Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lucinda Williams on Compassion

By:

“You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

Recently, in witnessing the astounding haste with which people were lashing out against one another, without so much as a moment of pause for understanding, without so much as a basic intention to reflect and respond rather than react, I lamented that the world would be much kinder if everyone believed that everyone else is doing their best, even if they fall short sometimes. Mere hours later, my heart stopped as I heard the first track from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (iTunes), the altogether spectacular new album by Lucinda Williams.

Titled “Compassion,” the song — a line from which lends the record its name — pins down with devastating precision just what we do to one another, and what we reveal about ourselves, when we deny each other the simple human dignity of kindness. It is nothing short of a masterwork at the intersection of poetry and philosophy from one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

Have compassion for everyone you meet
Even if they don’t want it
What seems conceit
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
For those you encounter
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems bad manners
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
of things no ears have heard
Always a sign
of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

For everyone you listen to
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems cynicism
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
Of things no ears have heard
Always a sign of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

That Williams should possess the poetic form with such mastery should come as no surprise — the daughter of the prolific poet Miller Williams, she grew up reading and writing poetry. Her father’s mentor was none other than Flannery O’Connor, whose house young Lucinda used to visit with her dad and whose Southern Gothic sensibility seems to permeate Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. “Compassion” itself is, in fact, adapted from Miller Williams’s poem by the same title, found in his 1997 collection The Way We Touch: Poems.

In her short memoir, Williams reflects on the interplay between misery and compassion:

Here’s the thing about misery. I had a lot of misery when I was growing up. I have enough misery to last me for the rest of my lifetime. The misery is like a well, and I just dig into the thing and pull it out anytime I want. I have misery and then some. I don’t need to create any more.

[…]

The hardest thing is not looking like you’re pointing the finger and blaming someone…

Complement with Anne Truitt on compassion and our chronic self-righteousness and Mark Twain on what a simple remark by his mother taught him about compassion.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 OCTOBER, 2014

Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self-Righteousness

By:

A simple reminder that nothing undoes dignity like peevish indignation.

Decades before artist Anne Truitt pondered the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, another extraordinary creative mind tussled with this human pathology. Among the many gems in Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s 1918 collection The Madman: His Parables and Poems (public library) — Gibran’s first work in English, a classic that falls somewhere between William Blake and Mary Oliver — is a short poem that speaks with great subtlety and great insight to our illusion of separateness and the self-righteousness it produces, our lamentable tendency to mistake others for interruptions and nuisances, to forget that everybody is simply doing their best in this shared experience called life.

SAID A BLADE OF GRASS

Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”

Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”

Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.

And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”

For a different side of the same existential coin, treat yourself to Mary Oliver’s beautiful reading of “Wild Geese.”

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 OCTOBER, 2014

Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”

By:

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.

One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.

'The Disquieting Muses' by Giorgio de Chirico, 1916–1918

But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:

A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.

When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.

She proceeds to read the poem itself:

THE DISQUIETING MUSES

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.

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.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.