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Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

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In Zen practice,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas, “we give attention to the details of our lives.” By paying close, sustained attention to the most ordinary details in our daily round, we train ourselves to abide in the present moment. Rather than sacrifice our present experience to a past that is already gone, a future that has not yet come, or abstract thoughts that may or may not reflect reality, we attend to the details of the matter at hand: the level of green tea in our measuring spoon, the temperature and volume of water to be added, the specific brewing time for that particular tea. By so doing, we fully engage in relative, historical time, even as we touch the timeless, absolute dimension of our experience.

No one understands this paradox more fully or articulates it with greater skill than the Midwestern poet Ted Kooser (b. 1939), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Delights & Shadows in 2005 and served as US Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. Kooser is not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, but by attending to the details of quotidian life, no matter how mundane, he returns the reader, time and again, to the immediacy of the present moment. And in their acute awareness of impermanence and interdependence, as revealed by such common or discarded objects as curtain rods, enameled pans, and Depression glass, his poems often embody the essence, if not the customary forms and rituals, of Zen practice.

A vivid example may be seen in the title poem of Kooser’s collection Splitting an Order (2014). In this gentle poem, set in a diner, the narrator observes an old man cutting his cold sandwich into two equal parts. It pleases the narrator to watch him

                                  keeping his shaky hands steady

by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife

while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,

her knife, and her fork in their proper places,

then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees

and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

A more ordinary situation it would be difficult to imagine: an elderly married couple having lunch in a diner. Yet Kooser endows this everyday situation with the glow of heightened attention, both on the part of the husband and wife and on that of the observant narrator.

The couple are splitting a plain roast-beef sandwich, perhaps to economize or because neither needs to eat a whole one. To accomplish this division, the husband must steady his shaky hands, a challenge he readily overcomes. By dividing the sandwich “surely” and diagonally, he ensures that the resulting portions will be exactly equal. Meanwhile, his wife carefully unrolls the napkin enclosing her knife, fork, and spoon. These, too, become objects of meticulous attention.

Even as the husband and wife are taking their time and paying attention to the details of their humble repast, the narrator is doing the same. His unswerving observation, recorded in a single complex but graceful sentence, not only mirrors that of his subjects toward the actions they are performing. It also establishes a tone of caring, even for common, unexceptional things, and implicitly bestows moral and aesthetic value on a scene that might otherwise have been dismissed as banal. The true significance of the scene becomes apparent in the poem’s closing lines, where the husband’s offering his wife her half of their sandwich completes his act of fairness, solicitude, and kindness. She in turn exhibits an attitude of openness and gratitude.

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying reminds us: “Poetry and Zen are one.” Although the former depends on fresh language, the latter on silent contemplation, both rely on wholehearted attention to concrete, particular detail. By stopping and looking deeply, both reveal the hidden dimension of human experience, the currents of interdependence and impermanence that underlie the most commonplace of human interactions. And, though they do so in very different ways, both, in the words of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”

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Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life: Essays on Learning to Love This World (Shambhala, 2018), 69.

Ted Kooser, Splitting an Order (Copper Canyon, 2014), 9.

Patrick Kavanagh, “The Hospital,” Collected Poems (Norton, 1964), 153.

Photo: Ted Kooser

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5. Marion Howard at his desk, Longfellow School

“All composite things,” declares the Diamond Sutra, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” I am often reminded of those verses when I summon memories from my childhood. From my present vantage point, the images, names, and places that constitute those memories sometimes resemble fragments from a dream or dispatches from a foreign land.

Such is my memory of Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa (pop. 27,000), my scenic hometown on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended Longfellow School from the ages of seven to eleven. Situated on Iowa Avenue, a quiet residential street, and facing the First Church of God, this two-storey brown-brick building bespoke a reliable solidity and an austere sobriety. Erected in 1927, the building housed some thirty classrooms. Together with its spacious playground and baseball diamond, it occupied a city block. To the vulnerable schoolchildren who approached this imposing edifice, it presented a formidable if not forbidding aspect.

Not so for me, however. To this day I remember the school fondly and intimately, not only because it was there that I learned to read, write, and do arithmetic—and to hold my own with the playground bullies—but also because my father, Marion C. Howard (1905-1971), was the school’s principal. Far from being an alien, oppressive institution, Longfellow School felt like a second home.

Marion Curtis Howard grew up on a farm in Ankeny, Iowa, the eldest of six children born to Rose and Benjamin Franklin Howard, after whom I was named. They were progressive farmers in their day, and their farm was one of the earliest in the state to enjoy the benefits of rural electrification. Marion, however, was not cut out to be a farmer. Instead, he put himself through college by doing odd jobs and went on to earn a master’s degree in education. After stints as a teacher and superintendent of schools, he took the job at Longfellow School in 1949 and remained there until his retirement in 1970.

My father occupied a modest but well-lit office near the entrance to the school. On the glass door of his office, he had posted a framed copy of the Ten Commandments, its ornate gold letters set against a pitch-black background. I suspect that those stern admonitions sent shivers down the spine of many a miscreant ordered to report there. But to me, my father’s office was a warm, welcoming space, to which I often accompanied him. Sitting by his desk, I pestered him with questions about his work. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what, exactly, he did.

Next to my father’s office was the dimly lit supply room, which I would often explore when my father was busy. Its long shelves were stocked with such paraphernalia as ruled tablets, boxes of Crayolas, # 2 pencils, construction paper, Elmer’s Glue, and little rubber-tipped bottles of Mucilage. I loved the feel and the smells of those supplies. And in the late summer, every year, I helped my father allocate and distribute them to the classrooms. Not only did this task bestow a sense of privilege and importance. It also afforded an opportunity to explore the empty classrooms, particularly the one assigned to Miss Faust, the pretty first-grade teacher on whom I’d had a schoolboy crush.

Back in the foyer outside my father’s office, two objects held my sustained attention. One was a black button at the center of a circular bronze fixture. By pressing that button, preferably when my father was too preoccupied to notice, I could ring the loud outdoor bell that summoned the children back from recess. How powerful I felt, sounding that distant bell.

The other object of interest was the framed sheet music of a song. Accorded a place of honor in the foyer, the song was entitled “Over at Longfellow School” and was composed by Frank Swanson, the school’s “singing janitor,” a portly, grandfatherly figure whose red suspenders matched the sweeping compound he used on the floors. “Here’s a ditty I’ll sing,” the opening bars began, “Just before the bell rings / Over at Longfellow School.” The ditty went on to describe the children arriving with their “pitter and patter,” their “chitter and chatter / bidding the time of the day.”

Soon after came the swelling chorus:

Over at Longfellow School

            Over at Longfellow School

            That’s where I work from morn till night

            That’s where the kids fill my heart with delight

And last, the quiet concluding stanza:

When my day’s work is over

            My life is in clover,

            Thinking of Longfellow School

In the ensuing decades, living far away from Iowa and the scenes of my childhood, I too thought of Longfellow School. And when, in the mid-1990s, I brought my then-fiancée Robin out to Iowa to meet my sister and her family, I took Robin on a tour of the neighborhood where I’d grown up. After I’d shown her the little white frame house on Barker Street where our family had lived, we drove up Iowa Avenue toward Longfellow School. I was especially eager to see and touch an item I’d viewed only in a photograph: a bronze plaque in the front hallway honoring my father’s twenty-one years of service.

Coming down a hill that I’d remembered as steeper, we arrived at our destination. There, looking as stolid as ever, was the First Church of God. But across the street, where Longfellow School had stood, there was now a green, well-tended sward. Every trace of the school, including the plaque, the bell button, and the song, had disappeared. Inquiring as to what had happened, I learned that the building had been demolished in 1999, asbestos having been discovered in its walls.

Longfellow School was indeed a composite thing, a bubble in a stream. But how fortunate I am to have that bubble among my stream of memories—and to have, in living memory, the examples of two men of humble origins, one of them my father, who loved their work and their place of work and were grateful for their lives.

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Photo: Marion Howard at his desk in Longfellow School

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shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

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Derek-Mahon-BW

Derek Mahon

1941-2020

The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, grew up in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father worked in the shipyards, his mother in a linen mill. Against his father’s wishes, Mahon pursued an interest in poetry, first in grammar school and later at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. While in his twenties he worked in various low-paying jobs in North America before settling in London in 1970. For the next fifteen years he earned a precarious living as a freelance journalist. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as the author of superbly crafted lyric poems, in which a skeptical, darkly ironic outlook coexists with contemplative calm and a singing line. When “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” his requiem for the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appeared in The Listener in 1973, it was widely recognized as a modern masterpiece. In the 1990s, with twelve acclaimed collections to his credit, Mahon returned to Ireland, living for a time in central Dublin, whose newly prosperous, commercialized culture he satirically decried. In his last years he retired to the historic port of Kinsale, where he composed expansive meditative poems and enjoyed the consolations of domestic life. At the time of his death he was universally regarded as one of Ireland’s leading and most influential poets. His lifelong friend and fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley observed that “there is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”

Mahon’s early departure from Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on his work, infusing his poems with ambivalent feelings of disdain, regret, and longing. In 1977 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Co. Derry, and he returned with his wife and two children to their native province. It was a homecoming of sorts, but not a happy one. By this time Mahon had been diagnosed with a serious drinking problem, his marriage was teetering, and his writing had come to a virtual standstill. And the murderous sectarian conflict known as the Troubles was at its height, one of its flashpoints being the area where he was then living. Acutely aware of these adverse conditions, Mahon composed “Everything is Going to be All Right,” the poem by which he is best known to the general public.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

In this formal, twelve-line poem, the narrator awakens in an upstairs bedroom in a house on the northern coast. In contrast to his still-immobile state, the natural world is luminous and active: the tide is up, the clouds are flying, and the sky is clearing. If the imagery of the poem sets the narrator’s stillness against the dynamism of his surroundings, its antithetical syntax (“but there is no need to go into that”) reflects a tension between the narrator’s dark thoughts and the untrammeled beauty of the natural world. Out of these tensions arise two affirmations, both them framed in plain declarative sentences.

In asserting that “The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart,” Mahon affirms one of the traditional wellsprings of the poet’s art. “Look in thy heart, and write,” advised the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, whom Mahon had studied at TCD. Following Sidney’s lead, Mahon places his faith in poetic intuition, which a poet can awaken through patient contemplation. For a formal poet like Derek Mahon, whose craft requires meticulous attention to every syllable and element of form, this recognition of a vital source beyond his conscious control is at once revelatory and liberating.

The second affirmation is even more consequential. In his title and closing line, Mahon places his trust in life itself. “In spite of everything,” the sun rises, and the beauty of the “far cities” persists into the future. In a lesser context, Mahon’s affirmation might seem platitudinous, or might even be interpreted as ironic. But in its present context it calls to mind a cryptic statement by the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “Practice,” she asserts, “is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.” Although themes from the Zen tradition appear here and there in Mahon’s work, he was not a committed Zen practitioner. But the paradox he explores in “Everything is Going to be All Right” has much in common with the one to which Joko Beck alludes. And though his poem was written in a time and under circumstances very different from our own, and his “momentous celebration of a moment of well-being,” as the critic Hugh Haughton has described it, may well be a “dream of living which is also a dream of writing,” the reassurance he articulates speaks eloquently to our present, vexed condition.

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Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Gallery, 1999).

Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

Hugh Haughton, The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford, 2007), 147-148.

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Sue Stuart-Smith II

Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and an avid gardener. Her many original insights derive, on the one hand, from her clinical practice, particularly her work with victims of trauma, and on the other, from her long experience in planting and tending her gardens. Grounded in those realities, she is not inclined toward lofty abstractions or metaphysical speculation. But in her book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Stuart-Smith propounds an abstract, metaphysical concept, which she calls “garden time.” By this term she does not mean “a time for gardening.” Rather, she is speaking of a sense of time qualitatively different from the ordinary. (more…)

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Shundo Aoyama Roshi

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question. “How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

Paradoxical and enigmatic, this statement alludes to a classic Zen koan: Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves. Zen koans—those ancient Chinese anecdotes, dialogues, and apothegms that Zen students are assigned to memorize and contemplate—often pose logic-defying questions (“What was your original face before your parents were born?”). By internalizing the question and living with it for a time, the student awakens intuitive insight. In this instance, however, the main point of interest is not the question but the master’s answer. What might it mean, we might inquire, to walk straight by winding along? (more…)

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During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here. (more…)

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Mary Oliver

“Attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), “is the beginning of devotion.”

Oliver’s bold assertion appears at the end of her lyrical essay “Upstream,” the title essay in her 2016 collection. In the preceding paragraph, she implores her readers to introduce children to the sensuous delights of the natural world:

Teach the children. . . . Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

Thus instructed, children may “learn to love this green space they live in.” But they must first learn to pay attention. (more…)

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Dale S. Wright

Recall, if you will, the last time you felt deeply angry. Someone had hurt and offended you, and the more you dwelt on the indignity you’d suffered, the angrier you became. You felt your anger rising in your stomach, your chest, your body generally. You wanted to retaliate, and you imagined what you might say or do. At the very least you wanted to break the nearest plate or throw your cell phone against a wall.

Now imagine some future indignity, but this time with a very different response. Rather than fuel your anger with destructive scenarios, you choose simply to feel and acknowledge it. “Anger has arisen in me,” you might say to yourself, while practicing conscious breathing. And rather than reflexively condemn the words or actions that have occasioned your outrage, you elect to look into their causes. What personal or social conditions prompted that person to speak or act as he or she did? What specific event triggered that insulting remark? Might that trigger have had little or nothing to do with you? (more…)

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