Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

01 MAY, 2014

Carson McCullers’s Little-Known 1964 Illustrated Children’s Book

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Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.

Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.

Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.

HOW HIGH IS THE SKY

The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?

I SOMETIMES WONDER

I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?

THE UNSEEN

I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.

ASTRONAUT

I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.

Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:

A RAT AND A RAINBOW

This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?

Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:

GIRAFFE

At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?

SPORT WILLIAMS

I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.

When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
On Purpose!

Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.

PANDORA’S BOX

There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.

SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG

When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.

Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

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28 APRIL, 2014

Six Beautiful and Rare Recordings of Denise Levertov’s Poems, Illustrated by Artist Ohara Hale

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Love songs, muses, and paradise in the dust of the street.

Between 1963 and 1991, British-born American writer Denise Levertov — recipient of the prestigious Robert Frost medal, a Guggenheim fellow, and one of my all-time favorite poets — gave several spectacular readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the recordings of which have been slumbering away in the institution’s vault. In this second installment of my partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y — following Susan Sontag’s wide-ranging lecture on the project of literature — I’ve selected six of Levertov’s poetry readings to bring back to life.

But this is a double delight: I asked Montreal-based artist Ohara Hale — one of the most original and bewitching illustrators working today, and an enchanting musician — to respond to Levertov’s poems in the style of her singular visual haikus, creating one piece of art for each recording. The resulting three-way labor of love, months in the making, is a celebration of poetry, comics, and the cross-pollination of the arts — please enjoy.

As is customary for the Brain Pickings artist series, we’ve made prints of the artwork available, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

Dive deeper with The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (public library), treat yourself to Hale’s delicious forthcoming book of comics, and see more of her unbearably wonderful work on her site.

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22 APRIL, 2014

Three Delightful Poems About Dogs from E.B. White

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A charming celebration from literary history’s premiere champion of the canine.

Perhaps due to the occupation’s necessary solitude and the dearth of distracting human company it inherently requires, writers and their pets have always had a special bond. Chief among them was E. B. White — extraordinary essayist and satirist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style. Over the course of his life, he owned — parented, rather — a dozen dogs, which inspired the infinitely wonderful writing collected in E. B. White on Dogs (public library) — a compendium compiled by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, which was among 2013’s best books about animals and gave us White’s moving obituary for his dog Daisy and his endearing love letter to his wife “written” by Daisy. But while White was best-known as a prose writer, from his remarkable essays to his prolific letters, he did pen a handful of poems for his beloved canine companions over the years, also included in the volume. Here are three of them, beginning with one that celebrates the general delightfulness of Dog:

E.B. White with his dog Minnie at the New Yorker offices

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Love of life, and fronts of dwellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintance, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Another paints a charming taxonomy of breeds and temperaments, with a special love-note to his Daisy:

FASHIONS IN DOGS

An Airedale, erect beside the chauffeur of a Rolls-Royce,
Often gives you the impression he’s there from choice.

In town, the Great Dane
Is kept by the insane.

Today the Boxer
Is fashionable and snappy;
But I never saw a Boxer
Who looked thoroughly happy.

The Scotty’s a stoic,
He’s gay and he’s mad;
His pace is a snail trot,
His harness is plaid.
I once had a bitch,
Semi-invalid, crazy:
There ne’er was a Scotch girl
Quite like Daisy.

Pekes
Are biological freaks.
They have no snout
And their eyes come out.
Ladies choose ’m
To clutch to their bosom.
A Pekinese would gladly fight a wolf or a cougar
But is usually owned by a Mrs. Applegate Krueger.
Cockers are perfect for Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Or to carry home a package from the A&P without clowning.

The wire-haired fox
Is hard on socks
With or without clocks.
The smooth-haired variety
Has practically vanished from nice society,
And it certainly does irk us
That you never see one except when you go to the circus.

The dachshund’s affectionate,
He wants to wed with you:
Lie down to sleep,
And he’s in bed with you.
Sit in a chair,
He’s there.
Depart,
You break his heart.

My Christmas will be a whole lot wetter and merrier
If somebody sends me a six-weeks-old Boston terrier.

Sealyhams have square sterns and cute faces
Like toy dogs you see at Macy’s.
But the Sealyham, while droll in appearance,
Has no clearance.

Chows come in black, and chows come in red;
They could come in bright green, I wouldn’t turn my head.
The roof of their mouth is supposed to be blue,
Which is one of those things that might easily be true.

To us it has never seemed exactly pleasant
To see a beautiful setter on East Fifty-seventh Street looking for a woodcock or a pheasant.

German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,
And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.

Lots of people have a rug.
Very few have a pug.

But White, it appears, felt like he didn’t give the spaniel her due, so he dedicates a whole separate poem to the queen of ears:

CARD OF THANKS

A spaniel’s ears hang low, hang low;
They mop the sidewalk as they go.
Instead of burrs and beggar’s-lice,
They pick up things not half so nice.

Spaniels deserve our special thanks
For mopping floors in shops and banks,
Resourceful, energetic, keen,
They keep the city nice and clean.

Spaniels should be exempt from tax
And be supplied with Johnson’s wax.

Spaniel-mix specimen exhibiting high degree of specialness

E. B. White on Dogs is an absolute treat in its entirety — sometimes soulful, sometimes funny, always unmistakably Whitean in its warm irreverence and sensitive satire. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s magnificent Dogs Songs and John Updike’s harrowing poem on the loss of his dog, then lift your spirits with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs and Jane Goodall’s charming children’s book about the healing power of pet love.

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.





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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.