Poetry as Meditation

My yoga instructor says we should use the last few moments of class for stillness and meditation.  I’m covered in sweat, lying on the floor, and I can’t help but question why I keep returning for this torture.  I try to focus on my breathing hoping that it will shut up my mind, which of course is when my nose starts to itch.  In my year and half of going to that studio, I’ve never entered a meditative state while there.  In fact, I doubt I will ever do so there.

Meditation is a weird thing to talk about.  The problem is that meditation means a lot of things to a lot of different cultures.  To try and define what meditation is would require a lot more research than I’m willing to do.  So when I talk about meditation, I’m talking about that moment or moments when your mind isn’t busily analyzing the world.  Say you see a robin singing, you analyze the situation, you’re reminded of things, you make connection to feelings and emotions, and you’re aware of all this going on in you brain.  In a meditative state your mind does none of that.  That is not to say that you don’t observe the robin, hell observing the robin may have been what helped you enter the meditative state.  You are truly in the moment, and when you become self-aware again, you can’t even describe what happened during it.  You know you were awake and observing the world, but your conscious mind was just silent for a while.

Now don’t confuse meditation with zoning out.  Zoning out is when you become so caught up in your own thoughts that you ignore the world around you.  In a way zoning out is the exact opposite of meditation.

Now I have entered several meditative states in my life, usually when I’m listening to a poem being read.  Something about the rhythm and cadence of the poet’s voice will get my mind to shut up, and I just listen.  Those are often the poems that I love the best, but it does create a problem if I know the poet that is reading.  I can’t point out a line or image that stuck with me, because I was so fully in the moment I wasn’t picking out bits to remember.  All I can do is mutter that the poem was powerful.

Last week, I kept finding myself entering that state while reading Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson.  I’d read a poem and my conscious mind would go silent.  My mind did not conjure images or judge line breaks.  No, it just listened.  So I would have to reread the poems.  This description may not sound like praise, but it is.  As I mentioned above, meditation is the opposite of zoning out.  If I come to the end of the poem and I don’t know what it was about because I was thinking about my grocery list instead, the poem fails (unless the poem is about grocery lists).  No what happened while I read Larson’s poems was that my mind silenced all distractions even itself.

I find myself entering this state because of the musicality of the poems.  Take Larson’s long poem “Ghost Nets,” each line seems to be filled with alliteration and assonance.  For instance the lines “Greece. Your grey cat was stalking/ grasshoppers beneath the pomegranate tree.”  The alliteration of Greece, grey and grasshoppers is obvious, but you also have the assonance of Greece, beneath, and tree.   The soft “ee” sound seems to work as a counter balance the abrupt hard “gr” sound.  I suspect that musicality of a poem can work like a Buddhist chant or repeated prayers.  The rhythm is what helps silence the mind, what allows us to just flow along with the poem.

I often hear people talking about what a poem means, about what truths a poem communicates, what its images symbolize and so on.  It is easy to talk about poems in this way, but it is near impossible to speak about the experience of reading one.  In fact the only way to explain your experience of reading a poem to a friend is to read that poem to that friend.  Larson’s poems deal with myriad of subjects and provide surprising images.  All which I could analyze for you, but her poems are also experiences.  Her poems and all good poetry are the sounds that silence the conscious mind and bring the reader into the present moment.

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