A year ago, I was on a retreat led by Joseph Goldstein, and I admitted to him that I’d been feeling lonely. “I’ve got the antidote to that!” he said, as delighted as I’ve ever seen him.
“You do?” I asked.
“Yes. Write poetry! It comes out of the same space.”
The same space: What could that mean? And how did Joseph come to write poetry? We ended the conversation with his promising to send me some poems and encouraging me to send him mine. So here we are now, he with pages of his poetry and I with a pile of questions.
“Joseph,” I start, “I was so excited to have you prescribe an antidote to loneliness—and to discover you were writing poetry—that I didn’t ask what you meant. What is that space?”
Joseph Goldstein (JG): There’s a line that’s relevant
here . . . [he rifles through his pages]. It’s the title of my poem “Love of My Lonely Hours.” That’s the feeling.
winter brought joy.
love of my lonely hours
fills the winter grey silence
like Christmas candles,
illuminate the night.
Amy Gross (AG): So the poetry comes out of loneliness?
JG: We need to parse what loneliness means, because for me loneliness has more to do with the feeling of aloneness than feeling diminished or abandoned or contracted . . .
AG: . . . which is what most people would associate with the word lonely?
JG: Yes, but when loneliness transfigures into aloneness, there’s a poignancy to that space and an emptiness and a stillness and a gentleness—it’s all those qualities that give rise to poetry.
AG: After that retreat, when I would feel a stab of loneliness, I’d remember what you said, get interested in the feeling, and almost immediately feel that I was not alone. There was a sense of communion in that space, of listening, waiting and listening. I was in some kind of dialogue. I wasn’t alone.
JG: So this ties into my one- or two-paragraph book [he grins] called “The Myth of Intimacy.” The myth of intimacy is that you need two people to have intimacy. But “intimate” is another word for this space—it’s so intimate the way it’s experienced; it doesn’t need another person.
AG: You’re reminding me of a line from Rumi: “There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” What are we listening to?
JG: To quote another poet, Pessoa,
Live, you say, in the present;
Live only in the present.
But I don’t want the present. I want reality.
So in a way it’s listening to—I was going to say messages, but it’s not exactly a message. It’s just opening to some underlying reality that may be obscured in the busyness of our lives. When we’re in this quiet space, we are very intimate with what’s going on. So, for example, one of the poems goes like this:
in the open sky
of my mind
That came when I was doing walking meditation outside. The normal understanding of reality is that the birds are up there in the sky, and I’m here and I’m listening to the bird. But in that moment there was no separation between up there and in here. I think one other quality of the poetic mind space is that it’s very sensitized. It’s very delicate and sensitive to things that are normally covered over. It can be a moment of seeing something new or having a new perception. In aloneness, it has the space to flower. And it’s appreciating the stillness and quiet in which the words can sparkle.
AG: Which reminds me of your poem about how you started writing poetry:
in my seventy-fifth year—
a channel opened
to oceans of space,
where words sparkle
in their sparse delight
calling, calling, calling.
You’re being called. And you notice being called. In your teaching, you’ve often talked about Noticings Per Minute—“NPMs”— how, with practice, the number of thoughts, sensations, emotions noticed goes up. The more we practice, the more mind space is available to be aware, to notice. “The Muse” is saying that when you’re alone, there’s an openness, an undistractedness, so when phenomena arise, you’ve got the mind space not only to notice them but also to let them flower—flower into poetry?
JG: What I love about the practice of poetry is crafting language. That itself—there’s great satisfaction in it. There was a big turning point when I first started writing. I showed some of the work to a really accomplished poet friend of mine, and she said something that changed my whole attitude toward writing. She said it was all about revision. I had been in this very enthusiastic, rather sophomoric state where I thought every word that came out of my mind or my pen was perfect from the start, which is ridiculous.
AG: That brings me to something I read in preparing for this conversation with you. In an anthology called Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism and Contemporary American Poetry, the Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer mentions Allen Ginsberg’s famous writing instruction: “First thought, best thought.” Philip Whalen questions that, saying “‘First thought, best thought’ is different from ‘first word, best word.’” Leading Fischer to confide to the reader: “Allen does a lot of rewriting.”
JG: Exactly. I can see “first thought” as that spark of insight you might get about something. For example, I was just sitting with morning coffee, quiet, in that space of enjoying the solitude, and my mind and body went into noticing and feeling how everything was continually disappearing. That was the first thought for a poem, noticing that everything is swirling down the drain of time. But then there was a long process of building out from it and a huge amount of revision. So the final thing—final for now—was completely different from the first draft.
AG: When a moment of noticing arises, do you start playing with it in your mind, or do you pick up a writing instrument and go to a pad?
JG: I’ll start off often with an insight, an abstract insight. Like with “The Drain of Time,” the first thing I wrote was the line that you’ve heard many, many times: “The thought of your mother is not your mother; it’s just a thought”—and then I noticed that that thought too had gone down the drain. So I was trying to build around that. But then I realized—and this is part of my own learning—it’s a little too philosophical or abstract. For a better poem, I needed to bring it down into the stuff of the world.
AG: “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams said.
JG: “Show, don’t tell,” said one of the poets giving me feedback. So that’s part of my learning. Because my mind is so philosophically oriented, my first scribblings often start with the more abstract, but then I cut that away. I really love that part of the process. I think of Michelangelo, who said that he cut away through stone to reveal the figure that was there. With writing, it’s almost like sculpting space through words. Deletion is the best because then the poem gets pure and sparse.
AG: That taste for the pure and sparse seems to be a mark of contemporary poetry. In an essay in Beneath the Moon, Allen Ginsberg wrote “For most of the Moderns [Pound, William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac] . . . the motive for poetry has been purification of mind and speech. . . . Real poetry practitioners are practitioners of mind awareness or practitioners of reality, expressing their fascination with a phenomenal universe and trying to penetrate to the heart of it.” Poetry writing certainly sounds like a meditation practice: You go into the silence. Rilke says “you walk into yourself. . . .”
JG: Or walk into nonself or walk into emptiness.
AG: Rilke writes that solitude was the necessary condition for his poetry, and then, interestingly, he says this: “What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love.” That’s how I’ve come to understand meditation—as meeting every little thing that arises with love. Here’s Rilke again: “There is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, and difficult to bear. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, a vast inner solitude to walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours is what you must be able to attain.”
JG: I think people who are somewhat experienced in meditation have already gone through what is “vast, heavy, and difficult to bear.” For me, not only is it not difficult or hard to bear, it is a joy. I love that space. And that also could be a link between the meditative process and the creative process of writing.
AG: I happened to open Maxine Hong Kingston’s book To Be the Poet. She had decided she had written her last long book—now she was going to become a poet. She was going to be in the moment. She asked two of her poet friends how to get the poems coming, one of the friends being Tess Gallagher. Both said you have to clear a day. No distractions. It sounds like retreat.
JG: Clearing space is a beautiful image, but I’ll say that having done many retreats and so cleared a lot of days already, I think it need not be a whole day—clearing the morning would work, and sometimes it’s simply the quiet space of a few moments. The mind needs to be quiet, and depending on how much training one has had in quieting the mind, it takes less or more time to do it.
AG: For you, Joseph, in this space, what often arises is contemplation of aging.
JG: Which was not planned. That itself was interesting. I didn’t have it in my mind with a thought like “Oh, I want to write about the aging process.” These moments are just what came up.
AG: You’re asking a lot of questions. Here’s “Lazy Day at 76”:
and a first glimpse
into the unknown day,
waiting for that pulse of life
to push through the pale joy
Going for a walk
is almost too much
on this day of questionable ease:
Is it simply resting up
to save the world
or the faint glimmer of decline?
I’ll decide tomorrow
if I awaken in the morning light.
I remember your saying, decades ago, that meditation is practice for dying. I think about that a lot, more and more every year. One thing you’re doing in these poems is embodying ways to face the signposts with a level head, opening to the uncertainties around death.
JG: Yes, I just recently came up with “The Harbingers” as a title for the first group of poems because they were all harbingers of aging, dying, death. To me, practice for dying is implicit in all the questions about aging. There may be an unacknowledged acknowledgment of the fact that it’s coming, but it’s in there even if it’s not named explicitly.
AG: I teach mindfulness to a group of elders, and, frankly, I’ve been afraid to share your idea that meditation is practice for dying. I dodge it by saying it’s practice for aging.
JG: Right, but in your class, it would be interesting to test the waters, and drop the D-word a few times, because my impression is that people, as they get older, are very aware of death and that it’s coming. It may be a huge relief for them to talk about it. It’s like something Sharon [Salzberg] said early on. When she first came to Buddhism, she was so relieved to hear the first noble truth—that suffering was acknowledged. It’s kind of the same thing with death. I think people may be relieved to have that opened up. Especially as they get older, in one way or another people know that they’re going to die, whether they really let it in or not. How can you be a certain age and not think about it?
AG: I’m going to try it.
JG: I’ll be interested to hear how it goes, and maybe you’ll say “Boy, Joseph, that was a stupid idea.” Since we don’t know how people will respond, you put it out and have to be very sensitive to the response. Some people won’t go there, and that’s fine. But other people may want to.
AG: Another remark about writing struck me as relevant to what you’re doing. Here’s the Native American poet Joy Harjo: “Poetry is going to the places that have no words and finding the words.” And that too can describe what happens on retreat, in meditation. You can be overtaken by a feeling and respond with curiosity: What is it? Where’d it come from? And then you find the words to understand what arose.
JG: Well, I think that one of the experiences people have on retreats is a very intimate experience with the breath, with the body, with emotions, because there’s no separation. That’s kind of the essence of intimacy: nonseparation. It’s just oneself getting out of the way. The Chinese poet Li Po ended a poem with these words: “We live together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.” So that’s kind of meditative. When we take ourselves out of the picture, then all that’s left is everything. To me, that is the definition of intimacy.
AG: This ties right into Norman Fischer on what meditation can do. “The grip on self can very naturally loosen, the grip on meaning loosens, and there is the possibility of entering wholeheartedly into a dark or unknown territory.”
JG: Or into a light and unknown territory.
AG: Yes! Once again, you’re reframing the emotional tone from frightening to delightful. In fact, Fischer goes on: “An interesting footnote is that it is not a struggle. It is the release from struggle.” After that retreat with you, I was sitting at my table facing the water and sky. The table is white, it’s shiny and reflective—and a bird in the sky streaked across it. It felt like it streaked through me too. There was a recognition of nonseparation, and the possibility of doing something with that sensation—it was a poetic moment. There wasn’t the agony of writing or the anguished-writer self. It was a gift.
JG: Yes, that’s exactly my experience. Something happens, or there’s a perception or an insight, and it sparks that interest in expressing it. So where’s your poetry?
AG: I have nothing to show—I make notes, I pull away from them. But our conversation gave me the courage to be curious: When a friend who is a poet and meditation teacher offered an evening of teaching poetry, I actually dared go to it. And then I signed up for a Ruth Ozeki writing workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Before our conversation, I would have been too writing-phobic to participate. At the end of the retreat, Ruth asked us to say what our plan for writing was. I said “I am never going to write something for publication, and I’m going to really enjoy writing.” She looked a little startled.
JG: That makes perfect sense.
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