Poet and Taoist scholar David Hinton argues that, in tone and intention, the American poetic tradition parallels much in the ancient Chinese poetry of Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism. What they share Hinton (following Thoreau) calls contact, a sense which implies more than just a naturalist’s encounter with the physical world. It refers, rather, to a return to a common tissue, or Tao, “the experience of an original nature of consciousness prior to its separation from the world as alien soul.”1 One might interpret this within a strictly immanent framework (as Hinton does, in line with his own interpretation of the Tao), but this sets up an unnecessary and often false boundary in that American poetry is as wont to dance ambiguously within this boundary as it is to break through it.

Contact, nevertheless, shines an important light on the mystical elements of the poetry of the American 20th Century that came to fruition in the California and Colorado ecopoets of the 60s and 70s (largely influenced by Pound).2 These poets ushered in a number of Chinese techniques and sensibilities, such as simple language stripped of lyricism and abstruse symbolism; musicality expressed through the originality of the poet (often eschewing formal rhyme/meter); playing with empty space (as in the concrete poem); and the epiphanic abruptness of the koan (or, in its pre-Japanese iteration, the kung-an) in which a destabilizing paradox, or unexpected image, awakens the mind to the living and breathing wisdom in which she is always already a part.

Of course, American poetry wasn’t entirely without a suggestion of these elements. If it proved amenable to Chinese influence, it was because poets were already employing many of these techniques. Whitman, for instance, expressed himself in a sort of freewheeling, spontaneous music, using simple prosaic language, free of abstraction, while always seeking an immediacy, an interpenetration of the soul with the world. While he was an individualist—perhaps the consummate individualist—his idea of the individual wasn’t cast in a libertarian mold, as we see it today. For Whitman, the individual could not be grasped and realized until the soul resounded with the life and music of its land and people—until it made contact. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The soul must recapitulate the world if it is to be a healthy and functioning one. In this light, his notion of democracy for early America wasn’t ‘political science,’ but a spiritual ecstasis that sought to hold together relation and identity in an early brand of personalism (a term, incidentally, he coined).3

In Song of Myself, he writes:

Clear and sweet is my soul… and clear and sweet is all
that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both… and the unseen is proved by
the seen…4

Or later, describing a litany of characters that make up early America—from the prostitute and the pavingman to the canal-boy, the deckhand, the squaw, the Yankee girl, the connoisseur, reformer, “Patriarch,” “President,” boys, girls, sons, daughters, old, and young—he ends:

And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend
outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am

What Whitman succeeds in capturing is a profound sense of contact as having something to do with reflection: the I mirroring the world as much as the world mysteriously mirrors the I, an experienced unity in which oneness is sustained through the self-fulfilment of each in each. The world becomes, for Whitman, a reflection, a mirror, a dance of light (or wisdom) in which we see ourselves reflected, not as egocentric projections, but as the light of our face in the spark of all that exists. It is the experience of a consanguinity, or a brotherhood; in the wave or cloud or storekeeper I witness something personal, a “picture-of-the-self” (in architect Christopher Alexander’s words),6 that reveals a mirror that extends the I through nature. Centrally, these connections are not reflections that bounce back and forth between monads, keeping the I an island alone. They draw together in the experience of fundamental similitude. (We could draw on Melville here too, for no man is an island, as Tony Tanner says, “especially when he is squeezing sperm.”7 “Come,” exclaims Ishmael, “let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us squeeze ourselves universally into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”8)

Thus, when we get to the poets of the 60s and 70s, we see that this sense of contact—the immediate and inexpressible ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’ of things (what Buddhists calls Tathātā)—is not entirely new, even if, following Pound’s influence, this tissue (or Tao) finds expression in certain new techniques. In Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, and others, we find a strong emphasis on this mind-world connection, on this spiritual tissue in which consciousness finds itself always already woven into reality—sometimes in longer meditative stitches, sometimes in koan-like abruptness. It is an encounter in which we find our deepest selves, strangely familiar, staring back. In Olson’s poem, for instance, The Chain of Memory Is Resurrection, he writes: “All that has been / suddenly is: time / is the face of recognition.” Or a few lines later: “The luminousness / of my daughter / to her mother / by a stream: / apocatastasis”.9

However, the mystical texture of this tissue—or in what rills or runes we spot our reflection—is not always the same. When we compare poems by, say, Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder, we see different ways in which this tissue can be represented: at times transparent, at times obscured, shifting the perception of our deepest self.

In Jeffers’s poem Continent’s End, we read:

…You were much younger when we crawled out of the womb and lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline.

It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since then and you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness, the insolent quietness of stone.

The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your child, but there is in me

Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean…

Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain.10

For Jeffers, the reflection we once found in our mother—the maternal Tao, or “Mysterious Feminine”11—has hardened, our mother growing “bitter” as we have grown “proud.” A cleft has been wedged between humankind and the world it calls home. The Tao we see, touch and rhythmically absorb reflects nothing back to us but the “insolent quietness of stone.”12 Jeffers moves to dispel this agony in light of an older, eternal “fountain,” “harder than life and more impartial,” but one might argue that he only exacerbates it.13 Our faces are muted in the bewildering and incommunicable density of an ultimate, impersonal ground—impartial, stark, maybe harder than stone itself. Here, it isn't so much the I that extends outward as it is the lapidary world that creeps in: our image shatters against a stone that cannot reflect. Contact amounts ultimately to a depersonalization, maybe even a false contact. In the face of an impossible distance, all we touch is despair.

Gary Snyder, on the other hand, offers us a different sort of tissue that in tone and theme pivots back to a vivacity more in line with Whitman or Melville, casting agony as a foil rather than a conclusion. In Prayer for the Great Family, he writes:

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet

in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light-changing leaf and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain

in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent Owl at dawn. Breath of our song clear spirit breeze

in our minds so be it.14

Each stanza describes an object—air, owls, plants, leaves—as bearing life and personality to some degree, humanized in form and purpose: dancing, fine, sweet, spiritual. However, each stanza also ends with the mantra “in our minds so be it,” leading a reader to possibly understand these as sentimental enchantments, anthropomorphisms that may softly soothe but with no actual import in a nominal and impersonal reality. But Snyder rigs the poem for a reversal. In the last stanza, he writes:

Gratitude to the Great Sky who holds billions of stars—and goes yet beyond that— beyond all powers, and thoughts and yet is within us— Grandfather Space.

The Mind is his Wife.

so be it.

Being is nuptial for Snyder, and contact is always a return to this marriage between mind and world. It’s not that we don’t encounter stones because their quietness cuts us off bitterly from a greater hope. It’s that we’ve never really known a stone if we haven’t heard one speak. In speaking of marriage, and therefore of love, we’ve travelled into the perceptions of the heart. Snyder seems to be telling us that the personal lifts up the impersonal—the mind takes up the stone—and holds it in its embrace. But if nuptial love is an intentional bond, then there is, for Snyder, no impersonality to begin with, in mind or in stone. It is a union of two. The heart becomes the mirror, and the world the landscape in which she finds her longings for a personal touch or contact met.

With these themes in mind, I want to turn to a last poet, Denis Johnson, not of Colorado or California stock, nor an ecopoet, but a poet who has imbibed much of the informal, musical qualities that Pound ushered in (along with many of the noir Americana elements that in some ways also share the terse and simple music of ancient China). His poems and stories seek contact on profound, sometimes devastating levels, sentences and paragraphs that take you right off the edge of words, or into mystical encounters that you didn’t think had words. (“I knew every raindrop by its name,” thinks a heroin-addled narrator, soaked at the side of the highway in Car-Crash while Hitchhiking).15 If Johnson has a style, it’s the koan, a contact that breaks the mind open to unity and wisdom, to a mirroring tissue, as in his poem Now:

… Music, you are light.
Agony, you are only what tips
me from moment to moment, light
to light and word to word,
and I am here at the waters
because in this space between spaces
where nothing speaks,
I am what it says.16

The silence of the stone is not an insolence or a withholding once we discover that silence is what speaks, and the register in which it speaks is the deep hum of the I. Like Snyder’s poem, there is an implicit love animating Johnson’s image: it is in the reflection of the waters that I am born and given light, and the impersonal agony to which I am forever subjected is never an end in itself but rather a providential means leading me back to the light’s personal embrace, an embrace which simply is my reflection. “I am what it says.”

I want to suggest that Johnson doesn’t just add another kind of contact to the list of ways we have seen emerge in the above poets (and others), but offers what we could argue sits at the very root of any mystical experience in which the self discovers itself mirrored and extended into the world–in which the I itself becomes the tissue. We see this in his tragic and darkly humorous poem The Circle:

I passed a helicopter
crashed in the street today,
where stunned and suddenly grief-torn
passers-by tried to explain
over and over, a hundred ways, what
had happened. Some cried over the pilot,
others stole money from his wallet—
I heard the one responsible for his death
claiming the pilot didn’t need it any more,
and whether he spoke of the pilot’s
money or his life wasn’t clear.
The scene had a subaqueous timbre
that I recognize now as a light
that shines in the dreams I have when I sleep
on my back and wake up half-drowned.
However I tried to circumnavigate
this circus of fire and mourning—
the machine burst ajar like a bug,
the corpse a lunch pail
left open and silly music coming out—
I couldn’t seem to find a way
that didn’t lead straight to the heart of the trouble
and involve me forever in their grief.17

The sense of humour is, again, dark, but the cartoonish observations (the corpse an exploding lunch pail) seem more childish than they do cynical, a first speechless impression of horror. They may even bring a greater solemnity (and fear) to the event. We become helpless children in the face of such mindless chaos and death–indeed, we wish to flee such a “circus” (or circle) of grief. But there is, I think, another kind of innocence, a recovered innocence, that the poem points more profoundly toward. The grief we can’t escape, that half-drowns us and forever involves us in the lives of others, isn’t a grief we really want to flee, for it is the bonds that commit us to one another, bonds of love that connect us even to strangers, that offer us the contact we most long for. We are called into the lives of others (“into the heart of the trouble”), and this kenotic picture sits most vitally at the core of all contact. This is simply what beauty is, a melancholy that looks onto joy, or a sadness that is not despair, in which our own incompleteness, and that of the world’s, calls us into nuptial union, another kind of circle (or circus).

Significant, too, is that, while contact is surely made in The Circle, there is no obvious image of reflection, because in some sense we disappear. There is nothing, or no-thing, to see. It is a sacrifice of ourselves into the lives of others, and in such a true sacrifice we can’t expect to see a reflection. There is nothing to see, but for, perhaps, the light that so “thoroughly permeates the air”—as St Maximus describes the holy.18 And it is here in which we most fully come into contact with ourselves. “To become nothing,” writes John Ruskin, “might be to become more than Man.”19

I’m reminded here of one last instance in Johnson’s work, one from his prose. In the short story, Steady Hands at Seattle General, the semi-autobiographical character, F.H. (short for Fuck Head) is giving a fellow inmate a shave.20 “Don’t get tricky with my moustache,” says Bill.

“Okay so far?”

“So far.”

Bill, F.H. discovers, has a scar on his cheek, a bullet hole placed there by one of his ex-wives (who was only the first of two ex-wives to shoot him). At the end of the conversation, F.H. tells the old inmate he’s doing fine, to which Bill responds, with koan-like precision:

“Talk into here.”

“Talk into your bullet hole?”

“Talk into my bullet hole, tell me I’m fine.”

At the heart of all contact stands a call to healing, with our brothers, with the earth, with the stones under our feet. This is the nuptial surrender in which we see God’s face and our image in him. Johnson was not an ecopoet, he was a suburbanite Midwesterner who lost himself on highways, in drugs, and in every category of love’s betrayal, but he came back to us with an important report: a true ecology of the tissue, of the Tao, begins with the flesh, through which we each–bravely, lovingly, ridiculously–speak into a bullet hole.

  1. David Hinton, The Wilds of American Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape (Boulder, Colorado; Shambhala, 2017), 5.
  2. Having read and edited Ernst Fenollosa’s essay, “The Chinese Written Character as a Means for Poetry,” Pound synthesized ancient Chinese techniques into his own work, finding the Chinese pictographic ideogram a perfect union of word and image. Hinton calls his poem In a Station of the Metro the most influential poem of the 20th Century, and states that with it, “Pound unwittingly brought into English poetry the entire Tao/Ch’an complex of insight.” See Hinton, The Wilds of American Poetry, 27.
  3. See Walt Whitman, ‘Personalism’, The Galaxy: A Magazine of Entertaining Reading (1866-1878) vol. 5, issue 5; New York, May 1868), 540. The Boston Personalists of the early 20th Century ascribe its coinage to Bowne, as did Bowne himself, but Whitman’s article precedes Bowne’s work, and Mounier gives credit to Whitman in his own tract on personalism.
  4. Walt Whitman, The Complete Poems (Toronto; Penguin, 2004), 65.
  5. Ibid, 79.
  6. This is a theme throughout Alexander’s four volume opus. See Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, vols. I-IV (Berkeley, CA; Center for Environmental Structure, 2002).
  7. Tony Tanner, The American Mystery (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2000), 71.
  8. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (Cambridge, MA; Dana Estes and Company, 1892), 393.
  9. Charles Olson, Selected Poems, ed. Robert Creeley (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1997), 67.
  10. Robinson Jeffers, The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: 1920-1928, ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1995), 16-17.
  11. John C.H. Wu, a Christian and intimate friend of Thomas Merton, translates the feminine character of the Tao as the “Mysterious Feminine.” David Hinton, however, translates it as “dark female enigma” in line with his project to render the Tao free of any personalization evocative of a transcendent creator God. For Hinton (and arguably Jeffers), as for many Taoists, the Tao represents a completely impersonal force.
  12. Jeffers, The Collected Poetry, 16.
  13.  Ibid. The poem invokes the theme of a conceptual distinction in the Tao: a maternal Tao sensually known, and an eternal Tao which cannot be grasped. See chapter 1 of the Tao Teh Ching.
  14. Gary Snyder, Prayer for the Great Family (New York; Hermes Free Press, 1971), 24-25.
  15. Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son (New York; First HarperPerennial, 1992), 4
  16. Denis Johnson, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (New York; HarperCollins, 1995), 109.
  17. Denis Johnson, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, 117.
  18. Ambiguum 7. See Maximos the Confessor, On the Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, trans. N. Constas (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 2014), 89.
  19. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 4 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 364.
  20. Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 129-133.

Jay Irwin lives in Vancouver with his wife and three kids. He teaches philosophy at Corpus Christi College.