I want to break out…
I want to break out,
Batter down the door,
Go trampling black heather all day
On the windy moor,
And at night, in hayloft, or under hedge, find
A companion suited to my mind.
I want to break through,
Shatter time and space,
Cut up the Void with a knife,
Pitch the stars from their place,
Nor shrink back when, lidded with darkness, the Eye
Of Reality opens and blinds me, blue as the sky.
Sangharakshita, the founder of Triratna Buddhist Community, is a prolific poet and this poem of his is a favourite of mine. It comes about halfway through the Collected Poems 1995 edition and is full of energy. That energy seems to be pent up in the word ‘break’, used with the conjunctions ‘out’ and ‘through’ to illustrate both what the poet is trying to get away from (perhaps companions that are unsuited to his mind) and also move towards, spiritually speaking (the Eye of Reality) – that is, the quest to see how things in this world really are: impermanent, insubstantial and ultimately unsatisfying – not only intellectually but deep within one’s heart to know this as Truth.
The energy is replicated not only in the meaning of these two phrases, ‘break out’ and ‘break through’, but also in the fact that both verses are formed of a single sentence, with the line breaks pushing each one on to its conclusion. Sangharakshita has always emphasised friendship as a support to our Buddhist practice – in fact, showing that the Buddha saw it not just as a ‘support’ but a necessity. In any poem the last lines of each verse have extra significance for the meaning – and the fact that in this poem Sanghrakshita has chosen to mirror ‘companion’ with ‘Reality’ serves to underline his sense of the importance of what Buddhists call the ‘Sangha’ jewel – the fellowship and friendship of one’s companions in the Good Life.
The metrical stress in the poem is another beautifully crafted use of form to echo meaning. It doesn’t use traditional metre as many of the poet’s do, but uses instead a metre called ‘stress metre’. From my count, the beats of the individual lines of each verse go 2 2 3 2 5 3 in the first verse and 2 2 3 2 5 5. From this you can see that the penultimate line of each verse seems to ‘break out’ of the pattern established in the first few lines, just like the poet wants to break away from humdrum reality of everyday ordinary life, and find a more immediate, transcendent reality within his own mind and heart’s practice. It’s as though these particular lines have too much energy for their container.
It’s striking how the energy of the wanting to break out is implied by a series of vigorous, almost destructive words: break, batter, trampl(ing), shatter, cut up with a knife, pitch (as in throw) and blinds. If you didn’t already know this was a spiritual poem, if you read that list without reference to the context, you might think it was a very different one.
In this poem the Three Jewels of Buddhism are implicit. We have the Sangha or spiritual companionship, we have the Dharma spoken of as the Eye of Reality (absolute truth), but where, then, is the Buddha? I feel that the poem’s speaker stands here for the Buddha jewel, in his trying to communicate the Buddha’s questing energy – energy that led him from his pleasant life on a journey almost to the gates of Death, but one that ended in complete awakening. The poet is saying we need to move more towards this energy in order to feel completely fulfilled in our lives. ■