Brain Pickings

89 Clouds: Miraculously Beautiful Poetry and Painting about Clouds and Everything They Mean

By:

“Clouds are thoughts without words…”

Scientists may now be able to tell us how a cloud keeps the weight of 100 elephants in the air and even to demonstrate the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearly, but there is something eternally elusive about the immaterial mesmerism of clouds — something, perhaps, which only the poet and the artist can access. (And, most of all, the ultimate poet-artist: Joni Mitchell.)

In 1999, Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, a man of enormous wisdom on the heartbeat of creative work, and artist Wendy Mark teamed up on a most unusual collaboration: a miracle of a book titled 89 Clouds (public library) — a single poem composed of eighty-nine numbered reflections on the atmospheric phenomena that have tickled the human imagination since the dawn of our species, alongside the artist’s subtle and breathtaking paintings of clouds.

The poem stretches between the poignant and the playful, the cryptic and the profound, the meditative and the mirthful. It projects onto clouds, once the screen of children’s simple fantasies, the complex preoccupations of an adult reality — our anxieties, our loves and losses, our longing for grace, our restless pursuit of self-transcendence. In Strand’s carefully crafted words one finds, if one is looking, beautiful and poignant metaphors for the human experience — for relationships, for self-doubt, for the maps of our interior worlds, for the fleeting flash of existence we call a life.

Strand — who started out as a visual artist and studied under the great Josef Albers — writes mesmeric lines like:

1. A cloud is never a mirror

2. Words about clouds are clouds themselves

3. If snow falls inside a cloud, only the cloud knows

Some seem at first silly, but like Gertrude Stein’s love letters to language and meaning, become more and more beautiful, more and more sapient, with each reading:

5. A cloud dreams only of triangles

20. Clouds are thoughts without words

Some weave alternative mythologies, the fanciful stories with which ancient folklore explained the unfathomable facets of the natural world:

12. If a parrot is lost in a cloud, it turns into a rainbow

13. Clouds are drawn by invisible birds

In some, Strand’s elegant precision cuts straight to heart of love and longing, and simply takes the breath away:

13. Clouds are in love with horizons

18. The cloud that was gone would never come back

35. Every lake desires a cloud

Some are ingenious play with language:

25. A cloud without you is only a clod

Clouds are also spaces for experience:

52. A cloud is a cathedral without belief

54. A cloud is mansion without corners

55. A cloud lit from within is somebody’s study

Some are pleasurably mischievous and lyrical at once:

67. Clouds cannot see what we do under the umbrella

80. A poet looks at a cloud the way a man looks at a shrub

89 Clouds is the kind of book so deeply rewarding to hold and behold, to read and reread — a “calming object, held in the hand,” to borrow Maira Kalman’s perfect phrase — that no pixel or prose can do it justice. Although it is long out of print, surviving copies are findable and more than worth the search.

For more of Mark Strand’s subtle and electrifying genius, see his moving reflection on the artist’s task of bearing witness to the universe.

Thanks, Liz

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.

The Faith in the Soul: Young James Joyce’s Magnificent Letter to Lady Gregory

By:

“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light.”

In his infinitely wise letter of advice to his son, Charles Dickens extolled the vitality of persevering “in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it.” In one of the very few interviews legendary painter Agnes Martin gave, she observed that “you’re permanently derailed” and that you arrive at the art you end up making “through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure.” This message of dogged determination fortified by failure has become a chorus line of pop psychology so oversung that we tune it out. And yet the history of creative endeavor is strewn with living testaments to this uncomfortable, overpreached, and yet essential truth. But hardly anyone embodies it more vibrantly, nor speaks to it more eloquently, than James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941) — a man who proved, to himself and the world, that it pays to imagine immensities.

In 1902, shortly after graduating from University College Dublin with concentrations in English, French, and Italian, twenty-year-old Joyce decided to remain at the university and study medicine, which he saw as a stable career path for supporting himself. But he soon began to struggle academically and was unable to earn a scholarship to help cover the steep tuition, which he couldn’t afford on his own. He decided to move to France and study medicine at the University of Paris, supporting himself by teaching English — but he knew nobody in Paris, nor did he have the means to rent an apartment on his own. Exasperated, he reached out to fellow Irish literary legend Lady Gregory, three decades his senior, asking for help.

In a letter from November of 1902, found in the altogether revelatory Joyce: Selected Letters (public library), young Joyce writes:

I have broken off my medical studies here and I am going to trouble you with a history. I have a degree of B.A. from the Royal University, and I had made plans to study medicine here. But the college authorities are determined I shall not do so, wishing I dare say to prevent me from securing any position of ease from which I might speak out my heart.

After admitting that he doesn’t have the means to pay his medical school tuition and that the university refuses to give him financial aid on grounds of inability, even though they offer it to students who failed exams he passed, young Joyce declares:

I want to get a degree in medicine, for then I can build up my work securely. I want to achieve myself — little or great as I may be — for I know that there is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to my church as a human being, and accordingly I am going to Paris.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

With the peculiar blend of pride, despair, and determination familiar to all those who have had to reconcile their boundless ambition with their limiting circumstances, Joyce beseeches Lady Gregory:

I am going alone and friendless … into another country, and I am writing to you to know can you help me in any way. I do not know what will happen to me in Paris but my case can hardly be worse than it is here.

But he is quick to assure her, and perhaps most of all himself, of the solid spiritual center bolstering his ambition:

I am not despondent however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.

Faithfully yours,

James Joyce

Medicine, of course, is not the mount of achievement on which Joyce ultimately staked his pole. But even as he surrendered to literature as a full-time writer, he brought the same faith and determination to the pursuit, plowing through perceived failure — take, for instance, Carl Jung’s eviscerating review of Ulysses — to bequeath us with some of the greatest books of all time.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, the hefty totality of which is full of the author’s emergent ideas on literature and life, with Joyce’s little-known children’s book, his most revealing interview (conducted by Djuna Barnes, no less), and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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.

26-Year-Old Frida Kahlo’s Compassionate Letter to 46-Year-Old Georgia O’Keeffe

By:

“I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now.”

There is something uncommonly heartening about bearing witness to the virtuous cycle of support and mutual appreciation between two creative luminaries — elevating epistolary exchanges like those between Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. They seem to remind us that, contrary to the toxic myth of the solitary genius, creative culture is propelled by the power of scenius, by the goodwill and generosity of kindred spirits, by tangible reminders that we belong to a human enterprise larger than we are.

One of the most touching such exchanges was between two of the greatest artists and most remarkable women the world has ever known — Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. Both were prolific letter writers — Kahlo in her passionate illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera, and O’Keeffe in her equally passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz, her lifelong correspondence with her best friend, and her emboldening missives to Sherwood Anderson. But what Kahlo wrote to O’Keeffe in 1933 was a wholly different kind of epistolary and human magic.

Even though the Mexican painter had herself been dealt an unfair hand — including a miscarriage just a few months earlier, her mother’s recent death, and more than thirty operations over the course of her life after a serious traffic accident during adolescence sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus — Kahlo didn’t hesitate to reach out with a beam of compassion during O’Keeffe’s moment of crisis. Shortly after the American painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and instructed by doctors not to paint for a year, Kahlo sent her an epitome of what Virginia Woolf so aptly called “the humane art.”

In a letter from March 1, 1933, preserved by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, Kahlo writes:

Georgia,

Was wonderful to hear your voice again. Every day since I called you and many times before months ago I wanted to write you a letter. I wrote you many, but every one seemed more stupid and empty and I torn them up. I can’t write in English all that I would like to tell, especially to you. I am sending this one because I promised it to you. I felt terrible when Sybil Brown told me that you were sick but I still don’t know what is the matter with you. Please Georgia dear if you can’t write, ask Stieglitz to do it for you and let me know how are you feeling will you? I’ll be in Detroit two more weeks. I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now. After all I shouldn’t complain because I have been happy in many ways though. Diego is good to me, and you can’t imagine how happy he has been working on the frescoes here. I have been painting a little too and that helped. I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes. I will see you soon. I am sure that in New York I will be much happier. If you still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.

Frieda

What’s especially interesting is the simultaneous mirroring and reversing of circumstances pertaining to the relationship between art and mental health. Kahlo had actually first begun painting while recovering, immobile in bed, from the brutal accident that nearly killed her. At the time of their 1933 correspondence, O’Keeffe was doing the opposite — recovering in bed from brutally overextending herself in art. But this wasn’t the only reversal between the two. Citing the letter in her book Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own (public library), Sharyn Rohlfsen Udal — who suggests that Kahlo, with her long history of affairs with both men and women, may have been interested in something more than friendship with O’Keeffe — writes:

The next confirmed record of the O’Keeffe–Kahlo contact was through their mutual friend Rose Covarrubias, who took O’Keeffe to visit Kahlo (confined to her bed in Coyoacan after a year-long hospitalization) twice during O’Keeffe’s 1951 visit to Mexico. It is an interesting reversal of roles from the 1933 contact, when it was O’Keeffe who was ill, Kahlo the solicitous visitor.

And that, perhaps, is the point — a palpable reminder that the history of arts and letters is strewn with these barely visible threads of mutuality, generosity, and goodwill, which stand as the most steadfast support structure for the creative spirit.

HT Open Culture

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.

Rilke on Our Fear of the Unexplainable

By:

“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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.