Current Issue               Submissions               Round Table

 

 

 




   

The Mandala of Balance

In my last essay I touched upon two major aspects of the term "Logos" as defined by Webster's:

Logos: 1: the divine wisdom manifest in the creation, government, and redemption of the world and often identified with the second person of the Trinity 2: reason that in ancient Greek philosophy is the controlling principle of the universe.

The first meaning alludes to its usage in the Gospel of John, translated as the "Word," henceforth referred to as "Logos," while the second incorporates the Greek idea of reason, henceforth referred to as "logos." I am no Greek scholar and am not interested in the definition of the word in its classical usages; I merely find it a useful concept in distinguishing two elemental principles of poetic art.

John's idea of the Logos is the perfect expression of God the inexpressible. As such it is reminiscent of Yahweh, a modern approximation of God's ancient name which the Jews could not speak out of respect. Just as the name of God could not be spoken, neither can the pre-existent form of Christ as the "Word" be explained in any rational sense. It is the incarnation or real symbol of the suprarational Spirit.

Although Paul speaks of Christ in the same universal mystic sense as John (Colossians Chapter One), he is more interested in the application of logos to justify Christ's place in the history of Judaism. Using another dualism from my previous essay, one might say John was more the "right hemisphere" apostle of ontology andholism. John does not argue, he reveals. Paul, on the other hand,qualifies as the most "left hemisphere" apostle in terms of predominantbrain function. Paul actually challenged the Greek philosophers on MarsHill to debate. Ironically, the Logos of his religion undermined hisefforts at logos because the philosophers laughed at the idea of physicalresurrection, a natural consequence of the pre-existent Word.

In John's view of the Logos we see the power of the Word and wordsthemselves. After all, the greatest difference between man and beasts inthe creation story is that God speaks with, not just to, man. John's useof Logos implies that the gift of language comes directly from God's expression of himself. This includesthe irrational, beautiful, surprising aspects of language we find inpoetry. For John Logos was the source of creation, the embodiment of avital, not static, perfection.

John's concept of the perfect expression of the inexpressible, theperfect form of the formless, is an assumption all artists make each timethey revise a poem or edit a score. Whatever urges them toward an ideal,toward their best — whether the image of God within them or an evolutionary striving — bears testimony tothe existence of the Logos. With each chip of the chisel, each stroke ofthe brush, artists acknowledge faith in an ideal never quite attained.This unrealized ideal is the inspiration behind their best efforts.

There's no getting around the fact that all art, however abstract, isdirected toward an ideal. Whenever we alter a thing to improve it, weclandestinely acknowledge that we believe in such, even if that belief isonly operational, not spiritual. Whether an ideal exists makes little practical difference because artistsbehave as if it does. As they re-evaluate their work flaws becomeapparent and serve to instruct how better to approximate their goal. Thisis the lifelong feedback loop of artistic self-examination and betterment. Thus one mark of a good artistis change over time, like Picasso's "periods" or the early vs. the lateYeats. Poems would not be revised, symphonies not rehearsed, andpreliminary sketches for large canvases could be dispensed with if artists renounced the implication of the Logos.

One doesn't have to be a Platonist to be an artist, but one must payhomage to an ideal in order to improve one's art. The ideal may even bein opposition to traditional form, like the experiments in randomness ofJohn Cage or Jackson Pollock. Yet if later attempts succeed as more random than former ones, they too admit tothe principle of improvement, which supports progression and orientationtoward a goal. The Logos must contain the random ideal anyway, as in thepattern of clouds, just as it does the ordered ideal, like thetetrahedron of a carbon atom. Taoists have a unique word for the naturalorder of seemingly random beauty inherent in creation. They use "Li" todescribe things like the pattern of wood grain or the foam lacedissipating on the sea. One can see the acknowledgement of this idealparticularly in Chinese and Japanese brush painting.

It would take a long digression to discuss the difference inapperception that a language of pictographs allows and how thisinfluences art and thought. But imagine if words appeared in a form thatvisually resembled their meaning. Verbal and visual interpretation would nearly fuse. Thus the art of brush calligraphy,where an artist renders an individual interpretation of the characters ofa famous poem, is peculiar to pictographic languages, where theapproximation of meaning as a visual code makes a holistic (right hemisphere) impression upon the mind. This may explain inpart why great Chinese poetry is so vivid and concrete, more nearlyresembling pure visual art than our own. Translations cannot communicatethis experience. The closest parallel in our poetry occurs in the experiments of the 17th Century, where the shape of the poem approximates the theme, as in George Herbert's "TheAltar." But again imagine if each word (excluding prepositions andmodifiers) were in the shape of the object it was meant to represent. This fusion of meaning and visualrepresentation more resembles the Logos I labor to explain, except thatthe ultimate Logos, or symbol, as used by John, would have to be expandedto represent the mind of God. And theoretically this demands more dimensions that we can fathom, although wecan imagine, as westerners, what it might be like to have anotherdimension to words beside linear letters and sound.

For us it is probably best to think of the Logos as inspiration andthe need to define and perfect that inspiration. Even the word"inspiration" derives from "being breathed into," which hints of thedivine, just as "enthusiasm" derives from "being possessed by a god." We see this artistic urge toward an ideal comicallyillustrated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where RichardDreyfuss frantically tries to duplicate the form he envisions —first with a mound of mashed potatoes and later with a huge pile of dirt. Unlike the artist, however, whose ideal isnever quite realized, Dreyfuss finds a geological fulfillment of hisinner imperative — though it was an inner vision that drove himthere. This illustrates another aspect of the Logos: as the template of all creation it is the source of deep images andconnections, the power behind the dandelion and the dinosaur. Toparaphrase St. Augustine, inside each artist is a form-shaped vacuumwhich only a perfect form can satisfy — something the artist may never articulate consciously but which is apparent in hiswork, though never fully realized. As Eliot wrote, "Because one has onlylearnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has tosay, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it." ("EastCoker," V)

For simplicity's sake I associate the Logos with the brain's righthemisphere, the site of holistic eidesis where things are more than a sumof their parts, forming an indivisible impression which must be parsedout in words through the left hemisphere's language centers (and thatpoorly) to be discussed at all. Commonly the right hemisphere is termed"analog" and the left "digital;" one unites and the other dissects. It isprecisely this right hemisphere aspect of poetry which some accuse me of neglecting, but phrases like "bats with baby's faces" really need norational interpretation. This Logos is the locus of magic, mystery,archetypes, form, Li, whatever unifying patterns stand behind whatwe observe and think, the patterns we instinctively recognize but oftenlack words for. It is the engine that drives the artistic apparatus, theblueprint of and the ghost within the machine. We are more likely tosense the ghost than see the blueprint. Because of this, some of the verybest poetry has to be received irrationally, holistically, musically,without room for logical objections, in a "suspension of disbelief —one lesson of the "deep image" school. It is not my intent to reduce thismystery in any way, only to identify it with an ancient concept, or the operational acknowledgment thereof, while pointing outthe rational limits an audience imposes. The heart of art is non-verbal;poets truly are blind men describing an elephant; words come as anafterthought, an afterbirth. They attempt to describe a whole that canonly be approximated by language. It is the role of logos, namely reason(associated with the left hemisphere), to attempt a intelligibletranslation of vision into words.

To introduce the concept of logos I begin with a simple mandala. It is meant to illustrate how the Logos might best be communicated throughlanguage, while logos seeks the best intersection of qualities required to approximate an ideal in words.

One can readily see from this construction that my idea of logos asreason is not some mummified encyclopedia of facts but a dynamic balancebetween complimentary qualities — the Aristotelian mean, in otherwords. My favorite example of this principle is that of the coward, the hero and the fool. A coward runs from battleout of terror. A hero engages in a battle where he may be overmatched butbelieves his chance of success worth the risk. A fool attacks a tank witha Bowie knife. Thus courage is not just the opposite of cowardice; it isthe mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.

My mandala is in the form of a quincunx, the Logos/logos duality beingthe center, where logos is the interpreting principle that connects theideal (Logos) with the real (Art). For each of the four poles thereexists an opposite quality — but not the quality it faces. Thus meaning is not the opposite of feeling, apathy is.And feeling is not the opposite of meaning, but nonsense. Form is not theopposite of substance. The opposite of form is formlessness or chaos. Andthe opposite of substance is lack of substance or superficiality andconfusion. All four qualities can be both competitive and complimentary,depending on the poem. Each of the four poles embodies a positive valueand logos symbolizes the dynamic mean between these values, the balance that should best succeed at realizing the Logos.

The danger inherent in this schema is therefore not opposition butimbalance: music at the expense of substance, feeling at the expense ofmeaning, meaning at the expense of feeling, substance at the expense of form, and so forth. I submit that good poetry should more often come near the cross-hairs than not. And I don'tmean by this optimal intersection of qualities some homogenized mixturewith exactly twenty-five per-cent of each. Good poetry journeys from poleto pole in the course of a narrative but without losing its balance —just as Eliot can be by turns pedantic or lyrical in his FourQuartets. Furthermore, there are poems that succeed with imbalance,but in such cases the dominant pole is supported by the other qualities;it does not abandon them. I don't want to argue for an orthodoxrequirement of balance or anything else; my theories are meant to beoperational and should be discarded if ever they stand in the way of goodwriting. But good writing is more often balanced than not.

Now for some concrete examples of imbalance. As an introduction,consider Gary Snyder and Dylan Thomas. Which quality might you expect tobe overemphasized in their respective work? It seems obvious to me thatSnyder might be tempted to overemphasize substance and Thomas form (to which music belongs), which iswell and fine as long asthese emphases do not undermine art by shortchanging other necessaryqualities. And remember that imbalance is not the violation of any artistic tenetbut the pursuit of one virtue at the expense of others.

Snyder's last major work, which he considers his "epic," is entitled Mountains and Rivers Without End. He began it in the sixties and finished it in the nineties, though it does include works previouslypublished. Here is an excerpt from a selection in the book entitled "Old Woodrat's StinkyHouse:"

       all this in 5,086 coyote scats:
Pocket gopher, elk, elk-calf, deer, field mouse,
snowshoe hare, ground squirrel, jackrabbit, deer mouse,
pine squirrel, beaver.
Jumping mouse, chipmunk, woodrat, pika.
House cat, flying squirrel. Duck, jay, owl, grebe,
fish, snake, grasshopper, cricket, grass.
Pine nuts, rose seeds, mushrooms, paper, rag, twine, orange peel
matches, rubber, tinfoil, shoestring, paint rag, two pieces of a
shirt —
     Greater Yellowstone.

There is nothing wrong with the time-honored device of lists per se,employed by Homer and Shakespeare. But here is a list that could have been lifted straight from a scientific study. To employ such detail wouldrequire Shakespeare to comment on a lady's bicuspids, moles and body odor, or Homer to notethe hero's exact sandal size and time in the hundred-yard dash. I doubtsuch factual additions would improve their verse.

I suppose it fair to admit that Snyder's list grants us insight into the coyote as an indiscriminate scavenger. The question is how much concrete detail do we need to know that? And when does such a list ceaseto be informative and become a dry recitation of facts? Plainly, the passage lacks music (no more pleasing to the ear than a list of car parts) nor does it aspire toward some recognizable form, organic or formal. It represents the ultimate prosody— a list of facts. As for feeling, there is no feeling here except for the squeamish, who may experience a visceral revulsion at the subject matter. On the other hand, the substance is painfully clear: this is what we find in coyote scats. The implications, or meaning, is also clear: 1) Coyotes are scavengers, and 2) Man is silly enough to investigate their droppings. Based on other more mystical passages in Snyder's book a fan might wish to argue that these coyote droppings confirm the essential unity of all life, summed up in the phrase "Greater Yellowstone." I have no problem with this interpretation; I just think this a rather unpoetic method to accomplish such an aim. Plainly, this list succeeds too much in the direction of substance at the expense ofform and feeling, though not meaning, unless one expects something more than information.

William Carlos Williams is often credited as the inspiration for such excesses with his famous shibboleth, "No ideas but in things," which I associate with the "objectivist" school. In the rather extreme example Ichose, one could almost say "No things but in things." This reminds me of Jonathan Swift's satire of the Royal Society in his Tale of a Tub, where lecturers no longer trust words but mutely haul sheep and other objects to the lectern in an effortto communicate more scientifically, free of the distortions of language. But one can have too many things, too much substance, and this generally affects a poem negatively. If the rest of Snyder's "epic" were less object-driven, the whole might balanceout. But despite the spiritual references in the book (which often seem grafted on as an afterthought), I find too much substance in Snyder's book to hold my interest. Poetry, which he has proven he can write in the past, is here overwhelmed byparticulars.

Before turning to Dylan Thomas to explore excess of form, I should note how easy this excess is to spot in mediocre verse of the formal variety. Since Robert Frost so masterfully brought common diction and natural syntax into formal verse, anything less than that standard must be considered substandard. An unfledged poet attempting his first sonnet may get the rhymes and rhythm right, but there will also be a lot of unnecessary verbiage injected to accommodate the form. This results in language overstuffed with prepositions, articles and modifiers as well as awkward syntax to satisfy the demands of rhyme and syllable count. In such a case it is easy to see how the other three qualities of my mandala would suffer: feeling, meaning and substance at the expense of the sonnet form.

Dylan Thomas exemplifies a much subtler excess. When I first read him I was delighted but confused. Now that I am older I know why I was confused: because he sacrifices meaning and substance to effect (music and imagery), though I admit he is full of feeling. His better-known anthologized poems like "Fern Hill," "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," and "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" are much more comprehensible than the body of his work to which he admits "crudities, doubts, and confusions" in his note for the Collected Poems(New Directions — revised edition, copyright 1956).

One telling aspect of Thomas' art is that he rarely titles poems. Most are referred to by the first line. Assigning titles to poems is most often a rational act which seeks to sum up, introduce, or clue the readerto the poem's larger meaning. That Thomas rarely does so could imply several things: his own lack of understanding of his poems' meanings (his admitted "confusions"); a desire not to distract the reader from the experience of his poem by labeling it; andlastly, because he does not want his poem to be regarded as anything but a whole, since a title must stand separately. Of course, he could have just been lazy, but with the amount of revisions he did along with the snail-like pace of churning out one line in a day's work, I would never accuse him of that. And he does title some poems ("Fern Hill").

What frustrates me about Thomas is that in the very same poem he can tease us with meaning in one line and obscure it or contradict it in the next. The only constants in his verse are the music of fresh combinationsof language and the startling imagery that in part results from this. But the role of substance and meaning are quite variable. Sometimes I don't know what he's talking about. Yet he is not a surrealist but a lyric poet of earth, man, sky and sea. His ear is incredible; but does music cause him to sacrifice sense? I think it does. His poems militate against meaning by his preference for imagery over narrative; imagery is meant to carry the poem but it doesn't always carry the reader.

Regarding his preference for imagery over narrative: under which quality does this belong in my mandala?This is a difficult question, but I categorizeimagery under substance. And just as we saw how an excess of substance can militate against feeling (and to a lesser extent, meaning) in Snyder's poetry, so likewise in Thomas I will seek to show how aproliferation of images plays havoc with meaning since the constantly shifting objects prevent focus and often divorce the reader from cause-and-effect and sequence. This is another kind of excess substance,one I did not expect to find. If I were to compare Thomas' work to jewelry, his necklaces would contain the greatest gems he could find without regard to size, symmetry or color. Although one can readily admire the individual stones, Thomas seems unwilling to sacrifice any of them to a larger design. As an example of Thomas' excesses I have chosen the first of four stanzas of a poementitled "A Saint About to Fall:"

A saint about to fall,
The stained flats of heaven hit and razed
To the kissed kite hems of his shawl,
On the last street wave praised
The unwinding, song by rock,
Of the woven wall
Of his father's house in the sands,
The vanishing of the musical ship-work and the chucked bells,
The wound-down cough of the blood-counting clock,
Behind a face of hands,
On the angelic etna of the last whirring featherlands,
Wind-heeled foot in the hole of a fireball,
Hymned his shrivelling flock,
On the last rick's tip by spilled wine wells
Sang heaven hungry and the quick
Cut Christbread spitting vinegar and all
The mazes of his praise and envious tongue
were worked in flames and shells.

To be fair, the second stanza, though shorter, describes an impending fall in a slightly more comprehensible way, but the last two stanzas of the poem revert from third to first person and only add to the initial confusion. I'll gloss this stanza as best I can by converting it to prose:

There's a saint about to fall. The flatlands of his heaven will be further razed in accordance with the fragile hem of his shawl. On the last street he walked a wave praised the unwinding of the woven wall of his father's house in the sands. The wave (or song by rock) also praised the vanishing music of ship-building and theblood of our mortality reflected in a coughing clock hiding its face with its hands. The wave/song also mourned the angelic height of the last featherlands, vanishing like the swift foot inside a ball of fire. The "saint" sang to his shrinking band of followers as if standing on the top of the last hay rick beside wells of wine. He sang of his hunger for heaven and the living host spitting vinegar, and all the conflicting mazes of his mind, caught between envy and praise, were worked into flames andshells.

Since syntax is important to sense, I should point out that the entirestanza is one sentence made up of dependent clauses with ambiguous antecedents. Clearly, in my scan for sense, the most I can say of this stanza is that someone or something appears to be diminishing, as supported by the gerunds (unwinding, vanishing, shrinking) as well as certain verbs connoting loss (razed, mourned). Whether a saint or a shipbuilder's son, I can't be sure. Whether he's losing a place in heaven or the church or community, or even losing a farm after his last harvest (rick), I don't know. And when mazes are described at the end I assume some struggle between praise and envy but I don't of whom or why it's inscribed inshells and flames. I do know that the language is fresh, imaginative, andso musical that even my prose rendering sounds like poetry what with"wine-wells" and "whirring featherlands," "a wind-heeled foot in the holeof a fireball" and "kissed kite hems." But I can only speculate on themeaning of these felicities. The real question here is whether the music and imagery are worth the sacrifice of intelligible substance and thus, meaning. I did my best to simplify the sense above but the language simply overpowered my attempt.I will now attempt to refine his verse (or perhaps coarsen it!) to be more intelligible, which may change the meaning intended but will constitute a more accessible poem. First I'll note some musical indulgences which may help obscure sense:

A saint about to fall,
The stained flats of heaven hit and razed [assonance and alliteration]
To the kissed kite hems of his shawl, [lack of direct object, assonance, alliteration and rhyme]
On the last street wave praised [still big on assonance]
The unwinding, song by rock, ["song by rock" achieves consonance and assonance]
Of the woven wall [alliteration, some assonance]
Of his father's house in the sands, [a clear image, though assonance present]

Now for my version, in which I strain to bend sounds and images towarda greater sense:

A saint about to fall
from the low marshes of heaven
hanging by his shawl like a kite
from the last open road,
stops to praise his earthly origins: rock song,
the unwinding of the woven wall
of his father's house in the sands,
the attachments once renounced.

I think this exercise demonstrates, however poorly, that Thomas could have written more clearly if he did not place such a high premium on music and original diction. No one will confuse my adaptation with a poemby Thomas, but few would have difficulty discerning its intent — thespiritual struggle of a saint drawn back to earth.

Thomas' surfeit of images work against him, in my opinion, since byvirtue of mutual extravagance they diminish themselves, something thatcould be avoided by slightly more prosaic interludes. Thomas lacks poeticmodulation; there are no lesser lines to frame the great ones. Each lineis constructed for maximum effect, even though the imagery, whendissected, is nebulous, i.e. "the stained flats of heaven hit and razed /to the kissed kite-hems of a shawl." This image means nothing to me as its parts don't form a whole. It strikes me that Thomas, in his method of composition, chiefly sought euphonic imagery, with meaning and sense as by-products. Does he really have something to say or is he moreinterested in how he says it? We know from other works that he sometimes has something to say. But I find this more the exception than the rule. It's almost as if he tries to make each line a poem unto itself, supercharging his diction without regard to narrative— poems within poems, so to speak. There is music in abundance and feeling as a consequence but also a distinct lack of intelligibility, which I previously introduced as the first principle of logopoetry. In my most generous take on this stanza I sense a conflicted saint who is about to fall making his last rounds — but only because of the first line's clarity and theurgency of some images when joined to the verbs listed above. But thenext three stanzas of the poem don't particularly support myinterpretation.

To review, in Snyder we see an excess of substance in concrete details; in Thomas we see an excess of substance in disconnected imagery. In Snyder we see a complete lack of music, in Thomas a superabundance. InSnyder we see a lack of feeling, in Thomas feeling somewhat diminished by the distractions of music, imagery, and difficult syntax. In Snyder we see a lack of form; his passage would not suffer if written as prose. In Thomas we see an overpowering form that turns prose into poetry. As for meaning, Snyder diminishes it by lack of implication, by too many facts, while Thomas obscures it behind devices. Neither poet, in these passages at least, modulates his verse very well. Snyder bores us with ascientific recitation; Thomas overwhelms us with a superabundance of images too disconnected to reconstruct as a whole. Thomas comes on like fire and ends in fire, and though such intensity may be admirable it sacrifices distinctions. No good speaker shouts at the top of his lungs for ten minutes because the effect, after the initial shock, resembles a monotone. Admittedly, both poets have written far better poems than these excerpts indicate. These were chosen to characterize their worst excesses — or hypertrophied virtues, as it were — to support the notion of balance as one measure of artisticmerit.

      — C.E. Chaffin