Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘how-to’

20 AUGUST, 2012

How to Read a Poem: “Stored Magic,” Total Transformation, and the Capacity for Creative Wonder

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“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” wrote Susan Sontag in her diary. “I want the encounter with a person or a work of art to change everything.” For the literary idealist, the same resolute demand can be applied to encounters with the written word.

After learning how to read a book and how to talk about books you haven’t read, here’s a beautiful meditation on poetry and total transformation by way of “stored magic” from Edward Hirsch’s modern classic How to Read a Poem (public library), the first chapter of which has been made available online by Poetry Foundation:

The lyric poem seeks to mesmerize time. It crosses frontiers and outwits the temporal. It seeks to defy death, coming to disturb and console you. (‘These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand,’ John Berryman wrote in one of his last Dream Songs: ‘They are only meant to terrify & comfort.’) The poet is incited to create a work that can outdistance time and surmount distance, that can bridge the gulf — the chasm — between people otherwise unknown to each other. It can survive changes of language and in language, changes in social norms and customs, the ravages of history. Here is Robert Graves in The White Goddess:

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity — a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic.

I believe such stored magic can author in the reader an equivalent capacity for creative wonder, creative response to a living entity. (Graves means his statement literally.) The reader completes the poem, in the process bringing to it his or her own past experiences. You are reading poetry — I mean really reading it—when you feel encountered and changed by a poem, when you feel its seismic vibrations, the sounding of your depths. ‘There is no place that does not see you,’ Rainer Maria Rilke writes at the earth-shattering conclusion of his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘You must change your life.’

How to Read a Poem is excellent and necessary in its entirety — do yourself a favor.

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16 MAY, 2012

Recipes and Household Tips from Great Writers

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Tiramisu à la Proust, hanging wallpaper with Hemingway, weeding by hand with Émile Zola, and other domestic adventures with literary greats.

Household chores. We dread them, we put them off indefinitely, we think of them as anything but entertainment. But here comes The Household Tips of the Great Writers — an imaginative and impossibly humorous omnibus of literary impersonation by parodist extraordinaire Mark Crick, who guides us through the art and craft of cooking, gardening, and fixing up the house with the help of some of modern history’s most celebrated literary icons. The real joy of the book, of course, isn’t so much the specific recipes and tips — though who could resist a quick miso soup à la Kafka? — as the comedic precision with which Crick caricatures, lovingly, each writer’s voice.

From boarding the attic with Edgar Allan Poe (“Working from the corner furthest from the feeble light source, which scarce illuminated my labours, I began to lay the boards. Those dark recesses, unlooked upon since the cloak of slate first enveloped them in eternal night, resisted my intrusion like the densest thicket.”) to putting up a garden fence with Hunter S. Thompson (“He lifted a size-eleven foot onto the spade, his leg peeking coquettishly through the slit trouser leg, and the blade sank into the ground. There was a lot to do.”) to burying bulbs in autumn with Sylvia Plath (“I swallowed trying again to clear the bitter taste from my mouth then I tipped the bulbs from the bag and watched as their fat little bodies rolled around on the garden path.”), Crick has all your household and gardening needs and emergencies covered.

Then there’s the kitchen, with its delectable tapas bar of literary treats. Start with tarragon eggs à la Jane Austen:

40g butter
4 eggs
Ground pepper
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons tarragon (fresh or dried)

[…]

The possibility that her eggs might find themselves cooked with the aristocratic herb sent Mrs. B— into such a state of excitement that Lady Cumberland would have risen to leave were it not for the promise of luncheon. Instead she instructed her host to produce the dish without delay: ‘I suggest you begin.’

[…]

Follow with mushroom risotto à la John Steinbeck:

Extra virgin olive oil
25g porcini mushrooms
3 field mushrooms
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
200g risotto rice
500ml vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
60g Parmesan
1 glass white wine

The porcini lay dry and wrinkled, each slice twisted by thirst and the colour of parched earth. When the water finally fell, at first only in splashes, they drank what they could, but soon they were all covered with the life-giving liquid. The parched fragments recovered an earlier form, their contortions changed, by the gift of the water, into a supine mass, glistening. What had resembled a bowl of tree bark now had the rich colour of cooked meat, the purple brown of wet soil had replaced the dry plaster of Arizona earth.

[…]

Finish with tiramisu à la Marcel Proust:

12-15 Saviardi sponge fingers
4 eggs
100g caster sugar
Amaretto di Saronno
500g mascarpone
2 cups cold coffee
Cocoa powder

[…]

From this ancient past — its great houses gone and its inhabitants dwindling, like the last creatures of a mythical forest — came something infinitely more frail and yet more alive, insubstantial yet persistent; the memories of smell and taste, so faithful, resisted the destruction and rebuilt for a moment the palace wherein dwelt the remembrance of that evening and that tiramisu.

Whether you consider yourself a bibliophile, a culinary connoisseur, or a modern-day MacGyver, The Household Tips of the Great Writers is bound to tickle your fancy and impart a handy tip or two along the way — because who doesn’t want to know how to prune a rose like Pablo Neruda?

Illustration: “Snacks of Great Scribblers” by Wendy MacNaughton

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02 MAY, 2012

John Updike on the Ethics and Poetics of Criticism

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“Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.”

As Sir Ken Robinson thoughtfully observed, we live in a kind of “opinion culture” where not having an opinion is a cultural abomination. At the same time, the barrier of entry for making one’s opinions public is lower than ever. The tragedy of our time might well be that so many choose to set those opinions apart by making them as contrarian and abrasive as possible. But what E. B. White once wisely pointed to as the role and social responsibility of the writer — “to lift people up, not lower them down” — I believe to be true of the role and social responsibility of the critic as well, for thoughtful criticism is itself an art and a creative act.

We need to relearn the skills of making criticism constructive rather than destructive, and we need look no further than the introduction to John Updike’s 1977 anthology of prose, Picked-Up Pieces, where the beloved author and critic codifies the ethics and poetics of criticism by offering the following six rules to reviewing graciously and fairly. Though they were written with literature in mind, at their heart is an ethos that applies to critique and criticism in any discipline.

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

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