By Martin Farawell, Program Director
Dodge Poetry Program
This Saturday is that last day of National Poetry Month. It’s also the day that participants from throughout the state will mark the conclusion of Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain, our poetry groups for New Jersey teachers, by participating in a day-long poetry event that includes readings, discussions and workshops led by regional Dodge Poets and special guest Marie Ponsot.
So it seems natural to conclude National Poetry Month with our third installment on the Core Principles of Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain.
The third Core Principle, written by Jim Haba, Founding Director of the Dodge Poetry Program, reads: “Both listening/reading and speaking/writing are likely to be more creative and more alive if we approach them with what, in Zen practice, is called Beginner’s Mind.”
This notion of Beginner’s Mind is taken from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a collection of informal talks by Shunryu Suzuki, who, along with D. T. Suzuki (no relation) is largely credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the United States. But you don’t need to be a student of Zen to understand Beginner’s Mind.
The essence of Beginner’s Mind is open-mindedness, a willingness to let go of old habits and assumptions, to approach every experience, even if it is one we have had many times before, as if this is the first time. It is to be open to possibilities, to re-experience the freshness we felt when we were true beginners.
It’s easy to imagine that such a frame of mind would change how we approach our everyday lives, but it can also liberate us from many of our ingrained ideas regarding how we approach the reading or writing of poetry.
Some of us turned away from poetry because we felt we had to be an expert to appreciate it. Perhaps we were taught that certain poems were “great” that did not move or speak to us. We might wonder why anyone cared about poems that left us cold, or fear that we were somehow lacking as readers who didn’t “get it.” At other times, we might be deeply moved by a poem, only to be told our interpretation was wrong. Sometimes it seemed that poems were like trick boxes, and only the teacher held the secret key that could unlock what a poem “really meant.” For some of us, the study of poetry was reduced to a guessing game: our opinion didn’t matter; we just had to figure out what our teacher thought.
But this feeling of alienation from poetry has nothing to do with our original, elemental, joyous connection to it. Infants, the truest of beginners, delight in playing with speech sounds even before they can say a single word. This “play” seems a crucial phase of language acquisition. “Baby talk” is full of rhyme, rhythm, repetition, melody, assonance and alliteration. We play with the building blocks of poetry before we have any notion of syntax. In this sense, poetry is our original form of speech.
Toddlers and young children will ask to hear the same nursery rhymes and poems again and again, even long after they’ve heard them often enough to know them by heart. Middle-schoolers will memorize the lyrics to dozens, if not hundreds of their favorite songs by the time they graduate high school. Left to our own devices, we are naturally drawn to poetry.
But if our experience studying poetry at some point made us feel inadequate as readers, it may be we are cutting ourselves off from one of humanities oldest and most basic pleasures.
Many years ago in Writing with Power, Peter Elbow observed that it is the critic in our minds, that aspect of ourselves that is constantly judging us, that gets in the way of our writing. We get blocked because we are editing and correcting what we are trying to write even before we put pen to paper. Elbow became one of many proponents of Free-writing, a writing exercise that encourages us to write quickly, without stopping to rethink, revise or correct what we’re writing. Free-writing has long offered one way to circumvent this interior critic: in free-writing, we decide to ignore this particular inner voice, no matter what it says. This has helped liberate many “stuck” writers, whether they were working on a play, a short story, a poem or a college essay. The beauty of this exercise is that we know we can always go back to the piece of writing later and let the critic do its work then.
Perhaps we can help ourselves to experience Beginner’s Mind in reading poetry by learning to practice something we might call Free-reading, that is, reading for the sake of reading, without any concern for, or investment in, the outcome.
We could start by acknowledging we also have an interior critic talking to us when we read. Just as when writing we can be inhibited by the fear that our writing is not good enough, so as readers our engagement with what we’re reading can be inhibited by fears that we are not good enough readers. How often do we blame ourselves for finding a work inaccessible or for not enjoying a work ranked high in this or that official canon?
Beginner’s Mind could mean simply being willing to enjoy a poem and staying with the experience of reading or hearing it, even if we do not understand it. There may be lines, images or sounds that amuse or captivate or move us, while other passages barely register. That’s fine. We can always return to the poem at a later date. Or not. We may decide not to give a particular poem any more attention. But we can’t discover any poems or new poets if we’re not willing to listen with an open mind. So let the last day of National Poetry Month not mark an ending, but the beginning of our rediscovering our Beginner’s Mind.