Name of the book: The way of Poetry

Author: John Leonard

Author Web:

Publisher: Three Pines Press, FL, USA

Genre: Essay on Poetry

First Edition: 2010

ISBN: 978-1-931483-17-9

Number of pages: 71

Price: Paperback 16.95 USD, Electronic File 8.00 USD

Name of Reviewer: Thriveni C Mysore

Introduction: Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She loves Philosophy and Nature Poetry.

Philosophical elements of Leonard’s ‘The Way of Poetry’

            It is certainly unreasonable to expect to understand John Leonard’s ‘The Way of Poetry’ without a great deal of mental effort. ‘The Way of Poetry’ is a true book on the extended philosophy of poetics, contemporary and an urgent necessity to poetic world, to the world of writers and essential to the world of readers too.

            If one is aware of the psychological human tendency that restricts one’s thinking according to predilections, beyond doubt it gets dispelled after reading ‘The Way’ and hence the philosophical elements in Leonard’s book of poetry claims attention in literary circles.

            John Leonard’s ‘The Way of Poetry’ is a critical appreciation of poetry in Daoist (Tao) perspective and as said in its foreword, the book is the first in series from Three Pines Press exploring the territory of Dao today. The author analyses, organizes and synthesizes Daoist virtues; compassion, restraint and humility and applies all of these to poetry.

            No philosophy can survive the present age that cannot explain the sense of ‘being’. Daoist theory begins just at the crucial beginning by stepping up to explain, ‘the way’. Free from all human demarcations; social, political, geographical and religious, Daoist way is the law of life which includes the one who lives, life and the relationship between them.

            Chinese Dao, originally meant ‘speech’ has Lao Tzu say:

‘The Dao that can be Dao-ed is not the true Dao. To realize Dao in life is to realize one’s true meaning’ (- Glossary of Buddhist terms). Daoist theory introduces itself as;

            The Dao that can be trodden

            Is not the enduring and unchanging Dao.

            The name that can be named

            Is not the enduring and unchanging name.     (Page-1)

            The author says that by these lines it is fruitless to try to describe the Daoist way in words. The way is central to both Confucianism and Daoism with the former stressing the Dao of humanity and the latter the Dao of Nature. The author stresses the point that unlike other religious philosophies,

‘The way does not need to be strived for, because everything already belongs to it. The only thing that needs to be done is remove impediments to recognizing this fact’. (Page- 4)

            Taking up the relevance of Daoism, the author suggests,

‘Daoism breaks down effectively the false dichotomy of reason/religion that so many people have been preoccupied within the twentieth and well into this century’ (Page- 6)

            Instead of overturning or superseding one’s former beliefs, the author believes that Daoist study would allow deeper perspective on what one already knows and values and takes up poetics in Daoist perspective.

            Comparing Dao to water, sage Lao says, ‘In all the world there is nothing more affectionate and weak than water, still in its manner of attacking firm and hard things there is nothing that could take its place’. (Page- 340, Living religions of the world, Frederic Spiegelberg, 1957, The Pitman press)

            Poetry should be thus, says the author, it should flow effortlessly like water, yet deal with difficult concepts with ease and aptly quotes his poem,

            Wandering in the warm sunlight

            Of autumn noon, the poignant air

            Is almost too sweet to breathe. (Page- 11)

            The author says;

‘Even when not written by avowed Daoists, or even when written by people who could never have heard of Daoism can still serve the (Daoist) way’. (Page- 12)

            Bringing together the vital qualities of Daoist poetry, the author excellently simplifies the difficult philosophical understanding as;

‘Poems/poets must avoid anything “rigid” in their thinking (…) and let outward things disclose themselves’. (Page- 13)

            The author quotes Lu Chi, ‘The writer will study “the four seasons as they pass” and, “seeing the interconnectedness of things”, “learn the innumerable ways of the world”. Once this occurs, inspiration will follow. (Page- 13)

            The author picks up the three precious Daoist virtues;

  • Gentleness
  • Economy
  • Shrinking from taking precedence of others

And transcends them to three treasures as poetic virtues;

  • Compassion
  • Restraint and
  • Humility

Here lies the essence of poetic philosophy of ‘The Way’.

The ecological crisis is something that has not had to concern poets until the present time, says the author, and hence the necessity to embrace the Daoist compassion. He expresses;

‘It is not green thinkers who are being dualistic by insisting on the importance of “nature”, it is modernity which is being dualistic by pretending it is possible to have an economy without an environment. (Page- 17)

      The author opines that like Daoism, poetry teaches ‘wordlessly’. Explaining Daoist attitude of calmness, the author quotes from Daode jing:

A violent wind does not last for a whole morning;

a sudden rain does not last for the whole day.

To whom is it that these two things are owing?

To Heaven and Earth.

If Heaven and Earth cannot make such…actions last long,

how much less can man! (Page- 23/24)

It is a clear indication to modern day scenario, wherein all it asks is to STOP, no matter what the destruction so far done, it is wise to put a stop, put a Stop now so as to save the future of ourselves in Nature.

      Taking up the Daoist concept of restraint or “non action” (wuwei), the author says that;

…sometimes no action is the best course because nothing you can do can change a situation and anything you do could make it worse. To make the point much more clear, the author quotes Sunzi’s ‘Art of War’;

…to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the

highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the

enemy’s army without fighting at all. (Page- 29)

      The Daoist non-action is to act in such a way that one’s action and the results of one’s actions are not noticeable either to oneself or to others. The author famously puts forth his idea of saving the planet as;

…the only things we can succeed in are actions that assist natural processes in maintaining biodiversity, hoping that by this last stage in ecological decline we can still retain our place amongst the 10,000 things. (Page- 29)

      Applying Daoist non-action on poetry, the author says, poetry is inspiration and not a conscious effort;

‘The poem is more subtle than by memory, and functions as a recourse for the reader’ and quotes Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (Page-30)

      About the sounds of poetry and Daoist restraint, the author quotes Lewis Carroll’s Alice, “Look after the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves” (Page- 35)

Likewise, in Daoist poetry, ‘Look after the meaning and the words will take care of themselves’. For, in translations, meaning gets embedded in target reader while words of source language may get lost. The author suggests about sound and flow in poetics as;

‘In English the equivalent practice would be to vary the sounds so that adjacent vowels and consonants do not impede the progress of the poetry’. (Page- 37)

He argues about the necessity of rhymes as;

‘However, in English, because of its many vowels and many varied word forms there are fewer rhymes, and it would be my argument that the poet is best to avoid them, marking the important parts of the poem by syntactic means, rather than distorting the meaning for the sake of a rhyme’. (Page- 40)

As an answer to the case of Daoist humility, the author quotes his translation of wonderful western poet Sappo;

Evening star,

you gather everything

that bright dawn scattered.

You gather the sheep,

You gather the goats,

You gather the child

Home to its mother. (Page- 44)

Vocalizing on Daoist Humility, Poetry, and Belonging, the author says,

‘It is particularly humble to recognize that one’s life cannot be pointless.

And poetry too, poetry of our Daoist kind, cannot but speak of this belonging’. (Page- 52)

In spite of dealing with all the essential Daoist principles, one might wonder as to what is said about the length of poetry, now that the world of literature has come to appreciate single line poems. Daode jing itself is a poem of 5250 words, cryptic and open to interpretations. The lengthy flow of poetry has a stay in any Literature, the problem is with the present time and present generation readers who want, wham-bham-thank you ma’m sort of writing, where the writer is supposed to say his say, quickly and be out of their way. This is sucking up all the pleasant air of poetic appreciation and is hence peeking out through a few academic courses. When long reading hours, followed by longer contemplation period returns as a habit for common people, the flood gates of Literature opens up again and there will be an enchanting flow of life-giving water like thoughts that engulf the Being, the Daoist way.

The English Ballads, Odes, Long poems, Satires do have their classical status in Literature to perpetuity. It feels good to quote George Herbert’s bleating in ‘Jordan’:

 Is it no verse, except enchanted groves

And sudden arbors shadow coarse-spun lines?

Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?

Must all be vailed, while he that reads, divines,

  Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:

Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime:

I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;

Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,

  Who plainly say, My God, My King.

The author of ‘The Way of Poetry’ concludes the essay with a hope of having shown some of the ways in which poetry may serve the Daoist way, but for the readers, it brings new insights, symbolic victory of philosophic poetic expression.

On Daoist lines, John Leonard’s ‘The Way of Poetry’, ‘is not complete, yet nothing is left incomplete’.

‘The Way of Poetry’ changes one’s perception towards poetic philosophy by providing a much wider view, a panoramic view of Daoism, Poetry and Nature.