Poetic License

As I mentioned last week, I am now contributing poetry editor at West magazine. Among my contributions in each issue will be a regular column on poetry called Poetic License. This issue’s essay is entitled “Poetic Thinking.”

It is a Hollywood axiom that the first step to being a producer is calling yourself a producer. Producing begins with selling and you have to sell yourself, to yourself and to others. If you don’t believe you’re a producer, no one else in Hollywood is going to either.

It doesn’t quite work that way for writers, and for poets especially it could be that even if you write the stuff – doggerel and bad poetry can be found everywhere – you’ll really only be a poet not when you call yourself a poet, but when you think like one.

When I teach introductory literature or poetry classes, I begin by introducing students to two contrasting traditions of consciousness that I label the Logos and the Tao. The ancient Greek word logos, which means word, idea, story, explanation, discourse, reason, is central to the Western philosophical and Judeo-Christian traditions. In the New Testament’s original Greek, John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” In Socratic philosophy, commitment to the logos is a belief in the discursive nature of knowledge, that what we know can be put into words, is articulable, and that what is not articulable is not knowledge. What is real is subject to reason, and what can be reasoned can be expressed in words.

The Tao (Dao), meaning the way, or path, or principle, is the basis of a Chinese spiritual tradition that has broad application across many other Eastern traditions as well. It offers a contrasting sense of ultimate reality. An essential statement about the Tao is the paradoxical notion that “the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.” That is, ultimate reality, ultimate knowledge or understanding, is beyond words. Words limit reality by categorizing it, confining and reducing it. The moment you think you have identified the Tao, by naming it – that’s not the Tao. The Tao is something other, something different, something more. Still, it is a kind of understanding, reached through a form of consciousness.

In Zen practice, in the koans (paradoxes) that practitioners will puzzle over, and in the simple, often puzzling verbal responses a master may give a disciple seeking answers, words are not containers of meaning, but conveyances to it – if one can find one’s way into them. So, too, it often is with poetry, that words, rather than landmarks, are pointers, signs that say, not “You are here,” but… “this way.”


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4 thoughts on “Poetic License

  1. Fine essay, Jay. I especially like your use of the Stafford poem at the end and this: “. . . a poem is not a vault in which to hide meaning. . . but a map to the treasure instead….” (wonderful!).

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