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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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01 MAY, 2015

E.B. White on Idea-Incubation and the Two Faces of Discipline

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How to ride the “wave of emotion” in creative work on a raft of conscientious revision.

“One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it … [but] another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the key to discipline in 1933. Indeed, fruitful creative work — especially writing — is predicated on this porous relationship between structure and spontaneity, discipline and imaginative freedom. That’s what E.B. White addresses in his contribution to the fantastic volume The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — a compendium of wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with literary legends like Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, and William Styron.

In the same superb 1969 conversation that gave us White’s wisdom on how to write for children and the writer’s responsibility to society, he considers the question of discipline in writing:

There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

But this discipline of discarding mediocrity in the editing process must be preceded by the appropriate gestational period for ideas, or what T.S. Eliot called “a long incubation.” White reflects on his own experience of “sneezing” Charlotte’s Web:

When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.

And yet even this “wave of emotion” — which the perhaps more coolly rational Virginia Woolf famously called “a wave in the mind” — must be ridden on the raft of revision:

I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not at all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer [but] I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment.

Complement with the cognitive science of the perfect writing routine and Anna Deavere Smith on what discipline means for an artist, then revisit this evolving library of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers and White’s warm letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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30 APRIL, 2015

An Adventure in Paris with Pussy and Lovey: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein Become Babysitters

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A positively pleasing illustrated take on a true story.

The fateful first meeting of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas sparked a lifelong romance that lasted not merely until Stein’s death but, as Toklas’s moving memoir suggests, until her own death twenty years later. During their reign as the quintessential Americans in Paris, they became an epicenter of creative culture, around which such rising stars as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald orbited. In 1954, Toklas captured their extraordinary partnership in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook — a delicious memoir in disguise, written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography and peppered with warm recollections of the couple’s life and love.

Although their story is yet to join the finest picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, a most delightful fragment of it comes to life in Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom: An Artful Adventure with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (public library) by longtime Stein and Toklas collector Hans Gallas. Illustrated by comic artist and New Yorker cartoonist Tom Hachtman, creator of the comic strip Gertrude’s Follies, this marvelous picture book for all ages is loosely based on a chapter from the memoir of Fritz Peters, who went to a boarding school near Paris in the 1920s with his younger brother Tom and did indeed visit with Stein and Toklas one holiday.

The story begins with an affectionate primer on Stein and Toklas and their home in Paris amid “masterful modern paintings that covered the walls, floor to ceiling,” including a “positively pleasing portrait of Gertrude” by the couple’s dear friend Picasso.

Gertrude was a really remarkable writer and sometimes Alice called her “Lovey.”

Alice was a constantly creative cook and sometimes Gertrude called her “Pussy.”

One day, they receive a letter from an American friend asking them to babysit her “beautifully behaved boys, Fritz and Tom,” over Thanksgiving.

“There, there,” said Gertrude, “What to do? What to do? What to do?”

“Lovey,” said Alice, “I’ve heard Fritz and Tom can be a horrible handful. They play pesky pranks at school and are not fond of challenging chores.”

“Horrible handful? Pussy, you mean beastly brats who play pesky pranks and are not fond of challenging chores?

How beastly can the brats be? We have two dogs, Basket and Pépé.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

After some deliberation over Tibetan tea and Alice’s “truly tasty teacakes,” the couple decides to let the boys visit. From the moment they arrive and begin pressing their noses against Stein’s prized art, festive chaos ensues.

After their Thanksgiving feast, appropriately reflective of Toklas’s culinary creativity, the foursome take to the streets of Paris for sightseeing and adventures in Stein’s famous car, Lady Godiva.

Eventually, the boys depart and the couple resumes life as usual.

Then, one morning, Alice discovers a sweet thank-you note from Fritz and Tom tucked behind her favorite teapot and runs to show it to Gertrude, who is enjoying one of her beloved bubble baths.

“Pussy, don’t drop it in the tub,” said Gertrude. “This is one of the nicest notes we have ever received.”

“Lovey, it is positively pleasing, and I think we would make two amusing American aunts,” said Alice B. Toklas.

“Now finish your belated bubble bath, you have some really remarkable writing to do!”

“And you have some constantly creative cooking to do!” said Gertrude Stein.

Complement the altogether positively pleasing Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom with Stein’s loving “word portrait” of Toklas and Toklas’s recollection of the magical moment they first met, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s wonderful illustrated inventory of Stein’s favorite objects.

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29 APRIL, 2015

David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love, and Heartbreak

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“Heartbreak is how we mature… There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.”

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

And yet friendship is a merited grace, one that requires of us the unrelenting commitment of showing up for and bearing witness to one another, over and over:

The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Illustration by Roger Duvoisin from 'Petunia, I Love You.' Click image for more.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

One of the most common sources of heartbreak, of course, is unrequited love. But, once again, Whyte shines a sidewise gleam on the obscured essence of another experience we mistake for a failure rather than a triumph of our humanity — for unrequited love is the only kind of love there is, in any real sense:

UNREQUITED love is the love human beings experience most of the time. The very need to be fully requited may be to turn from the possibilities of love itself. Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? … And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?

[…]

The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Indeed, most of our dissatisfaction with life stems from wishing for the present moment to be somehow different, somehow better-conforming to the rigid expectation we set for it at some point in the past. And yet nowhere is this rigidity of requirement more stifling than in love — that glorious “dynamic interaction” of souls responsive to one another, which requires a constant learning and relearning of a common language. Whyte considers what it is we really fear when we hide behind the merciless moniker of “unrequited” love:

We seem to have been born into a world where love, except for brilliant, exceptional moments, seems to exist from one side only, ours — and that may be the difficulty and the revelation and the gift — to see love as the ultimate letting go and through the doorway of that affection, make the most difficult sacrifice of all, giving away the very thing we want to hold forever.

Norwegian for 'the inescapable euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love,' from 'Lost in Translation' by Ella Frances Sanders. Click image for more.

Paradoxically, our notion of “unconditional love” is beset by the same self-defeating absolutism of expectation. Arguing that the very concept of it is a “beautiful hoped for impossibility,” Whyte writes:

Love may be sanctified and ennobled by its commitment to the unconditional horizon of perfection, but what makes love real in the human world seems to be our moving, struggling conversation with that wanted horizon rather than any possibility of arrival. The hope for, or the declaration of a purely spiritual, unconditional love is more often a coded desire for immunity and safety, an attempt to forgo the trials of vulnerability, powerlessness and the exquisite pain to which we apprentice ourselves in a relationship, a marriage, in raising children, in a work we love and desire.

[…]

The hope for unconditional love is the hope for a different life than the one we have been given. Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment; how we shape that conversation is the touchstone of our ability to love in the real inhabited world. The true signature and perhaps even the miracle of human love is helplessness, and all the more miraculous because it is a helplessness which we wittingly or unwittingly choose; in our love of a child, a partner, a work, or a road we have to take against the odds.

In the remainder of Consolations, which is immeasurably enlivening in its entirety, Whyte goes on to unpeel such concepts as shyness, vulnerability, honesty, and genius. Complement it with his equally ennobling writings on the three commitments of a fulfilling life, then treat yourself to these beautifully untranslatable words from around the world — a testament to those complexities we are yet to learn naming.

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