Poetry’s my thing, but it doesn’t pay the bills. So I’m a high school English teacher by day, a gig I would also describe as "my thing," just a thing of a different sort. And I’ve been indulging in this "thing of a different sort" all summer, as a matter of fact, because I elected to teach summer school this year - not my usual first choice. Most summers, I like to sleep in and sleep long. However, I was down for a different kind of vibe this July, and with five students in total, I can hardly complain about the stress.
The truth is, I’ve enjoyed leading my little workshop immensely, and last week we started reading one of my favorite novels, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Reading this book again reminded me of my early days at the University of Arizona, where I first encountered the text in one of my Religious Studies courses. I remember finishing the novel one night down the street from my dorm, at a coffee shop called The House.
Gazing up at the stars in those days, I never imagined I’d be a poet. I was in love with literature and regularly penned rhymes in my notebook, but the title "poet" felt too daunting to wear - like describing myself as a seductress might have been. I was comfortable, however, viewing myself as a spiritual seeker, so reading Hesse’s novel spoke to me, inspiring me to look within. Caught up in terms like "Nirvana" and "Samana," I had glossed over the poetry references in the book in those days.
On my recent reread, however, I was more attentive to them. In the chapter titled "Kamala," poetry plays a pivotal role when Siddhartha, the young ascetic seeking enlightenment, temporarily becomes exhausted and jaded with his quest. Siddhartha seeks out the lovely courtesan, Kamala, in his process of embracing worldly pleasures in lieu of the spiritual path, and when he finds her, she asks Siddhartha what he can do. He replies, "I can think, I can wait, I can fast."
This, as you may have guessed, is not going down as the most sexy answer in history. So unimpressed, Kamala impatiently wonders aloud, "Nothing else?" to which Siddhartha responds, "I can compose poetry." And then he pauses for a moment before he recites an original poem on the spot praising the fair Kamala, implying she is worth more than the gods. Finally impressed, Kamal rewards Siddhartha with passionate kisses.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the book because it reminds me of how poetry can serve as a force between people, in this case two people nurturing a potential mutual attraction. Poetry can even be a form a of flirting. By reciting an original poem, Siddhartha impresses a woman of worth, wooing and seducing her into indulging him in kisses. Consequently, this scene in the novel reminds me of something I love about poetry - the paradox of being both an erotic and spiritual art form. Poems are mysterious yet sensual entities, and consequently can serve as a bridge between the material world and its spiritual counterpart.
Like Siddhartha reciting a poem inspired by Kamala, I have written several poems inspired by the people I care about or hope to inspire into caring about me - and I especially did this back in college. However, it’s been a while since I’ve written such a poem. I’ve actually been more into personification lately - writing odes to lip gloss, slippers, and the color orange. But since reading this chapter I’ve wondered about getting back to inspiring the people in my life - to flirting and wooing with words. Clever Siddhartha knew how to seduce Kamala with a poem. The triumph of poetry was temporary, however. Soon after indulging Siddhartha with kisses, Kamala says, "Your poems are good, but there’s no money in poetry. What else can you do?"
So like today, back in the day of early sages, poetry was a gig that didn’t pay the bills. To be part of the real word, writers & mystics needed to have something else they could do. The moral of the story: reciting a good poem inspired by your love interest might get you some action, but it wont necessarily earn you a relationship.
The truth is, I didn’t start writing poetry to woo lovers or to make money. But I do think a poem delivered at the right time in the right spirit and to the right person can be rather sexy. Poems occupy the hyphen the between lotus and luxury. Reading Siddhartha, I was reminded that when I lift the pen, I’m not just indulging in some esoteric art - I am sometimes hoping to be kissed.