Dick Allen is the current poet laureate of Connecticut, a position he’ll hold until 2015. Allen has studied Buddhism for over 50 years, since meeting Alan Watts one quiet autumn afternoon at Syracuse University, where Allen took the country’s first undergraduate credit course in Zen Buddhism in 1960. Allen is most drawn to “crazy Zen,” and many of his Buddhist poems are written, he says, to “Americanize Buddhism and Zen Buddhism through the use of American landscapes, American icons like Coca-Cola, and Apple computers placed alongside cloudy mountains and brooms sweeping Buddhist temple floors.”
Heavily influenced by the Cold Mountain poems of Han Shan, Allen is currently completing a 300-poem collection to be titled The Zen Master Poems, as well as a book-length epic poem, The Neykhor, based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. His poem, “After a heavy, clinging snow,” appears in the current issue of Tricycle.
What about writing poetry, or being a poet, draws you to it? I’ve never really thought of myself as a poet per se, just as someone who writes poetry or someone through whom poetry is transmitted. But poetry itself? Its sounds draw me, its compressions, abilities to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I’m drawn to poetry’s ambiguity, by how poetry can touch many things at once. I’m fascinated by combinations of complexities and simplicities, computer shadows and pen strokes.
Or, to give a mundane explanation, writing poetry for the poet can be the same as the runner’s high is for the long-distance runner. When you’re writing poetry, you can begin to float as you enter a trance. Something else sobs. Or it whistles “They call the wind Maria” through you. You’re drinking Coca Cola at the same time you’re touching wildflowers and talking with river stones.
Both Buddhist practice and the reading and writing of poetry can function as powerful tools for honing the powers of observation. Buddhism, however, possesses an unmistakable ethical element. In your view, is ethics within the purview of poetry, or does it lie outside of its domain? Definitely, ethics is part and parcel of the best poetry. Even a poem that simply but mindfully describes a train whistle or a bowl of Cheerios makes an ethical statement: Pay Attention! Different kinds of poetry—lyric, narrative, satirical, meditative—incorporate ethics in different ways.
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