Brain Pickings

Industrial Sublime: How New York City’s Bridges and Rivers Became a Muse of Modernism

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How a city of contrasts inspired a generation of artists.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, a cathedral thirteen years in the making permanently changed the riverscape of New York City. In a short period of time, three other major bridges would join it — the Williamsburg Bridge was begun in 1896, the Manhattan Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge in 1901. The waterway was now a river of canyons, and the city became a spectacular form of natural and manmade wonders. Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940 (public library), the book companion for the Hudson River Museum exhibition of the same title, reveals how in the first half of the twentieth century, these manmade marvels embracing New York’s river banks enthralled a generation of influential artists who had once turned to nature as their muse.

'East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1928 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For a youthful America in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the painters of the Hudson River School created a vision of arcadia in the new world, with the waterway at its very heart. The Catskill Mountains and the New Jersey Palisades became as worthy of contemplation as any poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth.

America, with its vast frontier, could be a place of Romantic wonder.

'A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning,' by Thomas Cole, c. 1844 (Brooklyn Museum)

But what some Hudson River painters delicately left out of many of their views were the encroaching factories and docklands on New York’s picturesque rivers. In Samuel Coleman’s Storm King on the Hudson, a factory competes with a local mountain called Storm King for sublime attention: one is submerged in clouds, the other creates its own industrial cloud.

'Storm King on the Hudson' by Samuel Coleman, 1866. (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

'The Hudson River from Hoboken' by Robert Walter Weir, 1878 (Detriot Insitute of the Arts)

The river itself became a place of business as sailboats, steamboats, and tugboats crowded the water like a highway. But the success of a city could be defined in the image of its bustling waterway, and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Sloan became fascinated with the intersections and collisions of nature and industry: the edge of a dock, the darkness under a bridge, the lights along the span of Queensboro at night.

'The East River' by Carlton Theodore Chapman, 1904. (New York Historical Society)

At the turn of the century, Gotham was a city of stark visual contrasts: the brightest day could be met with a shadow from a building that could cast a viewer into night, and electric lights might turn the blackest city park into a bright new square. Sublimity could be found in these contrasts, where joy could turn to fear along any street.

'The Bridge: Nocturne' by Julian Alden Weir, 1910 (Smithsonian)

By 1920, life in America had become primarily urban; according to the census, for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country.

'Office Buildings from Below,' photograph by Paul Strand, 1917. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Even in the 1930s, fifty years after its completion, the Brooklyn Bridge remained a source of inspiration. More architecturally beautiful than its East River counterparts, it was the first hint of the industrial sublime in New York, and its most enduring symbol.

'Brooklyn Bridge' by Ernest Lawson, c, 1917. (Terra Museum of Art)

Hart Crane’s The Bridge became an American response to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with the East River and Brooklyn Bridge as its inspiration:

A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare stove up the River.
I counted the echoes assembling one after one,
Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
The blackness somewhere gouged glass on a sky.
And this thy harbor, O my city, I have driven under….

'Power' by Edward Bruce, c. 1933. (The Phillips Collection)

Industrial Sublime is a vision of New York that recounts a time when artists reconceived the beauty, terror, and awe of the place they called home, as the city’s rolling hills could no longer resist the greatest grid amidst a city at the height of metamorphosis.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

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“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Success and the Meaning of Life

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“If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster.”

Shortly after the release of his fantastic book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (public library), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sat down with celebrated British-Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National to discuss his experience aboard the International Space Station. From his sage advice to Olympic athletes, the essence of which extends more broadly to our culture’s flawed relationship with striving and success, to his simple, profound contemplation of the meaning of life, Hadfield proves himself to be not only a fierce explorer of the universe, but also a deeply thoughtful explorer of the human condition, capable of articulating those most universal of inquiries in simple yet profound language. Highlights below.

On the trouble with goal-oriented striving, echoing Thoreau’s definition of success and seconding Cheryl Strayed’s memorable assertion that “the useless days will add up to something [for] these things are your becoming”:

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. … Commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life. You need to honor the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.

On the meaning of life, adding to the famous contemplations of cultural icons:

I’ve had a tremendous privilege of perspective that almost nobody has had. When you talk about the meaning of life, we tend to think about it as life on Earth. To be away from the planet for a long time and to be able to see it constantly out the window allows you a reflection on it that is really hard to get just in regular day-to-day. So I think if there is any sort of meaning of life, it’s got to be very personal. How does the life that you lead affect your own conclusions about what’s important to you?

The book itself is absolutely spectacular. Hadfield paints a backdrop in the introduction:

The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.

Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of even rarer beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour — it was a moment I’d been dreaming of and working toward most of my life.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield goes on to explore not only how he attained that exulted moment against remarkable odds, but also how he filled the seemingly mundane moments, those in-between pockets of living, with pure life.

Thanks, Craig

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