The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

“Awakening” is an unrhymed poem in numbered sections that run I through VII. The title suggests an epiphany, referred to in Zen as satori. The dedication reads, Homage to Hakuin, Zen Master, 1685-1768.

In section I Shoichi, a sixteenth century Japanese painter and calligrapher, has drawn a black circle. Above the circle he has composed a poem, a haiku. Having been penned in the traditional Japanese fashion, with the lines and individual symbols running up and down the page, the poem and circle take on the appearance of budding flowers growing from a bowl. Shoichi tells the reader that the bowl has, “Since the moment of my/ pointing,” held “nothing but the dawn.”

In section II Lucien Stryk presents a winter scene, frost on a window that looks like “laced ice flowers” and a meadow covered with ice and frost that looks as if it drifted off the side of a glacier. The scene reminds the poet of a description by Hakuin in which Hakuin was alone, “Freezing in an icefield,” so cold he “could not move.” The poet realizes that, even though his legs have cramped and he cannot see beyond the frost, his mind is still “pointing/ like a torch.” He does not move. In section III it is spring. The poet examines a stone as he holds it in the palm of his hand and turns it “full circle/ slowly, in the late sun.” He feels a sting in his hand, like the pressure of a “troubled head.” The stone falls from his hand, and “A small dust rises.”

In section IV the poet describes the air that moves westward, “Beyond the sycamore,” as something nameless and dark, like smoke or a cloud. He traces “a simple word” in the condensation that his breath has left on a window. In section V the poet presents a scene in which he and his daughter are on a beach where the poet, thirty years before this time, had played with shells. His daughter gathers shells and directs him in making a model of the universe. They watch the “planets whirling in the sand” till sundown.

In section VI the poet presents the reader with a series of elusive though generic sensations, mostly of touch, and abstractions such as “Time. Place. Thing.” In section VII Stryk presents a setting that is very much like a mirror image of section I. Instead of an ancient artist drawing and composing a poem in the light of dawn, the poet is writing a poem himself and using a watercolor image to describe what the fading light of evening is doing to the trees. He ends the poem by saying that dusk is the time of day that always makes him happy and ready for death if it should come.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

The first device this poem uses is a dedication. Presenting the poem as homage to a great (perhaps the greatest) Zen master, Stryk prepares the reader for what most Western writers try to lay before their readers whenever they write about Zen—paradox.

Stryk uses a set of framing elements that give the poem a sense of unity and a feeling of formality. Whenever a poem is presented to the reader in numbered units it is natural for the reader to expect that each unit will have both an independent sense of its own and a modular function within the larger framework of the poem. In classic Zen fashion, the author opens the poem at dawn and closes with dusk. Along with reinforcing the unity of the poem and all its elements, this adds a sense of completeness. Typical of Zen thinking, the five sections between I (dawn) and VII (dusk) do not have to carry a sense of having equal importance or of occurring at specific or evenly spaced points within the progression. It is sufficient that they all occur between dawn and dusk.

By dividing most of the poem (all but the first section) into tercets, the poet creates a visual resonance with a large body of Japanese poetry. This is especially true of haiku—and of the work of Hakuin in particular because of his fame not only as a composer of haiku but also as an artist who enhanced his paintings with haiku. Beginning the poem with a reference to another classic Japanese artist who enhanced his paintings with haiku, and ending the poem with a modern poet who describes the world from the perspective of a painter is another framing device that further unifies all elements of the poem.

Metaphor is important to almost all Western poetry and plays a large role in Asian poetry as well; however, the role of metaphor within cultures heavily influenced by Zen can be very confusing to people of Judeo-Christian-Islamic cultures. Although Zen poetry is full of objects found in nature, these objects will rarely be metaphors for individual aspects; however, any physical object found in nature can represent the nature and workings of all existence. With Zen it is all or nothing.

Stryk has used the most basic of Zen symbols. Dawn symbolizes beginning and ending, and dusk ending and beginning. The circle, much like the figure-eight symbol for infinity, represents the endless cycle of life.

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