Norman Fischer: A 'test case for being'
Editorial note: Brian Unger’s “Norman Fischer: A ‘test case for being’” was written in response to a portfolio of eleven new poems by Norman Fischer, which you can read here. Fischer was also the subject of PoemTalk #38, for which host Al Filreis was joined by Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock. — Michael S. Hennessey
Somewhere we’ve developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, it is the way to be free, finally, of self-expression …
— Norman Fischer
… in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.
— Gary Snyder
Is it not possible that all poets, the writings of all poets, participate in a kind of lyricism?
— Hank Lazer
I don’t know who’s right, Gary Snyder or Norman Fischer. Norman says that poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, while Gary says poetry is rooted in self-expression. Much of Fischer’s work reviewed here is highly social and profoundly universalist in nature, but it is often a form of self-expression from which the self has been excised, a “voiceless lyricism” denoting conflict and contradiction, not mastery or self-elevation. Self-expression, according to Adorno, is a false categorization if left unanalyzed. Adorno’s critique is exemplified extraordinarily well in Fischer’s poetry, particularly in “Expensive Arrangements,” which we will examine closely. This excerpt from “On Lyric Poetry and Society” helped shape my examination of this poem:
For the substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal …. Not that what the lyric poem expresses must be immediately equivalent to what everyone experiences …. Rather, immersion in what has taken individual form elevates the lyric poem to the status of something universal by making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed. It thereby anticipates, spiritually, a situation in which no false universality, that is, nothing profoundly particular, continues to fetter what is other than itself, the human .… The universality of the lyric’s substance, however, is social in nature. Only one who hears the voice of humankind in the poem’s solitude can understand what the poem is saying.
Without the theoretical hall pass of “voiceless lyricism” or some other dispensation, (former) language writers who are committed Zen Buddhists need a special pass to write old-fashioned lyric poetry. Let’s be honest, Buddhists don’t believe in a substantially constituted, separate, independent, thoroughly individualized self, and that’s what old-fashioned poetic self-expression has been based on since the nineteenth century. So Norman has a double problem: he has the Buddhist problem with the self in self-expression, and he has the language school problem with the I-focused, emotive, subjective, autobiographical narratives of neo-Romanticism. Language poetics calls for the “abolition of the spell of selfhood,” the demolition of the I-based lyric. The group that Norman Fischer associated with, trained with, and wrote with, wanted a clean break with “the automatism of the poetic “I” and its “naturalized voice.”
Yet self-expression is not the whole of lyricism. Lyric poetry isn’t delimited by statute to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantic and neo-Romantic writing. In order to find an acceptable theoretical basis for lyricism within the poetics of contemporary avant-garde criticism, and to enable the works themselves to remain socially and politically grounded and relevant, Susan Schultz has proposed a solution she terms the “voiceless lyric,” which in combination with Adorno’s social conscience can rescue lyricism for Buddhist language poets like Norman Fischer.
It was only natural for Norman to manifest a theoretical disdain for the neo-Romanticism and narrative referentiality of, say, the Beats, or the New York School writers. He thusly describes how he and his friends thought about the Beats back in the early 1970s: “We were self consciously another generation — we were not the New York poets (because we were from San Francisco, and that must be different) and we were not the Beats. We were not going to be the heroes of our own Romantic picaresque novels and poems.”
Some people see the poetics of the Beats, neo-Romanticism, and other “personally expressive plain-spoken voice-based poetry” that still dominates the production of poetry today at odds with the experimental, deconstructive, open language approach of contemporary language writers and their close descendants. Yet experimentalism with language is common throughout literary history. Scholars and critics typically mention Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and other modernists, and there are stark parallels with the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. More recently there is the Zen monk-poet Philip Whalen, a writer who no fewer than three or four established language poets claim as a literary mentor and influence.
Norman Fischer’s literary influences and predecessors come through two distinct lineages, one Asian and Buddhist, and the other Euro-North American and Judeo-Christian. His immediate ancestors in the West include the monkish T. S. Eliot and the actually ordained monk-priests Thomas Merton and Philip Whalen. Going further back, Fischer continues a mystical or religious tradition that includes female writers, poets, and religious dissidents in the medieval period, like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, plus St. Jerome, Meister Eckhart, and later Thomas Traherne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. With Fischer’s strong identification with Judaism, I would add the presumably multigendered authors of the Psalms, Revelations, other Old Testament texts, and Hebrew mystical poetry. This oracular, revealed, dissenting line migrates to Blake, Wordsworth, Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, and many other writers and artists.
The poetics of Whalen, ostensibly a certifiably Beat generation writer, don’t result in poetry that bears much resemblance to the work of his contemporaries. A humble but extraordinary genius, his literary offspring include a surprisingly wide range of talents, including people who were or are significant language writers such as Leslie Scalapino and her acolyte Denise Newman, large chunks of the New York School’s second generation including Alice Notley and Lewis Warsh, and more than several of the younger poets featured in Schelling’s important Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry.
Norman Fischer’s work is best described by Hank Lazer as part of a new spiritual realism that has developed in the past fifty years, first noted by Gertrude Stein in the 1935 essay “Poetry and Grammar,” which was a riposte to Emerson’s “The Poet.” Stein wanted to get writers to move away from Emerson’s focus on the poet’s transcendental relation to nature and divinity onto language itself, “in which a form of divinity resides, not wholly beyond words, but within them.” This is developed by Lazer and Fischer. Lazer describes his creative poiesis as investigative, spiritual, and heuristic:
a phenomenology of spiritual experience — a writing that engages momentary experience and that embodies particular intervals of consciousness.
My question is this: is the revisionist, dissenting impulse behind Fischer’s and Lazer’s accounts of their work different in effect from, say, Blake’s investigation and origination of new mythographic and religious systems in The Four Zoas?
I can’t help but regard this as individual poets grounded in their respective contextual histories, broadly speaking, doing similar work with different tools. Blake was probably the first major Romantic poet to pull traditional Indian religious imagery and theology into the European market in a concerted effort to liberate people from the onerous burden of state religion. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are, in a sense, a continuation of Blake’s experiment. If you read these works closely, and if you have some detailed experience with an Eastern meditation practice like Zen, Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are suffused with a meditative depth that is uncanny, especially given that they were conceived and written not in Asia but in Britain in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
We know now that hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu texts were flooding intellectual and artistic circles in the main European capitals at this time. British missionaries, civil servants, and budding scholars were translating and interpreting significant works. The Schlegels were translating and publishing texts containing highly sophisticated Buddhist doctrines. This was the birth of the discipline of comparative religion, and Blake had direct access to some of these texts and commentaries through his patrons in the intelligentsia. The cultural, religious, and historico-literary connections between British Romanticism, Beat literature, language writing, and contemporary post-language Buddhist writers are close and rich.
Norman’s poem “Test Case” is a perfect poem in many ways, simple and meditative. In the first stanza the end of each line of verse disappears into the universe with no apparent relation to the next line, except that the next line is the next line, but is somehow dissevered or peripheral, connected merely by position. The poem begins, like a Terry Riley composition, with disparate opening chords:
It’s quiet or in the quiet
Where the tongues of disjunction lick the arms of affection
And one plus one’s not two
It doesn’t follow from this …
A stream-of-consciousness, Steinian phrasing is deployed, mimetic of the extreme random orderlessness of everyday consciousness. The three verse lines of the first stanza have no comparative relation to each other, engendering a feeling empty of ‘own-being’ (Buddhist psychology’s svā-bhāva); a feeling of zazen itself, a quiet meditation that’s either quiet, “or in the quiet.” I like how the slowly opening andante tempo turns to cold hard reality a few stanzas later:
My hard-earned cash
Your vaunted self-esteem —
This is all, after all, just thought’s river flowing.
Test case for being
In this little poem, “Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts [that] rarely come to terms … transitions, transmutations.” “Test Case,” then, is like life itself, and the poem is a self-reflexively demonstration, a test case (a koan?) of being itself.
In studying some of the other poems under consideration here — “Nothing Matters,” “Expensive Arrangement,” and “A Flatter Form of Research” — I am reminded of the Metaphysical poets John Donne and Thomas Traherne, and of their literary connection with a poet like Norman Fischer. Traherne’s descriptions of meditation are striking for their affinity with Zen practice. It has been said that the Metaphysical poets, like the language poets, adopted new verbal devices and technologies with considerable skill in order to distance themselves from the dominant classicist writers of their period. Yet even as they expanded the territorial reach of language, they were lineally related to some of their own close literary predecessors, and like Fischer and Eliot, the Metaphysicals wrote devotional poetry of “ecclesiastical solemnity.” Eliot sounds like a language writer here:
When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary …. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
In The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot describes a zone where intellectual thought and meditation is separate from feelings, passions, and emotions, sounding intriguingly like Lazer’s “phenomenology of spiritual experience,” and Fischer’s linguistic open mind receptivity, which he describes as a highly sensitized state with physical manifestations, a radical openness that allows “a shape” or “a sense of form” to reach the writer, which he then writes from. Fischer describes his writing practice as an intellectual exercise that induces a “nearly physical sensation.” Eliot, too, saw in Chapman’s work a “direct sensuous apprehension of thought.”
Like probably all poets my writing comes out of reading, and reading may be a form of writing and vice versa. So I am reading something important to me and then at some point in reading I am drawn to writing. It is a nearly physical sensation that I have come to be very sensitive to. And along with it comes a shape, a sense of form … so that the writing begins with a shape or a form, which constellates a sound and a subject matter … a tone, a tone of voice.
Norman Fischer’s poetics, strongly influenced by Zen meditation, are closely cued to physical presence and felt sensation, as well as a focused mental presence and analytical, intellectual thinking. This practice is uncannily similar to Wordsworth’s description of meditative experience in Tintern Abbey, where a moment of samādhi (concentrated, trance-like consciousness) is a physically “felt” event, not merely intellectual, or linguistic:
… sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart (29)
In The Discharged Soldier, Wordsworth describes the experience again as felt physically, in the body, accompanied by a cessation of routine cognition, a “slumber of the sense,” “heard and felt.” As with Fischer, palpable forms and images arise in Wordsworth’s consciousness. It is straight out of traditional Soto Zen meditation, with some of the Romantic touchstones also encountered in Rousseau: a centripetal turn inwards, solitude, quietude, a study of origins, a careful use of language.
Certain mystical strains of Romanticism and its meditations are uncannily similar to the poetics espoused by Norman Fischer, and whether a self is required for self-expression or not is at least arguable. In classical Buddhist Mādhyamika dialectics there is the possibility that a human self exists, but at the same time, in an ultimate sense, no self self-exists on its own, and therefore we say there is no self, or that ultimately no self exists. The paradox here is the simple dialectical distinction between a conventional truth and an ultimate truth, which was developed by Mādhyamika logicians. Both in classical Buddhist philosophy and in certain poststructuralist accounts, no separate, independently existing, permanent self resides independently outside of or distinct from the frameworks of extensive biological, physical, and social networks. Yet at the conventional level many of us do, indeed, have driver’s licenses, social security cards, etc. We duly pay the bills that come to us with our names on them. That is, forms of identity have been assigned to our bodily presence in this world system, and we recognize and respond to them.
Conjointly, a writer sits down and with a pen, a computer keyboard, or a tape recorder, and “writes” words down which become a poem, a letter, a story, a screenplay. It’s not that there is no authorial self, it’s just that the person behind the pen, the keyboard, etc., is ungraspable. The self’s observable and inferred existential bases, biological, psychological, and physical, are constantly shifting, changing, dissolving, and undergoing re-creation or rebirth, if you will. We are not the same person we were back then; we were never totally individualized to begin with because we were born entirely dependent biologically and socially. We are never entirely individualized in exactly the same way from each epoch of our lives to the next. So when Norman writes,
There’s no self or person, just what arises … writing is words,
how they sound, how they look lying on the page.
he is taking the absolute position, the position of ultimate prajña (wisdom). Whereas, a bodhisattva also works with beings (audiences, political events, society, suffering, etc.) from the position of karuña (compassion), which entails a Buddhist practicing in relativity, including the relativity of imagined or posited selfhood, and individuated suffering.
For me, Fischer’s “Nothing Matters” is a definitively Buddhist poem resting squarely within the Western tradition of religious poetry. It strongly echoes T. S. Eliot’s somber, monkish Four Quartets. Repetition is a critical tool in both poems, creating a metronomic effect, and adding a surface tension to a disturbingly sustained focus on death and the severe brevity of life. Fischer’s repetition of “nothing matters,” repeated six times, and “in the end,” “at the end,” and “end,” repeated seven times, stir buried memories of the “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” sections of the Quartets. In those works Eliot can’t resist repetition of words like “end,” “beginning,” “die,” “time,” “dark,” “darkness,” and “ashes.” This excerpt is from the last stanza of “Burnt Norton”:
Love is itself unmoving
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.
It’s interesting that where Eliot says “love,” Fischer says “affection.” Eliot points out that love is the cause and end of life, causal of human form (birth), which occurs between non-being and being. Fischer also implicates love and marriage. He seems to address his wife with deeply personal, unsettling questions, questions which, by implication, may also be addressed to his family, and to the wider Buddhist sangha (community) that he is responsible for as a Zen teacher and former abbot.
There is a sacramental (and sacerdotal) quality in both poems, and in Fischer’s the sure-footed intimacy of a husband, a father, an abbot, and a priest counseling his flock in a sermon:
Did you expect
To go on
Forever, that we would
Go on forever
That there would be
No end to us
Our life here
In the long second stanza of “East Coker” Eliot also invokes the sacrament of marriage, in a traditional peasant ceremony staged in a field outside an ancient English village. Fischer extols love as the highest good, but Eliot, a more pessimistic monk, blames love for initiating the wheel of birth and death in the first place. “Who then devised the torment?” he asks, answering himself: “Love.” Eliot may have been tormented by love, but for Fischer it is the soteriological path in life.
The affection between people, between lovers, between spouses, amongst family and among all human beings transcends suffering. This is for Fischer the one great good that withstands time’s ravages and overrides the dark sadness of the Four Quartets. It’s more a metaphysical poem than a language poem, transcending the similar but rather nihilistic and solipsistic verses crooned by the rock band Queen in the superb 1975 work “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Nothing really matters — to me,” Freddie Mercury wails, and the song (for me) infiltrates the space of Fischer’s poem. But Fischer doesn’t literally mean nothing matters, but rather that in the thick of it, everything matters so much, and the most important things matter most, namely affection, love, the quality of the affection.
He finishes off this poem with an allusion to Four Quartets, counseling that rather than live our lives saddened and inhibited by the extinction of self and consciousness that is surely coming soon, savor this, see this life as satisfactory, please see in your end a satisfactory completion:
Find the end
In the beginning
Savor that, its force
A satisfactory completion
I am going to finish with the poem “Expensive Arrangements,” an extraordinarily weird and evocative poem that I find profoundly and politically anarchic. “Expensive Arrangements” is constructed of fifteen simple and very concise two-line stanzas, beginning rather suddenly in the middle of a descriptive narrative, a narrative of address where we, the reader or listener, are inserted without introduction into a Kafkaesque colloquy. It is dreamlike, and somebody, a narrator, is describing a strange place, a bizarre system that is actually here and now:
It is indicative of the loose arrangements
That apply in this place
That those who pose as bosses
Don’t really know any better
… — all about
Themselves they heap their ribbons
And these flow on as if crystalline into the bare and tidy
Nights that give us all pause
And not a little glow, so that our friends
Can better see us as we leave
In a series of city blocks, arranged like long pegs
In baize drawers …
“Expensive Arrangements” can be read as an Adornoesque parable on the pervasive un-freedom of late capitalism in mature imperial democracies. No one knows what is going on; power is difficult to understand, leveraged at a great distance from ordinary lives. It is indicative of the nature of these massive and over-bearing structures of power, explains the narrator, that the elites are poseurs, they “pose as bosses,” but they know nothing. They only happen to have their hands on the controls, the money, the arrangements, because of the randomness of evil and the randomness of events, where they went to school, who their parents were, their class position. The award-winning elites are heaped with ribbons of ‘success,’ while we are the piglets of Animal Farm, the automatons of Brave New World. We exit our workplaces to monotonously arranged city blocks that enforce conformity as the sign over the door intones “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” The blocks are tidy and featureless; architecture mimics political system. Workers consume messages and file straight-jacketed to the next mass injustice, the next horror, the next holocaust.
These first six stanzas establish the parameters of a discourse that breaks in the seventh to the revolutionary statement I pass by sometimes in Brooklyn, hand-painted on an abandoned building: “Open Your Eyes.” The shift comes at the rigid linear structures of the “baize drawers,” simultaneously kicking off the next section:
In baize drawers one loses track too quickly
Of the sense of things
The purpose for which this little hunting party
Has been organized
Which is why the others
Long for such clarified sentences
They want the clear demarcations
That money as money, hefty money
Would provide and do not see the colorists
Are making themselves out to be
Anything but what they are …
The hunting party hunts for the real “sense of things,” beyond the grammar and logic of established structures of power. This is a strong reading in the sense that I am pushing the poem’s dialectic into the open, and maybe it is a dialectic that only I see. Yet the work’s eerie totalitarian environment seems to beg an interpretative reading that is not only political, but also spiritually and artistically rebellious, a secular soteriology if you will, a call to arms against the crystalline ribbons and the tidy, empty nights. Perhaps Fischer’s challenge is personal and spiritual, as well as intrinsically political. Outside the realms of state power, state religion, and corporate mass media, “If you stretch this cloth any tighter / I think surely your bell will crack.”
5. Hank Lazer interviews Norman Fischer in The Argotist Online, 2010. The full text is available online.