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Click for Tsakli GalleryThe Art of the Non-Poem

For a scholar whose Ph.D. thesis was titled The Evolution of Matter and Spirit in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, Rama didn't talk about poetry that much. I really wish he had. He saw much in poetry, and I regret not being able to join him in more of those visions. Not that poetry and his love for it weren't there in his teaching. There was poetry from the beginning, but in subtle ways. It wasn't in your face. Rama's rare uses of poetry were quiet, restrained, understated - almost as if he intended to use them as punctuation, to call our attention to the Good Parts.

He would sit up there on stage, doing his thing, taking us as usual on a Road Trip from Nirvana to Disneyland. He took us to these places with words - God! how the man could talk! - but he also took us there with attention. I still don't quite understand how he did it, but Rama could reach out with his attention and shift ours to the mindstate that went along with the stories he was telling, that did justice to them. And into this maelstrom of high dharma talks and movie reviews and comedy routines, this cyclone of mindstates, he would occasionally drop a poem. He might do this to punctuate a talk on the high dharma, or to throw a completely different spin on a movie review, or he might just plop the sucker right into the middle of a comedy routine about how Madison Avenue would market the Antichrist.

Note: I use the term 'comedy routine' above only because it conveys the gist of the experience, not to imply that Rama had pre-set routines. He didn't. He just winged it. In fourteen years, I never heard him repeat a single funny story or comedy bit. Each one of them was unique, a work of art unto itself. Think about that.

Anyway, he would be sitting on stage, spinning one of those magical tall tales of his, the whole group of us rolling on the floor laughing at his impression of the Antichrist being interviewed by Johnny Carson, and then he would just stop, look off into space for a few moments, and recite part of a Roethke poem:

And I stood outside myself
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.

And then he'd finish the comedy routine.

What can I say? The man was unique.

That was one way he used poetry to teach. But he rarely gave us 'homework' that involved poetry. There were many spiritual classics that we were assigned to read, many novels, many books on business. I only remember one book of poetry being explicitly designated a 'reading assignment,' and that was a spiritual classic in itself, Ryokan's One Robe, One Bowl. But there were at least two other occasions in which Rama used poetry as a way to shift his students' state of attention.

The first was announced in one of the last meetings he held in Palo Alto. It was a time of change. He was moving his center of operations. Folks who had moved to Washington only a few months ago were now going to move to New York. Others who had never left Palo Alto were thinking of moving there, to be closer to the action. So it was a period of upheaval, and thus a little scary for his students. But the task that Rama assigned to them at the meeting that night was, for many of them, even scarier. He announced that at the first meeting in New York he wanted to have an evening of 'non-poems.'

The basic assignment was threefold. First, we had to write a short poem - one that attempted to capture what we considered our own 'highest nature.' Second, we had to take a photograph, a color slide, that somehow captured the same highest aspect of ourselves. Third, in order to attend the meeting in New York - a kind of qualification for admission - we had to turn in our photos and read our poem aloud to the group while the slide was being projected up on a big screen.

The tension in the room was palpable. You could have cut it with a katana and served it up as sushi. Serious spiritual seekers who had no problem with packing up their belongings, giving notice to their current employers and moving across the country into the unknown were having panic attacks at the idea of standing up in front of a group of fellow students and reading something they had written. Rama felt the tension, and explained that it was natural because many of us grew up with a huge resistance to poetry, even though poetry was within each of us. "That's why what we're writing are not poems; they are non-poems. Just relax. Write what occurs to you, without worrying if they are good poems or not. Write non-poems."

Despite Rama's attempts to turn the assignment into a fun exercise in Zen, over the next few days many of my friends were freaking out trying to think of subjects for their non-poems. I didn't have to do that. I had written mine already, in the five minutes it took Rama to finish describing the assignment. The words just popped into my mind, complete.

The reason that the non-poem came so easily could have something to do with the fact that at the time I wrote them I was no longer sitting in that crowded room in Palo Alto. My body was there, but the moment Rama started talking about the assignment the room faded from my view and what I was seeing was a vision of myself, far away, sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean, watching another me as this double of myself performed a sword kata, turning it into a moving meditation to celebrate the sunset. I didn't need to search for the words. All I had to do was sit there and watch the action and describe what I was feeling. After the meeting, when I got home, all I had to do was remember that feeling and type it into my computer. I think I only changed two words.

So I woke up the morning of after the meeting more relaxed than many of my fellow students. I had finished the first part of the assignment. I had myself a non-poem. Now all I had to do was take the photo to go with it.

This would have been an easier task if I hadn't seen the place so clearly in my mind while writing the poem. The vision was so intense that I knew I had to actually find that place, and take the photo there. Strangely enough, I even knew where the place was. Given the rugged coastline I had seen in my vision - the combination of rocks and ocean and wind-shaped pines - it had to be in Big Sur. I didn't know exactly where in Big Sur the place was, but I was pretty sure that if I went there and just wandered around, I would find it.

I bought a new camera, one that allowed me to set it up on a tripod and shoot using a timer or a remote control. I knew I would need such a setup to take the photo I had seen in my vision. So, I had the non-poem and I had the camera, but the big question was when was I going to find the time to search for the place I had seen and, if I found it, actually take the photo? Given the date of the meeting in New York where we were to present our non-poems, I had only this next weekend to do it. And because of previous commitments, I didn't even have the whole weekend. If I had, I would have booked myself a room at Deetjen's and turned the whole quest into a cool, relaxing weekend in Big Sur. But I had to be back in Palo Alto on Sunday morning, so I had only one day to do everything.

Early Saturday morning - very early - I threw camera and tripod and the props I needed for the photo into Protector and started driving down the coast. It took several hours to get there. I had lunch at Nepenthe, then started looking for my place. And looking. And looking. I must have hiked every inlet and coastal access path in Big Sur, to no avail. Many were beautiful - hell, the whole place is beautiful - but none of them was my place, the place I had seen in my mind.

Finally, as the sun sank closer and closer to the horizon, as I was beginning to think of canceling my Sunday morning appointment, I drove past a road sign I had ignored earlier because it was too touristy. I looked at it and something inside me lit up with the same feeling I had experienced sitting in that room in Palo Alto a few days earlier. I parked Protector, stuffed my prop costume and the camera into my backpack, and started hiking towards the ocean. The parking lot and upper trails were full of tourists, and they must have thought I was pretty odd. I mean, here they were making their way back to their cars after a fine day of sightseeing, and walking the other way was this strange guy carrying a tripod in one hand and a Japanese sword in the other. They were right; I am pretty odd.

But fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. I had a feeling, and I was pursuing that feeling. Somehow I knew that the cliff I had seen in my vision was around here, and I was resolved to find it. I followed the trail as it led under the highway and ended in a T, where it branched off in opposite directions. I stopped and looked to the left, where the trail led to a hillside covered in tall pines. I looked to the right, where it led to a paved path that promised a view of the waterfall. I looked at the sun and estimated I only had about twenty minutes until the sunset I had seen in my vision. I turned left.

I walked through the pines and followed the path as it crested the hill and started down the hillside to the south. I was going to follow it to the bottom, but for some reason I stopped and turned to my right and noticed a smaller path leading off to the north. Another decision. I looked at the sky and realized that if the place I was looking for was not in that direction, I would lose the light and have to stay until tomorrow to get the photo I wanted. I took the northern path.

Less than a hundred feet off the main trail, I knew I had found it. The path wound through low underbrush to a deserted cliff that was a dead ringer for the place I had seen in my vision. If there had been time, I would have stood there for a few moments, just being surprised. It wasn't just like the place I had seen in my vision; it was the place I had seen in my vision. But I didn't have time for that. I glanced at the horizon, realized that time was a'wastin', and started setting up for the shoot. I changed into my kendo outfit, then set up my camera and tripod. Checking out the sunset, I calculated that I only had about five minutes of light left and that the roll of slide film only had twenty shots on it, so I abandoned the idea of using the remote control and just programmed the camera to take one shot every fifteen seconds. I moved into position, drew my katana and began dancing the only sword kata I knew, an old one attributed to Miyamoto Musashi.

Strangely, as I performed the steps and the cuts that the kata demanded, I lost all awareness of the sunset, of the place, of the assignment, of the fact that I only had one shot at taking a photo that did justice to my vision of the moment. Instead, I was just fully in the moment. I completed the kata and bowed to the horizon just as the sun slipped into the ocean and the film ran out. I sat and meditated there for about an hour, then packed up my stuff and hiked back to the car. This was before the age of digital photography, so I didn't know whether I had a usable slide or not. But it felt Ok to trust in the synchronicity of the moment, so I just drove home to Palo Alto.

A few days later, still trusting in the moment, I picked up the film from the processing lab on my way to the airport. I got my first look at the slides on the flight to New York, holding them up to the window and squinting to see if any of them had captured the moment I had seen, the one that matched my non-poem. Only one did.

But one did. Cool. I had my non-poem. I had my slide. The first two parts of the assignment were taken care of. But the next night, sitting in the audience in a hotel conference room in Westchester County, I fidgeted and wondered whether either one really did justice to the occult task that Rama had assigned to us, to the idea of capturing in words and images the highest aspect of ourselves. I suspect I was not alone in this. As I looked around the room, I could see that many of my fellow students were really not looking forward to standing up and exposing that most private side of themselves to hundreds of other people. But it was too late to back out now. We had already turned in our slides.

The house lights were dimmed and the first slide was displayed on a large screen. I don't remember whose it was; I only remember thanking God it wasn't mine. The student stood up and walked to the podium near the slide projector, took a microphone and read his or her non-poem for the group. Then the next slide was displayed, and the next student did the same thing. Some students read with voices full of strength and confidence, others with voices that quaked and quavered and seemed on the verge of tears.

There was no applause. There was no need for Rama or anyone else to suggest that applause was not appropriate. Each non-poem was greeted with the same silence that its author had pulled upon to create it. I sat there in a state of awe, seeing in my fellow students that same 'highest aspect of themselves' they had struggled to capture in words and on film.

Finally, my slide appeared and I stood up to read. I would like to tell you that I pulled upon the same warrior spirit I had tried to capture in the non-poem itself, and was one of the students who spoke with a clear, confident voice. I would like to tell you that, but it wouldn't be true. I barely made it through. My voice cracked and wheezed, and I had to stop a couple of times before reading lines that I hadn't realized until that moment really did capture one of the highest aspects of my self. When I finished, I remained standing at the podium, unable to move, unable to return to my seat. I just stood there, looking stupid, because as I was reading the last line a wave of light, coming from Rama's general direction, had surged through me and basically fried every circuit in my brain. That's the only way I can describe it. It was as if Rama had reached out and hit the RESET button, washing me clean of all nervousness and all self-consciousness and possibly all self, leaving nothing in their place but silence.

In that silence, I found my way back to my seat and watched as student after student had essentially the same experience. I don't know what their lingering impressions of the evening are, but for me it remains one of the high points of my years with Rama. I gained such an appreciation that night for who my fellow students were, who they really were underneath the business suits and dresses. And I gained a new appreciation for poetry. As far as I could tell, the evening of non-poems was a success, and had brought out the best in every one of us. Each student, each in his or her own way, had managed to use the assignment to catch a glimpse of the highest aspect of themselves, that aspect that Rama had asked them to remember, and had captured it in words. These were mine:

 

On this solitary cliff at sunset, I take advantage
of a peaceful moment to prepare for battle.
My friends and I have gathered here,
as we have for lifetimes,
to fight for the cause of light.
Warriors at the Sunset of Time,
each of us prepares in his or her way
for the coming struggle.

For although the sunset is beautiful, the adversary is real,
and the battle, whether it comes with tomorrow's sunrise
or the next, may well take our lives.
But that is a future concern, and a minor one at that.
The real struggle - the Great Battle - is here and now,
on this cliff overlooking the sea.

For if I can fight well for the next hour of meditation,
wielding the sword of discrimination
to slay each thought as it arises,
I will be prepared for the minor swordplay that follows.
If I can become death, and wear death's grin
as I lay waste to my own ego,
then I will wear that same grin
as I face my opponents in battle.

I smile because my enemies can do nothing to me
I have not already done to my self.
Having embraced my death, I am ready
to kill or die with a smile and then,
come victory or death,
rise with the sun and do it all again...

 

Possibly because the emphasis of Rama's teaching shifted to business soon after our move to New York, possibly because so many students had a great deal of resistance to writing even 'non-poems,' there was only one more such evening in the time I studied with him. As I remember, it was about a year later, after most of us had acclimatized to living and working in New York. This time, I don't remember any specific suggestion of subject matter; Rama just told us to go out take some photographs and then write a non-poem to go with one of them.

And this time, there was no vision to help me with the assignment. There was also precious little in the way of inspiration going on for me. Nada. My creative spark seriously needed a jumpstart. And I was working down on Wall Street, spending long hours creating a trading-support system for a large brokerage house, so I didn't have a lot of time to wait for inspiration to appear. Worse, because of project deadlines I had to work on the very weekend we were supposed to be out taking photographs. So on the Saturday before the assignment was due, I took an extended lunch and just wandered around the Wall Street area with my camera, taking photos of the buildings there, the way they caught and reflected the light. But I still had no idea what to write about.

I picked up the film from the lab the day before the assignment was due and sat there in my Wall Street cube looking at the slides. There was only one that stood out, so I settled on it and on my lunch hour tried to come up with a non-poem to go with it. I still had zero inspiration, but I assumed that if I just sat there in front of the monitor and waited, inspiration would come. Hey!...don't laugh...it's worked before. But it didn't this time. I just sat there, staring at a blank screen. I went back to work but kept the document open, hoping that some fleeting moment of inspiration might appear. But there was nothing. Nada. Oh well, I said to myself, I'll have time to work on it tonight at home.

Wrong. Around five o'clock, the project manager came in and told me that he had to make a presentation to management the next morning. And then he dropped a sheaf of notes on my desk that contained a list of changes that had to be made to the user interface and to the documentation before then. I looked at the pile of paper. It was taller than my coffee mug. I looked at my watch. I looked at the blank document in the corner of my screen that was titled, 'Non-Poem.' I walked to the kitchen and filled up my coffee mug and got to work on the changes.

It was a warm night, and they turned off the air conditioning in the building in the evenings, so after everyone else had gone home I opened the window by my desk to get a little bit of wind in my face as I sat there writing. Strangely enough, I really got into it. I worked through the night and had the changes ready for the project manager by the time he came in the next morning. He took them from me without a word and walked off to his meeting. So it goes on Wall Street.

As he walked off, for some reason I remembered one moment from the long night before. I was just sitting there, typing away, trying to find the proper words and put them into the proper order, and I heard a sound coming through the window that took my breath away. It made me smile and remember a line from Bruce Cockburn, so I saved my work and just sat there meditating for a few minutes. Watching my boss walk away, I popped up the 'Non-Poem' document and typed in it for a few minutes. I printed it out and stuffed it into my briefcase without even reading it, figuring I would have time to revise it at home before I went to the seminar that evening.

Wrong again. Management wanted another set of revisions before tomorrow. I had to stay late and work on them. When I finally got out of the office, there was time only to get home and shower and change and then dash off to the seminar. I arrived late. The presentation of non-poems had already begun. I walked up to the guy running the projector and gave him my slide. He slipped it into the tray with the others and I took a seat and watched and listened as the other students did their thing.

For some reason, the non-poems and the photos didn't grab me this time the way that they had before. They were lovely, but I kept feeling that something was missing. I didn't know what was missing, but I could feel its absence.

Rama could feel it, too, because after only a few minutes he stopped things and announced that he wasn't as pleased as he had been last time, so we were going to do the assignment over again the next night. From that point on, he began commenting on students' non-poems, or on their photos, or both. He was always positive, never pointing out flaws in the work without also pointing the person to a solution. After a few more students had read their poems, Rama stopped things again and said something like, "I have to say that most of you are missing something in your non-poems. They are good, but what you are missing is that subtle quality that really captures a moment and makes it special, that snap! as the writer's attention shifts. Work on finding that in your non-poems for tomorrow night."

He motioned to the projectionist and the non-poems continued, Rama making suggestions to each student in turn. My turn came without me ever having had a moment to even look at the words I had typed so hastily in my office, much less revise them. I walked to the podium and unfolded the sheet of computer-perforated paper and began to read. For some reason I wasn't as nervous this time as I had been before, so I just concentrated on speaking each line clearly, slowly, as if I were reading each one for the first time. Hint. I was.

I got to the end of the fifth line and paused and heard Rama say, "That's it. That's what I am talking about." I stopped reading, even though there were several more lines to go. I'm not stupid. I'm also not about to argue with a cosmic edit like that, or with the sense of stillness that followed it. After some time out of time, Rama spoke again, "But work on it for tomorrow night. See if you can make it better. And your slide sucks. Find another one." Then he motioned for the projectionist to show the next slide and I sat down. He commented on several other students' non-poems similarly, pointing out those moments of shifting attention he had spoken about earlier, allowing the silence that followed them to settle into our consciousness before moving on. I think that by the end of the evening, almost everyone understood what he was trying to show us.

That night I worked on the non-poem, but I only found a couple of words that I felt I could change. So I started to think about the slide. I knew that none of the photos I had already taken would do; I had already selected the best of them. And given my schedule at work I knew I would not be able to shoot new ones and get them developed before the meeting. So that night I created a computer graphic on my Mac, superimposing a Manhattan skyline on Mt. Fuji, then placing the whole thing on a shimmering grid of light receding into a distant, starless sky. I set up my tripod and shot a whole roll of film of the image on the monitor, changing color balances and bracketing exposures and focus as much as I could to try to insure that at least one of the shots would be usable.

I dropped the film off at the photo stand in Grand Central on the way in to work and picked it up on the way home. Sitting on the train, holding the slides up to the window, I flashed back to doing the same thing on that flight a year ago, marveling that it felt more like ten years ago. And marveling that, just like then, there was only one choice. Out of the 36 shots I had taken, only one caught on film what I had tried to create on the computer.

I turned it in that night and waited with the other students to read my non-poem. Strangely enough, given the way the previous evening had been received by Rama, there wasn't a lot of tension in the room. One after another, the slides appeared and the student walked up, took the microphone, and read his or her non-poem. They were better. To my ear, almost every one of them had improved from Rama's criticism. And the students had definitely gotten the more subtle lesson of the previous night, what he was trying to show us about the magic of poetry. These non-poems took you places.

Rama agreed. He stopped things to point out the improvements in each person's writing. He stopped things whenever there was one of those moments of silence, showing us where they were, allowing us to appreciate them before the student continued. My turn came again, and when it did, I heard a murmur go through the crowd as they saw my slide. It was a computer graphic. The assignment had been to take a photo. It had never even occurred to me. As I walked to the podium I said a silent "Oh shit!" to myself and hoped for the best. Rama looked at the graphic and said, "In general, when I ask you to take a photo, I am expecting a photo, not graphics..." He allowed his voice to trail off just long enough for me to pray there was humor in it and then continued, "...but this one is Ok, so go ahead." Remarkably calmly, I read:

 

2 a.m. on Wall Street

My hard disk hums along with a passing siren
and becomes the low drone of chanting monks
and long bronze horns calling me to prayer

I sit for a moment, taken by the sound

 

I sit here many years later, taken by it still. It was a cool moment.

There was nothing but silence. I will never know whether I actually captured a sense of silence in my non-poem or whether Rama just took pity on me and beamed some silence into the room or whether the silence was always there and I finally noticed it. But it doesn't matter. There was nothing but silence.

I wish there had been more opportunities to learn about poetry from Rama. I would wager that each one of them would have been as wonderful as these two evenings. But I would also wager that each one of them would have led to the same place, expressed the same esoteric teaching. For me, that teaching is clear, an evocation of the essential mystery - and magic - that lies at the heart of poetry, its ability to take us places. When I began this story, I imagined myself having to write for pages and pages to do justice to that teaching. But now that I've gotten to the end, I think it might be more appropriate to just shut up and put it into another non-poem:

sometimes we speak and words
are all that we hear

sometimes we speak
and there is nothing but silence

go fucking figure

 

 

 

 

 

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