An Excerpt from

ON RECEIVING AN HONORARY DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS FROM

NEW ENGLAND COLLEGE

Henniker, New Hampshire

27 January 2009

by

David Budbill

I

I never thought I’d be in a situation like this, not to mention seen in public in a get-up like this. I never thought I’d be a doctor of anything, except maybe Dr. of Nothing, of Emptiness.

 

II

I write poems and plays, occasionally a novel, and on a regular basis essays also, and I perform my work with jazz musicians. I also raise a year’s supply of vegetables and cut a year’s supply of firewood every year. I live in the mountains of northern Vermont as far away from academia and institutions as I can get. Therefore this honor is kind of embarrassing. It just doesn’t sound like me. On the other hand New England College and I have a history together. We go back almost 30 years. I feel connected to this place.

 

I posted this event on the calendar on my website awhile back and a friend in Iowa saw it there and emailed me saying that it gave him “great hope” that there are still some academic institutions out there in the world that think someone who writes poems and reads books, cuts wood and gardens, leads a quiet life of contemplation far away from any academic institution is worthy of an honor like this one. What my friend in Iowa said touched me. I agree with him. It is an honor, especially because it was bestowed on such an unlikely character as meself.

 

III

I have a checkered history with academic institutions. Being the egalitarian that I am, I’ve made it a point to get every grade offered, from the highest to the lowest, at every school I’ve ever attended. And since then, I’ve spent my life trying to stay away from academic institutions. Therefore, all the greater wonder that I’m standing here this morning.

 

I’m a writer but I have always been somewhat embarrassed about being a writer, an artist. I don’t like the elite and elitist air that so often casts itself over artists and the arts. It is obvious that many people involve themselves with the arts in order to distinguish themselves from the common people out of which I come and with whom I still fiercely identify. I’m interested in the invisible people, the ordinary and downtrodden, the put-upon and forgotten.

 

I hate pretense. I want to make art that the common people can understand, use, find meaningful and enjoy. Grace Paley once said to me after looking at a hand written note I’d sent her, “We both write big, David. We want to be understood.”

 

All this may explain why my writing is so plain and simple and easy to understand. In fact I have a poem in one of my books called ”
“On the Road to Buddhahood.”

 

Ever plainer. Ever simpler.
Ever more ordinary.

My goal is to become a simpleton.

And from what everybody tells me
I am making real good progress.
I hope this honor won’t ruin my reputation.

 

IV

I am the first person with my name to graduate from high school not to mention college or anything else. In other words, I was one of those–lo, those many years ago–First Generation College Students.

It wasn’t an easy road for me. My average grade coming out of high school was a C minus. I did a little theatre, ran track and played jazz trumpet, but in the classroom I was always the kid in the back slumped down in his seat trying to be invisible.

 

Colleges were interested in me only because I was a star on the track team, a record holding hurdler. Colleges hustled me. One college even offered to get me a tutor to help me through my classes.

 

When I got to college I had to go to the reading lab because I was reading on an 8th grade level. One of the reasons I was reading on an 8th grade level was that I have numerous learning disabilities that make reading difficult for me. I make a lot of reversals, for example, and that slows me down a lot.

 

After my first semester in college I was put on academic probation because I was doing so poorly. The dean at the college I attended called me into his office one day and told me that if I would buckle down and work really hard I could be a good solid C+ or maybe even a B- student. That condescension pissed me off so much that after my first semester on academic probation, I got on the Dean’s List and stayed there for the next seven semesters. That was one smart Dean.

 

After I got myself together in college, I got interested in studying Philosophy–I have absolutely no idea why. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I majored in it and minored in Art History. Then I got a Masters Degree in Theology. I never have studied English or Literature.

 

But back to high school for a moment, in my senior year I had an English teacher who inspired me greatly and who was enthusiastic about some little things I was beginning to write, assignments for his class. Suddenly and without warning, I found myself seriously interested in writing plays and especially poetry.

 

V

I think one of the reasons I got interested in poetry, both in reading it and in writing it, is that there are a lot fewer words on a page of poetry than there are on a page of prose. I like all that white space. And in poetry the lines don’t even make it to the right hand side the page. Fewer words, spaced out more, and with a rhythm to them, a cadence. It all made poetry easier for me to read. I know there is lots of modern poetry that is impossibly difficult to read: obtuse, obscure, impossibly dense, impossible. I’m not talking about that kind of poetry. I’m talking about my kind of poetry: simple, clear, straightforward, vivid, intense, gripping. I still like reading poetry best; or listening to it, such as every morning on NPR’s The Writers Almanac. Novels have just too many words on each page and they go on forever. Poetry, on the other hand, gets up there, does it job with a minimum of words and fuss, belts it out, gets it over with and sits down. I like that. Here’s three illustrations of what I’m talking about.

 

ALL OF US

Out of the undifferentiated Tao
come the ten thousand things:

the bug in the bird’s mouth,
the bird in the tree
the tree outside the window,
the window beyond the chair
the chair in the room,
the man in the chair

who has just risen from the chair
and walked across the room
to look out the window
at the bird in the tree
with the bug in its mouth.
See how all of us,
at our own and different speeds,
return to the Tao.
Oh, let us all
sing praises now for all of us,
so briefly here.

 

and a second:

BUGS IN A BOWL

 

Han-shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled
Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day
going around never leaving their bowl.

I say:  That’s right!  Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for your self.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.
Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

 

and finally:

TOMORROW

Tomorrow
we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.
Today,
simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.
Drunk on music,
who needs wine?
Come on,
Sweetheart,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve
still got feet.

 

VII

I’ve been driving down here to Henniker for almost 30 years. It was easy to come back for this; I knew the way.

 

I thank you all for this honor. I am flattered, humbled and grateful.

Thank You.

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A few years ago a friend in North Carolina said to me in an email, Email is for old people. I was shocked. I thought, and still do, that email is about the greatest thing since sliced bread. What Brett meant was that for a whole couple of generations of young people, Facebook and Twitter have replaced email. Slowly I came to realize the truth of what Brett was saying. For people under about 40, whether we old folks like it or not, Facebook and Twitter are where it’s at. It’s what they do. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but by and large it’s true.

 

I turned 70 this year. I’m a writer of books, a poet and a playwright. It occurred to me that there were at least two generations of young people out there I was not reaching because I was not a part of the “social media” they rely on. I came to understand that if I were going to be in touch with that younger set, I’d have to communicate with them the way they communicate, which is why I am now on Facebook and Twitter.

 

I am also now on both those social media sites because I’m curious, curious to see how they might expand my reach, broaden my appeal, help to get more productions of my plays and sell more books of poems. Accuse me of slathering advertisements for my writing all over Facebook and Twitter if you want. I’m guilty.

 

Resistance to new technologies is an old response. Luddites–a word coined and a movement begun in the early 19th century–didn’t appear with people who refused to use computers or email. In the late 1950s I was the minister to two tiny rural churches in a farming and strip-mining area of southeastern Ohio. In one of my churches there was a bachelor farmer who did not have electricity because he thought it was a passing fad. The Rural Electrification Administration had come through southeastern Ohio in the middle 1930s.

 

Recently I sent out an announcement to the more than 2000 people on my emailing list saying I was now on both Facebook and Twitter. The responses I got back ranged from hearty welcomes, and Well it’s about time. to incredulity and outrage. Here’s a few of the latter.

 

Twitter? why oh why?

Will I be the last literate man standing outside the Twitter/Facebook  zone?

I’m planning an intervention.

My condolences. Best for a speedy recovery.

I draw the line at Twitter. For the love of God man!

What ‘turned’ you to the darkside?

I’m still resisting and I continue to refuse to get sucked in.

Twitter is just too weird for me.

 

As you can see from the responses, a lot of people accept the presence of Facebook but draw the line at Twitter. Why? Twitter with its 140-character limit is ideal for people who write haiku or tanka, for example. I write a lot of very short poems. I plan to use them on Twitter. It’s a great challenge to say something useful and meaningful in less than 140 characters.

 

Finally, one young friend wrote, I’m sorry that you are having to deal with some negative backlash about your adoption of new tools. I’m a little surprised, and can’t help but feel like a more careful reading of your work would make it clear to those folks that there has always been a tension in your poems between loving solitude and needing the noise of the crowd. This, by the way, is why I’m both a poet and a playwright. One is the most solitary of literary forms, the other the most communal.

 

Onward. I don’t know how long I’ll last on either Facebook or Twitter, but I’m going to give them both a try.

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Apr

19

2012

LITANY FOR TODAY

In the days following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, I wrote the following poem.

It seems relevant again.

 

LITANY FOR TODAY

A Response to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident

 

From Three Mile Island, from Vermont Yankee, from Seabrook,

from a hundred other places in the country

a cloud of fear has risen, floated, into our lives

and no commission or committee, no panel of experts,

no congressman or senator,

no President, can convince me I am not afraid.

am  afraid,

for my children, my wife, myself, my friends and neighbors,

for the people of the earth, for the plants and animals of the earth,

for the earth itself. And I am afraid because

there is something to be afraid of.

I AM AFRAID.

 

I don’t believe what officials tell me because they tell me everything.

I don’t know how to choose between what is true and what is not,

and I don’t know, because they don’t know.

I AM AFRAID.

 

200,00 people left their homes and fled in fear

and when they returned their fear returned with them.

I AM AFRAID.

 

Here is a picture of The President visiting

the Three Mile Island reactor.

He wears yellow plastic booties to protect himself

from the contaminated soil.

A half mile away, dairy cows eat grass, make milk.

They do not wear yellow, plastic booties.

I AM AFRAID.

 

There are 250,000 gallons of radiation contaminated water,

and no one knows what to do with it.

I AM AFRAID.

 

Inside the reactor building

the radiation level is a thousand times the lethal dosage.

An engineer said,

“Dealing with the radioactive reactor

is going to be a long term problem,

and one, as yet, we don’t know how to handle.”

I AM AFRAID.

 

The paper said, “Despite earlier claims by officials that the chance

of a core melt-down had never been more than slight,

Representative Morris K. Udall, D-Arizona, said,

after a White House briefing, ‘It was a very close call.

We were very close to a real disaster.'”

I AM AFRAID.

 

A melt-down would have contaminated a thousand square miles.

I AM AFRAID.

 

A woman asked an official, “Will I be able to plant my garden?
I AM AFRAID.

 

But I don’t want to be afraid.

I want to stand in a field, grow a garden,

raise my children, be with my wife,

wake in the morning–and not be afraid.

I want to play softball on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoons,

I want to listen to music, visit with friends, drink beer–

and not be afraid.

I want to watch my son slide into second,

teach him how to swing an ax,

use a chain saw, drive a team of horses–and not be afraid.

I want to help my daughter learn to talk,

watch her run across the room, her arms spread out, shouting,

abandoned to her joy–and not be afraid.

I love my life. I don’t want to be afraid.

I AM AFRAID.

 

I want to sleep and wake, eat and drink, make love and work–

and not be afraid.

Fear diminishes us. I don’t want to be afraid.

I AM AFRAID.

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In 16th Century Lahore, which is present day Pakistan, the artist, Miskin, on the leaf of a manuscript, depicted the story of how The King one day while hunting in the countryside shot a bird with his bow and arrow.

When The King approached the bird, The King discovered, much to his chagrin and dismay, that the bird was, in fact, a young man, who now lay lifeless on the ground with an arrow through his chest.

Overcome with grief at what he had done, The King approached the mother of the young man who was sobbing nearby. The King called his servants to bring forth two golden bowls and place them on the ground between himself and the bereaved woman. The King then spoke to the grieving mother and said, In order to make amends for my grievous error, I offer you a choice. In one of these golden bowls you may have as much gold coinage of the realm as the bowl will hold, or in the other bowl you may have my head. The choice is yours.

When the king was done speaking, he called his servants forth with bags of gold enough to fill to overflowing one of the bowls. Then The King drew his sword and handed it to a servant, rolled down his collar, knelt down and bowed his head in preparation for his own beheading.

Here there was a pause of quite some time while The King waited for the mother’s decision.

At last, the mother of the young man, knowing that revenge is futile, accepted the golden bowl filled with gold to overflowing. Upon departing the mother, through her tears, exhorted The King to continue his just rule.

Thus the mother and The King parted, each carrying their own grief away from that place.

Such integrity and scruples in a King!

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All ancient Chinese poetry is song, to be sung in a high-pitched voice often accompanied by musical instruments.1 And those songs most often tell about the small, ordinary things of our common life together. Chinese poetry focuses on the actual, the things of this world, the here and now. It delights in the physical. It is humanistic and full of common sense and seldom touches on the supernatural or indulges in extravagant flights of fancy or rhetoric.

2 It is remarkably accessible and although periodically ancient Chinese poetry got rarefied, effete and intellectual, some poet always came along, like T’ao Ch’ien in the 4th century A.D. and Po ChŸ-yi in poetry and Han YŸ in prose during the T’ang Dynasty to bring it back to the simplicity and directness, the plainness which is the ear mark of any classical style.

There is a radically different aesthetic, world view, operating in ancient Chinese poetry from the one that controls poetry in American today. Much of contemporary American poetry, by Ancient Chinese standards, is pretentiously philosophical and mercilessly overwritten. Ancient Chinese poetry seeks out the simplest things in life and celebrates them. It does not want to be lofty or profound. It wants to tell of life on this earth. It finds the great universal truths in the mundane. 3 Although full of the celebration of this life, it is full of sorrow also. There is no poetry anywhere so imbued with the anguish of old age, the loneliness of sad partings, the ravages of war, the other myriad tribulations in our lives. Yet, as Robert Payne points out in his Introduction to The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, this Chinese sorrow is not the final sorrow of Virgil’s Christian West which looked forward to the end of the world in some catastrophe or a resurrection outside of time. 4For the Chinese there is no life after this one, only, as the Tao Te Ching puts it, a short while as one of the ten thousand things and then a return to the undifferentiated Way. At the same time that we are only passing through, the Chinese know that the world is permanent. The sorrow in Chinese poetry is the sharp and painful sense of time and life passing, the sense of our impermanence in the larger permanence.

Because in Chinese philosophy and religion there is no idea of an afterlife, the eternal now becomes where heaven must be. As T’ao Ch’ien puts it in a poem:

 

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away–so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
a little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.5

Yet T’ao Ch’ien knows also that by noon forever will be gone.

This sense of time fleeing is the basis for Chinese poetry’s awareness of the terrible impermanence of things6 and because of this impermanence, a sharply felt regret7 for the passing of the things of this world which is why Chinese poetry is always imbued with melancholy. And because of this melancholy sense of the temporality of our lives there is in all Chinese poetry a tender pity, a universal friendliness8 regarding what we westerners would call “the human predicament.”

There is never any of the misanthropic hatred of ourselves so common in current western literature and philosophy or the hellfire and damnation pronouncements of the impending apocalypse issued daily by current religious or ecological groups.

This apocalyptic and eschatological way of seeing the world is peculiarly Judeo-Christian. In our contemporary, non or anti-Judeo-Christian intellectual society we have discarded our religiously based ideas of the end of time and the end of being, but we have kept the attitude that went with those discarded ideas, and therefore in the most sophisticated of intellectual circles one gets a disdain for any religion, but the eschatological attitudes, now detatched from the discarded religion, remain. I am talking about the fashionable gloom with which modern art of all kinds has been enamored for decades, what I like to call “chic bleak.” In place of this gloomy, cynical, post-modern, self hatred the Chinese put a sweet melancholy, a tender pity, a universal friendliness, a great sadness over our inevitable suffering as we pass through this life. As Robert Payne puts it :

There is no Christian apocalypse, no crucifixion, no final blaze of glory. [The Chinese] were more human than the Europeans, who from earliest times have hinted secretly that they were gods, or at least could become gods. And because [the Chinese] had no belief in a future world, they loved the concrete things of [this] life passionately and with a kind of abandon, and where we find glory in a dying youth on a wooden cross, they would find the same glory in a leaf, in the silence of the woods and the distant roaring of tigers. 9

They also, by the way, found glory in sex and developed elaborate sex manuals and theories of sexuality necessary for what they considered good psychic and physical health. These theories were based on the idea that it was critically important for partners to exchange the liquids of Yin essence and Yang essence on a regular basis.

And their literature reflects and articulates this earth bound, human, sensual vision also. The Chinese poem is much less a philosophical pronouncement, less a demonstration of the poet’s way with words, less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author. As Burton Watson says in his Introduction to The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry:

There is less sense than in the West of a poem as possessing a life of its own apart from that of its creator, more of the poem as a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet and at the same time yielding up its full meaning only when read in the context of that life. The poem is the voice of the poet not self-consciously addressing posterity or the world at large, but speaking quietly to a few close friends, or perhaps simply musing to himself. 10

It may seem odd or contradictory for me to say that the poem is “less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author” only a few sentences before Burton Watson says that the poem is “a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet,” but the authorial first person in a Chinese poem is uniquely different from the “I” of most modern American poems. The “I” in a Chinese poem is an “I” connected to the rest of humanity in the most basic, common and ordinary way. It is an “I” speaking out of its particular situation to be sure, but speaking always for the rest of the human community to which the poet feels deeply connected. Even when the poet bemoans his old age, as Chinese poets constantly do, the poem remains somehow wonderfully selfless. I think this selflessness comes from the profoundly physical, sensual and non-intellectual nature of Chinese poems, and from their deep connection to the traditions and history of poetry in their language. The focus of the poem always remains outside the poet and his mind, always upon the world and other people. A Chinese poet does not draw attention to himself, he does not seek his quirky, odd, unique voice. He has an almost mad desire not to be different from other poets and to see himself connected to the past, and therefore, he achieves his uniqueness easily and automatically, since it is already there. In other words the focus of the poem is never on the poet but rather on some thing or person to whom the poet is relating, on a friendship, on the parting of friends, on the peach blossom petals floating down the river, on wine, fish, old age, a cloth cap, but not on the poet.

This human and humane attitude toward our lives, this loving kindness for our predicament is not exclusively Chinese. It is in our heritage as well. Sophocles says in Antigone, “Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” 11 On the last page of The Plague Albert Camus gives the reason for writing the book: “to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” 12

No doubt the fashionable gloom, the post-modern, chic bleak, of the anti-religious, sophisticated intelligentsia is a reaction to the stupid, can-do, problem solving, infantilism of American optimism, but both attitudes are extreme and extremely Romantic.

The Chinese way of seeing the world and relating to it offers another, plainer alternative, one it seems to me, more human and humane, one full of tender pity, universal friendliness and great sadness. This Chinese way of seeing is at once more bluntly realistic and yet also more comforting.

Addendum to “A Little Introduction . . .”A WORD ABOUT WORDS AND SILENCE
There is in almost all of ancient Chinese poetry, and certainly in poets like T’ao Ch’ien, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei and the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, a deep, abiding and unresolved conflict between the desire for silence and the urge to use language to make poems.

This is, I think, more of a Taoist thing than a Buddhist thing. In Bill Porter’s ROAD TO HEAVEN, he quotes one Taoist hermit as saying, “Taoists like it quiet.” Po Chu-i referred to his uncontrollable desire to write poetry–he wrote thousands of poems–as his “poetry demon” and he lamented the fact that he could never overcome his “word-karma.” So there is in much of ancient Chinese poetry a desire to get away from words, to get into silence.

The great goal, I believe, of all Taoists is to become anonymous and then to disappear altogether, which of course is exactly what the author of THE TAO TEH CHING, Lao Tzu, actually and finally did.

This urge toward silence and this understanding that in silence is where you will find enlightenment is opposed to, radically different from, what we in the Judeao-Christian tradition have grown up with.

I recently saw a program on public television about a group of rabbis who went to India to visit the Dali Lama. One of the rabbis says, “Monks like silence; Jews like to gab.” My book editor friend Mike Moore refers to Jews as “The People of The Book” which of course leads to books, millions of books.

And it’s not just Jews; it’s us Christians too. Here is the first sentence of the Gospel According to John in THE NEW TESTAMENT, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Well, you can bet a Jew/Christian wrote that. It’s, from a Taoist’s point of view, bad enough to say that the word comes even before God, but it’s really over the top to claim that the word actually IS God.

So there is this conflict in Chinese poetry between getting silent and disappearing and making poems. This topic, this motif, recurs again and again, throughout there history of Chinese poetry.

Here’s just one example, from Sung Dynasty poet, Yang Wan-li.

Don’t Read Books
Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,

leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
but if your lips constantly make a sound like an insect
chirping in autumn,
you will turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better

to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.

It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

In other words there is an enormous amount of space, emptiness, in Chinese poetry, which is to say, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas were not Chinese poets.

David Budbill

1 Payne, Robert, THE WHITE PONY: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, The John Day Company, New York, 1947, p.vii
2 Watson, Burton, THE COLUMBIA BOOK OF CHINESE POETRY: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p.2-3
3 Payne, p. xvi-xvii
4 Payne, p, vii
5 Hinton, David, trans., The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993, p. 44.
6 Payne, p.x
7 Payne
8 Payne
9 Payne, p.xii
10 Watson, p.4
11 Sophocles, ANTIGONE, Fitts/Fitzgerald translation
12 Camus, Albert, THE PLAGUE, The Modern Library, New York, 1948, p.278

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