The Acid Tongue
My Poet is Better than Your Poet
Selected By Cyril Wong
I hesitate to call Whalen-Bridge's essay-response "acidic". It is a riposte to a response to a review by John Whalen-Bridge (in Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate) of Gary Snyder's poems. The riposte by the original reviewer is in response to Rajeev Patke who has accused Whalen-Bridge of anthropomorphism. Both Patke and Whalen-Bridge are lecturers whom I seriously respect and who taught me while I was at the National University of Singapore. So, in a personal way, I am paying tribute to my teachers by including Whalen-Bridge's response here for this issue of Acid Tongue; I have not included Patke's response as it is referred to sufficiently here. I think Whalen-Bridge's response is only "acidic" for its understandable sense of outrage which translates into a hilarious bitchiness barely contained by the reviewer's intellectual rigour and a desire to transcend merely petty emotions. This is an old exchange (1998-2000) between my professors that I wished I had used sooner for Acid Tongue; nonetheless, I hope it is not too late.
Whalen Bridge introduces the reason for his retaliation in a mode of "mock-angst":
I am, shall I say, slightly saddened. I wrote an essay about poet Gary Snyder explaining how we human beings can sit down and have a nice chat with rocks and trees...and, lo and behold, a human being has completely misunderstood me. Rajeev Patke's response says that I am guilty of committing the pathetic fallacy when I claim that the poetry of Gary Snyder helps us communicate better with the world.... Part of me wants to ask, in the mode of mock-angst I now enjoy, Why must it always come to that?
Then he introduces a Zen story, using this story to explain the reasoning behind his argument:
One time when the Master was washing his bowls, he saw two birds contending over a frog. A monk, who also saw this, asked, "Why does it come to that?" The Master replied, "It's only for your benefit."
If Professor Patke were considering this story, he might accuse the Master of the pathetic fallacy.... The Master...certainly has not said that two birds woke up in their feather-beds one morning, stretched, and said one to the other, "hey, let's you and me go contend over a frog so that some bald-headed monk can learn a little bit about impermanence." Such would be the "hard reading" that Patke sets up.... Patke is saying something like "for Whalen-Bridge's claims to stand up, we can only talk to the world if fables are regarded as literally true." I never said in my essay that fables were literally true, nor is the Master...saying that the birds are serving a human need in any direct, intentional way. The Master is saying...that the monk's own surprise and sympathy are themselves a matter of pathetic fallacy, and that the young, inexperienced monk only perceives the bird-frog carnage as "other" because he is implicated: the monk's hunger to see himself as pure and harmless cause him to frame the scene as he does. When the younger man tries to flatter himself by saying to the Master, and I paraphrase freely here, "Isn't it nice that you and I are not savage killers like those little beasties over there," the Master corrects the monk by saying "don't kid yourself: you paid to enter the show, and thus you are very much part of it."
Whalen-Bridge then states (and only a tad defensively) that anybody choosing to misread his writing on Snyder should only try and read it more carefully:
...Patke divides strong-and-hard from weak-and-soft readings in order to argue that my essay...is a weak-and-soft reading that sentimentally indulges in pathetic fallacy in order to pretend that the world talks back to us humans as a human would. The last idea, which I have emphasized, is Patke's projection, and it has been specifically ruled out in my essay. When Dôgen says that we do not experience water as a dragon does, he is using non-literal and fully figurative language to cure us of our erroneous belief that all beings experience the world in the same way...I should not hope to inspire any readers to squat next to a tree or put ear to ground to hear what words these inanimate items actually use. I plead, forsooth: please read my essay...with more attention to what these texts actually "say"...
He also accuses Patke of being reactionary, using a funny and memorable image of a Zen master shaking his sleeves ineffably, as well as equating Patke to Columbus:
...Patke brings in Orientalist appropriation, which strikes me as a knee-jerk reading. Casual phrasing such as "Zen on his sleeve" and the imputation that Gary Snyder's references to Dôgen are somehow part and parcel of the Western imperial domination of Asia – this questionable move causes me to stand up like a Zen master and give my sleeves a hard shake for an answer, but as a special kindness to Connotations readers I translate my ineffable gesture into verbal form: I write this from Asia.... But in America...it is Columbus Day, and Columbus is a famous historical example of just the sort of appropriation that Patke accuses me of – and practices himself. Columbus came to the New World and began by misnaming the people he found there.... Columbus might have said, in his own defense, that the humanoid creatures he met in the New World were not really people since they do not speak "our" language.... Consequently, Columbus is considered by many, nowadays, to be a bad guy.... Practicing this (or a similar) kind of appropriation, Patke distorts my meaning when he transforms this statement from my essay: "'The Canyon Wren' is not just about how we express ourselves in the world: it is a public record of the world speaking back to us".... "Public record," the reader is reminded, is the exact translation of the Japanese word kôan. It is the public record of a moment between two or more speakers when one speaker or the other has slashed through the conceptual shortcomings of the words we use to communicate; a student within the Zen tradition might spend years trying to understand what that strange conversation is about. Patke, misunderstanding what a kôan actually is, finds my reading comes up short.... It is a primary point in Zen discourse that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, but in his essay Patke is criticizing the finger for failing to be the moon.
And Whalen-Bridge laments, half-mockingly; and later suggests ways to further this conversation in a more productive, and also more poetic, way:
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013
Why does it come to that? Perhaps it is only for your benefit. I'm not merely mocking when I write this: I'm truly grateful for Patke's resistance to my essay and for the ego-driven clamor of minds that allows us to say (more and more skillfully, I hope) what we want to say. In a sense, we are two birds contending over a frog, and "it is only for your benefit."
To say that "we talk to nature" or "the mountains have a voice" means only that we may try to listen in ways that are not absolutely self-interested.... There are environmental matters at stake, to be sure, but there is also at stake our understanding of literature itself. Wallace Stevens has presented, in a poem, the claim that poetry is the supreme fiction. We vary from his way when we fail to see that all parts of our lives, whether we call them fantasy or reality, figurative or literal, are parts of a vast poem. Sure, I can hear Professor Patke saying, that is a quaint Romantic sentiment. But there is also a huge development within literary studies currently taking literature's institutions to task for unquestioningly privileging the "homocentric" imagination over the "ecocentric." For a possible next stage in the present conversation I would suggest reading Lawrence Buell's The Environmental Imagination, which discusses Thoreau's Walden and other environmental texts to show how we might use literature to talk to the world without looking like we have lost our minds.
May this conversation--and many another warm, witty, and vigorous debate--continue in Halberstadt, where conversations may happen between you, I, rocks and trees, birds, and poets both living and dead.