Open Horizons The Methodological Spirit of Open Horizons as an Adventure in Cross-Cultural Ecopoetics
by Jay McDaniel
Open Horizons is a way of knowing and a way of living. It is what academics might call cross-cultural ecopoetics. Poetics is the activity of seeking wisdom for daily life with help from science, philosophy, religion, art, music, poetry, and experiences in daily life.
Ecopoetics is the activity of seeking wisdom for living in relation to the Ten Thousand Things. When we engage in ecopoetics we learn from other people and the conversations we have with them; and also from the hills and rivers, plants and animals, trees and stars. They, too, have voices worth hearing. They, too, express a creativity at the heart of reality.
Cross-cultural ecopoetics is the act of seeking wisdom from different cultural traditions as well as the natural world. The realities of cultural globalization encourage and require cross-cultural ecopoetics. The aim of cross-cultural ecopoetics is to help build what Martin Luther King Jr. beloved communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
The building blocks of ecopoetics are not arguments but rather metaphors and stories, ideas and experiences. There are no proofs in ecopoetics, only proposals, or, in Whitehead's words, "lures for feeling." The wisdom people are seeking is not an item to be purchased in a shopping mall; it cannot be contained in a wrapper. Rather the wisdom lies in having a sense of perspective. Ecopoetics is the activity of seeking wisdom and being grateful for whatever small portions of wisdom are found in the seeking.
The Analects of Confucius provide a key to wisdom-seeking, not simply in their content, but in their form. If you pick up a copy of Confucius’ Analects you quickly discover that they consist of episodes or stories of things Confucius said amid his interactions with students. The various stories do not unfold in a linear fashion but instead have a collage-like quality, with one episode being presented, and then another, as if they have been assembled in a random way. The stories in the New Testament read in a similar way. Many classical texts read like this. They have a jazz-like quality.
This means that if you are to gain a sense of the Analects as a whole, you must be patient with two kinds of thinking: radial thinking and collage thinking. The texts themselves implore you to be patient in this way. Radial thinking explores a subject from different perspectives, like radii stemming from different points on a circumference of a circle all aiming toward the center. The subject matter itself, often dimly discerned, is at the center. In the case of the Analects, for example, the subject can be respect for elders or human-heartedness or ritual propriety. Typically the Analects have Confucius commenting on one of these subjects, but his commentaries are often enigmatic.
Collage-like thinking is different from radial thinking. Whereas radial thinking often has a subject that is determined in advance, collage-like thinking is the activity of assembling things, without being sure how they fit together, but with an interest in seeing how they can be jointly affirmed, without losing any of their individuality. The activity of holding these different realities together, even when they do not obviously fit together, is at the heart of collage-like thinking. Here again there is a jazz-like quality.
What can be held together? Let us first consider the matter from a poet’s point of view and then from that of daily life. When it comes to poetry, the ideas of the late American poet Ezra Pound are helpful. He was one of the first to turn to East Asia as a source of wisdom. Some of his poems combined Chinese characters and English language characters. In developing his own ideas on poetry he proposed that all poems, when presented on a page or recited, have three kinds of meaning: sounds, words, and images.
Imagine a poem on a page. It consists of words of one sort or another. Pound says that every word carries with it a host of meanings, some complementary and some contradictory, which emerge in association with other words, in the corpus of a poem. Pound calls this logopoeia: the poetic logic of words. And yet, says Pound, there is also meaning in the ways in which words are presented optically on the page, surrounded by white space, and forming lines. Pound calls this phanopoeia. And then there is the meaning of the sounds themselves, which Pound calls melopoeai.
But what happens when phanopoeia and logopoeia drop away, and all that remains is melody and rhythm? The word becomes jazz. Today some poets are experimenting with poems whose meaning lies in the sounds themselves, bearing no relation to familiar words. We are reminded of Muslims who say that the meaning of the Qur’an lies, not simply in the words, but the sweetness of the sound. Or of blues guitarists who say that the meaning of the blues lies not in the words that are uttered, but the wailing of the guitar. Or the sighing of a mother who stares into the eyes of her baby and utters her pleasure with a sigh, not a word. Even the Bible speaks of praying in a wordless way, with sighs too deep for words.
The general point, then, is that poems can have three kinds of meanings: discursive, optical, and musical. And the general point is that, when it comes to poetry, an Open Horizons approach is sensitive to all three kinds of meaning.
Now consider life itself. It, too, has its meanings. These meanings lie in the experiences of ordinary people as they make their way through a day, and the meanings include what is heard (the sounds), what is seen (the images), and what is spoken or said (the words.) The meaning of the sounds can also include the sounds of silence: the pauses, the things left unsaid, the presence of a quiet heart, who listens without needing to fill the air with words.
If we think in a collage-like way, we are interested in how the different kinds of meaning can be seen and heard and spoken for what they are, even when they cannot be gathered into the unity of a story or a narrative or a tale. They are simply meanings-in-the-moment and meanings-for-the-moment: this smile, this silence, this tear. And we carry these meanings in the memory of our own lives, moment by moment, remembering them for what they were and are. They need not make sense in a linear way; they make sense in a deeper and more momentary way, even in their fragmented nature. The sense that they make may not be happy, but it is meaningful and important to us: part of the ongoing collage which is our own life, sometimes forming a narrative and sometimes not. Which takes us back to poetry: East and West.
A good bit of modern and postmodern poetry in Asia and the West today, draws upon an emerging lineage called transnational poetics. One of the best books available on this subject bears that title: Transnational Poetics by Jahan Ramazani. This lineage includes a willingness draw upon stories from daily life, a freedom to use and extend metaphors, a willingness to use the first-person singular, a conversational tone, a willingness to experiment with multiple narrative voices, a freedom to enter into hybrid forms of consciousness, an appreciation of the fact that, sometimes, there is wisdom in collage-like approach, which juxtaposes different images and stories that are not “connected” in any obvious way.
Open Horizons thinking recognizes the wisdom of collage, the wisdom of sound, the wisdom of images, the wisdom of words, the wisdom of journeying without a pre-defined end in sight - because the horizons are open. At its heart is not simply a seeing of things in linear fashion, but a hearing of things that ring true, even if not connected in linear ways. This hearing is a kind of intuition. An acceptance of diversity. A delight in harmony, even if not “harmonious” in familiar ways. A recognition of truth beyond “truth,” never possessed, but often felt, sometimes in a collage-like way.