Preparing lunch for Rachel I was suddenly struck by the infinitesimal beauty of mushrooms. Which I then had to photograph all over the house.
It’s a commonplace in Buddhist thinking that the more attention you pay to things the more beautiful they become. And I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my food recently.
January has been blessedly free of paid-work, which has allowed me to introduce a strict regime of relaxed creativity. I get up and go to the Willesden Sports Centre, running across the park in all weathers, for a swim or a brisk workout. Then I come home and sit in the sunshine or the grey morning light with a cup of tea and write my morning pages and then onto a rotating cycle of writing/composing/picture-taking/paperwork/jobcreation. And then I cook myself or friends a home-made lunch.
This morning was mostly reading poetry – Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes at the moment, though I was dipping into Czeslaw Milosz too – and cooking a Tom Kai soup for Rachel.
That was when the fascination with the mushrooms struck.
In the Thai Forest tradition, someone – I forget who, possibly Ajahn Chah, or perhaps it’s from the sutras – says ‘Heedlessness equals death’. Not paying attention to the world around us and inside us makes us die. Without fresh sensory inflow, we stagnate, we decompose.
The happy flipside of this is, of course, that by paying attention we come alive. The world comes alive and becomes fresh and beautiful again. Simple really, but really simple to forget.
After soup and sherry, with me reading from books and Rachel finishing a sock on a complex square of knitting-needles, we got round to talking about poetry and why we liked it.
I read English at University and it’s a cliché to say that a degree is a sure-fire way to kill any love of literature but that wasn’t the case for me. However, I can’t deny that my intense love of poetry did get rather distorted back in Cambridge, 1988.
Essentially, I was drawn to poems that were hermetic, that kept their meaning hidden like dark code in a brilliant shell of sound and colour. I was drawn to the Americans – Hart Crane, Olson, Ashbery, O’Hara – partly because they represented a gay artiness that I was desperate to secretly espouse and also because they dazzled you away from meaning by dizzying prisms of pop culture, surrealism and detail.
By the time I went to Berlin and discovered sex and boys, that cryptographic coyness in poetry just seemed so much rubbish and I reacted by not opening a book of poetry for 10 years (let alone writing any). Prose ruled.
But now at 38, i’m realising that my instinctive taste was accurate: it’s the very refusal of poems to be prose that makes them so delicious.
Rachel put it much more concisely. Keat’s negative capability, (a term , I confess I’d never really grasped until she explained it), is about the splendid possibility of holding ambiguity and not trying to collapse it into one thing or another.
It’s a mind drug. The mental excitement and thrill of holding multiple possibilites in the present moment is exhilarating like sherbet on the tongue. This isn’t secretive codifying and prevarication to distract people from what your saying (because one’s queasy about being gay, for example). Instead, it’s a perfect parallel to the Buddhist conception of a life well-lived.
Our tendency is to reduce the present moment to one thing or another. To a good thing or a bad thing. To something I want to prolong or something I want to curtail. This tendency to collapse the present moment into a single reading (ie. my reading) is what makes life so dull and flat.
Like when I see a mushroom and just think: I need to chop this as quickly as possible, so I can finish this soup and go do something else.
Holding the mushroom in some bigger context – call it poetic, call it nirvanic – allows multlple meanings and pleasures to hover round it like quantum cloud.
And it’s this image of the quantum world that keeps on coming to me. In quantum mechanics an atom exists as field of probability, both wave and particle at once, and only when it’s observed does it ‘collapse’ into the one thing or another. It’s real state is uncertain.
Similarly when you read a piece of Wallace Stevens or look intensely at mushrooms, then the cloud of probabilities build up, like a shimmering shell of quantum options. The secret to a really rich and thrilling life is to allow them to stay multiple. Not to collapse them into a singularity.
A poem only exists when it is read. There are an infinite number of poems as there are infinite readers. There is no single Platonic Poem behind ‘The Emperor of Ice-cream’.
As a teenager I believed that there was meaning inside these poems, all I needed was the right key, the right Poem-Opener and I’d crack the code and the poem would be mine. And there is something very aquisitive about this way of reading, of interpreting poems (and, of course, by extension, Life). We want to possess the meaning and then move on.
But now as an older reader I appreciate that it’s precisely that multiplicity of meanings, that incommensurable, untranslatable shimmer that makes poems (and Life) important. And also that my reading, right now and here, is the right one. Even if it’s totally coloured by current state of mind, or by my up-bringing or because I’ve misread a word: for me right now, that is the poem. (And life.)
Rest in not knowing. Stay happy with ambiguity. Relish the mushroom.
For the record. Here is The Emperor of Ice-cream:
Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. Let the wenches dawdle in such dress As they are used to wear, and let the boys Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers. Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. Take from the dresser of deal, Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet On which she embroidered fantails once And spread it so as to cover her face. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.