beginner’s innocence

Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. (Wikipedia)

This post-post school week I’ve been rummaging through various stacks of “I’ll read this later.” It’s glorious. Digital things, magazine things, book things… omnomnomnom, so good. So when I read something yesterday, a devotional something, about looking through new eyes, I thought: naturally, doesn’t everyone? And then: oh, sure, that’s a poet-thing more than an everyone thing. I could talk about that, since it’s not automatic for everyone. And I could link back to the something that sparked the idea, because that’s only fair…
…except that I can no longer find it in the drifts of “read that already.” Sorry, writer-person.

Nor could I find the quote I was certain my first true poetry-writing instructor shared with us. I found other related things, but not what I remember from that summer I was fifteen: Wallace Stevens said the work of the poet is to look with an innocent eye. That has caught me up so tightly I even have an early poem so titled; I’ll share it sometime.

The devotional pointed toward the Zen Buddhism tenet, while my training points to Stevens, but the discipline is so similar it’s likely the same. But I wonder how clear that is to hear; whether folk now hear “beginner” or “innocent” as “stupid.” When I was digging around for Stevens’ “innocent eye,” I found all sorts of folk fussing about the usual post-modern critique, how we are trapped inside our perspectives and it’s ludicrous to posit some kind of Great Objectivity As Delivered by Europeans. How once we know things we stop beginning, and even babies can never be innocent because they’re born into families, who already know things.

As a poet, I find this beside the point.
I mean, there’s a truth to it, and there’s wisdom in paying attention to how the knowing one’s already gathered shapes the new knowing one is trying to form,

but this is what the innocent eye, the beginner’s mind, also talk about.

The Surrealists make an important point, I think. Whatever it is I say here, however I describe an experience (much less a feeling), I am already separated from the ‘thing itself.’ (“This is not a pipe.”) Not my fault, or any other creator’s fault, but worth keeping one’s eye on.

Yet in that space I find lots more room to maneuver. The facts of the thing are not necessarily in the descriptions that went before, or in the ones I make. They might be; it would be nice if they were. But (much to the dismay of many folk, I find) there may not be any particular virtue to any of them. Or perhaps—together—they’re all virtuous.

We can play a while, and find out. We can ask ourselves many questions about the thing, how it sounds—smells—moves—tastes?—looks, what we might do with it today, how it would seem when the weather changes. The thing all different, and also the same, alien while it’s familiar. Us using our innocent eye.


When I think of God’s love for us, and God’s unimaginable renewable forgiveness, I feel God’s perfect innocent eye and ever-refreshed beginner’s mind. Pay no attention to the things you were before; shed the cinder-block boots of your past. Wiggle your foot, point your toes, lift that sole of flesh right out and set it on the soft grass. There is no ‘deserving’ here; that would mean someone had pre-thought (preconceived) from before about what needed to happen after. When all is now, there is only skin and grass, heat, the green smell of noon’s sun on the scuppernong vines scaling the dune. Always God beginning again; always us, with God, beginning again.

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