Jack Remick and Robert J Ray

Read each line below aloud. Take your time.

Freedom without discipline is chaos
Energy is language working through you
Patience is killing your ego
Patience and energy equal discipline
Energy and discipline equal power
Power and strength equal grace
Grace is the goal of our writing.

Copy those lines. Use your hand, your fingers, your wrist, your brain.
Circle the words that repeat. Grab the words. Pull them close.
Slow down. Show some patience. Look at your finger.

Zen Poetics Twists your Finger

This is the Zen of a poem – learn how to wait.
Patience is a finger puzzle – The harder you try to get out of it, the tighter it gets.
Patience is simple. It is the itch under the skin before you know you want to scratch.
The goal of a poem is to find a primitive language that lets the poet transform emotion into image.
A poem has no language. The poet uses English or Chinese approximates to get to the emotion.
Image is pre-linguistic. Before the image there is emotion.
The emotion comes, then we find language to cover it.
We cover the emotion with image.
Write the emotion. Emotion evokes image. Image is covered with language, but language is not the ideal expression for the image. The ideal language of a poem is a scream, a grunt, a howl.
The ideal expression of the image is the single, pure stroke. The single perfect word that evokes the image and the emotion at the same time, in the same breath.

The poet of Beowulf knew that story grows out of images and action. He learned how to compress the line and the image and the action. The poet of Beowulf created a poem that has lasted a thousand years. In Beowulf, the poet uses kennings. A kenning is a metaphor riding a metaphor. For example:

A battle kenning might be “din of spears” or “arrow storm”.
A kenning for an arrow might be “battle-adder”.
A kenning for the sea might be “whale-road”.

Zen Poetics Connects the Writer to Anglo Saxon and Power

Here is Syd Allan on Beowulf and kennings:

To understand the role of the kenning, one must realise that the compound metaphor is not merely a word substitution. Instead, the kenning frequently represents more than the actual subject of the metaphor itself by implying the potential of the idea or object it describes. In short, the whole of the kenning is greater than the sum of its parts. The resulting construction therefore provides an intimate, contextual detail and a significantly emotional connotation that a less formal metaphor could not accomplish.

Zen Poetics: Read Ars Poetica, by Archibald MacLeish

Ars Poetica
Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown–

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind–

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

A poem is an approximation.
A poem is feeling.


To read a poem, you let it be—You let it be sound and music and image and feeling because the poem is an approximation of an emotional reality and language is its last resort.

To read a poem, you listen, you let it be in you, you want to hear the inner music.

And this— refuse to read poems that don’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

A Golden Rule: Force the poet to create with power.

Zen Poetics: How to read a poem

To read a poem, you must first HEAR it.
Let the words roll out and over you.
To read a poem, do this—tape yourself reading it then close your eyes and listen.
Poems want to enter you as voice.
Poems want to enter you as emotion.
The voice enters you and you hear action and you see images.

Story to the fiction writer is the big thing. Story moves in time.
Image, action and compression are the big things to the poet.
Compression means the poet squeezes out all the Unnecessary leaving only the Essential.

Time is essential to story. Not essential to poem.
The Unnecessary is any word or cluster of words in a line that impedes the image’s completion.
Image is analogy.
Analogy is metaphor:

Her hair hung like copper wire
Coiled on ashen shoulders.

Zen  Poetics Unearths Illusion  or Why Fiction writers need poetry
Fiction writers get lost in language because language is deceptive.
Clearing out the Unnecessary lets the writer show the story as it happens instead of telling the story in garbled mucked up prose loaded with embedded clauses and wonders and imagineds.
The fiction writer learns to practice Zen Poetics because s/he lives in a world of Screens and the screens are filled with images. The screen can be the reader’s mind – the visual cortex where words create direct emotional links to the limbic brain, or the screen can be a big screen in a theater or it can be the small screen of TV or a computer display.
The fiction writer reads poems to learn how to move the story down the page.
Down the page is a concept. Look at the following paragraph that stretches across the page, margin to margin, the style of story:

The trees lining the Kings River hung limp in the heat. The sun, still hot and bright even though it was after six, beat through air stagnant the way it gets in August. The muggy air damped the river’s flow to a dull, slow hiss.  Everything in Sanger showed the signs of a miserable summer. Plums came in early, peaches ripened on the heels of the early plums, and the grapes, sure to be three weeks ahead, were already gray with must.  The heat, cranked up in the daytime, turned nights into torture chambers. Sleep was something you talked about but you didn’t know who to talk to without setting off fireworks and I firmly believed that I should have begun to think about taking first communion.

This is a fiction writer building an emotion for story. What happens when the writer compresses that last line – I firmly believed that I should have begun to think about taking first communion – and compression squeezes the words and emotion squirts out in action and image:

I took first communion on the steps
of the Jazz Cellar too young to buy
my own booze, too pure to steal it.
I heard Rexroth rip the nation naked
over the beat of conga drums
and horns crystal in the night.
Here the image is clear—The Narrator sits on the steps of the Jazz Cellar.
Here action is clear—The Narrator heard the poet Rexroth rip.
The metaphor is music as First Communion.
What can the fiction writer learn from this exercise?

Three things:
1)       Compress the line to let image and action shine through.
2)       Build images with concrete nouns
3)       Build action with simple, strong verbs.

Zen Poetics: Prose is good, but the poem dances

A good poem has patterns in it.
A good poem has images.
A good poem has this:
In each line there is a strong image: horns crystal in the night
In each line there is a strong action: the beat of conga drums

Zen Poetics: Read The Poem Aloud and Do Not Analyze

Breathless ©1999

by Jack Remick

I took first communion on the steps
of the Jazz Cellar too young to buy
my own booze, too pure to steal it.
I heard Rexroth rip the nation naked
over the beat of conga drums
and horns crystal in the night.

At sixteen I hated everything
that moved or had a price tag on it.
I wanted to grow under the sky
in the city of Saint Francis
away from the heat in Fresno
where the fruit that fed America
poisoned my green age.
Seventeen and dreaming,
Bill Hansen and I flew up 99
in a Ford – holy barbarians
who craved a satori that never came.
We carved our way out of the valley to the bay
where the rhythms of poetry
were a junkie’s waking visions
his veins choked with banned chemicals
and spaced out garbage men
thrashing through cannabis hallucinations
of cruel women in black stockings
and turtlenecks
women who never said yes
women who smoked and always said maybe

I ate Chinese noodles on Columbus Street
HOWL in my left hand
I lied about  my age in the Blackhawk
where saxes wailed odes to weird worlds
not even Herb Caen knew existed.

It was lovely then, being 17 in a world
of horns and poems and men who might have
been my father
but who were just old enough
to shave themselves.

We aped   Dean and Sal.
We imagined lives in bummed out hotels
in the Mission District
where $2 bought you a room
or a bottle of very bad wine
and $25 got you fifteen minutes
on a dark-eyed woman
with circles under her eyes
and an anchor tattoo on her ankle

but we always went back
to Fresno
on Sunday night.

One day I walked into City Lights bookstore
I was 18 I said — Mr. Ferlinghetti
here I am, tell me the secrets
I want to be a poet
but I do not know how
He sat on an orange crate
he said read the sun  feed your mind
and keep the beat….I didn’t…

The holy barbarians
became anthropologists and chemists
cooks and bus drivers.
I learned about value

it comes in the economy size
it’s kids with snotty noses
and wet diapers screaming housework
poetry in your ear
the acid age came and Viet  Nam ripped scars
ten years deep
and I was not a poet.
In the murky vision of aspirin bottles
and department store bills
I grew older and pseudo-wise —
I created canticles to the monsters of my ego and id
and fell down sartrean holes that read NO EXIT.

At 25 the Jazz  Cellar
beat in my grad school ears
at 50 I dreamed of Rexroth shouting
you killed him you killed him you killed him
you son of a bitch
in your god damned Brooks Brothers suit.

The enemy was everywhere —
he was greed feasting on the vision bone
he fed poets to automobiles and view apartments
I became the captain of circles
the light that flashed at the end of my pen
did not pray to the muse in the well of my mind
my roots had shriveled in the Fresno sun
Salvation was not at hand

and then one day in December
I heard Irene   chant  her city poems
I trembled   god reached into my chest
with a transfusion of soul

She was the black-eyed demon I had heard
in a hundred coffee houses
her lips scorching a microphone with mating music
I knew her in black tights
twitching down Grant Street —
she was the incarnation, the sweet
sweaty dream of beatitude that shattered
itself in drugs and dead men hurled
from rooftops into the yellow pages
where life was reduced to an ad for personal services.

the waters opened and she rose up
a tidal wave surfing me back to the beat
back to the hungry boy
who ached for the satori of orange crates
she sang music that blew my network
the way a power spike blasts your pc
her art shattered my eyeballs
she ripped my brain out of my skull
jammed me back into a language landscape
of burned out poets high on couplet dreams

I cannot go back to Fresno
the poison in the fruit has not changed to honey…
north beach is a sacred grove where my heroes died
and were resurrected as name plaques on alleyways
beside city lights where Lawrence Ferlinghetti
told me to keep the beat
through the wars of your life
do not kill your mind
do not let Wall Street eat your muse —
bring back gossamer memories
serve them up to hungry boys starved for nirvana
in the computer age

(you can find an audio of the poem on Jack’s dublit  page)

The Beowulf poet differs from other poets of the time only in the relatively large number of compounds he uses and the imaginative way in which he uses them. One might well expect so conventional a style to lack freshness and vitality, but for some reason it does not. The very compression of the kennings and of phrases like them succeeds in charging the verse with a consistently high level of metaphorical energy. Perhaps one might even say that the mosaic of the larger poem is built up out of the many tiny “poems” in the form of these expressions, giving the surface a texture of interesting depth. Syd Allan, On-line text, Kennings in Beowulf.

Zen Poetics trains the fiction writer’s eye

Ernie is a character, a made-up person.
In this story, Ernie goes fishing.
He’s after sunperch.

The writer writes a line: “Ernie caught and ate the sunperch.”
Zen Poetics wants one image or one action per syntactic unit.
There are two strong verbs – caught and ate – but no image.
The verbs are “coordinated” – linked by AND. Coordination weakens the verb.
Verb-compression, a yearning for speed, chokes images.

Zen Poetics helps the writer find ritual

1. Ernie hooked the sunperch.
2. Ernie killed the perch
3. Ernie gutted the perch
4. Ernie fed the guts to his cat.
5. Ernie cut off the perch’s head.
6. Ernie rolled the perch in cornmeal and salt.
7. Ernie heated the skillet on the range.
8. Ernie fried the perch in a hot skillet.
9. Ernie ate the perch.
10. Ernie’s teeth crunched the perch bones.

Zen Poetics– Ritual leads to story.

Suppose for a moment that Ernie stows the fish in his creel. That’s an action.
The creel sits on the river bank. That’s an image.
An intruder comes along, spies the creel, steals the fish. That’s story.
Story is a competition for a resource base.
The intruder steals the fish from Ernie. Ernie wants it back. The fish is the resource base. To get the fish back, Ernie takes action.
If the intruder is a man named Billy Ed, then the story is male-male competition. War, adventure, coming of age.
If the intruder is a female named Francesca, then the story is male-female bonding. Love, romance, bringing up baby.

Zen Poetics– Closeup
Ernie reeled in the line. Hooked on the line, a sunperch, yellow streaks, torn dorsal fin. Blood oozed from around the hook in the perch’s lip. Ernie tore out the hook. The perch glistened in the afternoon light, flipped once in the bottom of the boat. Gasped, its mouth gaping.

Zen Poetics– The Action Chain

  • Zen Poetics demands that the fiction writer create images and action.
  • Zen poetics demands  that the images be compressed and the metaphors exact.
  • Zen Poetics demands that the action be in a clean chain, each action moving the story forward.

Ernie snagged the perch, hauled the fish into the boat. The fish flipped from Ernie’s hand into the bottom of the boat. Grasping at it, Ernie whacked the fish’s head on the gunwale. The perch gasped. Mouth open like a breathless man. Ernie tore the hook out of the perch’s mouth. Blood boiled from the gash in the fish’s cheek. Thin bubbles, thin red stream.

Analyze the language.

  • The verbs are strong: snagged, hauled, flipped, whacked, gasped, tore, boiled.
  • The nouns are concrete: perch, fish, hand, bottom, boat, head, gunwale, mouth, hook, blood, gash, cheek, bubbles, stream.
  • The adjectives are descriptive (not judgmental) – breathless, thin, red — and few in number.
  • The simile – “mouth open like a breathless man” – links the death of the fish to the inevitable death of the fisher-man, Ernie.
  • The simile, a compressed form, links the writing to Anglo-Saxon, where we started as writers.

Zen Poetics takes you back to the hard images and action chains that live in the ancient language.
The fiction writer who studies and practices Zen Poetics tightens up the language, takes it back from the imposed Latinisms that fouled up the tongue. Read Syd Allan again to see what we lost:

The very compression of the kennings and of phrases like them succeeds in charging the verse with a consistently high level of metaphorical energy. Perhaps one might even say that the mosaic of the larger poem is built up out of the many tiny “poems” in the form of these expressions, giving the surface a texture of interesting depth. Syd Allan, On-line text, Kennings in Beowulf.

Zen Poetics:
You read poems to shorten your line
To mix image and action
To find your writing rhythm