Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

24 FEBRUARY, 2014

Tara Brach Reads from Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs”

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The beauty of unconditional love, at its sweetest.

Key among my favorite podcasts is one by DC-based mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. Imagine my delight when in a recent episode, Brach illustrated one of her teachings on lovingkindness, or metta, by reading from Dog Songs (public library) by Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver — one of 2013′s best books about pets and animals, with which I fell in love last November.

This particular poem, titled “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” is easily my favorite from the altogether magnificent book, and Brach’s beautiful, gentle reading makes it triply enriching:

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

Dog Songs is a soul-stirring read in its totality. Whet your appetite with a few more poems from it, and be sure to listen to some of Brach’s full lectures, for she might just change your life — she certainly did mine.

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28 JANUARY, 2014

The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

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“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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22 JANUARY, 2014

Lord Byron’s Epic Poem “Don Juan,” Annotated by Isaac Asimov and Illustrated by Milton Glaser

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Three of history’s greatest geniuses converge around some of the finest satire ever written.

Despite having fathered Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, Lord Byron (January 22, 1788–April 19, 1824) is best remembered for his poetry, countless collections of which have been published in the centuries since he put ink to paper. But arguably the best such volume is a rare vintage gem published by Doubleday — which also commissioned Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne and Edward Gorey’s paperback covers for literary classics — in 1972. The lavish thousand-page tome Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan (public library) presents Byron’s Don Juan — one of the great epic poems in the English language, launching an audacious and timeless attack on greed, complacency, and hypocrisy — with annotations by beloved writer Isaac Asimov, a man of strong opinions and a large heart, and breathlessly gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations by none other than Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and celebrated as the greatest graphic designer of our time.

What makes the pairing especially poetic is that, besides their match of cultural stature, Asimov and Glaser have in common a certain sensibility, a shared faith in the human spirit — Asimov with his religion of humanism and Glaser with his belief in the kindness of the universe.

To be sure, Asimov takes no prisoners with his annotations — or, rather, plays along with Byron — beginning with the opening verse, which reads:

FRAGMENT

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were passed away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

Beneath it, Asimov winks:

This isolated stanza has nothing to do with the poem, but it epitomizes Byron’s utter lack of reverence for anything—even himself—and therefore sets the tone of what follows, even if it is divorced from the content.

After Byron’s third stanza, which begins with “You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know” and ends “… because you soar too high, Bob, / And fall, for lack of moisture quite a dry, Bob!,” Asimov, who wears the many hats of historian, etymologist, lexicographer, literary critic, and cultural commentator, adds an entertaining and educational clarifier:

“A dry Bob” seems to have been then-current slang for intercourse without ejaculation (“lack of moisture”). The use of the phrase shocked and (of course) titillated the public and was a particularly effective way of indicating that Southey went through the motions of writing poetry without producing anything poetic.

Though most of Asimov’s annotations offer biographical and historical context, they are by no means dry or bland. He imbues his commentary with his characteristic snark: After another Byron verse that reads “And recollect a poet nothing loses / in giving to his brethren their full meed / of merits, and complaint of present days / Is not the certain path to future praise,” Asimov snidely remarks:

It is obvious that Byron emphatically does not follow his own advice, but then few people do.

Indeed, Asimov seems entranced by Byron’s contradictions. In another note, he writes:

There was a great deal of cousin-marriage in Byron’s family. But that was not all. Perhaps the most scandalous item in the Byronic array of scandal was the fact that Byron seems to have made his half-sister, Augusta, his mistress, and to have had a daughter by her. He was fascinated by his own action in this respect and dealt with incest over and over in his writing.

Asimov’s own witty and spirited irreverence comes through once again in a comment on Byron’s usage of “wh—” and “G—d” in the fourth canto, wherein Asimov adds to literary history’s finest meditations on censorship:

Like “damn,” “whore” could not be spelled out, though what sense of purity is served by a missing “o” is known only to the Devil and to censors.

[…]

“God,” like “whore,” sometimes requires a missing “o” to be acceptable to the censor. Surely only a censor’s mind could find such neatly equal embarrassment in these two words.

Asimov weaves his own reservations about religion into the annotations, remarking in one about Byron’s line “‘But heaven,’ as Cassio says, ‘is above all—’” in canto nine:

The phrase “heaven is above all” is a kind of last resort of puzzled mankind. If problems are insoluble, leave them then to God, to whom nothing (by definition) is insoluble. THus, in Shakespeare’s Othello, when Cassio is tempted into drinking by the villainous Iago, the former quickly finds himself befuddled by alcohol and must find refuge in “Well; God’s above all…”

Above all, however, Asimov seems to peer straight into Byron’s soul, discerning his motives and intentions with equal parts clarity and compassion. In the twelfth canto, where Byron writes “I thought, at setting off, about two dozen / Cantos would do; but at Apollo’s pleading, / If that my Pegasus should not be founder’d, / I think to canter gently through a hundred,” Asimov remarks:

Byron may well have intended to keep writing Don Juan all his life as a perfect vehicle for satirizing the age. But, alas, he was approaching the end.

In his final footnote, Asimov revisits the subject of Don Juan’s intended fate:

Byron always maintained he had no plan for Don Juan, but simply improvised as he went along, taking all the world as his target. And, indeed, as we go from canto to canto, the plot grows thinner, the digressions longer, the satire deeper, so that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that no matter how long he had lived and how long written, Byron would never have finished Don Juan nor progressed enormously with the plot, even though the number of cantos had reached the century mark. At one time he said he would send Juan to every nation in turn, satirizing each in its own fashion, and have him end an extreme radical like Cloots in the Reign of Terror, or else to end by sending him either to Hell or to an unhappy marriage, whichever was worse.

And yet — I wonder if Byron might not have relented. Might he not have had Don Juan visit Hell, but have had him saved from damnation by the intercession of the shade of Haidée, surely to be found in Heaven? Might he not, then, in the end, have married Leila, the little girl he had saved at Izmail, and settled down to the blameless life of husband, father, and country squire?

Though Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan is, sadly, long out of print, I was fortunate enough to find a surviving copy of this out-of-print treasure at Heather O’Donnell’s wonderful Honey & Wax, which is a gift to bibliophiles everywhere and a heartening game-changer for the world of rare books. Copies can also be found elsewhere online as well as at some better-stocked public libraries, and are well worth the splurge or the trip.

Complement this treat with other rare artistic editions of literary classics, including Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, William Blake’s paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975.

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