In the words of a Tibetan Geshe...

Charles Cameron

In the words of a Tibetan Geshe (roughly Ph.D.) in literature:

poetry is the science of using words in such a way that a state of consciousness present in one is summoned in another.
Let us take a closer look at this theory.

i: poetry is the science...

Poetry is described as a science. That is to say, it is an exacting methodology. I have tried to convey this exacting quality of the poem in a poem of my own:

for Helen

One book is like another. This book strikes you
like lightning forking the exact pathways of the nerves.

Sun entering a bridal chamber is not more subtle.
Thunder filling the cavity of the skull is not more sure.
Needles along the meridians are not more deftly
placed than these words: for this is indeed poetry,
alien, blind--mapping you closely as the constellation
of your birth. You may fork left here, make those
choices, vary yourself along a myriad of parameters,
hesitate, falsify, deceive, stumble: but this voice,
these words arriving from Hopkins or Rilke, Yeats
or Jeffers, these precision musics precede you
as final cause predicts and plots all processes of life.

We are struck not once, Helen--but a library of times.

The exactness of the poem is dependent on the exactness of correspondences between various realms or worlds, which correspondences must be intuited by the poet.

Thus the forking of lightning and the forking of nerves, both of which take place in the physical world, are two expressions of a more subtle patterning throughout universe, which is also to be found inside ourselves:

When the surf echoes and crashes out to the horizon, its whorls repeat in similar ratios inside our flesh... We are extremely complicated, but our bloods and hormones are fundamentally seawater and volcanic ash, congealed and refined. Our skin shares its chemistry with the maple leaf and moth wing. The currents our bodies regulate share a molecular flow with raw sun. Nerves and flashes of lightning are related events woven into nature at different levels.

Grossinger, *Planet Medicine*

Seen together, aerial maps of river estuaries and road systems, feathers, fern leaves, branching blood vessels, nerve ganglia, electron micrographs of crystals and the tree-like patterns of electrical discharge-figures are connected, although they are vastly different in place, origin, and scale. Their similarity of form is by no means accidental.

Gyorgy Kepes, *New Landscapes of Art & Science*

Notice that Grossinger and Kepes limit themselves here to concrete, material examples of a patterning that they themselves perceive--as abstractions. That is to say, they abstract or draw out these patterns from the manifold parallelisms of nature. But if nature illustrates and exhibits these patterns, it would also be legitimate to think of them (as we sometimes think of other abstractions which we term the "laws" of nature) as realities logically prior to nature.

As realities, they would then inhabit a realm. And this realm in turn would nourish the natural world as an idea in the mind of Brahms, transcribed in a score, can be said to nourish the various particular expressions of that idea in the performances of different musicians.

Family trees partake of the same pattern, but are themselves abstractions of another order: while the rolling generations of a family unfold across time and in various places, the family tree spatializes the abstracted essences of the relationships involved ("marries" "son" "daughter") in a "map" with time as its major spatial axis. A family tree is not a family: it is a map of a family, a purely abstract thing. Human abstractions, too, can have the "forking" pattern that appears also in "natural phenomena."

But can the pattern be found in other realms entirely? In realms, that is, of imagination rather than ideation, realms of soul and spirit rather than (rational, measuring, logical) mind?

Here I must switch for a moment from the "forking" pattern discussed above to the pattern of "constellation." In the poem For Helen above, I wrote:

Needles along the meridians are not more deftly
placed than these words: for this is indeed poetry,
alien, blind--mapping you closely as the constellation
of your birth.

I have another poem, entitled Nuit--a title which spells the name of that Egyptian Goddess whose arched body spans the heavens and contains the stars, chosen in preference to the more familiar Nut because it is also the French "night."


You wear your marks of beauty as stars
in constellation across your skin
which these lips may brush bruise or caress
as never that other overarching sky
for which also I find thirst of worship.

Physical beauty-marks on a physical woman are here seen as analogous to stars in the body of Nuit--the night sky assimilated to the heavenly Nuit.

The body of Nuit is not strictly an abstraction but a personification: but even to call it a personification is to miss the mark. There is no "roundup of the gods" at which it can be definitely ascertained whether or not a goddess called Nuit is present or absent. Nuit cannot be verified or falsified as an entity: but her presence can nevertheless be found. In language, where I found her, in the body of a woman, of the night sky. In this poem. But prior to all this, she is also to be found in the forkings that take place within the mind of Composer of Universe: forkings among other things that divide out upper and lower, masculine and feminine, day and night, even (in a vertical sense) physical and imaginal.

In those majestic forkings that formulate the Platonic ideas, Jungian archetypes, Batesonian patterns that connect, she emerges as one formulation of divinity, female, starry: and is intuited thence as Nuit by the Egyptians.

The thirst of worship is then the longing to "brush bruise or caress" the skin of that intuited goddess: not of the night sky, but of an idea in the mind of Composer of Universe.


Poetry is the science, my Geshe colleague said, of using words in such a way that a state of consciousness present in one is summoned in another.

I have tried to illustrate the exacting nature of that science, showing that it depends on the accurate intuition of patterns that can be found in nature, abstracted from it as science, discussed in depth psychological terms as archetypes, personified on occasion as divinities, and ultimately understood as "existing" among the themes in Composer's mind.

This is primary to the poem as I understand it.

ii: of using words in such a way...

The second accuracy demanded is the accurate representation of those patterns in words. And accuracy here has little to do with accuracy in scientific speech or writing.

The way words are used in poetry takes into account other qualities of words besides their denotative meaning. Words also have their connotative meanings, associated images, etymological roots and histories, and musical aural qualities (when spoken) or calligraphic visual qualities (when written). (It is one of the sweet ironies of our language that Yeats and Keats, great poets both, have names that rhyme visually but not aurally.)

Poetry is at liberty to draw on any and all of these virtues of the word hoard in its accurate representation of pattern, and does so in what may be classified as three ways and a fourth:


The denotative meanings of words in sequence furnish the meaning of the poem. This is what is not easily lost in paraphrase or translation.


The pictures triggered in the mind's eye by words in sequence furnish the "imagery" of the poem. This should also survive translation.


The sounds of the individual words, taken in sequence, furnish the "music" of the poem. This is not easily carried across in translation.

These three strands, meaning, imagery, and music are woven through the poem in ways that resemble the interweaving of melody, counterpoint, harmony in a piece of music. This is achieved by the fourth:


Skillful choices among individual words, taken in sequence, furnish the "wit" of the poem. This may be the hardest aspect of the poem to carry across in translation.

It is also the hardest to define. Louis Martz lists some of the "rich and varied senses that the word [wit] held" in the era of the meditative and metaphysical poets Traherne, Donne, Marvell, Herbert and Vaughan: "intellect, reason, powerful mental capacity, cleverness, ingenuity, intellectual quickness, inventive and constructive ability, a talent for uttering brilliant things, the power of amusing surprise..."

The poet's wit works with words. It takes into account the etymological, philosophic and other kinships among words, together with the kinships of their meanings with other meanings in the world of ideas, the world of poetry, etc. It makes humorous, subtle or serious play among these various kinships and their musical and imagistic counterparts. It is concerned with brevity, tone, and much more.

I said above that it is one of the sweet ironies of our language that Yeats and Keats, great poets both, have names that rhyme visually but not aurally. This could be matter for wit, if the two names were juxtaposed in such a way that their rhyming and not-rhyming was itself illustrative of meaning:

It seems a crime
the likes of Yeats
and Master Keats
should never rhyme...

Wit can make play with the kinship that obtains between words of twinned music and twinned meanings: "womb" and "tomb" would be an example, the two words being so nicely paired as to suggest that life is a short sprint across grass from one cave to the other.

There are many excellent handbooks dealing with such things as form, rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other such technologies of the poet's craft, but since these are craft matters, I shall pass over them here.

What is important here is that craft be present in a degree that matches the passion to be expressed. And the passion that interests me has to do with the next term in our Geshe's definition of the poem:

iii: that a state of consciousness...

What is a state of consciousness?

In order to answer that question, I want to introduce a number of terms to summon ideas that English in some cases has no words for. Rasa, yugen, duende, lachrimae, and the rest are words drawn from a wide range of languages (Sanskrit, Japanese, Spanish, Latin), and have no connotative (and in some cases no denotative) equivalents in English.


Rasa is the word used in Hinduism to express the concept of "state of consciousness" as it may be transmitted by poetry or drama--or experienced in a life of devotion.

Rasa literally means liquid, taste or flavor: by extension, it can refer to a mood, aesthetic or devotional sentiment. Clifford Geertz describes rasa as the term is used by the Javanese--who got it from India--and his description is general enough to serve as a starting point:

Rasa has two primary meanings: "feeling" and "meaning." As "feeling" it is one of the traditional Javanese five senses--seeing, hearing, talking, smelling, and feeling, and it includes within itself three aspects of "feeling" that our view of the five senses separates: taste on the tongue, touch on the body, and emotional "feeling" within the "heart" like sadness and happiness. The taste of a banana is its rasa; a hunch is a rasa; a pain is a rasa; and so is a passion. As "meaning," rasa is applied to the words in a letter, in a poem, or even in common speech to indicate the between-the-lines type of indirection and allusive suggestion that is so important in Javanese communication and social intercourse. And it is given the same application to behavioral acts generally: to indicate the implicit import, the connotative "feeling" of dance movements, polite gestures, and so forth. But in this second, semantic sense, it also means "ultimate significance"--the deepest meaning at which one arrives by dint of mystical effort and whose clarification resolves all the ambiguities of mundane existence. Rasa, said one of my most articulate informants, is the same as life; whatever lives has rasa and whatever has rasa lives. To translate such a sentence one could only render it twice: whatever lives feels and whatever feels lives; or: whatever lives has meaning and whatever has meaning lives.

Clifford Geertz

We can see something here of the range of meanings the term may have. But since this definition is drawn from the Javanese, we should return to Indian poetics and theology for a more precise understanding.

Pre-eminently, rasa is the river that flows from the eternal Vrindaban--the secret place where Krishna plays--to earth, where it "manifests as the stream of rasa flowing between men and women."

In Hindu bhakti or devotional theology, rasa is "the particular loving mood or attitude relished in the exchange of love" between a human and Krishna. The devotees of Bhaktivedanta Swami translate "rasa" as "mellow", following their master--who arrived on a Western scene that included Ginsberg, in an atmosphere no doubt infused from time to time with the perfumed song of Donovan. "The different types of rasa, when combined together, help one to taste the mellow of devotional service in the highest degree of transcendental ecstasy."

The different types of rasa ("sthayi-bhavas") correspond to the five different positions that the devotee can adopt towards Krishna:

santa, the mood of a humble worshipper before God
dasya, the mood of a servant before his Master
sakhya, the mood of a friend with his Friend
vatsalya, the mood of a parent with his Child
madhurya or sringara, the mood of a lover with her Beloved

Vaisnava poets--who wrote poems in the devotional "sthayi-bhavas" mentioned above--would further divide madhurya-bhava songs into the categories of vipralambha, love in separation, and sambhoga, love in union. And vipralambha itself could be divided into purva-raga, in which desire is aroused by sight or word of the beloved, mana, in which the girl feels her honor has been slighted by her lover's interest in other women, premvaicittya, in which satisfaction coexists with the pain of anticipated separation, and pravasa, which deals specifically with the pain caused by the beloved's absence in foreign parts.

Notice that there are several "different" rasas involved here, but that when combined they are one: rasa is "One, it is a single, ineffable, transcendental joy, but it can be subdivided, not according to its own nature, but according to the emotions which evoke it."

Similarly, in Indian poetics following Bharata, (and it is from Indian poetics that Vaisnava theology springs), eight emotions ("bhavas") when balanced together produce rasa:

rati or sringara, erotic longing or desire
hasa or hasya, laughter or comic joy
krodha or raudra, anger aroused by ill-treatment
shoka or karuna, the sadness of separation
utsaha or vira, pride in oneself
bhaya or bhayanaka, fear of reproach or attack
jugupsa or bibhatsa, aversion or loathing
vismaya or adbhuta, childlike surprise or wonder

Indian drama strives to evoke these various bhavas and to balance them so as to produce the supreme rasa, as Hindu devotionalism strives to evoke one or other of the sthayi-bhavas so as to arrive at pure bhakti or devotion.

Before leaving India, we should glance quickly at one last manifestation of poetic bhakti, the "ulatbamsi" or "upside-down language" of Kabir:

The cow is sucking at the calf's teat,
from house to house the prey hunts,
the hunter hides.

Ulatbamsi may not be a rasa, but as Linda Hess--Kabir's great modern translator--notes, it may catapult the reader into a state of consciousness: as a teaching device, it is "comparable to the Zen koan."


Japan has its own equivalents of the rasas, and since my term "states of consciousness" is intended to cover a wide range of cross-cultural states, it is to Japan that I turn next.

The four traditionally recognized dominant moods of zen-related art are: sabi, wabi, aware and yugen... These moods are not consciously created, as in the case of Indian rasas (emotional "flavors" so precise that one rasa, say of a sitar melody, may "belong" to a particular time of day and is always deliberately induced): they are experienced as we experience the light of the sky, hardly aware of the delicacy of its gradations...

Stryk, Zen Poems of China and Japan
Never mind that Stryk may be here confusing rasas with ragas, which as musical moods no doubt have a close connection with the different rasas. Let us take a closer look at our four japanese moods, again using definitions drawn from Lucien Stryk:

Sabi may be defined as the feeling of isolation, or rather at a mid-point of the emotion when it is both welcome and unwelcome...

Wabi is the spirit of poverty, the poignant appreciation of what most consider the commonplace...

Aware is the sadness that comes with the sense of the impermanence of things...

Yugen... is the sense of a mysterious depth in all that makes up nature...

Shotetsu defines yugen more closely in Donald Keene's *No: The Classical Theatre of Japan*:

What we call yugen lies within the mind and cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be suggested by the sight of a gauzy cloud veiling the moon or by the autumnal mists swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside. If one is asked where yugen can be found in these sights, one cannot say; a man who cannot understand this truth is quite likely to prefer the sight of the moon shining brightly in a cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or wonder of yugen.


It is far from my intention to suggest that "states of consciousness" are exclusive to the Asian mind and heart, however. The Spanish, for instance, recognize a quality which they term "duende"--a word which literally means "sprite" or "gremlin." The poet Federico Garcia Lorca has written a brilliant essay on the topic, Theory and Function of the Duende, and I can do no better than to quote him here.

First, Lorca distinguishes the duende from those other inspirations, the angel and the muse:

Every step that a man... an artist, takes towards the tower of his perfection is at the cost of a struggle he maintains with a duende, not with an angel, as has been said, and not with a muse...

Angel and muse come from without; the angel gives radiance, the muse gives precepts... On the other hand, the duende has to be roused in the very cells of the blood...

The real struggle is with the duende.

Only then does he attempt to evoke the duende--and his language takes on an edge that is itself our best indication of the duende's nature. He writes of fiery thorns, of powdered glass...

One knows how to seek God, whether it be by the rough ways of the hermit or by the subtle ways of the mystic; with a tower like St. Theresa's, or with the three pathways of St. John of the Cross. And even if we have to exclaim with Isaiah's voice: "Truly thou art the hidden God," ultimately God sends his first thorns of fire to whoever seeks him.

To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass...

Finally, after a marvellous account of the emergence of duende at a flamenco performance "that made those who were listening tear their clothes rhythmically, like Carribean Negroes clustered before the image of St. Barbara", he turns to the manner in which duende is received:

In all Arabic music, dance, or song, the appearance is greeted with vociferous shouts of "Ala! Ala!", "God! God!" which are not far from the ole of bullfighting. And in the singing of Southern Spain, the presence of the duende is followed by shouts of "Viva Dios!", a profound, human, and tender cry of communion with God through the five senses, by virtue of the duende which stirs the body and soul of the dancer...

Blues and Lachrimae:

The duende, then, is a peculiarly hispanic rasa, transmitted by singers and dancers to their audiences. The blues is the comparable American rasa, and one might compare both with the "lachrimae" of the English composer John Dowland. In Virgil's phrase, they are "tears for the nature of things."

Dowland's lachrimae are seven in number, "seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pauans", and the contemporary British poet Geoffrey Hill has made passionate poems out of them. But now we have passed from the oriental via the European and American into the heart of the British artistic tradition, which is my own.

Spencer's "mutabilitie" would appear to be a rasa, not unlike the Japanese aware.

And Shakespeare?

Shakespeare might teach us that the "humors" are all rasas, by showing us melancholy in the person of the Melancholy Jaques--who further dissects the topic for us:

I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician's, which is fantastical; nor the courtier's, which is proud; nor the soldier's, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer's, which is politic; nor the lady's, which is nice; nor the lover's, which is all of these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.

Melancholy may be a melancholy affair, a "most humorous sadness", but Jaques likes it: "More, I prithee more," he begs. "I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs. More, I prithee more."

And if Spencer and Shakespeare have their rasas, so do the great poets of the Metaphysical period.

The Metaphysicals:

In English poetry of the late Renaissance the art of meditation entered into and transformed its kindred art of poetry.

Martz, *The Meditative Poem*

The English spiritual and poetic traditions can come amazingly close to the ideas described above under the name of rasa.

The Jesuit Edward Dawson, in his *The Practical Methode of Meditation* (1614), tells his readers that after a brief preparation they may:

begin to take some tast of our meditation, and stirre up in our soules sometimes grief, shame, confusion, or feare, otherwhiles desire to know with some clearenes the mysteries of the life and passion of our Savior, so to imitate him diligently, and love him fervently; sometimes sorrow and heavines, so to be compartners with Christ, suffering so many paines for us; sometimes also joy and comfort, to congratulate our Lords glorie, and felicitie; and at other times other affections agreable unto ech meditation.

The very word "tast" (taste) suggests rasa, and the list of "affections" or emotions to be felt differs from those felt by a bhakti devotee in precisely those ways in which the life of Christ, culminating in his passion, differs from the early life of Krishna, culminating in his amorous sports with the gopis in Vrindaban.

Later, in the main body of his instructions, Dawson teaches how visualization ("memory") can be followed by conceptual thought ("understanding"), which in turn "moves" the will to virtuous emotions ("affections"), which he classifies under three heads.

The affections appropriate to the via purgativa are "great griefe" for our sins, "feare" of offending God, a "perfect hatred" for all sin, and a "desire of mortification" of all that comes between us and the divine. Those appropriate to the via illuminativa are a "love and desire" for all virtues, and to know the person and actions of Christ, a "hope" to please God, and "sorrow and compassion" for the sufferings of Christ. And those appropriate to the via unitiva are "an exceeding love" of God, a "spiritual rejoycing" in his riches and perfections, a "gratefull joy" for his love towards mankind, and a "vehement desire" for the accomplishment of his will.

Clearly, these are the Christian rasas. But the comparison is closer still.

Dawson also instructs his readers to make "some affectionate speech" at the end of their meditations, in which they "may talke with God as a servant with his Master, as a sonne with his Father, as one friend with another, as a spouse with her beloved bridegrome, or as a guilty prisoner with his Judge, or in any other manner which the holy Ghost shall teach us."

These are precisely the "sthayi-bhavas" found in Vaisnava bhakti--with two exceptions, and one additional freedom. The Vaisnava "mood of a humble worshipper before God" gains an edge of sin in its becoming the Christian "guilty prisoner with his Judge". And the polarity of the Vaisnava "parent with his Child" is reversed in becoming the Christian "sonne with his Father". The freedom, of course, is to add to the list of possible attitudes towards God "any other manner which the holy Ghost shall teach us."

Dawson's treatise is published in full as a sort of preface to the poems collected in Louis Martz' *The Meditative Poem: an anthology of poetry from the seventeenth century*. It is there because Martz understands that "To express its highest reaches, the art of meditation drew upon all the poetical resources available in the culture of its day"--and on the craft resources of Donne, Crashaw and Herbert in particular.

This is the period of the English "Metaphysical" poets, and it is only since the publication of Martz' earlier study, *The Poetry of Meditation*, that we have been begun to distinguish the "metaphysical" from the "meditative" strands in their works.

And Gary Snyder:

To move from rasa and the English metaphysicals to ulatbamsi (Kabir's "upside-down language") and contemporary American poetics, we can compare Kabir's line about hunter and hunted, "from house to house the prey hunts, the hunter hides," with this, from the admittedly and unashamedly zen poet Gary Snyder:

Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They do various things which irresistibly draw men near them; each one selects a certain man. The Deer shoots the man, who is then compelled to skin it and carry its meat home and eat it. Then the Deer is inside the man. He waits and hides in there, but the man doesn't know it. When enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all at once. The men who don't have Deer in them will also be taken by surprise, and everything will change some. This is called "Takeover from inside."

Snyder, Regarding Wave

In this case, the parallelism may be the result of Snyder's familiarity with eastern religious and poetic texts: the man is a scholar of many traditions. Their commonality of poetic purpose is nonetheless striking.

All that (phew!) is what I and my Geshe mean by "states of consciousness": rasas and yugen and duende and mutabilitie--and all such other affections as the holy Ghost shall teach us.

iv: ...present in one is summoned in another.

The teaching of the Geshe is clear on this final point:

The states or rasas which are present in the poet can be transmitted, by poetic craft, to others.

The only qualification needed here is that the others must be persons "of sensibility"--"sahridaya" in the Vaisnava terminology--meaning sensitive "to the particular chain of associations which the poet could arouse in the minds of people from his own tradition."

It is because I wish to make "particular chains of associations" available to my readers in this sense that I now turn to a consideration of my own tradition and its associations: the tradition of Catholicism and the Mass.

to be continued...

Go to:

Poetry and the Arts sub-index

HipBone Welcome
HipBone Guided Tour
Invitation to the Games
Barebones HipBone Site Index
Annotated HipBone Site Index

Contact us:

HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright (c) Charles Cameron 1995, 96. See Concerning Copyright for full copyright details.