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Joanne Kyger and the Tradition of Zen Beatitude
by Kirby Olson
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Because capitalism has little room for the self-reflective, and because poetry is a form of reflection, poets in America have sought outside the capitalist system for a tradition, and a philosophy, which would be amenable to their art. One tradition which works against the capitalist one of simple efficacity is Marxism, and its contemporary inheritors which have gone under the name of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. This tradition is perhaps more intensely violent towards the notion of an individual self than capitalism, however, and seeks to eshew every trace of the individual subject, and has thus sought to develop a poetry of words without connection to either interior feeling or an appreciation of the exterior world. It is instead a poetry which intensely interrogates words, and the way in which they construct meaning. While Christian religion has mostly been held under suspicion by the left for its global imperialism, on the west coast, another religious poetry has appeared as a major aspect of Beat poetry, as Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and others have looked to the tradition offered within Zen Buddhism to give form and a tradition to their art. The purpose of this article will be to look at Joanne Kyger's understanding of the Zen tradition, and to discuss how and why the aesthetics of her work have been pushed aside by the more political practices of Marxism, and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school in particular, which is dominant in academic circles just now.
      In a poem published in the San Francisco poetry journal Bluebook, Kyger writes of a phone conversation with fellow Zen practitioner Philip Whalen:
      A Brisk Wind is Blowing Thoughts Clear Through to Phili on the Phone
      'The New York Times says I'm a language poet.'
      "Well are you?'
      'No. Of course not.'
      'Are you a beat poet?'
      'No. I'm my own poet.'
      'George Stanley says you're an Oregon poet.'
      'Ha ha.'
      'Do you understand what deconstruction is?'
      'Well, if you don't, I won't bother to try.'
      May 14, 1999
      This short dismissal of poetry affiliations, with its consequent claim of the ability to be one's "own" poet, flies in the face of critical discourse which seeks to define poets in terms of a tradition and practice. And yet, can a poet exist outside of a tradition, outside of a school, with no ancestors, and no hope of being understood from within a common framework of reference, with no fellow poets to correspond, and read with? Kyger's interview in Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, offers an intense biographical list of philosophies, poetries, and fellow seekers in the California scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which does much to negate the sense that good poets are ever found who don't consciously work within some tradition. "My own interest in Zen came about because I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger in Santa Barbara.
      Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing. Then I got DT Suzuki's book on Japanese Zen and I thought oh! this is where you go with this mind. And my teacher was Paul Wienpahl and I studied with him for practically four years -- I was infatuated with his style and his teaching... The way of Western philosophy had come to a real dead end and where did you go for practice or illumination or insight and it was a very natural kind of progression into what was available about Zen Buddhist teachings. Like no mind -- no mind -- what is the study of nothing? Where do you start to open up that mystery? A lot of people -- Ginsberg, Kerouac had started to find these books. Everybody was reading about this Zen and Gary [Snyder] was the only one who had figured out how to meditate although he hadn't had any formal teacher... It was very attractive to everybody in the sense that there was some illumination at the end not like the dead end of philosophy. The logical positivists were analyzing language were all analyzing questions like if you have a headache and you have an aspirin does the headache go away? They were really dumb states of mind. There was some kind of religious quest in the fifties going on but there weren't any teachers" (Interview, 5-6).
      Kyger's interest in Zen came about because she was searching for a tradition. She says in her interview, "I didn't speak Japanese, I was a woman, and there was such formality inside the sodo you couldn't just drop in and out and it was a very strict kind of sitting. Eventually I got fed up" (3). What Kyger was looking for was what was missing on the west coast at the time, a deep practice, and she saw Zen and Japanese aesthetics as the best option available. "Mrs. Sasaki always said that this is what Japanese Zen is about -- these are Japanese forms.... All of these were very attractive cultural methods that had come over since the war. The coast here didn't have any really strong sense of aesthetics. We had Doris Day and Rock Hudson" (4).
      Throughout the interview Kyger doesn't mention any belief in politics, nor does she strenuously protest the chauvinism of Zen tradition. What she was looking for is humanity: "Suzuki Roshi always kept a modest demeanor I was always watching to see if people were going to be human in the roles they were taking in the organization which was getting more hierarchical but I never saw that in Suzuki Roshi. He wasn't carrying a lot of baggage, that's what was so appealing" (8).
Ron Silliman writes of Kyger, that "She's one of our hidden treasures -- the poet who really links the Beats, the Spicer Circle, the Bolinas poets, the NY School and the language poets, and the only poet who can be said to do all of the above" (2). He also writes that, "Joanne has a terrific sense of humor in her writing, which may in fact actually work against her being taken as seriously as she deserves" (2). Kyger isn't heavily represented in the anthologies which form the canon of this period, even though she seems to have known everybody, and was taken seriously by other poets. Silliman writes, "I've written at some length about the disappearance of poets and how it reconfigures history into something unrecognizable to those present at the event... all too often it leads to this sort of erasure of a major writer" (2).
Alice Notley writes in an article on Kyger, "When I began this essay I thought I wouldn't discuss Kyger's lineage and influences, the extent of her own influence, 'poetry-school' affiliations, and so on... No poet is those things, and the poetry's the thing, as we all know; furthermore, such labelling by association is frequently detrimental to women poets. Poetry movements are generally man-made; women seen in light of such movements always appear secondary" (2). Notley writes that Kyger's omission from Postmodern American Poetry among other anthologies has clear reasons. "One must assume this is at least partially because she's stayed away from the centers of Poetry's meager power; to wield power would be counter to the logic and even the technique of her poetry, would be for her a spiritually poor choice. But not calling attention to herself, she isn't always included... Poetry's supposed to be lived in not assessed" (3).
      Nevertheless, poetry is always finally assessed. Each reader assesses whether it is worth passing on to a friend, each critic wonders whether it is worth exploring in depth, or defending as a canonical work to be taught to students in a university. Without this kind of assessment, there is no conversation, and the process of passing on what is the best of a tradition doesn't take place, and ultimately a poet's work disappears, first the individual books disappear, then the name in anthologies, and eventually all but the biggest libraries are forced to push out the books in order to make room for new work.
      Only a few of Kyger's books are currently available, while most of them have gone out of print. She is not widely anthologized, and the critical material is scanty. Against Notley and Silliman, I will argue that Kyger's poetry has one clear lineage, and that her lack of a will to power isn't the reason for her disappearance. The reason for her disappearance, I will argue, is that she is a non-political writer in an age in which showing one's politics, and one's clear preference for the left, is the minimum entrance requirement for academic respectability. When the most powerful members of academia therefore propose their canon of the best, Kyger isn't thought of as being inside, for instance, the language school, or the feminist school, or the Jack Spicer (gay rights) circle, but seems to have always been a peripheral member of these groups, and she therefore doesn't have any critics who see her as a top priority. There aren't many Zen critics in academia, and she is neither an ardent feminist, homosexual, or political writer. Kyger is an individual, a humorist, even an iconoclast, in her own quiet way.
      What I propose to treat her as is as a member of the Zen circle within the larger Beat school, and therefore as a member of a doubly dismissed group.
      Except insofar as the Beat writers supported leftist goals and positions, they still do not have academic respectability. Because Zen is not a political movement, but rather one of personal development, and also a religious stance, Kyger's work is not welcomed. It is Zen that Kyger most consistently invokes as her own tradition. I want to explore her understanding of this tradition, and to propose it as a counterweight to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, which has such a powerful sense of history, and how canonization works. I want to state at the outset that L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets have interested themselves in Kyger's work, as Ron Silliman, a member of that school, has shown, but they have yet to provide a rationale through which to read her work. The aim of this article is to recuperate Zen as a deep aesthetic practice, and to present it as a rival tradition to Marxism.
      The Zen poets are perhaps the least canonical of all the poets of the last fifty years, and this is because they have consistently been the most self-effacing, the least drawn to power or to the back-slapping and back-stabbing which goes with a climb to the top.
      Inside of American academia, where a certain neo-Marxism based on the work of Louis Althusser and Jurgen Habermas has gained ground, Charles Bernstein, the most powerful poet of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E circle, at least in terms of his professional position and his clout within the profession, will be used as a poet to compare with Kyger.
      In Charles Bernstein's volume, Content's Dream, Essays 1975-1984, it is possible to read five hundred pages which is neither poetry nor essay nor philosophy, but some kind of mixture which mostly reads as reworkings of the philosophy of cultural revolution as practiced by the Tel quel group.
      Bernstein writes that he wants to "change the nature of reading values" (388), and that what he wants to show is that "Phallocentric syntax... values the declarative more than the convoluted, grandiosity more than humor, assurance more than confusion" (329).
      Bernstein is attacking phallocentric syntax, but his own writing is declarative, grandiose, and self-assured to the point of violent machismo, as he mows down everyone from Charles Algernon Swinburne to Allen Ginsberg, to make room for himself in the canon. There is confusion in his work, but he doesn't see it, and there is humor and convoluted thinking, but it is unintentional.
      Instead of Bernstein, it would be Kyger who demonstrates the values this writer preaches, but doesn't practice. Her writing is often convoluted, humorous, and full of confusion, and is anything but phallocentric. But how does a writer make a virtue of such qualities, without standing on a soap box, and advertising herself?
      There is a curiously aimless quality to much of Kyger's writing:
      Robin Blaser's old plaster of Paris
      Bust of Dante...
      lent to me by
      Paul Alexander...
      now residing in our back guest shed...
      (Just Space 72)
      This fragment is an entire poem, apparently. Is it about the vanity of passing fame? This seems to be at least part of it, that the simulacra of celebrity passes, and ends up in storage. However, there is no mourning of this in the poem. Instead, there is something humorous about it, a quality that is always evident in Kyger's poetry. Her humor is always gentle.
      On the other hand, there is a furious militant quality in Bernstein's work. Bernstein's convoluted confusion leads to humor when as a poet he would like to give room to the individual, in sentences such as these: "Individuals are in essence that which is maladapted, idiocentric, resistant; it is in that sense that we get to know one another only through the identification and appreciation of their peculiarities as particularized -- mutant -- and not as instances of some generalized feature of some genre of humans" (410). To cut through the abstraction, he is saying that individuals are resistant to their times, and this is what makes them individuals. So far, I have no problem with this, but then he suddenly turns around and attacks his previous individualism with a truism: "--So I hope the reader does feel implicated because I want to show that I as a social construction, a product of language and not a preexisting entity outside it; that I is first a we" (410). At first he valorizes individualism, and then he turns around and valorizes the communal. This is certainly convoluted, confused, and humorous, but it is humorous in a painful way, because he argues that the individual should stand up to the particular ideology of her time, and then he neglects to do that against the ideology of Althusserian ideology, which is the ideology of his particular circle.
      Because the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets have the lion's share of academic interest, since they pay lip-service to continental philosophers who got a monopoly on the inside of academic thinking forty years ago, and because these poets seemingly share a Marxist orientation with the younger academic elite which has fallen in line with ideological Marxism, their dogma is all but unchallenged. There is no single subject, language speaks us, we are not individuals, but ideology: these are their truths.*
      To contrast Kyger's writing with this militant ideological writing provokes stark contrasts. Alice Notley writes of Kyger, "As her books show, her daily life involves, besides poetry, domestic chores, community service, local jobs in stores, frequent teaching at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, extensive trips to Mexico, and poetry reading trips to the East Coast. This is not at all an insular existence, but it somehow hasn't brought her the notice she deserves. A certain poetry isn't always fashionable" (3).
      Notley concludes, "Universities are frightfully conservative because they love their traditions and especially their language; idiomatic truth can't get born there, or anything that has to be new, not just wants to be" (3). By Bernstein's own admission, we need a "revolution every 20 years" (Thomas Jefferson cited by William Carlos Williams cited in Bernstein 246).
      Bernstein's initial work appeared at least twenty years ago, and he has been an insider for at least that long, and yet he is still considered a radical within academia. And yet, what seems the problem with Bernstein and his circle isn't their novelty, but precisely their lack of historical depth.
      The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school's philosophical bric-a-brac cites Heidegger, Lyotard, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, and others, but there is no older tradition cited, the oldest authority being Karl Marx. It is as if Marx, for them, represented a break with all of human history. Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Greeks, the ancient Chinese, the Indian traditions, African-American traditions, are never cited. Theirs is a new language, and one that has been increasingly dominant in universities over the last fifty years, and is now dominant almost to the exclusion of all else. Joanne Kyger, on the other hand, rarely cites Marx, and seems to have a kind of comic attitude towards Marxist thought, which would hardly make a place for her in that canon.
      Kyger writes in the opening poem of Just Space:
      You believe this stash of writing is 'scholarly'?
      Out of this we deduce...
      From this we can see that...
      So enough of that tune I was singing there
      further back, I'm up to date with the day-glo goods
      of modern historical revelation, barely a day old.
      So what
      about that deer in the backyard eating down the as yet
      unborn apples. A little deer go away dance?
      Kyger brings us back out of the realm of "historical revelation," and into the confused, convoluted, and humorous present, in which a deer, which "last summer it was/ a heart-stopping glimpse" is now attacking the apple tree out back, and it leaves her only the one academic solution: "You fence it in" (13). Against dialectical materialism, Kyger is working in a different tradition, one that moves back and forth between systems of thought, and the concrete fleshly existence, with all of its unsystematic ironies. As she would put it, life is first, and then theories, which are more of a nuisance than a help.
On the other hand, Bernstein writes that ideology is more primary than experience. "Ideology is more fundamental than phenomena" (417). Ideology is more fundamental than sensory experience? Is Bernstein's ideology more fundamental than a deer eating apples in the backyard, or is even what is to be eaten by what to be mediated by ideology? Does language mediate the reality of a deer eating an apple? Bernstein writes, "There is no natural look or sound to a poem. Every element is intended, chosen" (49). Apparently not believing in anything outside his conscious mind, Bernstein writes that every moment of every poem is socially constructed, with the implication that we can therefore build exactly the kind of society that we want, without reference to any external constraints whatsoever.
      Kyger, on the other hand, is quite deep into Zen culture, and writes historical poems about Naropa, for instance, who's been dead for nine hundred years (JS 22-25). Moreover, in contrast to the militant tradition of Marx in which history and the communal wipe out the significance of the individual, the Zen tradition does believe in the individual. James H. Austin writes, in Zen and the Brain, that, according to Freud, "The ego, modified from the id, organized our behavior along rationally effective lines. It drew on hard-won lessons of personal experience, constantly reminding the id: the real world has consequences. Freud viewed the ego, in a sense, as a rider who guided a horse, not yet tamed, toward a destination... The term still refers to each person's capacity to deal confidently with life in a mature, realistic, matter-of-fact way. The I that Zen diminishes is not the pragmatic ego. If Zen were to remove such an ego, it would leave its adherents in a helpless 'identity crisis.' Rather, Zen aims to strengthen the ego in its original Freudian sense" (35). Zen, however, does have an aim to remove narcissism and other aspects of the self, Austin writes, "But does the whole process of Zen aim to magnify or adore the self? No; to dissolve its fictions" (48).
      A game of cultural power is still to be played out here, which will eventually control the way new generations understand the world, but unless the remaining threads of Kyger's Zen school can rise to the challenge they will end up in the dustbins of history, as few within academia are willing to consider anything that can't be seen as part of progressive dialectical materialism. Fortunately, there is still a non-academic realm, where Zen poetry began, and where it continues to flourish.
It requires a contrast of the militant school of Language, with its distrust of art as religion, and its turning away from interiority and feeling, with the more generous and tender dimensions of experience tended to by Kyger and her circle to make us inquire again into the true goal of beauty and art, and to wonder if the much deeper, older traditions of Zen can find a place in the humanities. The Beat school within which Kyger worked turned towards religion as a major aspect of the aesthetic experience. From Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's references to Catholicism and St. Francis to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen's and Joanne Kyger's interest in Zen, Robert Duncan's interest in theosophy, to Allen Ginsberg's championing of the Tibetan crazy wisdom school, there is an openness to mystical experience which is not part of current academic fashion, which tends to dismiss such attitudes and mental states, and the writers who foster them, and to keep only those writers, or those aspects of writers, which fit the materialist philosophy. In addition, even in the older tradition of the humanities which still exists at certain small colleges, it is generally felt that the tradition of a separation of church and state should be respected and so there is little discussion of spiritual states, or religion as something worthy of the humanities. Thus, Kyger's poetry, as well as the tradition to which it belongs, will continue to be slighted within universities, except insofar as it can articulate a progressive agenda. Nevertheless, to leave out the spiritual aspect of experience is possibly to leave the best part of life on the editing room floor. Poetry as a description of mystic peak states is an important part of non-academic poetry, as it is an important experience in most people's live. James H. Austin writes that in fact it is these experiences which give meaning to the rest of life to the majority of the population. "Maslow, finding fewer people who did not have these experiences, finally began to use the term 'non-peakers'" (Austin 20). Still others, Austin writes, had an appreciation of formal beauty along strictly aesthetic lines at some point in their lives. Austin writes, "Interestingly, aesthetic experiences alone caused little subsequent change in either their religious orientation or interpersonal relations, nor did it enrich their lives. Who, then, tended to have experiences which did transform them? It was the group of subjects who had repeated experiences, both aesthetic and religious" (21). The language of spiritual revelation has been occluded from state universities as an attempt to forestall religious indoctrination. However, what has perhaps been lost is the idea of the poetic epiphany, the richest experience that an individual can have. "...the Eastern Orthodox Church interpreted epiphany in relation to the revelation which occurred at the time Jesus was being baptized in the river Jordan. He was then about thirty years old, and was praying while he was being baptized. At that moment, according to the story in the fourth chapter of the New Testament, the heavens seemed to open and he heard the words, 'Thou art my beloved son; in thee I am well pleased'... ...afterward, when he returned to Galilee to begin his ministry, his words bore a new authority, and he spoke in the 'power of the Spirit'" (21).
      At certain schools in the west, such as Naropa Institute, founded by Allen Ginsberg with the cooperation of the Tibetan leader Choygam Trungpa, an openness to such states is encouraged. In the poetry of Joanne Kyger, who often teaches at Naropa, the influence of such states can be felt in her poetry. At Christian universities in the west, as well, such transcendence can still be addressed, but there is a difference between Christian revelation and Zen revelation. Austin writes, "Zen deemphasizes momentary isolated experiences, and is very wary about how they are to be viewed. It prefers instead to address the way the person then goes on to live each day on a moment-to-moment basis" (23). For this reason, we can see Kyger's extraordinary interest in daily life in her poetry, in small epiphanies, rather than the cataclysmic events of much Christian poetry.
      The wind thru a field of wild oats
      How long does a second last?
      (JS 96)
      Is there room for an exploration or discussion of such experience in the state universities of the west, or must young people go to religiously oriented schools in order to have value given to the states of epiphany?
      Ecstacy is neither pragmatic, nor progressive, but it can sponsor the kind of "loving kindness to all" (Austin 25) for which Jesus and the Zen masters have been valued. To sacrifice this possibility of transcendence seems to be a mistake, and to undo the impact that the humanities can have on the richness of a human life. Even the atheist Nietzsche writes, "Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life? Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art?" (529). Kyger's work certainly contributes to the desirability of life, and is a stimulus to peak experience as the most meaningful aspect of it.

      *The Dalai Lama spoke at a conference in Seattle in June 1993. He was asked if he had read recent French philosophy, and whether he thought the individual subject existed. He answered that he had extensively read recent French philosophy translated into Tibetan by his aids, and that he felt it rested on several confusions which the Tibetan tradition had swept off the table five hundred years ago. In order to have a community at all, he said, the Buddhist tradition had decided we need to agree on these postulates:

      1. The individual subject exists.
      2. The external world exists.
      3. Causality between the internal and the external world exists.
      4. All beings suffer.
Without these conditions, which (he stipulated) cannot be rationally proven, but which have to be accepted as axiomatic, there is no possibility of a decent life. In other words, without an individual subject there can be no responsibility, and without an understanding that between an individual and the exterior, there can be no sense of causality. Without this, we are in a solipsistic state, rather than in a community. Without an understanding that others have an interior dimension, which often suffers, we cannot have compassion. I have told this anecdote several times to neo-Marxist academics who see Tel Quel and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E as their point of reference, and every time they wave it away, and say, "But the Dalai Lama's not a real intellectual."
      It is funny to me to think that Tel Quel (Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan) were avowed Maoists throughout the nineteen-seventies, and that during this time the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in the process of destroying the Tibetan cultural heritage. In America today, that same process is on-going with those who derive their thinking from Tel quel and academic Marxism running off those who derive their thinking and tradition from Zen.
Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain (Boston: MIT, 1997).
Bernstein, Charles. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1985).
Kyger, Joanne. "Joanne Kyger Interview with Crooked Cucumber."

---- Just Space. (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1991).
Notley, Alice. "Joanne Kyger's Poetry."
Silliman, Ron. "E-mail to Linda Russo."

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