Brain Pickings

Mary Oliver Reads Her Beloved Poem “Wild Geese”

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“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”

Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) is among the most beloved and most prolific poets of the past century — a devoted craftswoman of exquisite poems and a sage of the secrets of the craft itself.

In this recording from a 2001 event held by the Lannan Foundation — the same reading that gave us Oliver on the magic of punctuation — the beloved writer reads the poem that would go on to become one of her most celebrated and lend its title to her 2004 volume Wild Geese: Selected Poems (public library). Oliver’s work speaks so deeply and with such courageous honesty to some of our most profound human perplexities, struggles, and exaltations that it is read everywhere from commencement addresses to yoga classes, endlessly replicated on the social web and borrowed for those formulaic chapter-opening quotations in pop-psychology and self-help books. And yet despite the vast exposure, something singular, something mesmeric and immutably moving happens as Oliver swirls the intricate thought-things of her poem in her own mouth — to say nothing of the impossibly charming George Eliot anecdote with which she prefaces the reading:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s deeply endearing Dog Songs, one of the best books of 2013.

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A Lolitigation Lament: Nabokov on Censorship and Solidarity

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“Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands?”

Vladimir Nabokov was a man of strong opinions — whether about the necessary qualities of a great storyteller or the nature of inspiration or the attributes of a good reader — but nowhere more so than when it came to defending his greatest work against censorship.

When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom. A few months later, France’s Minister of the Interior banned novel. The original publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who had convinced Nabokov not to publish the book under a pseudonym, faced legal trouble on account of the book. Nabokov responded with equal parts concern and indignation.

In a letter to Girodias from early March of 1957, found in the unfailingly absorbing Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940–1977 (public library), Nabokov wryly scoffs at what he called the “lolitigation” surrounding his book:

My moral defense of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more… On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British or any other courts, magistrates, or philistine readers in general, may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Jamie Keenan from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

But Nabokov knew such idealism bordering on moral arrogance would hurt the book’s odds of reaching commercial success in the long run. Burned by Lolita‘s European reception, he was determined to protect it from a similar fate in America. (A few months later, he would write in another letter to Girodias: “I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far.”) This required a highly strategic approach to timing, allegiances, and literary ideals.

Nabokov had his eye set on Doubleday as the best American publisher for the book he took such pride in. “Nothing in the world would please me better than to have Doubleday bring out LOLITA,” he wrote to Doubleday editor and publisher Jason Epstein earlier the same day, before sending his “lolitigation” lament to Girodias.

Meanwhile, Nabokov was being courted by McDowell, the New York publishing firm founded by the prominent financial analyst Prince Ivan Sergeyevich Obolensky. When he saw that Doubleday was dragging its feet, Nabokov wrote to Epstein — whether as political goading or in earnest, or some combination of the two — of Obolensky’s competing offer:

My reaction to it is not a matter of principle but a matter of money. I am not particularly impressed by his firm but I cannot afford to miss the opportunity of not missing the opportunity to sell the book.

And yet ten days later, he sent Obolensky a polite rejection, along with a lengthy justification for declining his offer:

I have given much thought to the plans you suggested for LOLITA and have consulted several friends whose opinion I value. I have also been in touch with my publisher in Paris. The unanimous opinion is that this is not the right moment to publish LOLITA in the United States. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you. Here are a few reasons against publication:

  1. Everybody seems convinced that LOLITA would be banned if it were to be published now, without further preparation. Even if you are willing to assume the costs of a legal fight which may run into 50.000 or 60.000 dollars, you may eventually lose the case, and then LOLITA would be lost irretrievably.
  2. Should the book get into trouble, the NY. Times would at once refuse to advertise it, and every important publication in the country would follow suit. Nor would the Post Office let you announce the book directly through the mails if the legal action were begun under a federal statute.
  3. When you suggested that you would get in touch with a reprint house it became clear to me that you did not realize all the implications of this case. Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands? [sic]

Let me repeat that I am terribly sorry that this will be a disappointment to you. But I have become convinced that the publication has to be put off at least until I see how the Anchor Review fares, how the Paris litigation is settled, and what decision the Supreme Court takes in some similar cases now before it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Michael Bierut from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

To make matters even more complicated, Girodias kept pressing to publish the book in America under his own European imprint. Nabokov, determined to land at Doubleday, wrote to Girodias on May 14, weighing the many factors at play regarding potential censorship in America:

Dear Mr. Girodias,

You know as well as I do that publishing LOLITA in the US under your own imprint would mean asking for trouble. Nor can you fail to realize that a second-rate publisher would be no use since he would not be able to defend the book. Some ten years ago Doubleday spent more than $60000 on the defense of HECATE COUNTY by Edmund Wilson. Costs have gone up since then and are beyond the means of a second-rate publisher.

Since you know all this, and also know that we have here all sorts of Watch and Ward Societies, Catholic Legions of Decency, etc., and that, moreover, every post master in the country can start censorship trouble, I feel sure that you do not seriously contemplate the course of action you suggest in your letter.

But Nabokov’s most poignant point, from the same letter to Girodias, has to do with the question of solidarity against censorship — the idea that a publisher must not only be an author’s commercial vendor, but also his or her greatest champion and unconditional comrade in creative idealism. Nabokov writes:

Whoever publishes LOLITA here will have to agree to defend it, at his own expense, and to carry this defense through the courts as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary.

By August, the situation worsens and the Nabokov’s evocation of the Supreme Court suddenly stops seeming like bombast. He writes again to Girodias:

The situation here is extremely delicate. Doubleday have chosen the passages from LOLITA for the Anchor Review with the help of their lawyers, who in two instances made them change their choice of text. These lawyers have now been consulted as to the prospects of a complete edition; they have advised against it for the present. As you probably know, the Supreme Court has just handed down some very disappointing decisions. Although the cases judged were far removed from LOLITA’s case, the important thing is that the Court did not bother with the definition of the term “obscenity”, and did not take any measures against local censorship. This means that any small-town postmaster can set in motion the machine of censorship, starting the case on its way from Court to Court, until it reached the Supreme Court, which probably (though by no means certainly) would exonerate my book.

If Nabokov’s mention of the postmaster-censor sounds like a throwaway remark of exaggeration, it is anything but. Local censorship would go on to plague America for decades, the most famous example perhaps being the story of Ursula Nordstrom’s brilliantly feisty letter to a school librarian, who had decided to burn Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen as an act of censorship merely because it depicted a little boy without pants.

He goes on to reject Girodias’s offer, revisiting the notion of solidarity in the face of censorship and citing it as a major reason for his decision:

An important consideration is, too, that Doubleday think of me as of one of “their” authors. They have acquired two more books from me, and will do more than any other publisher to “push” LOLITA, which would be as much to your advantage as to mine (or theirs). For all these reasons I am sorry that you so resolutely rejected their offer.

Urging Girodias to consider an agreement with Doubleday, he adds:

I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it. It would be an awful shame if some false move prevented you and me from enjoying some profit from it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Henry Sene Yee from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

At the end, Doubleday didn’t come through — likely in large part out of fear of what the kind of solidarity Nabokov demanded would cost them if an obscenity lawsuit indeed resulted from the publication. The publisher willing to offer such solidarity was ultimately G.P. Putnam’s Sons, currently owned by Penguin Group, who published the American edition of Lolita in August of 1958. Already into its third printing within days, it became the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its initial three weeks on the market. Despite Nabokov’s fears of censorship, or perhaps precisely because of his elaborate strategizing to prevent it, there were no official government sanctions.

Then again, such is the nature of capitalism — commercial success automatically grants moral approval.

Complement the always opinionated, always pleasurable Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters with the celebrated author on literature and life in a rare 1969 BBC interview and his recommendation for the six short stories everyone must read, then revisit other literary icons on censorship.

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Greil Marcus on What the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Teaches Us about Innovation and the Art of Self-Reinvention

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How to continually experience “the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger said in an altogether wonderful 1988 interview, capturing with elegant economy of words the notion that creativity is combinatorial — that we create, we contribute to the world, by taking a variety of existing bits of knowledge, memories, impressions, influences, experiences, and other material floating around our minds, and recombining them into “new” ideas that we call our own. Mark Twain spoke to this concept with unforgettable wit in his letter to Helen Keller, renouncing the myth of originality. But in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (public library), Rolling Stone music critic Greil Marcus — whose School of Visual Arts commencement address on the false divide between “high” and “low” culture is among the greatest graduation speeches of all time — argues there might be more to the story of how truly groundbreaking creative work comes to be.

Marcus writes:

Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else — and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language — which, though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before — that speaks. In rock ’n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.

Greil Marcus by Michael Macor (SF Gate)

Although Marcus is concerned with the history of rock ’n’ roll, he invariably puts in perspective the larger narrative of creative culture, particularly the way we mythologize creative breakthroughs, package those constructed stories, and disseminate them to a point of propaganda, warping or suppressing the reality of the creative experience. Marcus offers an illustrative example:

What if your memories are not your own, but are, rather, kidnapped by another story, colonized by a larger cultural memory? “It gets dark, you know, very late in Boise, Idaho, in the summer,” David Lynch once said of 9 September 1956, when Elvis Presley first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — a show supposedly watched by 82.6 percent of all Americans watching TV that night. Lynch was ten. “It was not quite dark, so it must have been, like, maybe nine o’clock at night, I’m not sure. That nice twilight, a beautiful night. Deep shadows were occurring. And it was sort of warm. And Willard Burns came running towards me from about three houses down the street, and he said, ‘You missed it!’ and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Elvis on Ed Sullivan!’ And it just, like, set a fire in my head. How could I have missed that? And this was the night, you know. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it; it was a bigger event in my head because I missed it.” … In the history of rock ’n’ roll … Lynch’s story might count for more than whatever happened on TV that night. Records that made no apparent history other than their own, the faint marks they left on the charts or someone’s memory, might count for more than any master narrative that excludes them.

In a way, this is a concept scientists and inventors have not only accepted but even celebrate — the entire canon of scientific innovation and technological breakthrough is woven of a multitude of incremental innovations, seemingly useless ideas upon which scientists subsequently built until the cumulative innovation reached a tipping point and became a so-called breakthrough. Both the tragedy and triumph of this creative lineage, of course, is that the ideas folded into this incremental groundswell, like the records that “made no apparent history other than their own,” were in fact radically innovative in their own right but were overshadowed by the “breakthroughs” built on their backs.

Marcus speaks to this in considering these unsung heroes of popular song, citing Maurice Williams’s 1950s South Carolina doo-wop group, the Zodiacs, as an example:

It was the invention in the music that was so striking — the will to create what had never been heard before, through vocal tricks, rhythmic shifts, pieces of sound that didn’t logically follow one from the other, that didn’t make musical or even emotional sense when looked at as pieces, but as a whole spoke a new language.

But because this music was pioneering a new language, its challenge was to tickle, then speak to, then find a market in “the audience that it at once revealed and created.” To do that successfully, Marcus argues, required — as it does today, in music and in all creative endeavors that create their own market — nothing short of purposeful self-invention and perpetual self-reinvention, the vital and vitalizing cycle of self-renewal which John Gardner memorably championed in the 1960s. With his unmistakable dynamic lyricism, Marcus writes:

The ear of the new audience was fickle, teenagers knowing nothing of where the music came from and caring less, and why should they care? It was new, it was different, and that was what they wanted: out of a nascent sense that the world in which their parents had come of age had changed or in some deeper, inexpressible manner disappeared, a sound that made the notion of a new life a fact, even if that fact lasted only a minute and a half. To make that fact — to catch that ear, to sell your record, to top the charts, if only in your dreams — you had to try something new. You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there — and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? How am I different from everybody else — and why am I different? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too. A minute and a half, two minutes, maybe three, in the one-time, one-take fantasy that takes place in the recording studio, whatever it might be … or forever, even a year, even a few months, in the heaven of the charts, where one more hit means the game isn’t over, that you don’t have to go back to the prison of fate, that you can once again experience the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.

Citing Albert Camus’s famous 1947 proclamation — “There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn’t explain anything important.” — Marcus turns to another record emblematic of the same dynamic, Joy Division’s iconic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, and reflects on the osmosis between creative vision and cultural context:

The songs were art, which by definition escapes the control, the intentions, and the technique of the people who make it.

Art doesn’t explain itself.

Much later in the book, having examined some of the twentieth century’s most influential songs and musicians, Marcus revisits the subject of that osmosis with a luminous sidewise gleam:

Regardless of who writes it, no successful song is a memoir, a news story, and no such song does exactly what its author — and that can be the writer, the singer, the accompanist, the producer — wants it to do. One must draw on whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist, with or without his or her knowledge, with or without his or her consent, to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.

This seems to be Marcus’s overarching message, presented with great subtlety and nuance — the idea that the most enduring and influential music, like the most enduring and influential artifacts of creative culture at large, springs from the artist’s courage to surrender to the currents of the time not by relinquishing his or her identity but by inhabiting it boldly, to translate the private story into the language of the public’s longing and to make that common language sing with shimmering honesty.

Midway through the book, he captures this elegantly in an aside that might just be his most piercing point, adding to history’s finest definitions of art:

Any work of art [is] a fiction that bounce[s] back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a beautiful read in its entirety, Marcus’s writing nothing short of enchanting. (The section on Etta James in particular is an exquisite masterwork of prose.) Complement it with David Byrne on music and how creativity works, then John Gardner on the art of self-renewal.

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