LYRIC COMPANIONS Soseki “Magnificent Peak”


From “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Czeslaw Milosz

IDIOTICS The etymological meaning of “idiot” refers us to the intimate: a reserve of being that is prior to determinacy, and yet that is not entirely incommunicable. . . . We live our lives from within out, with this singular stress of self-being. . . . It is a happening of singularity in a field of energy, itself a happening of participation that is neither of the self nor of the other . . . . William Desmond, GLOSSARY, The Intimate Universal, 422.

Milosz included two poems by the Zen Buddhist monk Muso Soseki (1275-1351) in Luminous Things. This one he introduces in terms of the theme of “autonomous existence” and universal impermanence. Reading lyric often involves one in some such reflection on coming into being and passing away.

The poem may seem just a blur of rather dogmatic voices; Soseki, along with designing Zen gardens and writing Tanka, composed voluminous texts about Buddhism. But by reading it as a lyric narrative it can be enjoyed as a poem and a good one.

The opening points to the mountain as a thing in the landscape. It rises above “the tangle of rivers.” The opening line, as translated by Merwin, has a philosophic tone which backs up Milosz’s phrase “autonomous existence.” The image of the mountain rising above the rivers carries these more abstract notions effortlessly.

The second stanza moves into the world of human responses, the equivocal world in contrast to the univocal scene of the opening. But why does the poet turn on the reader so viciously, expecting a resentful and over-the-top reaction to the majestic mountain?

The third stanza pulls us deeper into this mystery (I call this the dialectical phase of the lyric narrative). The image suggests the power of the mountain: it draws morning mist and evening cloud across it, or rather mist and cloud ARE DRAWN across it. Lyric often uses the equivocal nature of language, including grammar, to “entangle” us. We are alwaways already part of the process of reading. Shadows constantly pass over/by the mountain. Perhaps the resentment, like most resentment, is rooted in difference.

So it comes as a relief as the mountain emerges into the light of the final stanza. You can look up and see it from any direction, wherever you happen to be. ”Green and steep and wild!” We might hear those words as words of wonder and praise!

Sometimes in these essays we use Desmond’s term “Intimate Universal” to distinguish such a presence from thinking thinking thought (concept). This is a case in point. Soseki’s mountain is an image of the intimate universal.

What an unthreatening image! How could we resent such a presence! As Desmond’s definition of “idiotics” presupposes, from a certain perspective all beings have idiotic natures. That includes us, and most of us would strenuously defend our idiotic nature as if it were ours alone. We might resent the mountain for being MORE idiotic, but idiotics, Like agapeics, is not subject to degree!

So the lyric narrative takes us from top to bottom to beyond—-“you can look up!” Yes you CAN! The voice of the great teacher booms out from thirteenth century Japan.

Finally, we can see how the directional aspect of the itinerary is suggested by the term “archaeology.” The narrative wanders through space and time. It goes down to the foundations of thinking and feeling.

Reading lyric is essential to safeguarding and renewing the freedom of imagination from ideologies and prejudices such as are tearing at our social fabric and flesh in the 21st century. Lyric should be the central text of education.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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