Buddhist themes in poetry

2 posts

The Importance of a Poem’s Title

When unlocking a poem’s meaning, titles are one of the first “must considers” of your process. The wonderful trouble is, a poem’s title is often more than meets the eye. That’s OK, though. Even desirable. Poetry titles that hold multiple meanings are always satisfying to a reader. Even two will do. I’ve been poking around the 700-plus pages of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965 – 2010 and came across a good example:


Lucille Clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.         i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.


There’s climbing (literal) and then there’s climbing (theoretical). Certainly it works on a literal level, but poet and reader easily agree that “climbing” has something to do with desires, wishes, cravings.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths would warn the speaker off these desires because it only leads to suffering. That and the minor fact that every desire achieved is a temporary state, thus becoming yet another desire leading to yet another state of dissatisfaction. Thus we get the line “maybe i should have wanted less” twice, signifying its importance to the poem’s theme.

Heck with maybes. Certainly we should all desire less. And certainly we’re better off when not comparing ourselves to others (braids, clothes, or whatever), because the ever-changing game is one that never ends.

Our speaker, then, is gaining wisdom of a sort. The kind that comes with age. Speaking of, the capitalized “Sixty” could well be the age ahead. Clifton published this poem in 1992, putting her at around 56 years young, so you can connect the dots and see the speaker’s personal struggle. What struggle specifically? Against “the bowl in me / burning to be filled.”

You might think the last line, “hand over hungry hand,” with its lovely alliteration, signifies that the struggle goes on to become the woman climbing ahead, but it depends which woman ahead you mean.

If that woman is a wiser version of the narrator herself, then yes. The struggle is not for material goods or a physical look or a return to the desire or the dreams of youth. Instead, it is for the ability and discipline to understand the foolhardy nature of these desires, or what some might call a more enlightened state.

As for the reader? Good to know, we think, as we scale our own challenging mountains.

The Poetry of Past, Present, and Future

The reason Buddhism (whether you take yours as religion or as philosophy) is so Protean in nature is simple. At least to me (a simple man).

There’s no need to do any math, either. No Four Noble Truths. No Eightfold Path. I just repeat the mantra “change” and watch for the internal battle of two-against-one.

In that corner, the crowd favorites, the past and the future. And in this corner, the seriously undervalued known as the present.

When you look through the lens of that unholy trinity (past, present, future), you’ll see the futility of the favorites and the persistence of the underdog in many pieces of literature. The smiling referee? Change.

A lot of poems work with this model because it’s so broad, but for my purposes this morning I’ll take two by Joseph Mills, a writer who spins family conversation into poetic gold. First, a look at a poem titled in a most deja vu kind of way.


“We’ve Had This Conversation Before”
Joseph Mills

We’ve had this conversation before,
my daughter and I, many times,
about what she might buy
with her allowance, about candy,
about how her brother annoys her,
about where her birth mother might be,

and we’ve had this conversation before,
my son and I, many times,
about how fast he is, how fast horses are,
about candy, about how his sister bosses him,
about how much a horse costs,

and we’ve had this conversation before,
my wife and I, many times,
about how tired we are,
about what we might buy them
and how much it all costs,
about how they annoy us, how fast
they’re growing, how scared we are
about what might happen, about this life,
this life, so tiring and wonderful,
and how, if we could, we’d repeat it,
this life, many times,
many times.


By nature, many poets mine their pasts for material. Experience is the muse of memoir, after all, and memories move poets to write. Here we note the son and daughter both struggling with their desires and their wishes. And here we note the parents worried, too, especially about change and what the future will bring for their kids.

These worries prevent them from enjoying the present, yes, but the final lines imply that they’d gladly do it all over again.

This is a very western take on samsara or reincarnation. Second chances? Tenth? Hundredth? Yes, please!. But to the Buddhist and Hindu scholars of old, these cycles of birth, life, and death were unpleasant, indeed. Pain. Sickness. Old Age. Death. All the things westerners hide from and do their best to thwart, over and over again.

If you think the unspoken worry of Mills’ first poem is a death that takes all this joy away in the blink of a lifetime’s eye, you’ll be interested in a second poem that cuts to the quick (as only children can blithely do).


Joseph Mills

On the Interstate, my daughter tells me
she only has two questions. I’m relieved
because she usually has two hundred.
I say, Okay, let’s have them, and she asks,
What was there before there was anything?
Stupidly, I think I can answer this:
There was grass, forests, fields, meadows, rivers.
She stops me. No, Daddy. I mean before
there was anything at all, what was there?
I say that I don’t know, so then she asks,
Where do we go when we die? I tell her
I don’t know the answer to this either.
She looks out the side, and I look forward,
then she asks if we can have some music.


Maybe you can read something into the final lines where the daughter looks “out the side” (present) and the father looks “forward” (future) and maybe not, but it seems clear that the daughter’s quick shift to the oh-so-ordinary (“she asks if we can have some music”) is an enlightened response to her father’s non-response.

Oh. No answers (or possibly unpleasant ones) about the future? Let’s enjoy the present, then, shall we? Music, maestro!

Thus, in the most prosaic of ways, does Joseph Mills make a larger point. One the Buddha would have applauded. With one hand.