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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

11 DECEMBER, 2014

A Burst of Delight and Recognition: E.E. Cummings, the Art of Noticing, and the Spirit of Rebellion

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“Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

(Cummings’s name itself provides tragicomic evidence of our modern hubris in flaunting half-understood, partially correct “facts” — while many people believe, and some would adamantly insist, that the only acceptable spelling of the poet’s name is lowercase, he himself used both lowercase and capitalized versions in signing his work; in fact, he capitalized more frequently than not.)

Cummings cultivated this art of noticing one’s own life with emboldening tenacity. Despite being one of the most popular poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Cheever writes, Cummings lived in a tiny, dilapidated Green Village apartment and often struggled to make rent. And yet, “this bothered Cummings not at all”:

He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings.

Indeed, the spirit of rebellion against institutions was central to Cummings’s character and permeated his art. Cheever met Cummings in 1958, toward the end of “his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet,” when he did a reading at the “uptight girls’ school” where she was an unhappy teenager “with failing grades.” Cummings was a friend of her father’s — the famed novelist John Cheever — so the evening of the reading ended with the trio sharing a car ride together, during which Cummings delighted himself and his companions by making fun of young Susan’s teachers:

He said the place was more like a prison than a school. It was a hatchery whose goal was to produce uniformity. I was unhappy there? No wonder! I was a spirited and wise young woman. Only a mindless moron (Cummings loved alliteration) could excel in a place like that. What living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls, that pedagogical factory whose only purpose was to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards with red faces and swollen bank balances?

When the small party stopped to grab a bite at a burger joint, the two men proudly shared a flask to spike their coffee, but Cheever recalls being “already drunk on a different kind of substance — inspiration” as she fathomed for the first time the idea that authority is to be questioned, that “being right was a petty goal,” and that “being free was the thing to aim for.” Noting that “history has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake,” she anoints Cummings her generation’s “beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century.” (Thoreau, of course, was the grand master of the art of noticing.) Cheever writes of Cummings’s ennobling heretical sensibility:

In his almost three thousand poems he sometimes furiously, sometimes lovingly debunked anything or anyone in power — even death, in his famous poem about Buffalo Bill, with its spangled alliterations and intimate last lines: “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.”

Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.

Illustration from the little-known fairy tales Cummings wrote for his only daughter, whom he almost lost. Click image for story.

Both the great irony and the great affirmation of Cummings’s spirit of rebellion against culture’s soul-deadening institutions is that he grew up with parents who were “Harvard royalty,” was educated at the iconic institution himself, and even stayed an extra year after graduation to earn a master’s degree in Classics. But he also — and perhaps precisely because of that brush with privilege — exiled himself from the Cambridge community and only returned, reluctantly, shortly before his death thirty years later. Cheever writes of the formative act of rebellion that was his self-expulsion:

His self-imposed exile from Cambridge — a town he had come to hate for its intellectualism, Puritan uptightness, racism, and self-righteous xenophobia — had seemed necessary for him as a man and as a poet. Soon after his 1915 class lecture and after serving in World War I, Cummings had permanently fled to sexy, law-breaking Greenwich Village, where he could hang out with other modernist poets like Marianne Moore, talk with writers like Hart Crane, be admired by Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay, have an affair with another man’s wife, go to burlesque performances at the National Winter Garden, and ask William Carlos Williams for medical advice.

Even though he wrote in one early poem that “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds,” the reason for his eventual return was that he was offered the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — the same prestigious yearlong lectureship that produced Calvino’s unforgettable final legacy and over the years featured such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Eliot, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. But while Cummings took the gig, he brought to it his own rules and co-opted its conventions for his mission of rebellion.

When 58-year-old Cummings arrived at Harvard that fall, wearing a neck-to-hip corset prescribed by his doctor that he called “the Iron Maiden,” he left no doubts as to his irreverence. He titled what he was about to deliver “nonlectures” and lived up to the promise by delivering them with the same galvanizing, acrobatic, highly performative technique he had developed for his poetry readings. Cheever captures the mesmeric mischief of Cummings’s presence at Harvard by quoting one woman, then a Radcliffe student dragged to the lecture by her mother:

There was a hush when he walked out onto the stage. He was enchanting, captivating, and magnetic. He was very virile and sexual on the stage. I think he made some of the men uncomfortable.

Despite having anguished over whether or not to accept the lectureship, and having almost cancelled it on several occasions, Cummings, according to his wife Marion, never worked harder on anything. Perhaps he saw them as a way to solidify what he stood for, to claim position as a generation’s “beloved heretic” and claim it from within the walls of the institution that stood for the very authority he had made an art of defying and deriding. Cheever writes:

Everything he stood for— a puncturing of pretension, an openness to adventure, a deliciously uncensored attitude when it came to sex, a sly sense of humor fueled by a powerful defiance — is in his opening phrases. He stood at the lectern under the fifty-foot carved ceilings and won the hearts of the audience in a few words. “Let me cordially warn you, at the opening of these so called lectures, that I haven’t the remotest intention of posing as a lecturer.”

Exactly ten years later, he died in the same defiant spirit. Cheever recounts the bittersweet story her father so loved telling:

Marion had called him in to dinner as day faded and the glorious sky lit up with the fires of sunset. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Cummings said. “I’m just going to sharpen the axe.” A few minutes later he crumpled to the ground, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-seven. That, my father let us all know, was the way to die— still manly and useful, still beloved, still strong. “‘how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,’ ” my father growled, his eyes wet with tears.

In the remainder of the altogether entrancing E. E. Cummings: A Life, Cheever goes on to explore the beliefs, irreverences, and experiences that coalesced into the character of this extraordinary man who rebelled through the art of noticing and who continues to bewitch us with his undying “burst of delight and recognition.”

Complement it with the little-known story of Cummings’s only children’s book, which he wrote for the daughter he almost lost, this enchanting album of seventeen songs based on his poems, and the poet’s magnificent reading of “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”

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10 DECEMBER, 2014

Dial Up the Magic of This Moment: Philosopher Joanna Macy on How Rilke Can Help Us Befriend Our Mortality and Be More Alive

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“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

Few people have stood at the gates of hope — through world wars and environmental crises and personal loss — with more dignity, wisdom, and optimism than Joanna Macy during her six decades as a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and pioneering philosopher of ecology. Macy is also the world’s greatest translator-enchantress of Rainer Maria Rilke, in whose poetry she found refuge upon the sudden and devastating death of the love of her life after fifty-six years of marriage.

Indeed, our mortality, as well as our quintessential resistance to it, is a subject Rilke unravels frequently and with deeply comforting insight in Macy’s A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library | IndieBound) — a sublime collection spanning from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, alongside fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose. The project is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, but instead of an elevating thought for each day of the year culled from a different thinker, every day features a short Rilke reading.

Macy and her collaborator, Anita Barrows, explore Rilke’s singular consolations in the preface:

Rilke’s grasp of the transient nature of all things is critical to his capacity to praise and to cherish.

[…]

In the face of impermanence and death, it takes courage to love the things of this world and to believe that praising them is our noblest calling. Rilke’s is not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being. In naming what is doomed to disappear, naming the way it keeps streaming through our hands, we can hear the song that streaming makes.

[…]

His capacity to embrace the dark and to acknowledge loss brings comfort to the reader because nothing of life is left out. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. No degree of hopelessness, such as that of prisoners, beggars, abandoned animals, or inmates of asylums, is outside the scope of the poet’s respectful attention. He allows us to see that the bestowal of such pure attention is in itself a triumph of the spirit.

[…]

Rilke would teach us to accept death as well as life, and in so doing to recognize that they belong together as two halves of the same circle.

In the book, Macy highlights one particularly poignant 1923 letter to the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in which 48-year-old Rilke writes:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

He adds:

I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love. This is what actually happens in the great expansiveness of love, which cannot be stopped or constricted. It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.

It is conceivable that death is infinitely closer to us than life itself… What do we know of it?

In the same letter, he admonishes against our crippling compulsion to deny death, which only impoverishes life:

Our effort, I suggest, can be dedicated to this: to assume the unity of Life and Death and let it be progressively demonstrated to us. So long as we stand in opposition to Death we will disfigure it. Believe me, my dear Countess, Death is our friend, our closest friend, perhaps the only friend who can never be misled by our ploys and vacillations. And I do not mean that in the sentimental, romantic sense of distrusting or renouncing life. Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.

Rilke captures this even more beautifully, at once with astonishing intellectual precision and astonishing spiritual expansiveness, in his poetry. In a recent conversation with Krista Tippett on the always soul-stretching On Being, Macy discusses Rilke’s emboldening views on mortality and reads some of his poems on death and consciousness. Here is Macy reading Rilke’s “The Swan” — coincidentally, the poem that appears as the day’s reading in A Year with Rilke on the date of this recording, July 13:

THE SWAN

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying — releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood —
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.

In her book In Praise of Mortality, Macy writes:

Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. It links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.

(Perhaps no text of Rilke’s captures this essential osmosis between Life and Death, light and darkness, better than his famous line, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”)

In another poem from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” found in Macy’s Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, the poet casts his luminous gaze not directly at death but at the larger world of dark emotions and suffering, which he believed were essential to the creative spirit:

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELLTOWER

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

But the most emboldening wisdom of all — the most sorely needed consolation amid the daily darknesses we encounter both as individuals and, increasingly, as a society — comes from Macy herself. She affirms the idea that spiritual survival isn’t a matter of sheepish optimism or of eradicating our dark emotions but of simply showing up. Macy, at 81, tells Tippett:

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope — it’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present… The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world — because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.

[…]

How is the story going to end? And that seems almost orchestrated to bring forth from us the biggest moral strength, courage, and creativity. I feel because when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart and mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think. So I find it a very exciting time to be alive, if somewhat wearing emotionally.

Macy goes on to discuss what Rilke’s poignant 1923 letter taught her, in the wake of her husband’s death, about our shared tussle with mortality. Her words and the spirit from which they spring are nothing short of breathtaking:

I’m everlastingly grateful that we were in love and stayed in love. Particularly, it was like falling in love all over again in our later years, so there was a lot of cherishing. But I found that that quote that I just read you — and it’s really engraved in the inside of my head — is true. It’s true and that’s why we’re changing all the time. He’s part of my world now. You become what you love. Orpheus became the world that Rilke sang to, and my husband, Fran, is spread out in this world that he loved.

So … you’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more — but actually we’re made for that. There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. We just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway. But this moment you’re alive, so you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.

A Year with Rilke is a sublime read in its entirety, as is Macy’s In Praise of Mortality. Complement Macy and Rilke’s shared wisdom on death with John Updike’s memorable insight and an unusual children’s book that embodies Rilke’s inclusion of death into life’s embrace, then listen to the full On Being episode and subscribe here for a steady stream of soul-expansion.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
.
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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