Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

24 JULY, 2015

Robert Graves on Love and Lust

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“Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth.”

Poet, novelist, mythologist, essayist, and translator Robert Graves (July 24, 1895–December 7, 1985) is among the most influential artists of the past century — a piercing mind carried on the wings of a thoroughly free spirit, an unflinching idealist with a certain Mad Hatter quality to his genius. Jorge Luis Borges called him “a soul above.” Virginia Woolf mistook him for a tabloid reporter or a nosy fan and nearly chased him out when he showed up on her door step, “a bolt eyed blue shirted shockheaded hatless man in a blue overcoat.”

In 1963, Graves sat down with Italian actress, photojournalist and sculptor Gina Lollobrigida — one the most prominent European actresses of the era and an international sex symbol — for an invigorating conversation, later included in the wholly rewarding anthology Conversations with Robert Graves (public library). Although they discussed a wide range of subjects — from poetry to gender to the evils of commercialism in literature — the conversation somehow kept circling back to love, the subject of much of Graves’s poetry.

Robert Graves by Peter Stark (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly half a century after he penned his magnificent “Advice to Lovers,” Graves adds to history’s greatest definitions of love and tells Lollobrigida:

Love and honor. They are the two great things, and now they’re dimmed and blighted. Today, love is just sex and sentimentality. Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that is compatible with — that makes both of you light up when you recognize the quality in the other. That’s what love is. It’s a recognition of singularity… And love is giving and giving and giving … not looking for any return. Until you do that, you can’t love.

This crucial difference between love and lust preoccupied Graves in much of his poetry, nowhere more so than in one of his early poems from the 1919 volume The Treasure Box, written when Graves was in his early twenties and later included in the indispensable posthumous tome Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (public library):

THE KISS

Are you shaken, are you stirred
By a whisper of love,
Spellbound to a word
Does Time cease to move,
Till her calm grey eye
Expands to a sky
And the clouds of her hair
Like storms go by?

Then the lips that you have kissed
Turn to frost and fire,
And a white-steaming mist
Obscures desire:
So back to their birth
Fade water, air, earth,
And the First Power moves
Over void and dearth.

Is that Love? no, but Death,
A passion, a shout,
The deep in-breath,
The breath roaring out,
And once that is flown,
You must lie alone,
Without hope, without life,
Poor flesh, sad bone.

Complement with Rilke on love, Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, and E.B. White and James Thurber on how to tell love from passion, then revisit Graves’s little-known and immeasurably lovely collaboration with Maurice Sendak.

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15 JULY, 2015

Beloved Poet Nikki Giovanni on Love, Friendship, and Loneliness

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“Some people forget that love is tucking you in and kissing you ‘Good night’ no matter how young or old you are.”

In his magnificent meditation on the nature of creativity, the late poet Mark Strand defined poetry as the art of “meaning carried to a high order,” adding: “It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication.” Few poets embody this ideal of totality more boldly and bridge the daily with the essential more beautifully than writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), recipient of twenty honorary degrees from some of the world’s most renowned universities and the Langston Hughes Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters.

Giovanni shares a kinship of sensibility with such diverse peers as e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov and Wislawa Szymborska. Her poetry is, perhaps above all, a masterwork of translation — the personal into the universal, the mundane into the monumental, the traumatic into the transcendent. Inside and between her verses, the most elemental human longings and concerns — love, loss, friendship, loneliness, freedom — at once new and even more immutable.

Here are my readings of five of Giovanni’s most beautiful poems — please enjoy.

From The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1995 (public library):

CHOICES

if i can’t do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don’t want
to do

it’s not the same thing
but it’s the best i can
do

if i can’t have
what i want … then
my job is to want
what i’ve got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more to want

since i can’t go
where i need
to go … then i must … go
where the signs point
through always understanding
parallel movement
isn’t lateral

when i can’t express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal

i know
but that’s why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry

I’M NOT LONELY

i’m not lonely
sleeping all alone
you think i’m scared
but i’m a big girl
i don’t cry or anything

i have a great
big bed to roll around
in and lots of space
and i don’t dream
bad dreams like i used
to have that you
were leaving me
anymore

now that you’re gone
i don’t dream
and no matter
what you think
i’m not lonely
sleeping
all alone

From the 1997 volume Love Poems (public library), one of Giovanni’s most delicious:

LOVE IS

Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
“Good night”
no matter how young or old you are

Some people don’t remember that
love is
listening and laughing and asking
questions
no matter what your age

Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all
unless

Love is
You and me

A POEM OF FRIENDSHIP

We are not lovers
because of the love
we make
but the love
we have

We are not friends
because of the laughs
we spend
but the tears
we save

I don’t want to be near you
for the thoughts we share
but the words we never have
to speak

I will never miss you
because of what we do
but what we are
together

From her most recent and most exhaustive volume, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library):

WHEN I DIE

when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love

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07 JULY, 2015

The Invention of Clouds: Goethe’s Poems for the Skies and His Heartfelt Homage to the Young Scientist Who Classified Clouds

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“Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.”

If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone — since the dawn of our species, the water cycle’s most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O’Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: “They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.” Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds — a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.

No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:

To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe’s most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard — the man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena — was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as “Master.” The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another — sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost.

In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library), English writer and historian Richard Hamblyn chronicles Howard’s journey from a humble young Quaker and insecure chemist to a reluctant scientific celebrity who warranted the ebullient admiration of Goethe and forever changed our relationship with the weather.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c — a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.

With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.

Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity — but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck’s, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:

Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.

Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces — some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off — two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.

But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard’s work than Goethe.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Around the time of Howard’s rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular — a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.

When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard’s Latin cloud names “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was “an arbiter of cultural and civilized value” and his word “was enough to settle any matter” — and so it did, ensuring Howard’s Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.

But then something even more extraordinary happened — Goethe sent Howard fan mail.

So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration — it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard — that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet’s ego. But it was all true — Goethe was a great admirer of Howard’s work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:

Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds … had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.

Eventually, Howard copied Goethe’s words into one of his notebooks — perhaps to assure himself that he hadn’t dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:

How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe’s enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:

Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.

The great German poet set out to adapt Howard’s essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) — a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature’s mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.

STRATUS

When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.

CUMULUS

Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.

CIRRUS

And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.

NIMBUS

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard’s classification into his high art of poetry:

For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.

In yet another testament to the power of creative culture’s unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary — were it not for a young translator at London’s Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe’s admiration to Howard himself — a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.

But Hüttner’s vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses — feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard’s original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:

When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.

Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.

But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. — Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history’s most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner’s help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:

I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.

This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist’s sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:

For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.

How Howard developed his sensitive soul and how it sprouted his trailblazing scientific contribution is what Hamblyn explores in the remainder in the beautifully written, rigorously researched, wholly fascinating The Invention of Clouds. Complement it with the very differently but equally bewitching 89 Clouds and the science of how clouds actually stay up in the sky, then revisit Goethe’s taxonomy of color and emotion.

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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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