Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘SoundCloud’

21 APRIL, 2014

Patti Smith’s Advice on Life

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How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.

In May of 2010, beloved performer, poet, and renegade philosopher Patti Smith got up in front of the graduating class at Pratt and delivered a short and exquisite masterpiece of a special modern art form: the commencement address. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

She starts out with her characteristic fusion of wit and wisdom:

Now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your fuse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to help your fellow man — you don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.

And then — boom! — the classic Patti Smith stealthy sagacity that slips in through the back door to deliver a powerful point. Recounting her early days in New York City — roaming the streets with her soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and being so poor that they frequently dined on the starving-artist staple of lettuce soup — Smith considers a profound human universality:

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

On the question of finding one’s purpose, Smith recounts the advice William S. Burroughs memorably gave her, which she advocates for frequently:

What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early twenties, I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. Once I was with him and I asked him this question: “What should I aspire to?” and he thought, and he said: “My dear, a gold American Express would be good.” But after that, he said very thoughtfully, “Build your name.” And i said, “William, my name is Smith.” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to build a little harder.” But what William meant when he told me to build my name. Build a good name — because a name is not to get famous. He wasn’t talking about celebrity — he was talking about let your name radiate your self, magnify who you are, your good deeds, your code of honor. Build your name and as you go through life, your name will serve you.

She considers our most reliable anchors in life:

We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.

On the importance of our cultural roots and sense of belonging:

When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have you ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, “I am with you always, even into the end of the world,” Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman — they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with and he or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that you are not alone.

She ends by recounting the advice her father gave her, bringing it all back to the bigger point behind her seemingly silly dental care counsel:

When I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.

Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.

Complement with Dream of Life, the fantastic documentary about Smith, then revisit some excellent commencement addresses by Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett.

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11 APRIL, 2014

Dorothy Parker Reads “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom” in a Rare 1926 Recording

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An ode to the unflinching comfort of the bed, our most reliable sanctuary of safety.

Celebrated writer, humorist, poet, dramatist, and literary critic Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893–June 7, 1967) was in many ways the sad clown of literature — she survived an unhappy childhood, three troubled marriages (two of them to the same person, who eventually committed suicide by drug overdose), her own suicide attempts, and being blacklisted by the FBI with a 1,000-page dossier. And still she rose to the top of the literary elite, lining her formidable literary talents with unrelenting self-deprecation and transcended the tragedies of her life with her signature sharp wit. But nowhere did her singular blend of wit and wistfulness pierce with greater precision than in her poetry. In this rare 1926 recording, 33-year-old Parker reads her poem “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom” — an ode to the unflinching comfort of the bed, our most reliable sanctuary of safety — found in her 1936 collection Not So Deep As A Well (public library).

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend –
Bed awaits me at the end.

Though I go in pride and strength,
I’ll come back to bed at length.
Though I walk in blinded woe,
Back to bed I’m bound to go.
High my heart, or bowed my head,
All my days but lead to bed.
Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall –
I’m a fool to rise at all!

Pair with — what else? — Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake.

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04 APRIL, 2014

Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou: The Beloved Author Recites Her Poem “Phenomenal Woman”

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Beautiful recording brings to life a cultural classic.

Celebrated poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (b. April 4, 1928) endures as one of the most influential literary voices of our time and a testament to the tenacity — creative, social, spiritual — of the human spirit. From her extraordinary autobiographies to her beautiful essays to her lesser-known children’s verses, Angelou has served as an inspiration to generations. To generations of women in particular, her poem “Phenomenal Woman,” found in the sublime and soul-lifting 1978 poetry volume And Still I Rise (public library), became an anthem of empowerment, and nowhere does it come to life more beautifully than as it pours out from Angelou’s own lips, who recites her iconic poem in this rare recording:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

And Still I Rise is a magnificent read from cover to cover. Complement it with Angelou on freedom in a 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, her charming children’s verses, illustrated by Basquiat, and her meditation on home, belonging, and (not) growing up.

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