A single word runs like a fissure through the short essays that introduce us to the poets collected by David Hinton in The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape: “contact”. These poets, Hinton demonstrates, share a set of common philosophical assumptions that derive from the Taoist-Ch’an tradition, his field of expertise. That tradition entered the slipstream of American culture after the Second World War and affected the diverse fields of dance, theater, music, ceramics, the visual arts, philosophy, and poetry. Hinton traces the threads of influence and affinities among his selected poets, all of whom were wrestling with the American language to demonstrate into what he refers to again and again as “contact.” That is, the direct experience of the world unmediated by thought and interpretation.
In order to frame a context for this selection of poets and their poetry, Hinton describes the pictographic tradition of Chinese which, through its imagery, partook of the very world to which it responded. This ancient, unabstracted language made direct contact tangible because within its system, no first person singular divided the world into a subject and an object. No prepositions locate things, no tenses break up time, no specific word sequence must be observed. A line of Chinese poetry floats in simultaneous zones of possible order. Its very flexibility makes possible an interflowing “contact” between poet and world, world and poet. This is a poetry, Hinton says, of “mind rewilded, thought moving with the motion of natural process—and so, identity wholly integrated into the Cosmos is seen as an ongoing process of transformation.”
In this sense, the terms “wild” or “rewilded” become Hinton’s cohering philosophical motif. Each poet demonstrates a different kind of temper and language, subject and method, but each is situated in a wild space outside of the normative conventions, and grammatical constraints, of the subject-object dualisms of traditional poetry. For example:
each thing, as it’s
Almost every poem in this collection forces me to discard the critical approaches to poetry that I learned many years ago. Sensitivities to tone and rhythm, the traditions of versification, the use of words that play upon allusion and etymology, in short the entire critical apparatus by which poems have been “understood” by critics and academics for the past 100 years, means nothing to the poets of this wild school.
From The Wilds of Poetry
Who are we and where are we are the most profound questions possible, really, for at the deepest level they allow no answer. They simply pose the unsayable reality of contact, which is all question and all mystery—a moment in which the mind’s orienting certainties fail, even the certainty of self-identity, leaving one open to the experience of sheer immediacy.
But if exegesis belongs to the very set of conventions this wild poetry seeks to escape, then how do we talk about particular poems to one another? I found myself struggling to appreciate many of these selections. There is a liberating moment when Hinton says of Charles Olson that “however interesting such poetry is theoretically, it is often quite simply boring to read.” I was relieved to hear this because this was my experience, and not just of Olson. Are there criteria of judgment beyond like or not like, engaged or bored?
Whatever their individual qualities, the poets in this volume gain significance by virtue of the compelling context of “contact” that Hinton creates for them. There is no doubt that this book fuses more deeply for me the practice of poetry and the practice of meditation. I am reminded that even in the ancient pictographic forms, the poetic language was limited in what it could convey of the experience of awakening. They were simply fingers pointing to the moon.
I believe there is another experimental and iconoclastic body of American poetry that needs to be read along with Hinton’s ‘wild men;’ the poetry written by women. One could not do better than read Alicia Ostriker’s landmark book Stealing the Language, The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. She introduces us to poets and poetry every bit as convention-defying as that of the men represented by Hinton. Though no Taoist-Ch’an tradition informed these new voices, women shaped poetry to express the wilds of the body and the heart’s brave capacity for rage and compassion. They, too, wanted and found a language of “contact.”
So to whom might this volume be particularly recommended? I expect that Hinton hopes it will give poets, perhaps those with some experience of Taoist-Ch’an practices, a sense of a diverse, living, and home-grown experiment from which they can draw courage and example. That is what it has meant to me. Hinton himself is one such poet (his first volume of poetry is due to be published in February of 2018). The Wilds of Poetry in one respect sets a table for his own further emergence as a poet and to give context for the adventure of reading his contributions as well.
Peter Pitzele is a sangha member living in New Paltz, NY.