Korea's first Zen Master-poet wrote simple yet elegant poetry of the world he inhabited, both physically and spiritually, and of daily insights-a pause along the way for a deep clear breath, a moon-viewing moment, a seasonal note or a farewell poem to a departing monk. His poems speak softly and clearly, like hearing a temple bell that was struck a thousand years ago.
What poetry does above all else is develop sensibility. And that's what makes poetry so dangerous. That's why poetry is so good at undermining governments and so bad at building them. There's nothing harder to organize than a group of poets.
It's difficult to put your own bare ass out on the limb every time you sit down to write a poem. But that's really sort of the ideal. Because if we don't discover something about ourselves and our world in the making of a poem, chances are it's not going to be a very good poem. So what I'm saying is that a lot of our best poets could be better poets if they wrote less and risked more in what they do.
I'll say that this is probably the best time for poetry since the T'ang dynasty. All the rest of the world is going to school on American poetry in the twentieth century, from Ezra Pound to W. S. Merwin, and for very good reason. We have soaked up influence in the last century like a sponge. It's cross-pollination, first law of biology, that the more variety you have the more health you have.
My ethics, my sense of morality, my work ethic, my sense of compassion for suffering humanity, all of that comes directly out of the practice of poetry, as does my Buddhist practice. Poetry is a very important element in the history of Buddhism in general and in Zen in particular. It was really Zen that motivated me to change the way I perceive the world.
I got interested in Zen when I was a teenage beatnik on the streets of San Francisco. And it was my interest in Zen, in part, that got me into the Marine Corps, because that was a ticket to Asia. So I spent a couple of years on Okinawa and began reading and thinking about how I wanted to go about conducting my life.
When these idiot rightwingers start complaining about poetry being political, I'm fond of reciting Sappho to them, who excluded men from her world. Why does she exclude them? Mostly because of their warmongering.
That's one of those questions that would just love to have a pat answer. You know, poetry's job is to make us feel good. Poetry exists to allow us to express our innermost feelings. There isn't one role for poetry in society. There are many roles for poetry. I wrote a poem to seduce my wife. I wrote a poem when I asked her to marry me. Poetry got me laid. Poetry got me married.