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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole.

At the same time, however, Stevens’ lines illustrate a prominent element of the English language and a dominant tendency of the Western mind, namely a propensity to divide undifferentiated reality into its constituent and often opposing parts. In the last two lines in particular, the totality of human experience is divided into “pleasures” and “pains.” Employing the rhetorical device of parallelism, Stevens links the former with the fecundity of summer and the latter with winter’s cold austerities.

The mind that so divides is sometimes called dualistic. Viewing the world from the vantage point of the private ego, the dualistic mind divides reality into “self” and “other,” “mine” and “yours,” and “this” and “that.” As the philosopher Fr. Richard Rohr has noted, dualistic thinking is “essentially binary. It is either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, by opposition, by differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, intelligent/stupid, not realizing there may be 55 or 155 degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.” In Rohr’s view, dualistic thinking has become “the ‘hardware’ of almost all Western people.” And though it is both necessary and effective for navigating everyday life, it can also keep us from seeing people and things as they truly are. In Rohr’s words, dualistic thought “works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or even honest experience.” Dualistic thinking, he concludes, “is great stuff as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, death, or love. When it comes to unconditional love, the dualistic mind can’t even begin to understand it.”

And what (to pose a dualistic question) might be the alternative to dualistic thinking? One venerable alternative may be found in traditional Asian poetry, specifically the art of haiku. Here, by way of example, is a haiku by the Japanese poet Yosa Buson (1716–1783):

              Silence

              of an oak grove

              the moon high in the trees

In these elegant lines, as in Stevens’ poem, the poet represents a state of being through the description of natural phenomena. But here the strategy is not to divide the chosen subject into its component parts, which the poem will subsequently reconcile. Rather, Buson’s language serves to amplify and clarify the presence of the whole: the moon in the silent oak grove. By so doing, Buson closes the distance between that presence and the reader, creating a heightened sense of immediacy. And, not least, his spare but potent language, void of comment, judgment, or comparison, evokes what Rohr has elsewhere called the “silence around the words.” Precisely because the moon in the oak grove is not being opposed or likened to anything else, Buson’s haiku invites us to honor and contemplate the moon’s mysterious presence, just as it is.

The habit of dualistic thinking is deeply embedded in our culture and our psyches. Almost from the cradle, we are conditioned to divide the world into its separate parts, often creating conflict where none inherently exists. But as Stevens’ poem vividly illustrates, balance and reconciliation are also possible, chiefly through the vehicle of the poetic imagination. And as Buson’s haiku reminds us, the practice of non-dualistic, egoless contemplation, so central to Zen and other meditative traditions, can be more than an ennobling daily activity. It can also be a constructive counterweight to the all-pervasive and frequently destructive habit of division.


Fr. Richard Rohr, “The Egoic Operating System,” adapted from Rohr, A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being

Yosa Buson, Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento (Copper Canyon, 2013), 216 (807)

 

 

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