Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
.
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Pablo Neruda’s Extraordinary Life, in an Illustrated Love Letter to Language

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A swirling celebration of one of the greatest creative icons of the twentieth century.

Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was not only one of the greatest poets in human history, but also a man of extraordinary insight into the human spirit — take, for instance, his remarkable reflection on what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, quite possibly the most beautiful metaphor for the creative impulse ever committed to paper.

As a lover both of Neruda’s enduring genius and of intelligent children’s books, especially ones — such as the wonderful illustrated life-stories of Albert Einstein and Julia Child — I was instantly smitten with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library | IndieBound) by Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.

The story begins with the poet’s birth in Chile in 1904 with the given name of Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto — to evade his father’s disapproval of his poetry, he came up with the pen name “Pablo Neruda” at the age of sixteen when he first began publishing his work — and traces his evolution as a writer, his political awakening as an activist, his deep love of people and language and the luminosity of life.

Neftalí wasn’t very good at soccer or at throwing acorns like his friends, but he loved to read and discovered magic between the pages.

Embedded in the story is a sweet reminder of what books do for the soul and a heartening assurance that creative genius isn’t the product of conforming to common standards of excellence but of finding one’s element.

In fact, the book is as much a celebration of Neruda as it is a love letter to language itself — swirling through Paschkis’s vibrant illustrations are words both English and Spanish, beautiful words like “fathom” and “plummet” and “flicker” and “sigh” and “azul.”

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is exuberant and enchanting in its entirety. Complement it with Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, then treat yourself to this bewitching reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book.”

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04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lucinda Williams on Compassion

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“You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

Recently, in witnessing the astounding haste with which people were lashing out against one another, without so much as a moment of pause for understanding, without so much as a basic intention to reflect and respond rather than react, I lamented that the world would be much kinder if everyone believed that everyone else is doing their best, even if they fall short sometimes. Mere hours later, my heart stopped as I heard the first track from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (iTunes), the altogether spectacular new album by Lucinda Williams.

Titled “Compassion,” the song — a line from which lends the record its name — pins down with devastating precision just what we do to one another, and what we reveal about ourselves, when we deny each other the simple human dignity of kindness. It is nothing short of a masterwork at the intersection of poetry and philosophy from one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

Have compassion for everyone you meet
Even if they don’t want it
What seems conceit
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
For those you encounter
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems bad manners
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
of things no ears have heard
Always a sign
of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

For everyone you listen to
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems cynicism
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
Of things no ears have heard
Always a sign of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

That Williams should possess the poetic form with such mastery should come as no surprise — the daughter of the prolific poet Miller Williams, she grew up reading and writing poetry. Her father’s mentor was none other than Flannery O’Connor, whose house young Lucinda used to visit with her dad and whose Southern Gothic sensibility seems to permeate Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. “Compassion” itself is, in fact, adapted from Miller Williams’s poem by the same title, found in his 1997 collection The Way We Touch: Poems.

In her short memoir, Williams reflects on the interplay between misery and compassion:

Here’s the thing about misery. I had a lot of misery when I was growing up. I have enough misery to last me for the rest of my lifetime. The misery is like a well, and I just dig into the thing and pull it out anytime I want. I have misery and then some. I don’t need to create any more.

[…]

The hardest thing is not looking like you’re pointing the finger and blaming someone…

Complement with Anne Truitt on compassion and our chronic self-righteousness and Mark Twain on what a simple remark by his mother taught him about compassion.

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