A Review of Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Spaces of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom
Gilbert, Richard. Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Spaces of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom. Japan. Keibunsha Co. LTD., 2018. 294 pages, hard cover. ISBN 978-4-86330-189-4.
There is mystery in poetry, an ineffable quality that distinguishes the good from the bad, and the average from the memorable. Wherein does this quality lie, and how can it be mined from the imaginative landscape? Are there aspects of creativity that can be better understood and, through understanding, generate deeper and more authentic poems?
In Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Spaces of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom, Richard Gilbert addresses mind as a creative space. Specifically looking to understand poetry within a concept of consciousness, Gilbert draws on studies from a wide variety of academic disciplines including literature, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. On the back of these studies, Gilbert explores the poetic mind and its relationship to haiku in three manners. First, Gilbert examines consciousness. His analysis leads him to the concept of thoughtspace — the subjective and vast imaginative space we inhabit. Secondly, Gilbert discusses freedom from social constraints as a requirement for creativity. Here, he presents interviews with a variety of poets on their experiences with anarchic sanctuaries (places of safety in which new language and thoughts outside of the norm can be shared). Finally, Gilbert returns to thoughtspace and its relationship to haiku — showcasing a plethora of poems categorized within its seven properties and 36 qualities. Poetry of Consciousness, beautifully illustrated by Sabine Miller, is a thoughtful, detailed articulation of thoughtspace, sanctuary, and haiku.
After a preliminary discussion of mind, Gilbert introduces his concept of thoughtspace. Thoughtspace is a subjective space which provides a potentially infinite number of imaginative possibilities. Within it, we “create not only the stories of who we are and how worlds of imagination become; in a deeper orientation — more invisibly, covertly, self-secretly — we create novel spaces of mind.” (42) Mind, as explained in archetypal psychology, is essentially metaphoric. Its metaphoric nature works in expanding the breadth and depth of consciousness. To illustrate the point, Gilbert provides the following: “I am a river. What is its source?” (40) In this example, both “river” and “source” are metaphors. Yet “source” is dependent on “river”. This dependence, this stacking of one metaphor upon the next, “impels a further journey within the imaginative landscape.” (40) Furthermore, thoughtspace is inhabited by imagery, mentalese (the meta-language that we think in that precedes natural language), and, in certain instances, distinct poetic language from the outside. The uniqueness of this psychic material within the metaphoric mind may or may not provide meaning. However, it is always there and always visible within consciousness.
To clarify the concept of thoughtspace Gilbert provides an analogy using Ovid’s creation myth from Metamorphoses. From Ovid:
Before the seas and lands began to be,
before the sky had mantled everything,
then all of nature’s face was featureless —
what men called chaos: undigested mass
of crude, confused, and scrumbled elements,
a heap of seeds that clashed, of things mismatched. (48)
Prior to a god bringing order to the elements of the universe, nature was a chaotic, “featureless” mess. Nothing was in a discernible, cohesive order; everything was “crude, confused, and scrumbled.” While what existed as base materials in chaos was no different from that which would ultimately be given structure, it was not recognizable nor useable. Only after a god unravelled “these things from their blind heap, assigning each its place” (49) did the universe show its structured form.
Likewise, thoughtspace, and the imagery and mentalese there-in, are analogous to Ovid’s chaotic universe before a god’s intervention. Just as the universe required a god to bring order, so does thoughtspace require that “the poet orders psychic material, in forms of insight and revelation” (p 50). Gilbert, quoting Gary Snyder, argues that the poet’s task is “a matter of discovering the grain of things” (50), interpreting the grain into language, and structuring authentic poetry from the discordant imagery and mentalese of thoughtspace.
The exploration of thoughtspace and the ability to successfully and authentically articulate its ‘grain of things’ leads to poems that change minds and expand understanding. Inherent within good poetry is a quality Gilbert labels philopoetic volition. A combination of philosophy and poetry, philopoetics is the personally philosophic content of the poem. While philosophical in nature, it is not limited to a rational, logical order. Instead, even if the poem’s meaning cannot be explicitly stated, its philopoetic volition exists “in the inseparable weave between image, rhythm and story” (71). Further, it is inherently a part of the poet’s personal voice. While derivative of the thoughtspace of the individual author, philopoetic volition is also social in nature. The Japanese poet Kaneko Tohta, whose viewpoint Gilbert discusses, sees it as developing a personal philosophy or shisō, which is fundamental to a poet acquiring a world view. This view, only to be achieved through freedom of thought, can lead the poet into society, and enable him/ her to relevantly provide social critiques.
However, freedom of thought, the ability to independently explore thoughtspace, is not enough to ensure a creative process which results in authentic poetry. More and more, we are living in an age of surveillance. With security cameras increasing in number and an ability to widely share pictures or videos with a tap on our phones, Gilbert compares our modern world to a panopticon: a circular prison in which the prisoners could always be observed. Studies have shown that surveillance impedes our ability to freely think. In fact, even when one is “in the presence of possible surveillance, we subconsciously adapt our behaviour, especially our thoughts: self-censoring based on a subliminal knowing that we might be being watched.” (94) To be free in our creativity requires a freedom from the judgement of others. Without a place to go in which we are safe to explore and share novel thoughts, the pressure of conformity will hinder our ability to create. Even so, Gilbert states that “New language is animate, alive, risking edges and crossing borderlines. There are no ‘safe’ poems or ‘pretty’ haiku. Authenticity requires more of us.” (111) But how, in a world of surveillance, can poets proceed towards attaining such authenticity in their work?
In addressing this question, Gilbert changes tactics. He moves from the theoretical perspective of his discussions on consciousness, mind, and thoughtspace, to an experiential perspective in which he seeks feedback from various poets who have looked for, and found, places in which they could safely break free of conventions. Throughout history, humans have sought physical spaces as places of sanctuary — places in which we know we are safe to explore, be honest, and be vulnerable. Psychologically, such spaces can be thought of, using Jung’s term, as temenos. Temenos is a “protected space of privacy wherein dimensions of self-knowing are given permission to be.” (109) To be able to share new language and be true to ourselves, we need that safe space in which a transition from private to public is possible. As much as we seek authenticity privately through the “intelligence of the heart . . . we also desire authentic community.” (135) Gilbert presents the idea of anarchic sanctuaries as places in which poets can reside freely and outside the normative expectations of society. The poets Gilbert interviewed provide several examples of anarchic sanctuaries, both from their own personal experiences and from instances in history. The sanctuaries they listed include secret societies, masks, burlesque, masquerade, cosplay, literary groups based on the Paris of the 1920s, non-human collaborators, virtual gaming, and raves. For illustrative purposes, two anarchic sanctuaries, online forums and the Argentine Tango, will be examined.
Mr. M Haller, in his interview by Gilbert, discusses the effectiveness of online forums as anarchic sanctuaries. Online, one enjoys the benefits of anonymity. Posing behind an avatar, these virtual spaces enable individuals to overcome their inhibitions. Despite the physical distance between members of the forum, or perhaps because of it, there was “a loosening of inhibitions that lead to a kind of shared intimacy that created very strong personal connections.” (115) Haller speaks of good friends he has had for years but only knows online. He, in fact, has reservations about meeting them, afraid that “it might even ruin some of the magic to meet in person.” (116) Typically, people are drawn to groups within social media that host individuals with shared interests. (Haller enjoys forums with other writers.) The anarchic sanctuary provided by the internet allows like-minded individuals to explore their similar interests in far greater depth and detail than would discussions in real life with people who do not have the same passions. These common interests encourage the transition of the new ideas, language, or insight mined in thoughtspace from the private to the public domain.
At the other end of the sanctuary spectrum is the Argentine Tango. The poet Mr. Pablo H discusses how his experience with the social dance provided him a form of anarchic sanctuary. He describes the improvisational nature of the Tango and the non-verbal communication between the partners. Yet even more impressive is the fact that this communication sometimes occurs between people who have never met. At a milonga (tango event) you can enter the room and “ask someone to dance without a word, just eye contact and a nod called el cabeco and then dance with a complete stranger . . . and not even know the person’s name or anything about them.” (126) Despite the physical proximity between the dancers, the heat, the sweat, and the pulse of the music, the activity is still almost completely anonymous.
Although there are obvious differences between an online forum and the Argentine Tango (virtual vs. physical, written vs. non-verbal, distant vs. close) there are also remarkable similarities between them. In both scenarios the poets articulated strong senses of privacy, anonymity, and the freedom that’s inherent in engaging a stranger. Mr. Pablo H put it best in saying “Tango is escapist, writing is escapist, and in general the anarchic sanctuary is an escape from the limits of the banal and the socially acceptable.” (127) Both of these anarchic sanctuaries fulfill Gilbert’s requirement for the freedom from convention that may lead to authentic creativity.
Having outlined the concepts of thoughtspace and anarchic sanctuaries, Gilbert returns to thoughtspace and examines its relationship to haiku. In the final section of the book, Gilbert examines 216 haiku through the lens of the 36 qualities found in the seven properties of thoughtspace. His selection emphasizes poems that maintain the authenticity inherent in the freedom of thought prior to the restrictions imposed by cultural norms. Gilbert contends that “Excellent haiku enhance the mysterious space between living and dreaming.” (142) The selected poems, in synch with his thinking on haiku found in The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Gilbert, 2013), include varying degrees of disjunction and reader resistance. These poems are their own experience, defy or a least limit explanation, and seek to deliver authentic expression. Here, haiku reflecting two of the qualities of thoughtspace, novel worlds and alternativity, will be considered.
As one of the 36 qualities of thoughtspace, Gilbert describes novel worlds as places that “challenge rules of physical reality” (149) and “reveal how imaginative modes that break with conventional thought — in language, image or story — not only surprise, but may inspire revolutions in how a ‘world’ is defined, or comes into existence.” (149) Through philopoetics that utilize new language and thoughts, novel worlds challenge conventions and seek to construct the impossible. The following haiku by Peter Yovu is an example of this quality:
a blue coffin one nail escapes the solar system
This haiku plays “with violent semantic and epistemic shifts, which throw us out of habitual consciousness.” (150) Within the context of the solar system, the “blue coffin” can be read as a dead Earth. It is a transformational look at a world that perhaps reflects the future of our planet. The uniqueness of Yovu’s haiku continues in the activity of the nail. A nail is an object whose purpose is to bind or hold things together. That such an object is what “escapes” is ironic and enhances the novel aspect of the world Yovu has created.
Another example of this quality comes in a haiku by Chen-ou Liu:
im-mi-grant . . .
the way English tastes
on my tongue
Liu’s poem demonstrates a novel world that results from the process of immigration. His haiku is “concrete in style, eloquently posing a synæsthetic, cultural otherness (presenting disfluency literally) in his first line utterance.” (150) The manner in which “immigrant” is broken between syllables demonstrates the challenges immigrants face, including learning languages, in their new world.
The second quality of thoughtspace to be examined is alternativity. Alternativity may include any of the following:
1) cognitive estrangement
4) time-space subversion
5) speculative mythopoesis. (185)
The poems Gilbert selects here as examples all utilize cognitive estrangement. Cognitive estrangement refers to the reader’s awareness that what is contained within the poem does not reflect the world as it is commonly known. Instead it presents “a cosmos whose alternative phenomena, through the displacement of empirical and materialist views, impels a reconsideration of habitual, scientifically-based perspectives.” (185) Consider the following haiku by Fay Aoyagi:
my shadow confesses
That it is the shadow, not the narrator herself, which “confesses a crime”, raises many questions. What sort of crime could a shadow commit? Why is it deciding to confess? How does the shadow’s guilt implicate the narrator? Gilbert notes that “the alternate-physics of a shadow confessing a crime offers an abundance of cognitive estrangement.” (186) While the reader recognizes that the landscape the poem places them in is not, in a traditional sense, real, they accept the haiku as it is presented and plunge into the implications of its imaginative space.
Similarly, the following one-line haiku by Jim Kacian uses alternativity:
pain fading the days back to wilderness
The impact of this poem depends upon where the reader reads the break. A reading of “pain / fading the days back to wilderness” implies that “pain (impossibly) ‘fades days’ ‘back to wilderness’ — evocative of the wilds of mind, and loss of memory.” (186) On the other hand, a reading of “pain fading / the days back to wilderness” suggests something more benign. Experiencing less pain, perhaps the narrator is able to return to the wilderness and activities outside.In either case, Kacian’s haiku utilizes cognitive estrangement in the manner in which pain takes an active role in altering the narrator’s experience.
Richard Gilbert’s Poetry as Consciousness is a thought-provoking, rewarding book that probes the mind as a creative space. Highlighting the imaginative landscape of thoughtspace, the freedom from social conventions that anarchic sanctuaries provide, and thoughtspace again but in its relationship to haiku, Gilbert has opened a path towards understanding creativity, and, potentially, the ability to generate more authentic poems. Poetry as Consciousness is required reading for every serious poet or student of haiku.
— Dave Read