Martial arts are more important to me than poetry. I have been practising them since I was a small child and still teach when I have the chance, having recently run clubs in Exeter and Durham and offered instruction to the police, prison officers and the military. Though my training has been at different levels of intensity throughout the years, it has been a major part of my life sinc I was conscious of having a life. And the more I am wholly occupied by poetry the more I pine for training.
Unable to truly commit to what I had once practised, full contact sports martial arts, or MMA, and reality martial arts, RMA, I have been dabbled over the past years with what is often termed traditional martial arts, TMA, generally of an Eastern extraction.
More than that, their martial arts practise had left them worse off as human beings. So proud they were of their status, and their mysticism, they no longer allowed themselves to be put in danger for fear of the spell being broken, and having no resistance in their training, it led to them being deeply arrogant and hugely ineffective as martial artists.
This remains true now as it did then, only in the meantime the prevalence of MMA and reality martial artists like Geoff Thompson and Matt Thornton have turned the general opinion against such flacid practise. And as I have got older, and more comfortable with my own experiences in the martial arts, I have begun to allow for the possibility of a martial arts practise which is cultural before practical.
Unfortunately, one resounding worry still remains – that looking around the room in my karate class I see a terribly misplaced sense of confidence, of security and power. Those who train dead forms, wooden kicks and punches, not allowing for rabidity of a real attack, for biting, gouging, grappling and headbutting, are allowing themselves a complacency which may one day be life threatening. Though I can now be more at ease with the ‘hobbyist’ (which I am now myself, sadly), I cannot remove my adherence to the principles of reality. Martial arts is fundamentally for fighting.
There is a spiritual engagement, all the more potent, and subtle, in reality martial arts, that refuses to make suppositions beyond experience, that stresses spiritual gratification though discipline, physical exertion and the fundamental humility that arises from being constantly beaten in practise. This is so painfully overlooked. You improve as a human being when you consistently shown your limitations, and only by training hard, for the real thing, does this resistance become fundamental.
So my understanding of the spirituality of martial arts becomes close to my understanding of the spirituality of poetry. They are exercises of self education, of expression, of an ambition to be erudite in practise and in concrete terms. They are pursuits of humility, to be surrounded constantly by that which is immense and exciting and private as well as social. They are not gifts from on high, burning incense and Eastern terminology is no more helpful than the concept of poetry as some higher form of language.
I have embedded here some of my favourite videos of Matt Thornton, there is no better source for sense in these matters.