there is no precise scoring system for the tunes that sentences make. We cannot readily indicate pitch on the page, or duration, or timbre—much less the dynamic marks so useful to musicians.

The transcription we use records the logic of our statements rather than their music. (Though the transcription is logical, it is neither simple nor linear. As I say year after year, for example, story after story: “Every comma implies a pause, but not every pause requires a comma.”)

This is the hardest part to get clear: That the marks on the page refer to a system of meaning and not a system of sound—but that the system of meaning translates to a system of sound. Think of the laser cutting pits into the DVD, which another laser will translate back to what our eyes take as the original scene.

When we make words vocally, the cutting laser is our thought, and the material we cut into is sound itself. Another brain can use the same system in reverse to translate sound back into thought—a thought from somebody else.

Musical recordings can now mimic with more sensitivity than our ears can distinguish the sound of a full orchestra playing, say, Scriabin’s Etudes. They do not yet present the complete physical illusion of the orchestra.

All transcriptions leave something out.

Now consider written language. Its medium is not sound. In this case, the laser is sound and the written page is the recording which can then be translated back into sound by the skillful.

Notice I said the skillful.

That is, there is a two-stage translation. We have little doubt that language evolved as a spoken system and not a written system—a system coded for the sense of hearing. With the evolution of written language, what was originally coded in sound gets coded again, into voiceless marks on the page.

The trick is this. In spoken language, we have a system of sounds to indicate meaning. In written language, we have a system of marks. And the two systems do not entirely harmonize. It is part of the skill of the good writer to intuit the most harmonious joinings of the systems, language in which there is no contradiction between meaning and music.

Since this odd split between our spoken and written systems can be harmonized, grammar is not a dull dry study, but a fascinating examination of the singing dynamics of the language. Comprehensible syntax is quite literally music, and grammar represents the bones and intelligence of that music.

It mystifies me that poets who will study the ways of birds, animals, plants, societies, or humans, will balk at studying the life of language. Language is equally rare, equally mysterious. Language is the flesh we share. I pity the poets who have lost this faith. What can they make their poems of but ashes?

So I would feel unconscionably derelict if I didn’t address the problem. My students were people who wanted to be writers. But without mastery of grammar and syntax, they were like broken-legged dancers: However much innate grace and dazzle they possessed, it could never be expressed.

I would tell them that we’d talk about grammar when it came up. I would tell them that unfortunately they were pretty much on their own, that the schools had failed them. (No doubt a lot of the students had failed the schools, too, but there seemed little point in making that observation.)

I tried to give them a usable conceptual basis for individual study.

I told them what I have said here, that until by some means they came to mastery of their language, they would be severely handicapped. Their development would be stunted, and they would find themselves out of the loop and not understanding why (maybe this principle doesn’t apply to screenwriters).

I told them that when they studied grammar, they should study generative or transformational grammar, and not the old useful but logically miscontructed parts-of-speech approach. There are few if any words in English which cannot be used as more than one part of speech. Many of us have been mother-in-lawed, for example. The secret to the infinite variety of the English sentence is its recursive, imbedded structure. (Forget about kernel sentences, though. The rules of transformation are beautiful, but there are no kernel sentences. That was an unnecessary invention, like the ether in physics, from the beginnings of transformational grammar.)

And finally, I would mark their stories and poems carefully and faithfully, not merely with regard to the usual subjects, but with regard to grammar and syntax. I looked upon these marks as an available resource for the interested student (nobody can help the bored student). Students were not required to use my grammatical and syntactical commentary, but it was there if they wished to. Most of them were delighted to have the additional suggestions.

Like many teachers, I found it necessary to telescope my grammatical or syntactical comments. This was not my chosen subject, after all. The teaching load was already too heavy, without using extra energy on grammar.
Nevertheless, like a track coach who finds that all of his or her stars have sprains, breaks, and torn ligaments, I had to deal with the situation. So for years I resorted to a list of abbreviations which I handed out to the students, and which covers the more frequently occurring sorts of mistakes.

I believe it was Ben Kimpel, a former teacher whose every scrap of comment was worth noting, who inspired me to attempt condensation.

Such a list would be worse than useless unless it engaged the humorous intelligence of its users. And how are students to master an abstract concept unless they have vivid and concrete examples to hand?

I came up with a single solution for both problems, which I present below.

It seems clear to me that writers and teachers of writing must do something to improve the situation, if only because no one else knows how any more. To that end, I offer my abbreviations and examples.

If you can use them, feel free.

Abbreviations

awk = writing that does not have a smooth flowingness to it, but trips itself up in a clumsy awkward kind of manner

red = a phrase or a word which is redundant and repeats the sense of another phrase or word in the same construction

unn = a word, phrase, sentence, or passage which, although it has been written by the author and placed in the paper, is unnecessary to the sense of the paper

coll = This here mark means that the got-dang passage is inappropriately colloquial, if you know what I mean.

dict = Diction: The level of this diction is either rather too Plebeian to consort appropriately with the more elegant passages in close proximity, or is too funky for serious babes and dudes.

inx = This passage is just so inexpressive. I mean, I can’t really put the way I feel about this passage into words, but it’s just so kind of, I don’t know, sort of lame.

ww = Wrong Godzilla: This Godzilla doesn’t mean what you think it means.

wc = Word choice: This semiotic device is approximately correct, but not the best sound-sign for the effect you wish to create—close, but no cigarette.

logic = There is a logical flaw in this passage, and since you wrote this passage, and since you are a human being, it is apparent that there is a logical flaw in all sentences written by human beings. And since logic is the finest creation of God, the fact that we cannot write logically accurate sentences proves that we are all sinners and doomed to live in hell forever.

rep = This word, phrase, sentence, or passage is repetitive. You keep repeating it—or words, phrases, sentences, or passages that are very similar to it—over and over. Long after we have gotten the message, you are repeating the same tired words, phrases, sentences, or passages. It’s really repetitive.

conj = There is an error involving either a coordinating but a subordinating conjunction, where the conjunction is the wrong one.

cf = Comma fault: You have used a comma, in the wrong way or not used one when grammar that set of signals for comprehensible language dictates that you should have used one or more.

cs = You have committed a comma splice, you have joined two main clauses with a comma but no coordinating conjunction.

fs = You have committed a fused sentence it is just like a comma splice without the comma.

run = This sentence is a run-on sentence which can never seem to make its mind up about where it’s going or how to conclude but instead just continually keeps dithering around and spooling out phrases and clauses and all sorts of fuzzy ideas and I guess it’s really the Energizer sentence if you think about it because it just keeps going and going . . .

dm = Writing a dangling modifier, the word or phrase that is supposed to be modified isn’t there.

mm = A misplaced modifier can make a teacher tear his or her hair out, being an affront to good sense and good syntax.

ref = reference: usually a pronoun with no antecedent or this is a confusing one which she doesn’t understand.

agr = Agreement: This are a problem with singular and plural. Sometimes it happen with a subject and their verb, and sometimes they happens with pronouns and its antecedents.

contr = Contraction error: Its often confused with possession, because possessions also a grammatical device that uses apostrophes.

poss = This is an error in indicating the possessive case of you’re nouns or pronouns. Sometimes it happens because your confused about contraction and possession, and sometimes it happens because you are confusing plural noun’s and pronoun’s with possession.

st = Sequence of tenses: When you had finished writing the sentence, you are proud of it, because it will not contain any errors in the way you use the tense of your verbs.

use = Usage: The English, she are not wrote like how. If you continue on with this error, you will make the teacher up to throw.

// = Parallel fault: Using one grammatical or syntactical structure as part of a series, but then to use a different structure, or you use several different structures, in the rest of the series.

gbl = Garbled: You have confused two or more gramtactical structures, therefore being not sensible, which is a hard act to follow.

sp = You have speeled this Gordzilla wrong. Their are several possible reasons: Perhaps you have mistaken it for a soundalike word; perhaps the mispelling is a typo; perhaps you have spelled the Godzilla phonetically, altho it is not phonetic. Do not rely on spellcheck. Spellcheck is an idiot.

/ = A strikethrough indicates you have inappropriately Capitalized a letter.

/ = looks like the strikethrough mark, but is used between letters to indicate that alot of the time you are writing two words as one, and that this is not alright

= =  failure to capitalize a letter. You will remember that capitalization should be used only for the initial letter of a complete sentence, the initial letters of proper nouns—as, for example, new mexico—and appropriately in titles.

Note: The marks below are standard printers’ copy-editing marks, but I don’t know an easy way to insert them on the computer, since they’re manual. You could find them somewhere online, no doubt. Or you could tell me how to do them on the computer.

= paragraph: a new paragraph is needed here

= positions of letters or words need be to reversed

= insert the indicated material

= delete this material

= join these two words into one word

Another Note: There are many other errors which may be too complex for a mere abbreviation, and which require fuller marginal comment. Do not omit to notice these errors. And remember that in grading, an instructor also thinks about organization, clarity, effectiveness, style, et cetera.

Old English

Note: This is the first in a bunch of essays I plan on a hundred or so of my favorite English poems, dating from the Middle Ages to the present.  Most of the poems will be formal–that is, they will have rhythm and, on occasion, rhyme.  It’s my conviction that contemporary poetry often excludes potential readers in its insistence on doing away with the two things most people like most about poetry:  music and story.  (I write as much free verse as formal, by the way.)

Much has been made of the modernist “revolution” so ballyhooed by Ezra Pound, in which he said that doing away with pentameter was “the first heave.”  But that revolution is over a hundred years old now–pretty long in the tooth for a revolution, if you ask me–and all it has done is drive away most people who are not poets or wannabe poets.

The tenets of that “revolution” have become dogma, it seems to me, and are therefore useless.  In one essay, I have asked whether “organic form” is an oxymoron or a redundancy.  One should be able to tell, shouldn’t one?  I don’t know of anything organic which doesn’t display form.  For that matter, I don’t know of anything that doesn’t display form.

Of course, the form I’m talking about might be the wrong one.  You’ll just have to take your chances.

The rap has been that since we live in new new times, we have to have new, new language.  Dante wrote in the language of the people, we are told.  Not true, really.  Dante adapted the old forms to new language.  What he wrote wasn’t so much “in the language of the people”–no poet writes in “the language of the people”–as in language that the people could follow.

The practice of free verse has so dominated the realm of “official” poetry for the last several decades that few people are aware that we have had, in the last 200 years or so, the greatest flowering of truly fine formal poetry in the history of the language.  Form has undergone a renaissance, but few are aware of it.  We have heard of Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Alan Ginsberg, but aside from Robert Frost, there are few celebrated formalists.  And yet I can think of dozens off the top of my head:  In no particular order, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Browning, Keats, Tennyson, Wilbur come immediately to mind. 

Most of the poems I take a look at in these essays will be formal in the accentual-syllabic fashion, because most of the poems I like are formal.  (I wrote in another place that there is a freedom in not having to invent the guitar while you play it.)

I’m getting a bit long in the tooth myself, so who knows how many of these essays I will finish?  But my plan is to talk about Wyatt and Surrey next, and then a few poets from the English Renaissance.

And actually, I plan to start with Middle English, not Old English. Old English, as in Beowulf, is beyond me, too close to its proto-German roots. But “Old English” is a catchier title, and even though Middle English isn’t Old English, it’s old enough, dating back to the fourteenth century and earlier.

Which is where I begin.

One of the great things about English is that we can, with only a little effort, understand what our ancestors were saying six hundred years ago. It isnt hard to make sense of Middle English, if you have a good teacher. And if you can read Middle English, then all of Chaucer becomes available, including the glory and comedy of the Canterbury Tales.

But you don’t need Middle English to enjoy John Skelton or the many anonymous poems and ballads that follow Chaucer, and English syntax has changed very little since the English Renaissance. Some of the conventions of poetry have changed, but the way we make sentences has changed very little.

The difficulty some people ascribe to Shakespeare has nothing to do with syntax. It owes to the fact that he was master of his language, and knew more words, and more about how to sling them around, than anyone else alive.

In this book I’m not going to talk about Chaucer and Shakespeare, though, except possibly for a few sonnets by the latter. I’m not going to talk about any major dramatic works or epics or book-length poems. I’m going to concentrate on the short lyric—shorter, at least than The Faery Queen or Paradise Lost. I dont mind if a great poem runs to several pages, like Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” or Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.”

Neither do I intend to talk about poetry that bores me. This is not an academic book. I dont have to cover the territory.

Edmund Spenser, for example, is to me a crashing bore (there are poets I respect who venerate him). But to me he was out to prove things. He wanted to prove he was right, and he wanted to prove he was a great poet. His language clanks and clunks and makes my head hurt.

I’m going to leave out most of the Restoration period and the Augustan period as well. By me those people were puffed-up blatherers. Dryden thought he was better than Shakespeare. He thought he had perfected the pentameter that Shakespeare had handled with such roughness and crudeness.

Dryden reminds me of contemporary action movies. His characters perform impossible physical stunts, they are one-dimensional, and they come on stage and orate in a manner that reminds me of the catch-phrases of the action heroes.

(Catch Almanzor in The Conquest of Granada: “I have not leisure yet to die.” Does the bombast sound familiar, not to say Schwarzaneggian?)

So we begin with an anonymous poem, familiar to almost everyone, but well worth revisiting. Here it is, in its entirety:

O western wind, when wilt thou blow,

the small rain down can rain?

Christ! that my love were in my arms

and I in my bed again.

It’s in ballad stanza, a form so old its roots are lost in the early history of the language. That is, the stanza form alternates between four-beat lines and three-beat lines. It isnt necessary to define what we mean by four-beat and three-beat just yet. You can hear it if you listen. Quite a few contemporary songs have exactly the same form, as do many of the older English ballads.

Common practice summarizes the structure of a formal poem in a kind of code using letters and numbers. The numbers stand for how many beats there are in a line, and the letters for the rhyme scheme. You would describe the poem above, for example, as follows (using x to stand for unrhymed line-endings):

4x

3a

4x

3a

Actually, there are three common sorts of ballad structure. One is shown above. There is a ballad stanza which rhymes the first and third lines as well as the second and fourth, and a ballad stanza which uses all three-beat lines but has an extra unstressed syllable on the ends of lines one and three.

These forms are codified as below ( – represents the unstressed syllable, and the parends represent optionality):

4a 3x (-)

3a- 3b (-)

4a 3x (-)

3x- 3a (-)

This structural code isn’t what’s important about a poem. Its just a handy device to sharpen the ear, a way to represent part of the sound for the eye. If you can’t hear the actual structure, there’s a problem.

I’ll say the same thing later about a technique called scansion. Scansion is an x-ray of the rhythm of a poem. Scansion and the number-letter structural code do not begin to explain the music of good poetry. You can use them on bad poems as easily as on good ones. They are just learning tools.

The essence of appreciating poetry is learning to hear.

In “Western Wind” itself, I love the alliteration in the first line, the initial w-sounds on western, wind, and wilt. (There are no absolutes, though. Alliteration is not good in itself, not automatically a good thing. Swinburne was heavily given to alliteration, and Swinburne was not a good poet.)

I can’t explain why the alliteration works so well here. It just does, and I love it. Perhaps it gives the right sort of emphasis at the right time.

Sometimes English lets us leave out coordinating conjuctions when the sense is obvious, and that’s what happens in the second line.

We would say today, “(so that) the small rain can rain down.” The syntax we find in the poem is something modern speakers do not allow themselves, a variation called inversion, when a word or phrase is allowed to occur before its expected place in the sentence (though always in another precise position). But if we say the line that way, it does violence to the music, as your ear will tell you.

Why don’t modern poets allow inversion? I don’t know. Taste, I suppose. It sounds outdated, antiquated to our ears, perhaps because it was used by so many bad poets to accomplish rhymes they could not otherwise attain.

Questions occur, or ought to.

Why is it the western wind the poet refers to? What is small rain?

Here’s where the poem begins to enter reality. Weather often seems to come from the west. Particularly in England, where the open weather-generating Atlantic was to the west. When the western wind began to blow, it meant that spring was on the way. And in spring we expect a gentle rain, a rain with light small drops—shall we say, a small rain.

Spring is when we get horny, too, like all the other creatures. The depth of the poet’s longing is expressed in the way the music changes. Christ! the poet says, and the word stands loud and alone, rupturing the smooth flow of the music so far. The poet is alone, and can only cry out in hopeless passion.

Sex is not mentioned directly, but if you want your love in your arms, and you want to be in bed, what else are we talking about? Love, yes, but love without sex seems a curious and abstract thing, if not so grim as sex without love.

Notice, finally, how the last line is a descending series of notes, the poet’s voice falling down the scale in a protracted final low moan of desire: “and I in my bed again.”

Such a brief poem, but so much packed into it. That’s one of the things I love about poetry. It says more than ordinary language. It says more in less space. It does that by taking advantage of the effects of music, and of what we know subconsciously about the tones of a speaking voice.

And there’s the important point again: A poem is made to be heard. In a great poem, nothing is accidental, no lilt or dive or turn of the music, no implied tone of voice, no detail. That doesn’t mean the poet consciously thought through all his or her strategies. No. It would take forever to do that. Look at how long it takes me to say anything meaningful about one little four-line poem that you can read in less than thirty seconds—and I’m condensing.

Before and after “Western Wind” there were plenty of anonymous poems, plenty of anonymous songs. I’m not going to look at them all in detail—there are textbooks for that—but I want to at least mention them.

Most of the songs were, well, ballads. The tunes of the songs are either lost—no voice recorders then, remember—or survive in the tunes of Appalachian folk music (“Bonnie Barbry Allen” is still a staple). The lyrics are almost infallibly in ballad meter (that’s where we get the name of the meter, after all). There are dozens of fine ballads, well worth reading. They’re melodramatic, bloody, pitiless, beautiful, like the best of today’s popular music. They tell tales of good people doing bad things (“Oh where are you going, my son, my son”), of terrible storms (“Sir Patrick Spence”), of the eyes of dead knights being pecked by crows (“Twa Corbies”). I was relatively innocent when I first encountered them, and they opened my eyes to the fact that human nature was pretty much what it still is now, even back in the Middle Ages.

Many of the surviving anonymous poems are religious—“I sing of a maiden who is makeless” (matchless), written in praise of the Virgin Mary, for example. Just as often they are possessed of an earthy frankness.

One could wish to find such a combination more often in modern poetry.

John Skelton is not anonymous, but is hardly read nowadays, and seems of a piece with the times. He wrote a poetry that rhymed but had uneven, unpredictable line lengths—Skeltonics, we call that form now, though hardly anyone else has used it. There’s a wonderful humor and physicality in his poems. Some of them were more formal in pattern. I love “Mannerly Margery milk and ale,” a poem apparently about a barmaid in a tavern, although the first line is the best.

All of these are well worth exploring. I would urge a reader to do what I did, which is wander around in these poems making what sense I could of them and finding lines and characters I still love. It’s the best way to get to know poetry, any poetry. All this explanation is useful, I believe, but it’s for those who want to know more about something they love, or want to learn how to learn more. Actual direct experience is preferable to any amount of explanation

Trust yourself.