Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

03 JULY, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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02 JULY, 2015

Amanda Palmer Reads Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s Poem “Life While-You-Wait”

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Consolation for those moments when you feel “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.”

One spring evening not too long ago, I joined the wonderful Amanda Palmer on a small and friendly stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and we read some Polish poetry together from Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library) — the work of Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), for whom we share deep affection and admiration.

When Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality,” the Nobel commission rightly called her “the Mozart of poetry” — but, wary of robbing her poetry of its remarkable dimension, added that it also emanates “something of the fury of Beethoven.” I often say that she is nothing short of Bach, the supreme enchanter of the human spirit.

Amanda has previously lent her beautiful voice to my favorite Szymborska poem, “Possibilities,” and she now lends it to another favorite from this final volume, “Life While-You-Wait” — a bittersweet ode to life’s string of unrepeatable moments, each the final point in a fractal decision tree of what-ifs that add up to our destiny, and a gentle invitation to soften the edges of the heart as we meet ourselves along the continuum of our becoming.

Please enjoy:

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, is a work of immense beauty in its 464-page totality. Complement it with Amanda’s bewitching reading of “Possibilities” and join me in supporting her on Patreon — her art, like Brain Pickings, is free and made possible by donations. In fact, she wrote a whole fantastic book about the mutually dignifying and gratifying gift of patronage.

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22 JUNE, 2015

Welcome, Stranger, To This Place: William Blake Set to Song

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“We reap not, what we do not sow…”

For centuries, the poetry of William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) has inspired creative interpretations and homages across a multitude of media — from Maurice Sendak’s forgotten formative illustrations to JoHee Yoon’s beastly verses to the Provensens’ wondrous vintage children’s book. Half a century after Allen Ginsburg’s musical adaptation of Blake, British independent music project The Wraiths offers a contemporary counterpart in Welcome, Stranger, To This Place (iTunes), setting twelve of Blake’s most beloved poems to song.

The first track, after which the album itself is titled, in turn borrows its title from the first line of Blake’s “Song First by a Shepherd,” found in his Collected Poems:

Welcome stranger to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face,
We reap not, what we do not sow.

Innocence doth like a Rose,
Bloom on every Maidens cheek;
Honor twines around her brows,
The jewel Health adorns her neck.

Welcome, Stranger, To This Place is quietly magical in its totality. Complement it with E.E. Cummings set to song by Tin Hat, 13 songs based on W.B. Yeats by jazz vocalist and composer Christine Tobin, and Natalie Merchant’s musical adaptations of Victorian nursery rhymes.

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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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02 JUNE, 2015

The Midwifery of Creativity: Denise Levertov on How Great Works of Art Are Born

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“Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”

Few things gladden the heart, at least this heart, more than the immortal evidence of great friendships between artists — that mostly invisible scaffolding of goodwill and kinship of spirit upon which creative culture is built and without which the heavy lonesomeness of the creative life would crush the artist. An encouraging word from a friend or mentor can work, and has worked, wonders for the creative spirit — there is ample evidence in the epistolary friendship of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, young James Joyce’s correspondence with Ibsen, Mark Twain’s emboldening exchange with Helen Keller, Emerson’s career-making letter to Walt Whitman, and Frida Kahlo’s beam of compassion to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Among the most beautiful of these spiritually sustaining friendships is that between the poets Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919–February 3, 1988) and Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997). It began with a fan letter Duncan sent to Levertov in May of 1953 and continued for more than a quarter century, over the course of which they exchanged nearly 500 letters, now collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (public library) — a formidable 800-page tome containing these two literary titans’ views on life, love, poetry, politics, family, fame, and the intricate machinery of creativity.

In one of the longest and most revelatory letters in the volume, penned between October 25 and November 2 of 1971, 48-year-old Levertov articulates her most fundamental creative credos more directly than in any of her public writings.

She considers what lends a poem — and any great works of art — its power:

I have always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak (in whatever medium) of what deeply stirred him — whether in blame or in praise. I’d sooner read Dubliners than Finnegans Wake. Beckett bores me. Most of Gertrude Stein bores me — she’s nice for tea but I wouldn’t want her for my dinner. I love George Eliot…

I should qualify the “deep stirring” I mean: I prefer … works where need to speak (in whatever medium was theirs) arose from experiences not of a technical nature but of a kind which people unconnected with that medium also shared (potentially anyway).

Illustrating this with an example that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected,” Levertov writes:

A sculpture inspired by the potential of the piece of wood it is carved out of might move me by its beauty of proportion, texture, decorative qualities etc. but usually not as much as one behind which one can feel some other human experience, to which the artist-craftsman’s feeling for the wood contributes, so that the emerging inscape (the revealed inscape) is of the conjoining of some other life experience with the present experience of the wood, the material. Each grasped, revealed, by way of the other.

Elsewhere in the lengthy letter, she captures another aspect of this mutuality:

One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for six rare recordings of Levertov reading her poetry. Click image to see more and listen.

But this “deep stirring” quality of great art, Levertov cautions, doesn’t arise from the rational appeal of the work’s subject matter, or what it is currently fashionable to call its “content” — a term I’ve long despised for implying the vacant filler of an unfeeling form. Rather, she argues in one of the most beguiling descriptions of the creative impulse, it comes from the artist’s sincere and insurmountable desire — need, even — to externalize a mysteriously moving interior experience, a private event of the psyche, into a public work of art:

I do not at all have a sense of luring anyone into the poetic by catching hold of them through my subject matter. The idea appalls me in fact. Some events — whether a tree in a certain light, a Mexican family looking at the movie stills outside the cinema, a dream, my own condition of being in or out of love, of some epiphany relating to husband, child, friend, cat or dog, street or painting, cloud or stone, a book read, a story heard, a life thought about, a demonstration lived through, a situation, historical and/or topical, (that’s to say known in the moment of its passing into history) — it doesn’t matter, the list is endless, but some events (selected by some interior mysterious process out of all the other minutes and hours of my life) begin to form themselves in my understanding as phrases, images, rhythms of language, demand to be further formed, demand midwifery is one way to put it. Not all that one feels most strongly makes this verbal demand, even if one is a poet — by poet here I mean prose writer too — … but whatever experiences do demand it are always strongly felt ones. That is my testimony.

She seals the sentiment with one final stab at the vanity of vacant form:

I understand that for some people something like problem-solving is in itself a stimulus — e.g. the challenge of how to tell a story as a poem, not prose, without sounding archaic or stilted, might stimulate someone to make up a story to see if it could be done. But I myself would never be interested unless I first had a story to tell.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov with T.S. Eliot on the mystical quality of creativity and Jeanette Winterson on what grants great art its power, then revisit these wonderful archival recordings of Levertov reading her poetry.

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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