Brain Pickings

Sylvia Plath’s First Job: How the Beloved Poet’s Formative Experience as a Farm Worker Shaped Her Writing

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“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.”

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) began honing her craft by reaping the creative rewards of keeping a diary from a young age and was barely a teenager when she first started writing poetry. By the time she graduated high school, she had amassed dozens of rejection slips and only a few acceptances. Young Plath studied both carefully and noticed a curious pattern — much like the response her first tragic poem had garnered, her sadder pieces tended to be the ones accepted, while her more exuberant and joyous poetry and prose ended up rejected. It would be quite crass to seek in this a direct metaphor for Plath’s life — certainly, despite her enormous capacity for livingness, Plath perished by her own hand; but had she not held on to that very capacity for joy and wonderment, had she not defended it tirelessly against the behemoth of her mental illness, she may have lost the battle far sooner, without gifting the world some of the most beautiful poetry ever written — the very record of her tussle with light and darkness.

Nothing fed Plath’s appetite for exuberance and light more powerfully and enduringly than her formative first job as a farm worker, which she took with her brother the summer after graduating from high school in 1950. It made so strong an impression on her that fragments of it slipped into her writing throughout her life.

Sylvia Plath's high school graduation portrait

In an entry from her scrapbook-journal, included by her mother in the preface to the posthumously published Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the young poet’s thoughts on writing as salvation for the soul — Plath recounts that creatively and spiritually invigorating experience:

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm [in Dover, Massachusetts] right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

In an unpublished manuscript, included in the letters volume, Plath reflects on the experience:

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

One of Sylvia Plath's little-known drawings. Click image for more.

That First Job sprouted Plath’s ongoing fascination with botany and her love of the land, which she would come to channel both in her poetry and, perhaps most directly, in her little-known drawings. But the farm work was also the seedbed for her first true sense of professional success: The experience produced a poem and an article, both published in The Christian Science Monitor — the first major publication not only to accept Plath’s work but to embolden her with a note from the editor: “We hope that you will try us again soon with articles and essays for these columns.” Only a year later, she was already seen as someone “born to write.”

In the closing words of that seminal article, published under the title “The Rewards of a New England Summer,” Plath captures the spiritual awakening kindled by that formative farm job, channeled with the same pensive beauty that marks her poetry:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England.

Letters Home is a devastatingly beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the spiritual rewards of housework, then revisit Plath on life, death, hope, and happiness, her breathtaking reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids.

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Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship: Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Beautiful Ancient Celtic Notion of Soul-Friend

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“A friend … awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

Aristotle laid out the philosophical foundation of friendship as the art of holding up a mirror to each other’s souls. Two millennia later, Emerson contemplated its two pillars of truth and tenderness. Another century later, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But nowhere do the beauty, mystery, and soul-sustenance of friendship come more vibrantly alive than in the 1997 masterwork Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (public library) by the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), titled after the Gaelic for “soul-friend” — a beautiful concept that elegantly encapsulates what Aristotle and Emerson and Lewis articulated in many more words.

O’Donohue examines the essence and origin of the term:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

The kind of friendship one finds in an anam cara, O’Donohue argues, is a very special form of love — not the kind that leads us to pit the platonic against the romantic but something much larger and more transcendent:

In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.

But being an anam cara requires of a purposeful presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity of intention. That interior intentionality, O’Donohue suggests, is what sets the true anam cara apart from the acquaintance or the casual friend — a distinction all the more important today, in a culture where we throw the word “friend” around all too hastily, designating little more than perfunctory affiliation. But this faculty of showing up must be an active presence rather than a mere abstraction — the person who declares herself a friend but shirks when the other’s soul most needs seeing is not an anam cara.

O’Donohue writes:

The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion… You look and see and understand differently. Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.

The anam cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.

O’Donohue borrows Aristotle’s notion of friendship and stretches it to a more expansive understanding:

A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.

[…]

The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.

Anam Cara is a soul-stretching read in its entirety, exploring such immutable human concerns as love, work, aging, and death through the timeless lens of ancient Celtic wisdom. Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then treat yourself to O’Donohue’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — one of the last interviews he gave before his sudden and tragic death.

If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us … we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential… It’s one of the lonelinesses of humans that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and … you only realize what you have when you’re almost about to lose it.

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Design and Violence: An Intelligent Invitation to Nuanced Discourse in a Culture of Black-and-White Binaries

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Pause-giving meditations by William Gibson, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Rob Walker, and more.

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in contemplating the pillars of the good life in 1926 — an era of brief respite between the World Wars that marked two of the most violent episodes in human history — “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” Nearly a century later, Parker Palmer observed in his magnificent commencement address that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” And some of our greatest suffering stems from having our creative energies stunted and suppressed — a form of internal violence that we direct outward in destructive impulses. This relationship between violence and the creative impulse is as immutable as it is complex — nowhere more so than in the things we create that are meant to destroy, from firearms to fundamentalist ideologies. And nowhere do we stand a greater chance of ending the eternal war with our inner contradictions than in understanding the complexities of this osmotic relationship between creation and destruction.

In the fall of 2013, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli — a trailblazing thinker about our relationship with objects and the visionary responsible for acquiring the iconic rainbow flag into the museum’s permanent collection — and Jamer Hunt, director of the Transdisciplinary Design graduate program at Parsons, undertook a most unusual and ambitious curatorial experiment. Subverting the conventions of traditional exhibitions and transcending the limitations of museum hours and gallery walls, they launched an online project and series of live public debates exploring the complex relationship between creation, destruction, and the fabric of everyday life.

Teardrop tattoo (Photograph: Klaus Pichler)

Each week for a year and a half, Antonelli and Hunt selected one piece of design that somehow embodies violence — from the 3-D-printed gun, which unsettles our assumptions about civil liberty and censorship, to the STUXNET computer virus, which exposes the dark side of the digital universe, to the stiletto heel, which calls into question the brutality to which our culture’s beauty standards subject women’s bodies — and asked one prominent thinker outside the design world to write a short essay in response.

The result is a masterful and urgently necessary invitation of nuance amid a culture that increasingly commodifies life into black-and-white binaries.

'The stiletto heel—named after the slender Italian dagger of the Renaissance—first appeared in the 1930s. The inventor of this long, often steel-spiked, thin heel remains in dispute, but today many attribute its rise in fame to Roger Vivier’s work for Christian Dior in the early 1950s. The stiletto has woven its way in and out of fashion history, but remains a highly charged symbol of sexuality, aggressiveness, and fetishism.'

Design and Violence (public library) presents a curated condensation of this online experiment — “curated” not in the misused, overused sense made vacant of meaning by our contemporary vernacular, but in the proper sense of contextualized and cared for with great thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Inspired in large part by Harvard psycholinguist Stephen Pinker’s controversial assertion that, statistically speaking, violence has declined over time, Antonelli and Hunt instead argue that violence has mutated rather than subsided — we have moved from more visceral forms of violence, like public executions and the legal impunity for wife-killers, to less visible but no less pernicious manifestations, ranging from cyberattacks to environmental destruction to the devastating injustice of a criminal justice system that renders black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

Antonelli and Hunt write in the introduction:

Not only does violence appear to be morphing, but how we experience, perceive, and assess it is also shifting.

[…]

Where there is transformation, there is design: indeed, the reshaping of everyday experience is at the core of the designer’s work… [But] design’s history of violence, unless linked overtly to political and social suppression, too often goes unexplored.

[…]

Throughout this experiment, one simple mission has inspired us: to wade into the ethical mire that design, and every act of human intention, draws us into. Considering the broad influence of design on the world and the contemporary pace of innovation — requiring continuous alterations and adaptations — design shoulders a heavy, yet shadowy responsibility. It needs to be brought into the light and grappled with. This project is our attempt.

They offer a helpful definition as a backdrop for the project:

Violence evades easy definition primarily because the term accommodates so many configurations, spanning the symbolic and the real, the individual and the collective. As we define it for this project, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter the circumstances around us, against the will of others and to their detriment.

The range of contributors is as varied and dimensional as that of the objects — science fiction legend William Gibson contemplates a collection of unofficial embroidered patches from the secret world of classified military intelligence; former Ugandan child soldier China Keitetsi confronts the AK-47; Grammy Award-winning musician and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo tackles a poster campaign for female genital mutilation awareness; Judge Shira Scheindlin, who famously declared NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional, responds to the plastic handcuffs and anti-bite/spit mask; political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter considers a vial containing a scent designer’s olfactory approximation of the smell of violence, made from sweat samples collected at cage fighting matches and chemically analyzed via gas chromatography.

'Violence' by scent designer Sissel Tolaas and photographer Nick Knight

In her essay on the vile veil, Slaughter examines violence as a highly contextual experience — a silhouette cut out from the negative space surrounding it:

The thought of a smell wrung from the sweat-soaked t-shirts of cage fighters creates a ripple of distaste and even fear at the imminent prospect of inhaling, a sensory reaction before the sense in question is even engaged.

The vial is incongruously clear and white and sterile-seeming; I imagined a blood-red glass rose, with twisted petals and a black heart. The smell seems to hit me even before I uncap it — old socks? No, it is far, far stronger — too strong to hold to my nose for more than a second or two. It is rank, but rank like musk, and held at a distance it summons images of stags or musk oxen or elk fighting—horns locking, hoofs pawing, the raw pushing of strength against strength. The violence of sex.

Would those images come to mind without the context of cage-fighting? I cannot know. But once the initial disgust at the smell inhaled deeply and close has worn off, and I smell it again and again, a transformation takes place. The smell itself separates from its context and becomes a spectrum of different scents, as if it is flattening and elongating under my nose. I think, for an instant, that I catch a whiff of rose, surely suggested by the pictures of torn petals but also reminding me that roses have many different scents blending into one. Again and again I smell it, until it begins to become denatured — an essence, yes, but of what?

Surely not of man. As I kiss my sons goodnight and press myself against my husband’s back in bed, I think about how we know each other by scent just as we recognize voices — instantly and individually. Lovers know each other years later by the deep smell of skin; parents inhale their children’s hair and neck and chubby folds. So perhaps the violence here is the transformation of the individuality of all men into the hormones that define them as male; the testosterone that creates the characteristics we identify with men rather than women. That is the transformation of design, the claimed search for an essence that is in fact a brute reduction and destruction of infinite variation: the distinctive features and feelings even of the two men fighting in a particular cage on a particular night with a particular set of instructions, much less of all the men who fight and love and work and care and create.

But by distilling something to an essence — not the essence but an essence — we also create building blocks for something new. We reduce complexity to simplicity to build a different complexity. If that is the violence of creative destruction, it feels far gentler than grappling for a death-grip in a cage. But I may never again look at a vial of perfume without thinking of torn petals and crushed calyces, a violence at the heart of beauty.

The Liberator by Defense Distributed, a firearm that anyone could fabricate using a 3-D printer

In his response to “The Liberator,” an amply unnerving 3-D-printed open-source gun designed Cody Wilson and his Texas-based nonprofit, Rob Walker exerts his formidable powers of cutting through the many layers of surface motives to unearth the very core of a cultural problem:

The real function of The Liberator has very little to do with making an excellent weapon, and everything to do with making a point. Wilson, whose Liberator work competed with law school studies, is a strident Libertarian. He might choose a different label, but clearly his project means to express a point of view about the individual’s relationship to the state in general, and gun regulation specifically. Thus the Liberator has—consistent with that self-important name—been promoted with bombastic, sometimes bellicose, and essentially propagandistic rhetoric and aesthetics. Wilson and his associates, for instance, operate under the name Defense Distributed. They are freedom-loving rebels, you see.

This is why it’s almost more useful to think of the Liberator not as an object but as an example of “design fiction”—the practice of devising plans for or prototypes of objects and systems that, while impractical, express some critique of the present or vision of the future. It’s a trendy strategy these days, but I’m guessing almost no one associated with it shares Wilson’s politics. Similarly, tech enthusiasts who have rhapsodized about the “disruptive” possibilities of 3-D printing frequently strike quasi-libertarian notes, but they have largely recoiled from Wilson and his Liberator.

But really, he has done nothing more than call their bluff. He didn’t subvert the dream of a future where we can all manufacture whatever we want, whenever we like. He’s hijacked it. And in doing so, he’s made plain the full stakes of that dream — something that should probably happen more often in our global discourse about how to reckon with technology’s powers.

3-D-printed parts of The Liberator pistol

Spectacular as the forty-three essays may be, some of the most provocative and piercing insights come from the co-called public, emerging in the comment section of the online exhibition. In response to John Hockenberry’s essay on the seemingly unassuming and old-fashion box cutter, designed in the 1920s and used by terrorists in the September 11 attacks, one woman observes:

I am struck by how remote violence is from all of us contributing to this site. We are either the lucky survivors expunging our guilt or we’re harboring wounds too deep to share.

Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas: Challenging the physical and psychological limits of the human body, this speculative design is intended to slowly ascend 1,700 feet into the air before launching passengers down seven loops at a mind-boggling speed of 330 feet per second. The roller coaster aims to give its riders a diverse range of experiences from euphoria to thrill, tunnel vision to a loss of consciousness and, eventually, to the end result: death.

In response to a piece in which neuroscientist Antonio Damasio eviscerates the Euthanesia Coaster — a hypothetical design by a former amusement park engineer, using “gravitational aesthetics” to offer a more humane and euphoric alternative for those who have chosen to end their lives — one reader exposes the breath-stopping dimensions of the issue visible only to its true stakeholders:

Your post extends from a singular premise — that death is necessarily a tragedy.

As somebody who is in pain every day, I do not believe this is the case. Sometimes life is the tragedy. When one’s only experience is overwhelming pain, it is a tragedy to be prevented release. For many there is only one option for release and that is the final option. I feel it likely that one day in the distant future I may choose this option myself. Doing so through the experience of something so amazing that the human body cannot withstand it sounds a whole lot better to me than a boring gray room.

To remove all violence from humanity would be to utterly sanitize life, to remove the experience of anything but grays. Certainly the specter of interpersonal violence is undesirable, but I WISH to be violently happy, violently sad, violently moved. I wish to feel violent acceleration and violent relief.
Conflating violence with anything that challenges us is to remove all value from the human experience, to paint the world gray.

Complement the profoundly pause-giving Design and Violence and its online archive with Hannah Arendt — a major influence for Antonelli and Hunt — on violence, Leonard Bernstein’s moving speech on the only true antidote to violence, delivered shortly after John F. Kennedy was shot, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known correspondence on violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the six pillars of nonviolence.

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Nikki Giovanni on What Amoebae Know About Love

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“We live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference…”

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote in contemplating what it really means to love, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And yet we hardly know how to prepare, for we hardly understand what love is at all. We try to define it, we even try to calculate it, and yet it remains a mystery.

Both not so and very much so for writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943). From her altogether magnificent 1975 collection The Women and the Men (public library) comes a beautiful and unusual prose poem about the dualities with which we must live and the human conceits which we must relinquish in order to truly know love.

LOVE: IS A HUMAN CONDITION

An amoeba is lucky it’s so small … else its narcissism would lead to war … since self-love seems so frequently to lead to self-righteousness …

I suppose a case could be made … that there are more amoebas than people … that they comprise the physical majority … and therefore the moral right … But luckily amoebas rarely make television appeals to higher Gods … and baser instincts … so one must ask if the ability to reproduce oneself efficiently has anything to do with love …

The night loves the stars as they play about the Darkness … the day loves the light caressing the sun … We love … those who do … because we live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference … the familiar and the unknown … We love because it’s the only true adventure …

I’m glad I’m not an amoeba … there must be more to all our lives than ourselves … and our ability to do more of the same …

I was particularly struck by the second verse: Four decades before marriage equality came to the forefront of cultural discourse and rose triumphant to the highest levels of legislature as a basic human right, Giovanni elegantly satirizes the absurd arguments with which bigots have historically tried to limit love. It makes one wonder how much faster we might have gotten to the golden age of “love is love” had we sent a poet, not a politician, to the Supreme Court.

The piece was later included in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library), which assembles a lifetime of wonder and wisdom. Complement it with Giovanni’s marvelous poems about friendship and loneliness, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

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