We often think of the Beats when we think of Buddhist inspired poetry in the West. Actually, the influence of Buddhism in the West began 100 years ago, largely due to the midwifery of Ezra Pound, that American expatriate poet of the Lost Generation, an influential figure in the modernist movement in poetry. He played a role in Imagism, his generation’s rejection of flowery Victorian and Georgian poetry in favor of directness and economy. Pound took a year to write of this experience in the Paris Underground, distilling essence in the style of haiku:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Where the Lost Generation adopted stylistic elements of Buddhism and struggled with meaninglessness under the pall of World War I, the Beat Generation was anything but lost and went beyond style. In ‘50s atmosphere of paranoia, the Beats found sanity in Buddhism. In the light of non-duality, no difference between heaven and hell, man or woman, the hierarchies and them vs. us mentality becomes meaningless. The mendicant life recommended by Buddha becomes a haven. Life on the road and the poetry of rebellion become antidotes to 50s conformity and consumerism.
Western interest in Zen and Zen poetry is perhaps a surprise to some but it is also absolutely serious. Alan Watts criticized the Beat Generation poets, calling them dillettantes. He couldn’t say that of today’s Buddhist and Buddhist-influenced poets, not with the likes Leonard Cohen, an ordained monk, and Jane Hirshfield, who received Soto-Zen lay ordination. Buddhist inspired poetry today is characterized by neither hopelessness nor rebellion, rather by the Buddhist spiritual values of non-duality, transience and impermanence, and the practice of present moment and mindfulness. In their hands, reading and writing poetry becomes spiritual practice.