Friday, October 30, 2009

the sound of one hand clapping

If you know anything about Zen Buddhism (I know very little), you are familiar with the term satori (enlightenment, see Japanese symbol above) and possibly its cousin, kensho, both of which can be achieved, Buddhists say, through the use of koans, little questions designed to help you along the path to the aforementioned enlightenment. One famous koan goes: You know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?

I think the writings of the American poet E.E. Cummings (also known as e.e. cummings and e e cummings) are in many ways the literary equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping. What I mean by that is “beyond the reach of my feeble understanding” (I would never be a good Buddhist). Here’s one of E.E.’s e e’s e.e.’s his most famous (and hence, to me, indecipherable) poems:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
by E. E. Cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Do you hear the sound of one hand clapping yet?

Maybe this one will help. It was published in the January 1920 issue of The Dial and is in the public domain:

I must be making progress. I know the pigeons are clay pigeons.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

But since the dictionary I looked in defines clapping as “to strike the palms of one’s hands against one another resoundingly, and usually repeatedly, esp. to express approval,” is it even possible for one hand to clap?