Mitsugi Saotome wrote that “Aikido is a dynamic poem of movement. … Your movement is a poem.” (1993, p. 233)
What does it mean, to say that aikido is poetry, to say that my movement is a poem? (That would be a pretty good day, I’m guessing, if I’m looking like poetry…)
To explore the relationship between aikido and poetry, I decided to ask first of all, What is a poem?
My computer’s dictionary reports that a poem is “a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure.”
I can see how aikido is like poetry, when you define poetry this way. You just need to replace “writing” with “movement” in the definition, and then you have aikido: Aikido is movement that partakes of the nature of both speech and song, that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits formal elements.
My computer also suggests a sub-definition for poem: “something that arouses strong emotions because of its beauty.” This definition goes beyond the main definition, discarding the specification of written work, and highlighting the play of beauty and powerful emotion.
Yes, this definition fits aikido, too. It can be powerfully beautiful.
I once asked one of my fellow aikidoka how she found aikido. She said that she had walked by a wall of posters as a youth, and had seen a photograph of a pair of people doing an aikido throw. She decided at that moment, “This is the art I am going to do for the rest of my life.” She didn’t know at the time that the photo showed aikido — she wouldn’t even learn the art’s name until years later. But the image stayed in her mind until she ran into the art again and could finally begin practicing.
So it seems appropriate to call aikido poetry: a poem, whether its rhythmic metaphors are spoken or danced, can set your heart on fire. That is its nature.
Although these basic definitions were a good start, I decided to ask a little deeper about the nature of poetry.
Robert Bly, a contemporary American poet, author, and activist, explains that in the work of the great poets,
the poem is an extension of the substance of the man, no different from his skin or his hands. The substance of the man who wrote the poem reaches far out into the darkness and the poem is his whole body, seeing with his ears and his fingers and his hair. (p. 16)
In the first set of definitions, we began with written poetry and extended its rhythm, metaphor, and form to the movement of aikido; now, we’re looking at poetry as “an extension of the substance” of the author.
We might understand this in the sense that as we read a well-crafted poem, one that radiates clarity and individuality, we feel the poet himself, just as though we had touched his skin or his hands. Bly goes beyond this perspective of receptive communication, however, and says that a poem is the author’s whole body, “seeing with his ears and his fingers and his hair.”
A good day it would be, indeed, when the words come together with such intensity and immediacy, such emotional precision, that I can feel myself seeing though them, feel in them myself looking into the darkness. And what a holistic moment of emotion this must be, a moment of thought, awareness, or whatever you might call it, a moment of being so holistic that I even feel myself seeing with my ears and my fingers and even my hair…
A little collection of words that can convey this kind of humanity must indeed be a great poem.
What of aikido, then, as this kind of poetry? Aikido already involves the practitioner’s whole body, so it might seem unenlightening to consider it an extension of this substance. But if we consider “substance” as self, broader and deeper than straightforward material, we get the subtle aikido, the action of seeing through one’s movement, the action of speaking through one’s body, the action of seeing with ears and fingers and hair…
I returned home from practice one evening and reflected at length, trying to figure out how the experience had been what it was. My partner had spoken to me throughout our iterations of the attack and throw, drawing my attention to the technique’s many angular subtleties. Perhaps these comments helped develop my execution of the technique, but I remembered none of them afterward. What I remembered was the second conversation, the one that had gone on underneath these words.
“He wrote a novel with his hands,” I finally managed to write, “or at least a long love letter.”
I conclude after my simple study of the nature of poetry that there may be as many definitions of poetry as there are poets, and perhaps a good deal more. The nature of poetry as an art form seems to be as elusive and fascinating to the poets themselves as is any particular instance of their craft. (The same fascinating elusiveness of definition seems to intrigue the aikidoka concerning their art. I wonder, is this flexibility of definition one of the aspects of art in general?)
As but one more among this universe of meanings, here is another of Robert Bly’s definitions of poetry:
A poem is something that penetrates for an instant into the unconscious. If it can penetrate in this way, freshly, several times, then it is a poem of several lines. But if it does not do this it is not a poem at all–no matter how long it is. (Bly, p. 33)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955, said that a poem is “‘an answering look’ given back by the poet to life”:
Life fixed him, wandering on the stair of glass,
With its attentive eyes…
A hatching that stared and demanded an answering look.
Perhaps “an answering look” is more graspable for many of us than “to penetrate the unconscious,” but perhaps, too, the two phrases refer to one ineffable experience. Can you recognize an answering look? I think you can. Can you define it? Perhaps not. Perhaps to define it, even describe it, would require a poem… Perhaps it is a poem…
Powerful poetry, as well as powerful aikido, doesn’t happen by accident, without effort, or without a certain level of quality — or at least it doesn’t consistently happen that way. Bly continues, “Poetry without inwardness or revolutionary feeling has no choice but to end in a kind of fabricated grossness. Poetry on this level of imagination must become more and more coarse to achieve sensation” (p. 29).
With this thought, we return to the start — although perhaps with a different perspective. Here, again, is Saotome’s mention of aikido as poetry, with a few more of its surrounding ideas.
Aikido is a dynamic poem of movement. You must become the galaxy and express it with your body. You cannot imitate the power of an ocean wave; you must become the ocean itself. You must see not just small technique but the entire picture of the movement. You must extend your creativity and create an image of power and reality. Your movement is a poem. You are the wind, the sun, a mountain, and exactly, you are art. (p. 233)
May the art of your life be full of imagination; may it be both inwardly and outwardly beautiful, both delicate and powerful; may it be a poem.
Bly, Robert. (1990). American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: HarperPerennial.
Saotome, Mitsugi. (1993). Aikido and the Harmony of Nature. Boston: Shambhala.
Wallace Stevens, quoted in Vendler, Helen (Ed.). (1987). Voices and Visions: The Poet in America, New York: Random House.