Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

21 AUGUST, 2015

Three Animators Bring to Life Three Beautiful Readings of Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”

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“And you, O my Soul, where you stand, surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space…”

When Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) self-published his first book of poetry in 1855, his monumental hopes for this labor of love were met with a few shrieks of harsh criticism amid an ether of noiseless indifference, resulting in pitiful sales and a sunken heart. But then the young poet won over a sole supporter in the very writer from whom he had borrowed the book’s title: Whitman received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. Leaves of Grass (public library) went on to become one of the most beloved books of all time, establishing its author as America’s greatest poet.

A hundred and sixty years after the quiet release of Whitman’s magnum opus and its subsequent clamorous reception, the wonderful team at TED Ed undertook a poetic experiment, enlisting three emerging animators to reimagine three different readings of one of the most beautiful poems from the Whitman classic, “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: Jeremiah Dickey animated a performance by writer, educator, and activist Mahogany Browne; Biljana Labovic interpreted spoken-word poet and artist Joanna Hoffman’s reading; Lisa LaBracio (who has previously animated the science of why bees build perfect hexagons) brought to life a performance by poet and storyteller Rives.

The resulting trio is nothing short of breathtaking.

A NOISELESS PATIENT SPIDER

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them — ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, — seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d — till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

Complement with artist Allen Crawford’s gorgeous page-by-page illustrated interpretation of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the crowning jewel of Leaves of Grass, and Whitman’s raunchy ode to New York City, then revisit Emerson’s life-changing letter to Whitman.

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13 AUGUST, 2015

Marianne Moore and the Crowning Curio: How a Poem Saved One of the World’s Rarest and Most Majestic Trees

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“It is still leafing; still there. Mortal though.”

That a tree can save a writer’s life is already miraculous enough, but that a writer can save a tree’s life is nothing short of magical.

In 1867, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, once an American Revolution battlefield, opened its gates to a community hungry for a peaceful respite of wilderness amid the urban bustle. So intense was public enthusiasm that local residents began donating a variety of wildlife to fill the 585-acre green expanse, from ducks to deer. But the most unusual and enduring gift turned out to be a tree, donated by a man named A.G. Burgess and planted in 1872.

This was no ordinary tree. Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii,” better-known as Camperdown Elm, is a species unlike regular trees in that it cannot reproduce from a seed. The rare elm carries its irregularity on the outside — its majestic, knobby branches grow almost parallel to the ground, “weeping” down. To ameliorate its reproductive helplessness, the Camperdown Elm requires outside help — a sort of assisted grafting, be it by accident of nature or intentional human hand.

This is how the species originated in the 1830s: The head forester of the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant branch of a Scots Elm growing along the ground at Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland; he decided to graft it onto an ordinary Scots Elm. The result, to which every single Camperdown Elm in the world today can be traced, was an unusual-looking tree — a sort of giant bonsai with “weeping” branches. But this ugly duckling turned out to have a secret superpower — it was immune to the disease that killed all of its cousins, the Dutch Elms, across North America.

Unlike the world’s oldest living trees, which predate our civilization by millennia, the Camperdown Elm is a curious conduit between nature and humanity: Both human-made and gloriously wild, with its barbaric-looking bark and defiant branches, it stands as a poignant metaphor for the interdependence of all beings — nowhere more so than in the story of the Brooklyn tree.

The baby Camperdown Elm shortly after it was planted in Prospect Park on an elevated mound in order to give its branches additional room to clear the ground. (Photograph: New York Public Library archives)

As excitement over the novelty of Prospect Park began dying down, the Camperdown Elm came to suffer years of neglect. Suddenly, it became more than a metaphor for impermanence and mortality — its heavy branches were weeping into the precipice of death, the public deaf to its tears.

But then, in the 1960s, it was saved by a force even more miraculous than that by which its Scottish great-great-grandfather had been born — not by a botanist or a park commissioner or a policymaker, but by a poet fifteen years the tree’s junior.

The poet was Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972), who had been elected president of New York’s Greensward Foundation — an advocacy group for public parks — in 1965. This brilliant and eccentric woman, who never married and by all accounts never fell in love, found herself enamored with the old odd-looking tree. Under the auspices of the foundation, she created a citizen group called Friends of Prospect Park, aimed at protecting the Camperdown Elm and other endangered trees in the park.

In 1967, eighty at the time and with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm” — a beautiful ode to this unusual, dignified, yet surprisingly fragile life-form of which humans are the only bastions. The poem, animated by the same impulse undergirding Hermann Hesse’s sublime meditation on what trees teach us about belonging, was included in Moore’s Complete Poems (public library).

THE CAMPERDOWN ELM

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
    overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
    our crowning curio.

A quarter century after a children’s book saved New York’s Little Red Lighthouse, Moore’s poem mobilized the Friends of Prospect Park to envelop the Camperdown Elm in attentive and nurturing care, which ultimately saved it. The group went on to identify and salvage other vulnerable, neglected trees throughout the park. In her will, Moore established a fund to protect Brooklyn’s beloved “crowning curio.”

Today, halfway into its second century, the Camperdown Elm’s majestic canopy is buoyed by the air of poetry and human grace. Complement its heartening story with an uncommonly beautiful Japanese pop-up book celebrating what a tree can teach us about the cycle of life and death.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

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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11 AUGUST, 2015

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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