Archive for July, 2010

Our new US Laureate

I found this article on LitKicks and found it interesting.

“When Hippies Battle: the Great W. S. Merwin/A Ginsberg Beef of 1975

When I heard that distinguished American poet W. S. Merwin had been honored at last night’s National Book Awards ceremony, I could not help remembering the first time I heard this poet’s name. This mystical poet was the central figure in an astonishing battle over a 1975 Halloween party that began as a Buddhist-themed celebration and descended into a nightmare of drunken debauchery, violence and forced nakedness. The controversy, now largely forgotten, occupied the poetry community for several years in the late 70’s, pulling the likes of Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, Ed Sanders, Ed Dorn and Tom Clark into the vortex.

It all happened at the Naropa Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist outpost in Boulder, Colorado where Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman ran an important poetry school. The leader of the Naropa Institute was an exalted and charismatic Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who Allen Ginsberg had accepted as his guru. Because of Trungpa’s great reputation at the time, there was a long list of poets and Buddhist students wishing to attend the guru’s interactive lectures in the fall of 1975, and apparently W. S. Merwin pulled some strings (he was already at that time a well-connected poet) to get an invitation for himself and his girlfriend, Dana Naone.

Apparently their special treatment annoyed Trungpa, as did the fact that the poets were the only attendees to skip a preparatory meditation session before the lecture series began. Trungpa was further offended when Merwin and his girlfriend vocally objected to the implied violence of some of the Buddhist prayers, which in the classic Tibetan tradition employed heavy war imagery.

The group celebrated Halloween with a wild party, but Trungpa presented a twist: the poets would celebrate Halloween not by putting on costumes but by being stripped of them. The guru, apparently drunk on some sort of spiritual libation that probably did not come from Tibet, walked around the party floor pointing at partygoers, and when he pointed at somebody his assistants would pounce on that person and strip off their clothing. It was all very Tibetan.

However, Merwin and Naone had previously scoped out the scene, and made a strategic decision to hide in their room. Trungpa noticed this and sent for them, but they refused to join. Trungpa then sent a larger contingent to retrieve them, this time with the message that they were ordered to join the party. Merwin and Naone, again, refused. At this point Trungpa declared to the group that they must use whatever force was necessary to retrieve the wayward guests.

It may be slightly hard to picture a mob of half-naked, half-costumed hippie Buddhist poets forcing their way into another poet’s private room by breaking windows and smashing down doors, but I urge you to picture this, because the historical record states that this is exactly what happened. Apparently Merwin tried to pull a Clint Eastwood move by breaking a bottle and using the jagged remains as a weapon, and all accounts state that blood was shed. Finally, Merwin and Naone were dragged screaming and crying into the party, where Trungpa yelled at them, singling out Naone, a Hawaiian woman, for failing to respect her Asian heritage by following his command. At his command, the mob separated Merwin and Naone and removed their clothing, leaving them naked and sobbing in each other’s arms in the middle of the room.

The story ends at this point, and the controversy begins. Naone had shouted for somebody to call the police during the horrific incident, but for some strange reason they did not leave Naropa as soon as it was over, choosing instead to stay for the remaining lectures (which indicates that they were probably traumatized and humiliated beyond their better judgement at the time). Slowly, other poets began to shout for justice, among them Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, who called Trungpa an obscene fraud. The Naropa Institute’s funding from several non-profit sources, including the USA’s National Endowment for the Arts, was threatened. Allen Ginsberg had not been at the party, but as the spokesman for Naropa’s poetry school and everybody’s good friend, he quickly became a central figure in the controversy. He was asked to repudiate Trungpa, his guru, and he could not do so. He tried in many interviews to find words to defend the teacher’s actions, and continued for years to try to walk the line between both sides in this difficult battle.

The incident was covered in Harper’s and Paris Review, and is covered in Barry Miles’ biography of Allen Ginsberg, though today it is rarely talked about. Trungpa’s reputation never fully recovered, although Ginsberg’s certainly did. W. S. Merwin’s career has flourished, and Dana Naone is occasionally visible in the literary scene as well, where she is often associated with Hawaiian poetry. Certainly both law and rationality side with Merwin and Naone in this battle, but it’s a story that makes nobody look good. Merwin comes across as a Buddhist dilettante, pulling for special favors at a religious retreat, and then refusing to join the required quasi-orgy.

Merwin was honored for his poetry at the National Book Awards in Manhattan last night, almost exactly thirty years after the famous Naropa bash. According to all incoming reports, everybody kept their clothes on at last night’s ceremony.”


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I’ve only recently started to read poetry-not sure why, therapy maybe, but I’ve taken a wondrous liking to it; I’m even trying my hand at a few lines here and there. Who knows, maybe I’ll get better as I go along, maybe not.

What I’ve found most interesting is the enjoyment of writing poetry. I think it’s because of how poetry gets you to look at things in an entirely new way. There is more color, depth and meaning to the most mundane things. The feelings of lose at not grasping at the right words, and lining them up in a perfect row, the way they are meant to be, is almost heart wrenching. A perfect poem at the right time can be quite profound.

A Poem, like a new lover, the job you’ve wanted or being a new parent, has you constantly pondering; it’s all that’s in your head. Like the new lover, job or offspring, the next poem consumes you with its potential. Once you’ve latched on to something deep in meaning, you tear it apart, put it back, then tear it apart again, all the while, you are in pieces, and once you’ve completed the poem, you become extremely attached and desperate. Is it good? Pleadingly you ask, “Tell me please, is it good?”

Unfortunately, what might be good to one may not be to another. The knack of knowing whether your poem is good better yet great, is: does the majority like it, do they relate to the poem, does the poem turn over and over in their minds, does it make them smile with complete recognition like an a-ha moment…does it leave them saying: wow, that poem was beautiful.

To know if a poem is good, you have to be willing to get it out there, however, with the internet, if you post it anywhere for review, there’s a chance you won’t be able to publish it. You may want to show your poems via another venue, other than the internet. I have some poems posted on my blog, but none of them I would submit.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a thought or two, and to express my enjoyment of poetry. I’ve only been at it for a short time now, so wish me some wisdom, and please, if you have a great poem you‘d like to share, I‘d like to see it.

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