Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

21 APRIL, 2015

Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

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“Sit. Feast on your life.”

The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand.

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14 APRIL, 2015

Chinua Achebe Reads His Little-Known Poems

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“We called him visionary missionary revolutionary and, you know, all the other naries that plague the peace…”

Although Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) is one of the greatest writers of the past century and his 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart is still the single most widely read book in African literature, few people are familiar with his lesser-known yet no less powerful poetry — so much so, that Achebe himself joked in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts that there is a conspiracy theory against his poetry. (Achebe’s ardent love of poetry dates back to the dawn of his career as a writer — the title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”)

In this edited excerpt from his nearly two-hour Literary Arts lecture, Achebe reads three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology Collected Poems (public library).

Complement with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to society, then treat yourself to other beautiful recordings of authors readings their own work: Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Dorianne Laux, Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, and Dorothy Parker.

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06 APRIL, 2015

When Leaving Becomes Arriving: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Ending Relationships

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“Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you.”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned in his illuminating treatise on love. But even when this incremental laceration finally becomes an irreparable rupture, leaving love behind is never easy, for it also asks that we leave behind the part of ourselves that did the loving. And yet for all but the very fortunate and the very foolish, this difficult transition is an inevitable part of the human experience, of the ceaseless learning journey that is life — because, after all, anything worth pursuing is worth failing at, and fail we do as we pursue.

The delicate duality of that experience is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte, a man of immense wisdom on life’s complexities, addresses with bestirring beauty in “The Journey,” found in his altogether exquisite third book of poetry, The House of Belonging (public library) — a poem he wrote for a friend undertaking that immensely harrowing yet hopeful act of leaving a wounding relationship and rewriting what was once a shared future into a solitary turn toward the greater possibilities of the unknown.

One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much, at the end, leaving the person themselves — because, by that time, you’re ready to go; what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow — no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them — you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate of giving away but making space for another form of reimagination.

THE JOURNEY

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

The poem calls to mind Mary Oliver’s equally but very differently emboldening masterwork of the same title. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, Whyte is among the millions moved by the Oliver classic, which derives its magic from how open-endedly yet pointedly it speaks to multiple dimensions of the human experience, unified by the urgency of reaching for a greater life that is possible.

Whyte’s reading of the beloved poem — the way he gasps “finally” and chants “Mend my life!” and teases out that courageous grasp for a greater life — only amplifies its resonance in the realm of love.

Complement The House of Belonging, which is a tremendous read in its totality, with Whyte on another aspect of the art of relationship — the three “marriages” of work, self, and love.

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01 APRIL, 2015

Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality

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On the glorious “difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real.”

Long before poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, long before she served as Poet Laureate of the United States, she peered forward into the path that would become her calling and contemplated why poetry — that manifestation of the “wild, silky part of ourselves,” the product of a mind “miraculously attuned and illuminated” — exists in the first place.

In a short, penetrating essay on the poetry of W.H. Auden titled “Mechanics of Pretense,” penned when Bishop was barely twenty-three and found in the altogether fantastic Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (public library), she writes:

Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.

This necessary transmutation of pretense into reality, Bishop argues, is a chief purpose of poetry:

One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.

But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.

This interplay between poetry and “things” is something 25-year-old Bishop touches on a year later, in a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, in which she reflects Wallace Stevens’s newly released book of poetry, Owl’s Clover:

What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book … is that it is such a display of ideas at work — making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.

And yet this way of thinking is not one that comes naturally to the human mind. Many years later, in a lecture on poetry prepared in Rio in the 1960s but never presented, the draft of which is also included in this volume, Bishop writes:

Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.

She then offers the most exquisite metaphor for poetry’s lifeline of a tightrope between pretense and reality, between natural and unnatural:

My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.

[…]

Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.

Complement the wholly wonderful Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box with Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry and Muriel Rukeyser on why we fear it, then treat yourself to Amanda Palmer’s bewitching reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”

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