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Complimenting Each Other by Criticizing

About 10 years ago, I went to hear Galway Kinnell read at St. Johnsbury Athenaeum in Vermont. He stood in front of an enormous Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, reading.

Bierstadt was one of the landscape painters who “brought back” these images of the American West for those living in the eastern U.S. to see the new land. He was also famous for making revisions to his paintings whenever he passed through, as was Kinnell for making revisions to his “old poems” even after they were published. In more than one of his intros in his books, he talks about it and makes apologies for it.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist, a formal student of Roshi Graef at the Vermont Zen Center. My poem follows on the tradition of the Zen masters’ manner of complimenting each other by criticizing, or with a back-handed compliment. Also, it was in fact said in ancient times that if a Zen master teaches wrong or false dharma, his eyebrows will fall off. That is, he loses his brow when he “speaks,” or rather, explains the Buddhist teachings rather than “showing.” This can be found in the koan, “Suigan’s Eyebrows,” case 8 from the Hekiganroku.

My poem refers to Kinnell’s poem “The Cat,” as well as other poems he read that night: “Oatmeal with Keats,” one of his Sow poems, etc.

Driving home that night, something happened that rarely happens to me; that is, the poem came to me whole and complete. So I wrote it down and I sent it to him, anonymously. When I heard of Kinnell’s passing, I revisited the poem and decided to lift it from anonymity and share it publicly, and On Being came to mind as the best venue for it:

A Letter to Galway Kinnell

From ancient times it was said
you can tell how much a Master speaks
by the thickness of his brows.
He loses one hair with every word.
When you came to talk and read
at the Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury,
I thought you might loose
yours upon the crowd,
but they clung to the rim of your glasses
not to your every word.
Behind you, there was something awry
with Bierstadt’s The Domes of Yosemite
(his last revision perhaps?).
The Cat
must have slept through Governor Kunin’s intro
and maybe stirred for Roseanna Warren’s reading,
but at your mention of piglets
he pricked up his ears
and crossed the ridge,
climbing down to the valley.
While you dined with Keats,
The Cat carefully maneuvered himself
behind the waterfall,
shaking off one foot, then the other.
By the time you spoke of him,
he was on the floor behind you,
then under the podium, reaching
for your microphone cord,
when you planted your foot
squarely on his tail,
sending him for the hills—
a great Master speaking without a word.

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