Some Constants of Change
Patterns of Influence and Affinity
After nearly thirty years of continuous incubation, intermittent and interrupted work, experimentation with form and presentation, and occasional hints, glimpses and premonitions through other collections, Richard Berengarten’s Changing was published by Shearsman Books in 2016.
Any reader handling the book first meets Will Hill’s bold and minimalist cover design. This incorporates a modern recreation of an ancient version of the Chinese graph for ‘change’ by the contemporary calligrapher and poet Yu Mingquan. Thanks to this design, a reader is invited to entertain shapes and systems of language and to plunge into ways of being, thinking and seeing that differ markedly from long-established Western models. Nor is it even certain that this rather abstract-looking design is in fact an ideogram. To a Western reader, at first sight, it might even seem to be entirely abstract and non-linguistic.1 So even though Chinese influences have permeated all aspects of contemporary western life, from cuisine, art and film to medicine, martial arts and technology, the simplicity of this cover design apparently betokens a shift into ‘another world’.
As a counterbalance to this point, as any reader familiar with twentieth century Anglophone poetry knows, the entry of Chinese graphs into poems was first broached by Ezra Pound in his Cantos. From Pound and others, a rich tradition of translation of Chinese poetry into English has developed ever since then, in the USA, the UK and Australia. But while Chinese script is familiar enough in Anglophone countries, few people know how to read it. To most Westerners, Chinese feels familiarly unfamiliar.
If we consider Berengarten’s Changing in terms of its intellectual and poetic precursors, models and influences, among the many that could be mentioned, several are dominant. These include Ezra Pound, Peter Russell, Octavio Paz, the I Ching itself, and C. G. Jung
Pound is both a direct and indirect influence: the former, because in his early twenties, Berengarten read Pound’s work keenly; and the latter, because in 1965, shortly after graduating from Cambridge, the young poet spent a year working as an English teacher in Venice. During this time, he lived in an apartment belonging to his first significant mentor, the English poet Peter Russell (see Burns 1996 for his memoir). Russell (1921–2003) was a dedicated Poundian, who had edited a set of essays entitled An Examination of Ezra Pound (1950). Contributors to this book included. Ernest Hemingway, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Allen Tate, George Seferis, and twelve other internationally distinguished writers: an impressive cast.
In 1958, Russell’s book was one among various influential factors that persuaded the American authorities to release Pound from his twelve-year incarceration in St. Elizabeths Hospital, DC. Pound then moved quickly back to Italy. Then, in 1964, Russell moved to Venice from Berlin in order to be close to Pound (see Burns 1996). Since Russell visited the aging Pound almost daily, Berengarten inevitably learned a great deal about Pound from the older English poet. Berengarten, who is Jewish, obviously had a revulsion against Pound on account of the latter’s anti-Semitism, and he only ‘half-met’ Pound once, with Russell, at La Fenice theatre. Nevertheless, he has consistently acknowledged Pound’s importance to him as a poet. Some of these complex and ambivalent patterns of direct and indirect influence have been tracked by John Gery (2016 : esp. 147-149), who clarifies that one of the main aspects of Pound’s work that Berengarten unreservedly admired was the attempt to write a huge, complex poem, the Cantos. Gery explores nuances of Pound’s influence on three of Berengarten’s long poems: ‘Angels’, ‘Tree’ and The Manager.
Although in structure, content and worldview, Changing differs radically from the Cantos, these two works share at least three elements: first, the fact that both are large, inclusive works; second, the strong influence of Chinese culture, thought and language; and, third, the rejection of traditional narrative as a unifying structural principle.
As for the influence of Octavio Paz, Berengarten met the Mexican poet in Cambridge in 1970. Two years later, he published his first attempt at a ‘long’ poem, entitled Avebury. He not only dedicated this work to Paz, but in its ‘Afterwords’ announced the influence of both Russell and Paz: “If I had not first read the former’s unpublished Ephemeron and the latter’s Blanco and Sunstone (Piedra de sol),” he writes, “I doubt if Avebury would have got written” (RB 1972: unpaginated). With respect to the genre of the long poem, both these influences on Berengarten, then, arose out of friendships formed relatively early in his poetic career. Tracing these, along with that of Pound, helps to fill in the ‘deep’ background to Changing.
On the same page, Berengarten acknowledges his debt to C. G. Jung. Then, forty-five years later, he writes a considerably more detailed memoir on his friendship with Octavio Paz (RB 2015a). This later memoir gets written around the time Berengarten completes Changing, while awaiting the book’s publication. It includes a quotation from Paz’s essay on Charles Tomlinson’s paintings: “What we call chance is nothing but the sudden revelation of relationships between things. Chance is an aspect of analogy. Its unexpected advent provokes the immediate response of analogy” (Paz 1986: 33-34; emphasis added). Then Berengarten expands:
My book Changing, a long poem rooted in the I Ching, explores coherences instantiated, revealed and sustained by chance and analogy. It should be added here, too, that the “sudden revelation of relationships between things” that Octavio writes about in relation to Charles Tomlinson is not only the basis of the ‘correlative thinking’ that underpins the claims of the I Ching as a book of divination, but also of Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of synchronicity, of sympathetic magic in general (another area of interest of Octavio’s, once again following Breton), and of the poetic experience itself, as articulated by English Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth. […] To Octavio, then, what is called chance is just one of the modes through which our perception registers the inherent coherence and connectivity of things. (Berengarten 2015a; emphasis added)
Here is a larger web of connections, all relevant to our theme. Berengarten is occupied here with the twin elements of chance and analogy that occur in all forms of correlative thinking. His ideas develop partly out of Paz’s remarks vis-à-vis Tomlinson. Correlative thinking is based in perception of relatedness (analogy, affinity). The lines by Wordsworth that Berengarten quotes from The Prelude (Book 2: ll. 401-405) themselves propose that the creative discovery of affinities is the foundation upon which the interminable building of a poem is reared: that is, the work of the imagination, towering through poetry. Here, broadly speaking, Wordsworth’s term affinities means analogies. The quotation is repeated as an epigraph to Changing (1).
Yet for Berengarten, correlative thinking is the key that not only forms and opens the poetic experience, as instanced by both Paz and Wordsworth, but also, underlies three further zones: the I Ching, C. G. Jung’s theory of synchronicity, and sympathetic magic. (I shall explore these correlations more specifically later.) What is clear is that here Berengarten is tracing analogies among finders and discoverers of analogies in various fields. His correlation of these four elements (poetry, the I Ching, synchronicity, and sympathetic magic) is not only original itself but relevant to Changing in all respects.
Two more details cast further light on Berengarten’s friendship with Paz that are relevant to Changing. First in a separate essay, Paz writes in similar vein of the parallelism he perceives in Chinese poetry and philosophy:
[P]arallelism is the nucleus of the best Chinese poems but also because it corresponds to the vision of the universe of the Chinese poets and philosophers: the yin and the yang. The unity that splits into duality to reunite and to divide again. I would add that parallelism links, however slightly, our own indigenous Mexican poetry with that of China. (Paz in Weinberger 2016: 50; emphasis added)
Here, parallelism is evidently a kind of analogy.
Second, in his 2015 memoir of Paz, Berengarten mentions his discovery in the previous year that the Mexican poet had been familiar with the I Ching. “In 2014, I discovered from a short book on the history of I Ching that Octavio had been exploring the Chinese Book of Changes as early as 1958.” The book is Richard Smith’s The I Ching: A Biography (2012: 202-204). Curiously, the date of this discovery clarifies that Berengarten hadn’t been aware of Paz’s interest in the I Ching before then. Berengarten has confirmed to me (email, 7 January 2021) that he and Paz didn’t talk about the Chinese masterpiece in 1970, and also that Paz had little interest in Jung. This commonality of interest, then, marks an elective affinity rather than influence.
Even so, there were wide differences in background and context. Whereas Paz’s interests in the I Ching were allied with his interests in French anthropologists such as Levi Strauss, the Oulipo poets and the music of John Cage, Berengarten’s arrived through Jung and Richard Wilhelm.
The 450 sections of Changing constitute by far the longest single offering in Berengarten’s poetic oeuvre. An understanding and enjoyment of this work is obviously enriched by some knowledge both of the I Ching and of Berengarten’s relationship to it. He was first introduced to the Wilhelm/Baynes translation in 1962. In the 1960’s, this was the only English version readily available. It was regarded as the authoritative standard. For at least three decades, until the late 1990’s, Berengarten relied on it exclusively for both reading and divination, by which time other translations had become available.
Despite stating in his ‘Postscript’ that Changing is primarily an independent poem in its own right (521), the poet constantly affirms his poem’s dependence on the I Ching. This is immediately evident in three ways: first, in his discussion of the I Ching’s long history in his postscript (521-527); second, by his listing of nine of the many translations of the I Ching he has consulted (532); and third, by his invitation to Edward L. Shaughnessy – who, with Richard J. Smith, is among the half-dozen leading authorities on the I Ching outside China – to preface his composition. These indications point towards the absolute centrality of the I Ching to the entire composition of Changing. Irrespective of the poem’s intrinsic qualities, then, our own reading of Changing is necessarily conditioned too by this knowledge, including our own perception of an originary text that we think of as containing poetry only in the “loosest of senses” (Shaughnessy, ‘Preface’: ix). Complementarily, any rereading of the I Ching in the light of Changing may well highlight our sense of the ancient text’s literary qualities.
In an as yet-unpublished essay ‘Divination, Derivation and Tinkering: Some Notes on the Composition of Changing’ (2021b), Berengarten provides insights into the origins and early development of the mode of composition he has adopted in the making of this poem:
The practice that I had developed for divination in the early 1960s always involved writing. […] I usually took notes on statement(s), image(s) and change-line(s) and, especially when I was first finding my way around the text, sometimes added my own thoughts and responses. Out of these, if the frame of mind was right, ideas and notes for a poem might emerge and occasionally, an entire poem. (RB 2021b: unpaginated, n.p.)
The first poem to surface in this way was ‘Two lakes, joined’. This occurred in the summer of 1984, shortly after a visit to the Peak District in Derbyshire, twenty-two years after his first exposure to the I Ching: a long period of incubation. But then, rapidly, the poet realised that “somehow” he had “spontaneously happened upon a form”:
Since I wrote the poem immediately after (and as the direct result of) an I Ching divination, it’s equally possible that its shape was directly influenced by the hexagram structure, even though at a subliminal level. The total of eighteen lines also suggested three hexagrams stacked one over another. (ibid. unpaginated)
After finding himself writing more poems based on the same pattern, and through a range of approaches that move beyond direct divination to a consciously planned compositional strategy, Berengarten gradually accumulates and eventually delivers a work that not only takes the I Ching as its starting point, but also intentionally reflect
s – and reflects back upon – the originary text. And while a number of French, English, Irish and American poets have utilised their own I Ching divinations to ‘trigger’ poems, as has the composer John Cage, Berengarten has gone one step further. For not only does he explore, meditate and expand on the details of each one of the I Ching’s sixty-four hexagrams (as well as on each of their individual lines) in terms of their symbolic associations and thematic resonances, but he also ‘returns to source’ in several other ways. For Changing engages, embodies and transmutes the I Ching’s inherent numerological patterns and formal structures, as well as, to a considerable extent, its philosophy. With regard to this last point, Berengarten’s patterning system in Changing, which is based on non-identical repetition, implies a perspective that, on the one hand, is ancient, insofar as it embodies correspondances between macrocosm and microcosm, and, on the other, belongs decidedly to our own age, insofar as it embeds a version of fractal thinking.
For these reasons and in these ways, it might be suggested that while Berengarten’s focus on meanings epitomises the Poundian concept of logopoeia, his attentiveness to layerings of variegated but repeated forms embodies both melopoeia and phanopoeia (see Pound 1964b: 25). The overall result is a composite mimesis in the sense in which Auerbach (1953) deploys the term.
A fuller understanding of Berengarten’s intentions in Changing is evident from his response to other modern poets’ and artists’ perceptions and configurations of the Chinese text. His notes on the composer John Cage’s deployment of the I Ching are especially revealing. Berengarten regards Cage’s emphasis on methods based entirely on chance to generate compositions as an avoidance of many of the I Ching’s other “latent qualities and inherent potentials”, particularly its structural features that are “clearly cohesive, symmetrical, binary, correlative, generative”. These, according to Berengarten, are “just as ‘interesting’ as chance, if not more so”. Berengarten goes on to argue that Cage’s insistence on aleatory or random reveals
[…] a naïve and sentimentalised western version of nineteenth century romanticism, which he imposes on the I Ching. Wordsworth, the great poet of nature, and Turner, the great painter of nature, saw pattern and order in the cosmos […] As far as the I Ching is concerned, where Cage sees uncaged randomness, I see a carefully mapped, all-embracing cosmogony consisting of subtly balanced geometrical oppositions, and including a multiplicity of caringly and carefully coded shifts and movements throughout space-time. […] In the I Ching, all these elements keep constantly checking and chasing one another in a kind of eternal cosmic dance, patterned through space-time. This dance itself constitutes a cohering order in which humanity is an integrated part of nature (the cosmos). The meaning of the term I Ching is the Book of Change(s), not the Book of Chance(s). (RB 2021c: unpaginated, n.p.)
In another unpublished essay, entitled ‘Connectivity, Grounding and Amplification’, Berengarten again emphasises coherence and complexity:
[T]he I Ching appears to me as a self-cohering and highly complex system, all of whose signs are themselves signs of other signs. […] In the last resort, then, the base-lines in Changing, like this book’s other structural features, as well as its entirety are meant to infer (confer, prefer, refer to, defer to) a world-view that assumes (takes for granted) the coherence of the cosmos. […] And while the I Ching’s operations are by definition unforeseeable and unpredictable, whether through the toss of coins or manipulation of sticks, the connections that it allows, admits and proliferates, form part of an organic web of interrelated phenomena, which naturally and inevitably incorporates not only perceptions of phenomena but also beliefs about both the phenomena and the perceptions of them. (RB 2021d: unpaginated, n.p.)
Interestingly, several other poetic ventures in the course of Berengarten’s career bear thematic and compositional similarities to the primary structural elements in Changing. As has already been suggested, sequences such as The Manager (2001) and, earlier, Avebury (1972) present twin attempts to incorporate the overarching architecture of a possible ‘narrative’ while simultaneously exploring its tendency to dissolution or subversion. In both these works, a principle of controlled indeterminacy is evident: that is to say, the distinct prospect of an anarchic or at least non-linear reading is never far from the surface.
What most distinguishes the I Ching from traditional western literary texts is not only the way in which, following a divination, any interpretation of the meaningfulness of a hexagram is both unique to the occasion and wholly personalised, but also the fact that this quality is articulately predicated and predicted by the prime function built into the I Ching itself: the operational intention of divination. Clearly, no divinatory text can function effectively at all without generating and enabling a specific, differentiated and, indeed, unique reading for each and every diviner, on each and every occasion that s/he ‘uses’ (consults) the book. So the text itself – replete with all its values, worldview, and stances on meaningful action and behaviour – functions effectively as a divination manual by virtue of its necessarily vast and possibly unlimited fund of potential interpretations and applications, only a tiny number of which will ever be actualised (revealed, resonated) by and through any one reader’s (diviner’s) participation at any particular point in space-time. This is to say: what makes the I Ching so effective as a divination manual is precisely its inclusive, fuzzy-edged imprecision: or, in other words, its polysemy.
By adopting the I Ching as his model, Berengarten has been able to take on and incorporate these core elements into his own imaginative artefact. The poet himself is acutely aware, on the one hand, that the ancient Chinese text fits well with contemporary notions of a literary text as a powerful generator and prolific distributor of meanings (plural) rather than as an ‘object’ that contains and carries one specific (singular) meaning. On the other, he is equally aware that far from functioning primarily in the relatively ‘closed’ diachronic manner of a myth or a novel, the I Ching operates “[…] transversally to sequential linearity. It cuts across both logical and narrative modes, intersecting them by applying a mode of thinking and perception – and hence also, a way of being – that is irreducibly synthetic, correlative, resonant, and poetic” (CH ‘Postscript’: 523, emphasis added). Being far less ‘fixed’ than either the ancient literary or religious texts that we might think of as possibly analogous to it in the West – for example the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, or the Semitic Bible – the I Ching itself reminds us emphatically of the extent to which all texts made out of language are irreducibly polysemic. Or, to put this another way: the Ching has been determined (in all senses) to function best in zones of indeterminacy.
In Changing, Berengarten redeploys and redistributes the I Ching’s irreducible polysemy into patterns of his own. He does this vis-à-vis both form and content. For example, we encounter a mini-set entitled ‘Watching’ (20/159-166) which contains interesting and relevant observations on divination itself, especially in the head-piece, entitled ‘What the book said about itself’: “Meanings lie neither / in words nor in lines but / cluster behind both.” And this piece concludes:
You have to sit and wait
in a patience within patience
without praise or hope
for meanings to grow
like ferns unscrolling from
cracks between lines. (20/0: 160)
Evidently, here Berengarten is partly following an idea presented in several classical Daoist texts. In any journey through and along the ‘way’ (dao), words, as mere vessels for meanings, may be discarded once whatever they contain has been imbibed, just as, later, ideas and meanings may be discarded too. This is reminiscent of the famous parable in the Zhuangzi:
A fish trap is used to catch fish, but once the fish have been taken, the trap is forgotten. The rabbit trap is used to snare rabbits, but once the rabbit is captured, the trap is ignored. Words are used to express concepts, but once you have grasped the concepts, the words are forgotten. I would like to find someone who has forgotten the words so I could debate with such a person! (The Book of Chuang Tzu, Palmer et al. trans: 242)
So far so good, but in Berengarten’s lines, a second motif is evident. For “meanings” (plural) are generated (“grow” organically) from readings “between the lines”, i.e. from multiple, layered, and implicit contexts and connections rather than out of any readily evident and explicit statements. The “cracks” here, then, as well as those that surface throughout Changing, are vacant spaces (gaps, absences), through and into which, for any reader/diviner, meanings may be mysteriously attracted and, surprisingly, arrive. In terms specific to the Daoist I Ching, these cracks could only be receptive yin elements, not active yang. Furthermore, third, in this poem’s last line, the specific word “cracks” precisely recalls and suggests the origins of the I Ching itself in the first-ever known Chinese divination system during the late Shang Dynasty: the mantic interpretation of splits that appeared when intensely focalised heat was applied to holes neatly chiselled or drilled into mammalian clavicles and turtle carapaces (see Keightley 1978, 2000 and 2012). Here, then, in a passage about the polysemic proclivities of the I Ching, the poetic technique of polysemy itself functions locally as a methodological model that carries three distinct and specific directions of meaning and reference. Polysemy is deployed to pull all these three together, and in this way, is also used to comment reflexively on polysemy itself.
As these samplings suggest, Berengarten has consistently pursued possibilities of meaning and arrangement both ‘above’ and ‘beneath’ the level of line and page. In the early stages of composing Changing, and crucially, in previous works such as The Manager, the poet has already toyed with a loose-leaf formula. For example, during a discussion of the genesis and design of this poem in an interview with Joanne Limburg, Berengarten questions traditional treatments of diachronic time, ‘coherence’, and notions of ‘development’:
[F]or a long while, I toyed with the idea of publishing The Manager as a loose leaf album, in a ring-binder, or as a set of unbound pages in a box, like B. S. Johnson’s wonderful novel The Unfortunates. The sections would then be able to be taken out and reshuffled into different orders. I still don’t think this was an entirely stupid or fanciful idea. Many people, myself included, often read books of poems in random order, or even back to front. […] But I finally rejected the idea of random or multiple sequencing. I think this was partly because I began to sense that there was some kind of pattern of movement, or change, or even (if one were to be pompous about it) ‘narrative’ or ‘transformation’ – going on in and through the book. I find it hard to intellectualise this. The feeling is still a visceral one. (RB and Limburg 2017: 55)
An equally illuminating example of the problematisation of order is inherent in the title, contents and overall typographic design of Book With No Back Cover (RB 2003), a work, as the poet himself puts it, with “two beginnings, a middle, and no end – a challenge, among other things, to Aristotle’s convention of time in the Poetics. Book With No Back Cover is especially relevant here, because one ‘half’ of it is a preliminary rehearsal for Changing. Here the poet makes a first attempt to gather thirty-eight of the poems that have already emerged from his readings of I Ching and his early ruminations on the ancient Chinese masterpiece. Even though he discards some of these in the final version of Changing, in Book With No Back Cover Berengarten’s experimental attentiveness to the organic relationship between structure and content establishes an unusual and appealing mirroring. And the title he chooses for this preliminary selection of I Ching poems is ‘Following’, which he explains in this way:
The standard translation of hexagram 17, 随 (Sui), ‘Following’, supplied the title for this selection, because I felt that it actually embodied my experience in (and of) composition. I believed that I was ‘following’ the I Ching in several senses: not only treating it as a model, a pattern, a prototype, but also learning from it and, as it were, ‘taking instruction’ from it, whether through divination or other compositional strategies.2
As for the title’s resonances, the book has ‘no back cover’ simply because its front cover is repeated, the one version differing only from the other by being upside-down from it. There is neither former nor latter in this mode of delivery, for a meaningful reading may begin at either ‘end’. And could it be that this book-shaping implicitly and intrinsically comments on and enacts the dual motif of Eliot’s Four Quartets? “In my beginning is my end” (‘East Coker’, ll. 1, 14) and “In my end is my beginning” (ibid. final line).
As this discussion suggests, in the patterning and presentation of Book With No Back Cover, few things are entirely or merely left to chance (pun intended). Rather, an apparently fortuitous ‘intuition’ of connectivity – which is experienced at the time as meaningful, even if it isn’t at first fully understood – is later gathered ‘back’ and ‘up’ into a consciously applied and developed motif or pattern. The perception of “meaningful coincidence” that arises here, as elsewhere, always involves discovery, recognition, anagnorisis. This is a point I shall return to later, in connection with the theory of synchronicity.
No less interestingly, in terms of experimentation in matters of spatial design, the strong influence of Octavio Paz on Berengarten’s writings, which he acknowledges in his memoir of the Mexican poet (2015), is evident in Book With No Back Cover too:
Octavio was also fascinated by the book [emphasis added], both as concept and in its materiality and texture: on the one hand, the idea of the world and time as Book – a theme both very ancient and very modern – and on the other, the endless potential that books contain in themselves for variation in design, format and typography. Shortly after leaving Cambridge, he sent me a signed copy of a beautifully printed edition of his poem Blanco. This volume, when opened up, unfolds like a concertina as a single long sheet or scroll of paper between its two covers, implying continuity and cyclicity. I found and continue to find this playfulness delightful, elegant, challenging and fertile. Ever since then, partly inspired by Octavio, I have been trying out similar bondings and blendings of poetic text and experimental format. (RB 2015a; emphasis added)
Even though the eventual printed realisations of The Manager and Changing are more orthodox and practical than that of Book With No Back Cover – that is, by comparison with the ways in which these publications were originally envisioned – the spectre of the undecided (indeterminate) text haunts all three books. Admittedly, in The Manager and Changing, these sleeping ghosts may hardly be more than subliminally sensed, if at all, by a first-time reader.
Various explorations of correspondance between form and content occur, then, in Berengarten’s oeuvre well before we arrive at the options that Changing presents to the reader. As for the presentation of Changing itself, before this book’s publication under the Shearsman imprint, Berengarten attempted to find a publisher to bring the entire work out as ‘a book in a box’, on the precise model of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969). This attempt was almost identical to one he had first entertained about a ‘loose leaf album’ or some kind of binder, in connection with The Manager, as expressed in his interview with Joanne Limburg: For Changing, he at first intended each of the sixty-four sets of seven poems – each one reflecting a single I Ching hexagram and its six lines – to be stapled as a mini-folio. The fact that these folios could be shuffled and read in any order would reflect not only the non-linear way in which any reader of any book of poems might ‘browse’, in any direction, but also the multitude of possible ways in which the result of a particular divination would itself organise both the selection and order in which any pair of hexagram would be read.3
By way of further self-commentary, a poem in Changing, pointedly entitled ‘A thing like this’, introduces the specific spatial analogy of mosaic-making in order to amplify another aspect of Berengarten’s compositional model. While the mosaic-maker (aka poet, composer, compositor) needs at all times to keep one eye firmly on “each parcelled / fragment” and “its unique resonances / to light and touch,” the other eye needs to be allowed
to wander over the whole
design, its soarings and cascades,
fractal novelties and intricate
repetitions, which turn
and tune space to music. (17/3: 139)
Here, synaesthesia is introduced, or at least a perception of patterning that’s both visual and aural (“which turn / and tune space to music”). The effective composition of a mosaic, then, depends on this dual mode of keeping “details” in balance with “the whole”, so that they “correlate and intertwine”. The result of this twinned vision is transformational, for
when patterns take care of one
another (and of you), they
let you let go of all old skills
and all old selves. Whatever you
were falls away, irrelevant. (ibid.)
So this poem concludes with a variant of the same motif of casting aside the fish trap once the fish is caught, as in the Zhuangzi, above. But here, it isn’t fish or words that are discarded as “irrelevant”, but “all old skills / and all old selves”. All facets, trappings and components, then, of outworn identity are to be “let go”, as mere shells and shards.
If these observations are considered together, might it not be suggested that at least one of this particular poem’s themes is the way in which the poem itself gets made? And if this is so, then couldn’t the theme of the making of this poem, by implication, resonate with that of the entire composition of Changing, and, indeed, of any poem?
From around 2008, as Berengarten intensifies his work on his growing mass of poems connected with and arising out of his readings of the I Ching, he gradually discovers ever-expanding and proliferating ways in which his own operational strategies (i.e. modes and styles of work, driving motivations and obsessions, and thematic predilections and choices) mesh together with his understanding of diverse historical periods and his sense of self-placement within and among a variety of literary traditions. What’s more, by virtue of being combined, these factors all return to (refer back to, reaffirm) the logic of the I Ching as he has perceived it from within his own poetic imperative; and together, they all congregate around the project that has emerged (emanated) from his continuing relationship with the Chinese source. The result is a multiple piling (interlayering) of reflection and self-reflexion. To put this another way: all his latent poetic energies, directives, imperatives and skills cluster around the I Ching like iron filings around a magnet. The I Ching, then, isn’t merely the originary ‘source’ of Changing. It also becomes both a strong attractor and an objective correlative throughout both the writing and the reading of the poem, and a functional and necessary core around which the entire work revolves. And here, as work is construed both as “labour (working, effort)” and as the “product of labour (opus, oeuvre)”, a reciprocal thinking through occurs for both writer and reader, which symphonically reflects (and reflects back upon) the source itself.
As an instance of this concatenating and simultaneous self-reflection and reflexivity, Berengarten is enabled to sense more and more layerings of analogy, for example:
[…] a correlation between the theme of hexagram 50 (which in Changing becomes ‘Cooking, Sacrificing’) and the story in Herodotus of Croesus consulting the Delphic Oracle. The common motifs here are the sacrificial cauldron, the tortoise and the act of divination itself. Though these may be accidental or incidental, to me they were striking. It has often been said that the cauldron itself is pictorially represented in its own graph 鼎 (ding), which names this hexagram. It has been suggested, too, that the upper and lower constituent trigrams, ‘fire’ (Li) ☲ rising from ‘wood’ or ‘wind’ ☴ (Xun) represent and enact the basic process of cooking. (RB 2021b)
As I connect this statement with other works by Berengarten, my sense is that some poems written far apart in time across his career – which may at first reading appear to be widely (and even wildly) different – in fact turn out to be bound (bonded) together at varying levels and in similar ways. And here I’m thinking not so much of form, whether this is construed as outer appearance or as inner structure, but rather of the patterning of content.
Among these patterns are associations that are significantly generated by motifs that emanate from China. While these may remain unnoticed by a casual reader, as soon as one of Berengarten’s works is compared with another, they become clear. His Balkan Trilogy, for instance, also includes several poems developed via the I Ching. In The Blue Butterfly (2006), not only do the first and final poems of the book result directly from I Ching divination, but they also recur, under slightly modified titles, in Changing (12/0: 96 and 22/0: 176). In the later book, these both appear as master-poems to mini-sets for hexagrams.
This double use of texts or, rather, this mode of recontextualisation, is no accident, not least because the very inception of The Blue Butterfly is based on synchronicity.
Since C. G. Jung’s theory of synchronicity is one of the major keys to Berengarten’s Changing, it will be helpful here, even if only briefly, to sketch out the relevant deeper background and connections. In 1952, Jung published the first German version of his essay on synchronicity, together with an essay by his friend and colleague, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and pursuer of the mysterious neutrino, Wolfgang Pauli, who contributed an essay on the scientific theories of Kepler. In the first English edition of this book, The Interpretation of Nature and The Psyche (1955), Jung’s own essay bears the title ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle’. In this essay, he also presents his brief definition of synchronicity as “meaningful coincidence” (See Jung 1955 and 1960).
Most significant here is the fact that Jung’s theory, which he developed and refined over many years, arose initially out of his own readings of the I Ching, in the translation of his friend Richard Wilhelm, which was first published in German in 1923. His gradual evolvement and refinement of the theory of synchronicity was initially sparked by his attempts to understand his own inner and deeply meaningful experience of the resonances between his own questions put to the I Ching and the responses given by the ancient text. Jung’s preface to this book is preserved in all subsequent editions of the English translation too.
Berengarten first read Jung’s writings as a student at Cambridge between 1961 to 1964, at around the same time that he discovered the I Ching. In this way, in the poet’s early twenties, Jung and the I Ching were fortunately and organically connected for him at a formative stage in his poetic development. A comparative reading of Berengarten’s writings soon reveals that synchronicity is a theme, and even a guiding principle, that runs throughout his work, often subliminally, but in recent years, increasingly explicitly. References to synchronicity and treatments of it occur in poems, essays and interviews and at conferences and seminars. Most significantly, Berengarten links and even at times identifies the onset of poetic inspiration itself with synchronistic experience. His essay ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’ (RB 2108, 2020, and 2021a) clarifies that the originary event that set in motion the entire gestation and composition of The Blue Butterfly and, hence, of his entire Balkan Trilogy, was a synchronistic experience at the site of a 1941 massacre by Nazis on the outskirts of the Serbian city of Kragujevac. In A Portrait in Inter-Views, he also refers frequently to synchronicity (RB 2017, index: 201). And perhaps most tellingly of all, of the hundred poems in Notness: Metaphysical Sonnets, ten belong to a cluster entitled ‘On Synchronicity’ (RB 2105: 25-31). As an example, both the instressed and inscaped patterns of ‘The flows of time’ are indicative of Berengarten’s long-term dwelling on (and in) synchronicity:
Nor is it just that time has different speeds
or that its currents currently compose
one passing river, or that this proceeds
through past to future. It’s that time-now flows
not in some simple horizontal plane
but dips and peaks, in spirals, wells, coils, spools,
returning and re-gathering again
in centripetal-centrifugal pools
from so many dimensions and directions
and in such varied patternings and modes,
bearing such differing lightnesses and loads,
incursions, repetitions and inflections,
that what this present holds and overspills
is all time, as it fills, empties, refills. (ibid. 28)
Other poems in Notness manifest similar “currents”, or rather, undercurrents, for example: “This is where when itself watches tail-ends / of things implode in singularities” (‘Notness, end’, 52); “Now, crumbling in the vast imperative / of arrowed curves and carvings, falls like rain, / a plaintive, pliant interrogative / pouring away. Nor will you come again.” (‘Now, crumbling’, 60); and ‘Though infinitely varied, things repeat/ in rhythms, waves, expansions that they share./ with all else that’s unique, beyond compare.’” (‘Walking’, 71). In passages such as these, Berengarten explores varying modes and qualities of our experience of time and transience. The reappearance in various contexts of themes and philosophical conceptions such as these is certainly a strategic aspect of Berengarten’s oeuvre. What is more, this sometimes crystallizes in particular words that take on a talismanic quality. In just this way, the term notness, with all its implicit resonances from the earlier book, will itself find its way into Changing in four separate poems (1/4: 8; 2/7: 21; 8/2: 66; and 32/0: 256).
The Common Miracle
Changing is replete with short poems that are rooted in the minutiae of common experience. This observation itself leads us into an apparent diversion which will eventually lead us back to Berengarten’s latest long poem.
In Belgrade in 1989, the poet composes an essay about a Nazi massacre in the town of Kraljevo, Serbia, in 1941. Its title is ‘A Grove of Trees and A Grove of Stones’. Like the later piece, ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’, this too is closely connected with the themes of The Blue Butterfly. Berengarten reflects on the memorial site in the town:
Constantly the dead remind us that whatever is around us is also inside us that the mysterious stuff we are made of is shared with all other things and beings – wind, flowers, butterflies – and that this intimate connectedness threaded through creation really is the common miracle. (See RB 1993: 34-39; and RB 2021a: 43; emphasis added).
The frequent recurrence of the motif of “the common miracle” in Berengarten’s work is the key to a resonant motif. A broad-ranging interview with the American poet Sean Rhys, entitled ‘I Must Try This Telling’ (2012), starts with discussion of The Blue Butterfly. Among his many apt invitations and interventions, Rhys frames this statement and question:
Your poems are deeply rooted in spiritual and psychological inquiry, in striving after the ineffable. They also inhabit a very physical reality and unfold against an historical backdrop, drawing in at times to celebrate the mundane occurrences of daily life. How do you negotiate these sometimes discontiguous terrains? (Berengarten and Rys in RB 2017: 124)
This sparks the following reply:
The poetic, for me, is closely connected with and engrained in a sense of the radiance of the commonplace [emphasis added]. This idea is embedded in my poetic philosophy. I’ve a poem called ‘Only the Common Miracle’4 and in Under Balkan Light there’s a two-line poem which goes: “Voices in the mirror call / The commonplace is miracle.” I believe strongly that the commonplace is irradiated with wonder, delight, energy, power, beauty [emphasis added] – and that’s something that I’m learning more and more these days, now that I’m writing poems that are connected with – no, better, I should say, rooted in – Daoism and the I Ching. As a learner of taiqi and qigong, I definitely have that sense sometimes, when I’m doing taiqi, of a kind of radiance – the radiance of the ordinary [emphasis added]. (ibid. 124)
Clearly, this response could be variously interpreted. The point I want to address is that here Berengarten is reflecting on ways in which he tends to ground “spiritual and psychological inquiry” by celebrating “the common miracle”. This phrase at first seems to embed a contradiction – for how can anything be miraculous, if it’s no more than common? The apparent misfit of these two elements yields to pleasurable paradox as it dawns on us, in all likelihood contrarily to expectation, that commonness and miraculousness needn’t be opposed at all, but rather, that the so-called ‘ordinary world’ around us is itself – and in itself – miraculous.
In my readings across Berengarten’s writings, I find that his “common miracle” is identical to and co-extensive with the experience of the moment in the moment, of the here-and-now in the now-and-here. What is more, he tends to celebrate this by precisely attending (attending on, attending to and drawing attention to) the apparently most mundane and most banal occurrences of daily life. This way of making poems itself often brings out (discovers, reveals, realises) intrinsic poetic qualities among a wide variety of phenomena and occurrences – which, at first glance, may appear entirely disparate and distant from one another, and hardly more than humdrum. But by investment of this kind of attentivity to and in the commonplace, what at first seemed no more than mere occurrences, and of little interest or consequence, gets quietly but quickly transformed into multiple occasions, invested with beauty and radiance. And what connects and conjoins this diversity is precisely the quality that Berengarten finds poetic: the inherent “radiance of the commonplace” which is he finds engrained in all things.
To return to Changing, the phrase “the common miracle” recurs in the cluster devoted to hexagram 55 (‘Abounding, Brimming’). This poem’s title is ‘Adhering, inhering’ (emphasis added) which both echoes and magnifies the already-double presence of the sound here or hear in both words. The poem’s subject is the “way” (i.e. the dao) in which “light” – which “is constant / in its changing” – sticks “to or in things”, “as part of their fabric, stuff, // very grain.” The poem concludes:
may go or come
this light changing
is delight, is
glory, the unique
common miracle (55/1: 441)
This slender poem’s final line expresses the motif that has been present in Berengarten’s poetry since its first enunciation in Black Light (1983). Yet this recurrence is no mere retrospective, nostalgic or fanciful echo. Through and by means of the poem, apparently plain, ordinary, commonplace light – which always belongs intrinsically, ineluctably and irreducibly to the here-and-now – itself becomes transformative, radiant, miraculous.
Equally revealingly, in another as-yet-unpublished prose-text that has arisen out of Changing, Berengarten comments on the term synchronicity itself:
I’m tempted to substitute the neologism synkairistic for Jung’s own neologism synchronistic. The Greek word καιρός [‘kairos’] treats time from the qualitative rather than sequential point of view. In modern Greek this word has survived several thousand years to mean ‘weather, season’, hence καλοκαίρι [‘kalokairi’] ‘summer’, i.e. lit. ‘good season, fine weather’. I think we also need a term like syntopistic, after Greek τόπος [‘topos’] ‘place’, to indicate the ‘meaningful coincidence’ of places or of two or more occurrences in one place. (RB 2021e, unpaginated, n.p.)
This identical idea also occurs in his latest prose-book, Balkan Spaces:
Varying Jung’s term, I suggest that equally appropriate coinages might be syntopicity, i.e. ‘coincidence of place at and across different times’, and, indeed, synkairicity, i.e. ‘coincidence of moments considered qualitatively rather than merely sequentially (RB 2021a: 23).
It might well be suggested that Berengarten’s recent desire to consider time “qualitatively rather than merely sequentially” involves another way of perceiving, experiencing and celebrating the common miracle, which is also a subtle aspect of notness. What is more, this emphasis is one of the main developments, already latent in previous books, which thoroughly irradiates Changing. To be attentive to kairos rather than chronos is the key.
Thanks to some features and qualities outlined here, among many others, Changing stands as a sustained outpouring of captured and contemplated moments of life. These are both ordinary and radiant. they invite both analysis and continuing contemplation. And bearing in mind the title of Ming Dong Gu’s essay, ‘From the Book of Changes to the Book of Changing: A Route to World Literature’, I return, finally, to the elective affinities between Paz and Berengarten. As one of the epigraphs to Avebury (1972), Berengarten quotes a sentence from the Mexican poet’s book, The Labyrinth of Solitude: “For the first time in our history we are contemporaries of all mankind” (Paz 1967: 182). In the light of this comment, it is interesting, across a gulf of more than two thousand years, to consider commonalities between the I Ching and Changing Similarly, in his memoir on Paz, Berengarten picks out several further comments by the Mexican poet. First, this sentence: “Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language.” And then, the phrase “the universal modern tradition” (Paz 1973: 21 and 34). Berengarten highlights the word universal in both quotes, and comments: “I share Octavio’s belief that throughout the modern period, all literatures have necessarily and de facto become part of one literature, all poetries part of one poetry” (RB 2015a).
The preceding essays in this current volume yield a testament to Berengarten’s commitment to this belief: to its subtle stuff, its fabric, ύφασμα (úphasma), indeed, its entire spectrum, φασμα (phasma). For this is woven of perceived analogies, experienced affinities, as-yet-undiscovered potentialities, and an open receptivity to the instresses and inscapes of synchronicity.
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Berengarten, Richard. 1993. ‘A Grove of Trees and a Grove of Stones’. In Burns, Richard and Markovich, Stephen (eds.), Out of Yugoslavia: 34-39.
———. 2003. Book With No Back Cover. London: David Paul.
———. 2011  The Manager. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2011 . For the Living: Selected Longer Poems, 1965–2000. Exeter: Shearsman Books.
———. 2011 . The Blue Butterfly. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2014. Manual. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2015a. ‘Octavio Paz in Cambridge, 1970: Reflections and Iterations’. The Fortnightly Review. Online at: https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2015/07/octavio-paz/
———. 2015b. Notness: Metaphysical Sonnets. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2016. Changing. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2017. Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Inter-Views. Nikolaou, Paschalis and Dillon, John (eds.). Bristol: Shearsman Books.
———. 2018. ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’. Margutte. Online at: http://www.margutte.com/?p=30557&lang=en.
———. 2020. ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’. In McMillan, Christian et al. (eds.). Holism: Possibilities and Problems. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 159-169.
———. 2021a. ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’. In Balkan Spaces. Swindon: Shearsman Books, 25-37.
———. 2021b. ‘Divination, Derivation and Tinkering: Some Notes on the Composition of Changing’. n.p.
———. 2021c. ‘Change, Chance, Choice, Appropriation: Some notes on John Cage and the I Ching’. n.p.
———. 2021d. ‘Connectivity, Grounding and Amplification: Some Notes on the Relationship between the I Ching and Changing’. n.p.
———. 2021d. Concurrence, Convergence, Deepening and Flow: Some Notes on Synchronistic Experience in I Ching Divination and in Poetic Composition. n.p.
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———. 1996. ‘With Peter Russell in Venice 1965–1966’. In James Hogg (ed.). The Road to Parnassus: Homage to Peter Russell on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday. Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 107-123.
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———. 2012. Working for His Majesty: Research notes on Labor Mobilization in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045.B.C). Berkeley CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
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1 In 2016, Yu Mingquan offered two separate designs for the cover of Changing. The second of these has been adopted for this book of essays.
2 Email to author to from RB, September 1, 2018.
3 Berengarten reiterates this point in a later personal communication: “Each folio, consisting of eight pages (four sheets, folded and stapled) would contain the set of poems corresponding to single I Ching hexagram. I’m sorry this mode of publication never transpired. I would have had to self-finance the book, but didn’t have the funds. The shuffling of folios, of course, would also recapture the random procedures of I Ching divination, whether by casting sticks or throwing coins. It would also fully enact Mallarmé’s dictum: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Perhaps an edition like this might get printed someday.” (email from RB, 7 March 2021.)
4 See Burns 1983: 14-15; and RB 2011 : 160-161.
Published: Saturday 23 April 2022[RETURN TO CHANGING]
Paschalis Nikolaou, co-editor of The Book of Changing,is Assistant Professor in Literary Translation at the Ionian University, Greece. He is author of the monograph The Return of Pytheas: Scenes from British and Greek Poetry in Dialogue (2017) and of essays published in, among others: Translation and Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Writing and Translation Studies (2006); Translating and Interpreting Conflict (2007); and Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations (2020). He has edited 12 Greek Poems After Cavafy (2015) and Encounters in Greek and Irish Literature: Creativity, Translations and Critical Perspectives (2020), guest edited Synthesis 12 (‘Recomposed: Anglophone Presences of Classical Literature’ (2019), and co-edited Translating Selves: Experience and Identity Between Languages and Literatures (2008) and Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Inter-Views (2017). He was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar for 2021 at the Department of Classics of The Ohio State University.