Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

15 AUGUST, 2014

O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

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“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman‘s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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25 JULY, 2014

“Vacation Sex”: A Poem by Dorianne Laux

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“…in hotels under overpasses or rooms next to ice machines, friends’ fold-out couches…”

“Love is never finished expressing itself,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his beautiful essay on poetic reverie, “and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed.” While love and sex might be worlds of ambiguity apart, one would hope this sentiment holds equally true of sex and the poetics of desire.

In 1999, poet Dorianne Laux visited my alma mater, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, for a reading and discussion of her work. Among the poems she read was “Vacation Sex,” found in her altogether enchanting collection Facts About the Moon: Poems (public library) — a tongue-in-cheek yet strangely sensual homage to that particular, charmingly undignified, peculiarly romantic-in-its-scruffiness form of intimacy.

We’ve been at it all summer, from the Canadian border
to the edge of Mexico, just barely keeping it American
but doing okay just the same, in hotels under overpasses
or rooms next to ice machines, friends’ fold-out couches,
in-laws’ guest quarters—wallpaper and bedspreads festooned
with nautical rigging, tiny life rings and coiled tow ropes—

even one night in the car, the plush backseat not plush
enough, the door handle giving me an impromptu
sacro-cranial chiropractic adjustment, the underside
of the front seat strafing the perfect arches of his feet.
And one long glorious night in a cabin tucked in the woods
where our crooning and whooping started the coyotes

singing. But the best was when we got home, our luggage
cuddled in the vestibule—really just a hallway
but because we were home it seemed like a vestibule—
and we threw off our vestments, which were really
just our clothes but they seemed like garments, like raiment,
like habits because we felt sorely religious, dropping them

one by one on the stairs: white shirts, black bra, blue jeans,
red socks, then stood naked in our own bedroom, our bed
with its drab spread, our pillows that smelled like us:
a little shampoo-y, maybe a little like myrrh, the gooseberry
candle we light sometimes when we’re in the mood for mood,
our own music and books and cap off the toothpaste and cat

on the window seat. Our window looks over a parking lot—
a dental group—and at night we can hear the cars whisper
past the 24-hour Albertson’s where the homeless couple
buys their bag of wine before they walk across the street
to sit on the dentist’s bench under a tree and swap it
and guzzle it and argue loudly until we all fall asleep.

Complement with Laux’s “Antilamentation,” which rings with double poignancy in the above context.

This recording comes courtesy of the superb PennSound archive, which has previously given us such gems as Allen Ginsberg’s rendition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Adrienne Rich on creative process, love, loss, and happiness, Gertrude Stein’s reading of “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” Yeats on modern poetry, and Charles Olson’s reading of “Maximus, to Himself.”

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24 JULY, 2014

The Poetics of Reverie: Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Dreams, Love, Solitude, and Happiness

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“There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries.”

“Creative writing, like a day-dream,” Freud observed, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.” But how, exactly, does the playful imagination weave dream and storytelling together to frame our creative experience?

Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) is one of the most wonderful — literally: full of wonder — philosophers of the twentieth century, yet one of the most underappreciated. His writings on poetics and the philosophy of science fall — rise, rather — somewhere between the erudite and the enchanting, but never more so than in his 1960 treatise The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (public library), published in English seven years after Bachelard’s death — an exploration of “the remarkable psychic productivity of the imagination” and its relationship to memory, happiness, and our capacity for love, as well as of poetry’s singular ability to catalyze our sense of wonder.

Bachelard writes:

In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech… The poetic image is in no way comparable, as with the mode of the common metaphor, to a valve which would open up to release pent-up instincts. The poetic image sheds light on consciousness in such a way that it is pointless to look for subconscious antecedents of the image… Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.

But the greatest power of the poetic image, Bachelard argues, is in its ability to grant us fuller access to the soul, to consciousness, through reverie — a concept that comes closest to, but isn’t entirely equated with, psychology’s notion of “positive constructive daydreaming,” a special flight of the imagination. And yet he makes a necessary distinction between reverie and dreaming:

In contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for 'Love Poem' by Denise Levertov. Click image for more.

In exploring how reverie evokes the realm of “written love,” Bachelard adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love and reflects:

Written love … is going out of fashion, but the benefits remain. There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries… To tell a love, one must write… Love is never finished expressing itself, and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed. The reveries of two solitary souls prepare the sweetness of loving… The reality of love is mutilated when it is detached from all its unrealness.

He returns to the question of dreams — a subject that, despite all the scientific advancements of understanding in the decades since Bachelard’s time, remains a mystery — and reflects:

One might wonder whether there really is a consciousness of dreams. A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us. “A dream visited me.” That is certainly the formula which indicates the passivity of great nocturnal dreams. To convince ourselves that they are really ours, we must reinhabit these dreams. Afterwards we make up accounts of them, stories from another time, adventures from another world… The teller of dreams sometimes enjoys his dream as an original work. In it he experiences a delegated originality; and hence he is very much surprised when a psychoanalyst tells him that another dreamer has known the same “originality.” The dream-dreamer’s conviction of having lived the dream he is recounting must not deceive us. It is a reported conviction which is reinforced each time he retells the dream. There is certainly no identity between the subject who is telling and the subject who dreamed.

[...]

Instead of looking for the dream in reverie, people should look for reverie in the dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Even more powerfully, dream and reverie conspire together to form a gateway to happiness. Bachelard writes:

Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

[...]

The whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose. You must tell the man who wants to dream well to begin by being happy. Then reverie plays out its veritable destiny; it becomes poetic reverie and by it, in it, everything becomes beautiful.

[...]

Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this “my non-I” which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share.

[...]

Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

Illustration by from 'The River' by Alessandro Sanna. Click image for more.

At its highest potentiality, reverie touches on the cosmic, and in doing so, liberates our solitude — that essential capacity to be alone. Bachelard writes:

The cosmic reverie … is a phenomenon of solitude which has its roots in the soul of the dreamer.

[...]

Cosmic reveries separate us from project reveries. They situate us in a world and not in a society. The cosmic reverie possesses a sort of stability or tranquility. It helps us escape time. It is a state. Let us get to the bottom of its essence: it is a state of mind… Poetry supplies us with documents for a phenomenology of the soul. The entire soul is presented in the poetic universe of the poet.

[...]

The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie… Cosmic images are possessions of the solitary soul which is the principle of all solitude.

Therein lies the greatest gift of poetic reverie:

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

[...]

Poets lead us into cosmoses which are being endlessly renewed.

The Poetics of Reverie is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Muriel Rukeyser on how poetry expands our lives, James Dickey on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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