This poem by Robinson Jeffers has showed up on my doorstep as I scratch my head trying to start articulating all I have seen and experienced on my trip to Japan. So today, as the poem says, I am loving the wild swan – and appreciating also the definitively Western presence of the speaker in the first part of this poem: the individual, struggling to understand, determined to understand, determined to press on despite inevitable failure.
“I hate my verses, every line, every word.
Oh pale and brittle pencils ever to try
One grass-blade’s curve, or the throat of one bird
That clings to twig, ruffled against white sky.
Oh cracked and twilight mirrors ever to catch
One color, one glinting flash, of the splendor of things.
Unlucky hunter, Oh bullets of wax,
The lion beauty, the wild-swan wings, the storm of the wings.”
Let me pause here to say I have unbounded respect for the subtle emptiness of Japanese aesthetics. There is so much more about that I want to learn. But it is a distinct relief and pleasure to live and walk once again in a place where the struggle of the individual has meaning and value. It is not perfect (hello there Donald Trump!) but it feels like home.
Even so I do well to remember what another, wiser, calmer speaker has to say in the rest of the poem. Although it too is in a Western key, I also hear in it the wisdom of the Buddha that I have been reminded so forcefully to pay attention to, filtered through (literally) dozens of temples and (literally) hundreds of sacred figures.
This wild swan of a world is no hunter’s game.
Better bullets than yours would miss the white breast,
Better mirrors than yours would crack in the flame.
Does it matter whether you hate your . . . Self? At least
Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can
Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.
Because I have been dazzled by so much subtle beauty and perhaps feeling a bit defensive about Western aesthetics as well as spirituality I want to point out also the wonderful metrical artistry of this poem. Try speaking it aloud in iambic pentameter and I think you’ll see what I mean. Jeffers pushes and squirms against the form, nearly but not quite breaking free a number of times. These rhythmic games inject a potent dimension of awareness into the life of the poem, making it so much more than it would be otherwise.
Finally, two shamanic observations. It may be that shamanism strikes a perfect balance between Western striving and Eastern embrace of the void. One is always questing, seeking, asking, journeying, restless – carrying forward the hunter’s spirit from those ancient societies from which shamanism springs. And yet the wisdom that comes is so far beyond that individual who is exerting the effort, immersed in that field of radiant consciousness that merges the self and the world into a single glimmering aura. That’s one way to think of the classic description of the shaman as a “walker between worlds.”
And of course the love of wildness – the “wild swan” and all its siblings – is at the heart of shamanic practice. In Japan what I saw everywhere was wildness brought into contact with the human through devotional energy: streams honored, trees revered (for example, in the photo on the right, taken at Nara), animals celebrated for their spiritual power – it’s so beautiful! But it’s also rather constrained by long interaction with humans. Walking in my Seattle neighborhood with its incredible monumental Douglas fir and cedar trees, I love that they are untouched by human hands, that they stand free and tall (even within a subdivision!) as unhindered presences of the natural world. I think that makes this place a wonderful environment for accessing and exploring shamanic energies. In that way, too, I love the wild swan.