Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Mary Oliver on the Magic of Punctuation and a Reading of Her Soul-Stretching Poem “Seven White Butterflies”

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“All eternity is in the moment.”

It’s hard to be human and be unmoved by the grace with which Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) captures the subtleties and mysteries of being alive, from her exquisite poems to her soul-stretching ideas about poetry itself. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Oliver’s lyrical mastery renders her the Whitman of our day and her sublime attunement to the transcendent in nature place her alongside Thoreau.

In this recording from an event held by the Lannan Foundation in 2001, Oliver shares an entertaining thought about punctuation as a control mechanism and reads her intentionally punctuationless prose poem “Seven White Butterflies,” found in the altogether enchanting volume West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (public library).

One of our great assistances is, of course, punctuation. But it occurred to me that, perhaps, each of us writers has only perhaps a finite amount of it for our use, and we should use it judiciously — lest we hear a voice, suddenly, when we need, saying, “No more semicolons!” “You’re finished with your dashes!” — and, also, that passive-aggressive comma, with which we so carefully set off what is nice, so it won’t be missed — don’t we?

So I thought of, for fun — and I’ve done that a few times — I would write a poem that uses no punctuation (and this particular one has a question mark, which is quite apparent, at the end) and see what I could do simply with the line break and the cadence of the line and so forth. And it is a little breathless to read, and perhaps to listen to, but here goes: it’s called “Seven White Butterflies.”

Seven white butterflies
delicate in a hurry look
how they bang the pages
of their wings as they fly
to the fields of mustard yellow
and orange and plain
gold all eternity
is in the moment this is what
Blake said Whitman said such
wisdom in the agitated
motions of the mind seven
dancers floating
even as worms toward
paradise see how they banter
and riot and rise
to the trees flutter
lob their white bodies into
the invisible wind weightless
lacy willing
to deliver themselves unto
the universe now each settles
down on a yellow thumb on a
grassy stem now
all seven are rapidly sipping
from the golden towers who
would have thought it could be so easy?

That cost me one question mark.

Complement with a beautiful reading from Oliver’s Dog Songs and the beloved poet on the mystery of the human psyche.

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19 AUGUST, 2014

“Don’t Read Books!” A 12th-Century Zen Poem

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“It’s annoying for others to have to hear you.”

We live in a culture that often romanticizes books as the tender and exhilarating love-making to the “orgasm without release” of Alan Watts’s admonition against our media gluttony — an antidote to the frantic multitasking of modern media, refuge from the alleged evils of technology, an invitation for slow, reflective thinking in a fast-paced age obsessed with productivity. Books, Kafka memorably asserted, are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Given I spend the majority of my waking hours reading and writing about books, I have certainly bought into that romantic notion. But everything, it turns out, is a matter of context: Imagine my amusement in chancing upon a poem titled “Don’t Read Books!” in the altogether wonderful slim volume Zen Poems: Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets (public library).

Penned by Chinese poet Yang Wanli in the 12th century, the poem, translated by Jonathan Chaves, is a renunciation of books as a distraction from the core Buddhist virtue of mindful presence:

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

It might seem like a ridiculous notion to us today, loaded with heavy cultural irony, but it offers a poignant reminder that if books, which we presently worship as the most meditative form of media, were in the twelfth century what videogames or Twitter are in the twenty-first, then a few dozen generations into the future — provided humanity still exists — the very forms we dismiss as spiritually worthless distractions today may come to be seen as the strongest anchors to the fabric of cultural history.

Zen Poems — which, I should add, features an elegant cover design by the great Barbara deWilde — is a delight in its entirety. Complement it with some thoughts on how to live with presence in the age of productivity.

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15 AUGUST, 2014

O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

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“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman‘s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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