Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

07 AUGUST, 2015

If Librarians Were Honest

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“If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

My mother was trained in library science, but went on to have a career in software systems. Perhaps it was this epigenetic guilt that planted the unconscious seed for Brain Pickings — my personal digital archive of reading — which was born, twenty-one years after my mother completed the degree she would never use, in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the world’s first subscription library. As library-lover Steve Jobs memorably remarked, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” and these formative dots have since been connected to paint a clear picture of my deep love of libraries — those most democratic cultural temples of wisdom where we come to commune with humanity’s most luminous minds; where the rewards are innumerable and destiny-changing, and the only price of admission is willingness. Between the walls of the library are the building blocks of the most powerful technology of thought there is.

That’s what Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, cofounders of the The Library as Incubator project, celebrate in The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (public library) — an imaginative and practical collection of artists’ stories and ideas for how to use the library as a sandbox for creativity, a productivity-booster for your work, and a source of immense nourishment for the life of the mind. What emerges is an invaluable tool for any artist, by the wonderfully loose definition of “a person who learns and uses creative tools and techniques to make new things.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

The practical tips and exercises are interspersed with various meditations by artists, the most delightful of which is a poem by Joseph Mills — a nomadic poet who gets a library card every time he moves in order to root himself in each new city.

Befittingly, in the context of free libraries, the poem begins with Benjamin Franklin’s colorful complaint as an epigraph of sorts:

IF LIBRARIANS WERE HONEST

“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute.
They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.

They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

Mills tells Batykeffer and Damon-Moore:

Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals. In enabling people to educate themselves they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions.

Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials. In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am.

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is an immeasurable delight in its entirety. Complement it with a photographic love letter to public libraries, Thoreau on his ideal sanctuary for books, and these marvelous vintage ads for libraries.

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04 AUGUST, 2015

Blair Sets Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell” to Song Shortly Before His Death

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“And kiss the hills for me, just once…”

Perhaps because poetry, in the shimmering words of Elizabeth Alexander, “is the human voice,” something magical happens when musicians set beloved poems to song — from Natalie Merchant’s adaptations of Victorian nursery rhymes to Tin Hat’s songs based on e.e. cummings to The Wraiths’ musical celebration of William Blake.

One of the most unusual and wonderful such reimaginings comes from the late and great poet, musician, and activist David Blair, better known as Blair and aptly anointed by GLAAD as “a gay black Renaissance man.” Blair set Emily Dickinson’s poem “Farewell,” found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), to song — acapella, no less — live at the Detroit Institute of Arts, filmed by Erik Proulx. Blair’s sudden death of heat stroke shortly after this performance, at the age of only forty-three, lends the poem a new solemn poignancy.

FAREWELL

Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,
Then I am ready to go!
Just a look at the horses—
Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest side,
So I shall never fall;
For we must ride to the Judgment,
And it’s partly down hill.

But never I mind the bridges,
And never I mind the sea;
Held fast in everlasting race
By my own choice and thee.

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

Complement with a very different musical adaptation of Dickinson by Israeli singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur and these lovely illustrations of the celebrated poet’s work.

Thanks, Jonathan

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03 AUGUST, 2015

Bukowski on Writing, True Art, and the Courage to Create Outside Society’s Forms of Approval

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“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

“There are contradictory impulses in everything,” Susan Sontag observed in lamenting how our inability to sit with duality makes us fall into perilous polarities. Few creators exorcised those contradictory impulses more intensely than Charles Bukowski (August 16, 1920–March 9, 1994) — a writer of uncommon attentiveness to the rawness of life, to both its pain and its beauty, with an unselfconscious capacity for sincerity, a crazy daily routine, and zero tolerance for creative pretensions. His enormous inner tumult and strong opinions often came off as bitterness, but he was at heart far from embittered, always in self-conscious — and sometimes self-destructive — search for that which nourishes the spirit. Unifying all of his writing — his poetry, his prose, his correspondence — is an electrifying and unapologetic aliveness.

On Writing (public library), edited by Abel DeBritto, collects Bukowski’s thoughts on the craft — sometimes wild, often wise, always impassioned to a point of ferocity — culled from his prolific letters to friends and comrades on the trying yet tremendously rewarding creative path.

The question of what poetry is and isn’t has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest poets, from Wordsworth to Elizabeth Alexander. But in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, 29-year-old Bukowski argues that the only thing of importance when it comes to poetry is not what it is but that it is — a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.

In a letter to another friend, he laments the something-elseness of most of what tries to pass for Art:

Almost all poetry written, past and present, is a failure because the intent, the slant and accent, is not a carving like stone or eating a good sandwich or drinking a good drink, but more like somebody saying, “Look, I have written a poem … see my POEM!”

In another letter to the same friend a few months later, Bukowski revisits this problematic charade:

It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.

Bukowski traces his distaste for restrictive rules back to his days as a community college student in L.A., when he received a D in English, and writes in a letter to Linick:

I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.

In his next letter to Linick, he revisits the subject:

I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.

Illustration from R. Crumb's collaboration with Bukowski. Click image for more.

Above all, Bukowski was especially contemptuous of the literary establishment, its pomposity, and its self-important arbiters of merit, which he saw as the seedbed of the unimaginative grayness robbing art of those soul-pigments. In a characteristically indignant 1959 letter to a fellow poet, 29-year-old Bukowski scoffs:

I do not feel it is pedantic or ignoble to demand freedom from the opiate of clannishness and leech-brotherhood that dominates many many of our so-called avant-garde publications.

Bemoaning what he considered to be the inexorable creative blandness of commercial publications, he adds:

If this be writing, if this be poesy, I ask a helminthagogun: I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing and I think that $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters) entitles one to the special privacy of a special insanity and if I need hold hands with paper gods to promote a little scurvy rhyme, I’ll take the encyst and paradise of rejection.

With an eye to a magazine he found particularly full of pseudo-poetry, he adds:

When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.

And although he believed that poetry is its own manifesto, in a particularly animated letter to the poet, novelist, and film and television writer John William Corrington, 31-year-old Bukowski sets down what is essentially a magnificent manifesto not only for poetry but for creative freedom in all its permutations and for the courage to create outside the formulaic conventions of How It’s Done:

The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.

[…]

Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.

By that point, with his passion amplified by a drink or a dozen, he does away with even the most basic convention of capitalization and wanders off, as if deeper into his own marvelous mind:

rub your hands and prove that you are alive. seriousness will not do. walk the floor. this is the gift, this is the gift…

Complement On Writing, densely insightful in its totality, with Bukowski on the meaning of life, his beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, and a breathtaking animated adaptation of his poem “Bluebird.”

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29 JULY, 2015

Elizabeth Alexander on What Poetry Does for the Human Soul

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“…and are we not of interest to each other?”

Elizabeth Alexander is among the most entrancing and spiritually invigorating poets of our time, and only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration. Her recent memoir, The Light of the World, is one of the most breathtaking books on loss ever written. In her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Alexander reads the poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — perhaps the most beautiful meditation on poetry’s role in human life ever committed to words — found in her indispensable collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).

Please enjoy:

ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Complement with Alexander on love, loss, and the boundaries of the soul and Muriel Rukeyser on why we resist poetry, then treat yourself to the beautiful poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, Nikki Giovanni, and Mark Strand.

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