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Art and Poetry as Meditation

by Fleda BrownDecember 26, 2011
Art and Poetry as Meditation

Our local group didn’t meet on Christmas Day, so instead of talking about our discussion, I get to free-range-think!  I’m thinking about the relationship between all art forms and meditation. There doesn’t seem to be exactly a “relationship.” They seem like the same thing to me.  Take visual art, for example. Ever since photography became widely available, visual art has turned toward attempting to mirror the way the mind filters and interprets the “exterior” world (this is oversimplification, but will work for now).   Here’s an example: Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five, 1949. It may be a bit small for you to see very well here, but what happens on canvas is interdependent with what happens in our minds as we look at it and what happens in Pollock’s mind as he makes the image.  In one sense, there’s no maker. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes said something like this in the 60s. About literature, he said that the unity of a text lies not in its origins, or in its creator, but in its destination, or its audience. The author is “born” simultaneously with the text. Every work is “eternally written here and now,” he said, with each re-reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader.

The origin of this painting, in those terms, is in the sensual experience of paint itself. We invent Pollock. Our minds invent everything, through the compounding called the skandas.  There is no object that is “made” by one self and “transmitted” to another “self.” The work is and is not a “self.” It is interdependent. Maybe if we study a painting in this way, we’re doing the same work we do on the cushion.

And poetry.  Here’s a poem I picked pretty much at random from the winter issue of The Kenyon Review I have sitting on my table.  It’s “The Last Word,” by Charles Wright. In this poem, the speaker’s thinking how lucky the swallows are, living on what they can’t see and can’t name. But we humans DO have to look at what‘s there. We have this awareness. But he/we don’t have the words for it! That world the swallow lives in is “lost” to us. Something—he calls it the Unredeemable Bird—comes awkwardly out from “the weight of the unbearable” and eats the language.  Hang on—I’ll say more after you’ve read the poem:

I love to watch the swallows at sundown,
swarming after invisible things to eat.
Were we so lucky,
A full gullet, and never having to look at what it is,
Sunshine all over our backs.

There are no words between my fingers
Populating the lost world.
Something, it now seems, has snapped them up
Into its speechlessness,
Into its thick aphasia.

It’s got to be the Unredeemable Bird, come out
From the weight of the unbearable.
It flaps like a torn raincoat,
first this side, then that side.
Words are its knot of breath,
language is what it lives on.

(Aphasia is impairment of language ability). The speaker is trying to say, to see into, what can’t be said and can’t be seen. When art is doing this, it is a meditation.  It is pointing toward  the ineffable, the unknowable.  Art and religion are both  struggling  toward what can’t be said.  There’s a suffering in that. You can hear it in this poem. The Buddha teaches that there is a cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and there is a way to get there. Does that mean the end of art? If we read some of the great Japanese poets—and a few contemporary ones— it’s clear that ending suffering doesn’t end the impulse to speak and to see and to celebrate.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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