Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

01 APRIL, 2015

Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality

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On the glorious “difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real.”

Long before poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, long before she served as Poet Laureate of the United States, she peered forward into the path that would become her calling and contemplated why poetry — that manifestation of the “wild, silky part of ourselves,” the product of a mind “miraculously attuned and illuminated” — exists in the first place.

In a short, penetrating essay on the poetry of W.H. Auden titled “Mechanics of Pretense,” penned when Bishop was barely twenty-three and found in the altogether fantastic Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (public library), she writes:

Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.

This necessary transmutation of pretense into reality, Bishop argues, is a chief purpose of poetry:

One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.

But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.

This interplay between poetry and “things” is something 25-year-old Bishop touches on a year later, in a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, in which she reflects Wallace Stevens’s newly released book of poetry, Owl’s Clover:

What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book … is that it is such a display of ideas at work — making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.

And yet this way of thinking is not one that comes naturally to the human mind. Many years later, in a lecture on poetry prepared in Rio in the 1960s but never presented, the draft of which is also included in this volume, Bishop writes:

Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.

She then offers the most exquisite metaphor for poetry’s lifeline of a tightrope between pretense and reality, between natural and unnatural:

My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.

[…]

Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.

Complement the wholly wonderful Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box with Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry and Muriel Rukeyser on why we fear it, then treat yourself to Amanda Palmer’s bewitching reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”

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18 MARCH, 2015

Amanda Palmer Reads Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s Glorious Poem “Possibilities”

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“I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.”

It is said — here, now — that one of the great markers of spiritual kinship is a love for the same poetry. For if two souls are equally moved by the same pulsating constellation of metaphor and meaning, they are not only bound by a common language and a shared sensibility but also exist in the same dimension of truth and possibility. Poetry, after all, is the ultimate meeting place.

I was recently delighted to bond with my friend and soul-sister Amanda Palmer — not only a magnificent musician but also a writer of great wisdom — over our shared love for the great Polish poet and translator Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012). In 1996, Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Upon announcing the prize, the Nobel commission noted her reputation as “the Mozart of poetry” but aptly added that there is also “something of the fury of Beethoven in her creative work.”

To me, she is nothing short of Bach, that great cosmologist of the human spirit.

I asked Amanda, and she kindly agreed, to lend her beautiful voice to my favorite Szymborska poem: “Possibilities,” found in the altogether breathtaking volume Poems New and Collected (public library), translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

Please enjoy:

POSSIBILITIES

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.

Complement with my reading of Mark Strand’s equally, if very differently, bewitching poem “Dreams” and Mary Oliver’s reading of her deeply enlivening “Wild Geese.”

Amanda’s music, like Brain Pickings, is free and supported by donations — a heartening celebration of the creative possibilities that open up when we actively stand behind the things we prefer; when we choose the absurdity of supporting artists over the absurdity of not supporting artists.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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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16 MARCH, 2015

Mark Strand on Dreams: A Lyrical Love Letter to Where We Go When We Go to Sleep

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“Something nameless hums us into sleep… We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart…”

The mystery of dreams has always bewitched humanity, tickling art and science in equal measure. Freud was besotted with it when he laid the foundation for the study of the subject, as was his eccentric niece Tom when she illustrated that gem of a vintage children’s book about dreams. Dostoyevsky found the meaning of life in a dream, and so did Margaret Mead. Leonard Bernstein sought the solution to his sexual identity confusion and the key to the creative process in his dreams.

However detached from the reality of life dreams may seem, they affect our every waking moment and even help us regulate our negative moods. And yet, try as we might to control our dreams, we still know so very little about where we go when we slip into that nocturnal wonderland. For all the advances science has made, it still seems best left to the poets — and the best of poets only.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from 'David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams' (1922). Click image for more.

In one of the many masterpieces in his Collected Poems (public library), Pulitzer-winning poet and MacArthur “genius” Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) explores the delicate and disorienting world of dreams with unparalleled elegance. The poem, which I’ve taken the pleasure of reading below, is a supreme testament to Strand’s belief that it is the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe, within and without.

DREAMS

Trying to recall the plot
And characters we dreamed,
     What life was like
Before the morning came,
We are seldom satisfied,
     And even then
There is no way of knowing
If what we know is true.
     Something nameless
Hums us into sleep,
Withdraws, and leaves us in
     A place that seems
Always vaguely familiar.
Perhaps it is because
     We take the props
And fixtures of our days
With us into the dark,
     Assuring ourselves
We are still alive. And yet
Nothing here is certain;
     Landscapes merge
With one another, houses
Are never where they should be,
     Doors and windows
Sometimes open out
To other doors and windows,
     Even the person
Who seems most like ourselves
Cannot be counted on,
     For there have been
Too many times when he,
Like everything else, has done
     The unexpected.
And as the night wears on,
The dim allegory of ourselves
     Unfolds, and we
Feel dreamed by someone else,
A sleeping counterpart,
     Who gathers in
The darkness of his person
Shades of the real world.
     Nothing is clear;
We are not ever sure
If the life we live there
     Belongs to us.
Each night it is the same;
Just when we’re on the verge
     Of catching on,
A sense of our remoteness
Closes in, and the world
     So lately seen
Gradually fades from sight.
We wake to find the sleeper
     Is ourselves
And the dreamt-of is someone who did
Something we can’t quite put
     Our finger on,
But which involved a life
We are always, we feel,
     About to discover.

Complement the immeasurably rewarding Collected Poems with Strand on the heartbeat of creative work and his lyrical love letter to clouds.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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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