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Returning to What’s True, Part IV - Reading Poetry as a Meditative Practice

Poetry is a realization of something timeless. A particularly powerful poem can go for the jugular, cut to the core, evoke a long-suppressed memory, or a feeling that cannot be named, but only experienced.

A simple act of reading poetry can help us become aware of our intention, our relationship to G-d, the world, and ourselves.

The history of Jewish poetry is as old as Jewish history itself. From “Song at the Sea” (‘Shirat ha-Yam’) and “The Song of Songs” (‘Shir ha-Shirim’) of the Torah to the psalms and piyyutim (religious poems) of the prayerbooks to the flowering of Hebrew poetry in medieval Spain (Abraham ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi) to the 20th century Jewish poets writing in Russian (Yosif Brodsky, Osip Mandelstam), English (Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Glück), or Yiddish (Jakob Glatstein, Peretz Markish) to the second flowering of Hebrew poetry in modern Israel (Yehuda Amichai, Hayim Bialik, Dahlia Ravikovitch), it has expressed much of what how we perceive the world and ourselves.

In this post, I’d like to combine a particular practice I learned on poetry meditation retreats with the Vipassana (Insight) meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt with some elements of literary analysis that I use when teaching critical reading to my students.

Direct meaning vs. inferred meaning vs. reaction

When reading poetry, information and communication are secondary to the experience itself. It is essential to separate the content of the poem, direct (step I) and indirect (step II), from your reaction to it (step III). Take for instance, a 10-word haiku by Ryokan, an 18th century Japanese poet.

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window

Its direct content would be the summary of events that happen in this short piece – a thief apparently stole Ryokan’s possessions from his house. He didn’t steal the moon.

The indirect, inferred meaning is subject to multiple interpretations. For some, the moon is a common metaphor among Zen poets like Ryokan, representing equanimous enlightened awareness. That, unlike worldly possessions, cannot be stolen. The thief is reduced to an insignificant criminal, collector of junk, blind to the truth.