Among the chorus of great writers who have extolled music’s supreme and singular power is the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) in a splendid prose poem titled “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” included in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library).
In this recording from the annual Poetry & the Creative Mind event at Lincoln Center hosted by The Academy of American Poets, Regina Spektor — one of the great musicians of our time — brings Strand’s masterpiece to life with such loveliness and tenderness:
THE EVERYDAY ENCHANTMENT OF MUSIC
A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music. Then the music was polished until it became the memory of a night in Venice when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs, which in turn was polished until it ceased to be and in its place stood the empty home of a heart in trouble. Then suddenly there was sun and the music came back and traffic was moving and off in the distance, at the edge of the city, a long line of clouds appeared, and there was thunder, which, however menacing, would become music, and the memory of what happened after Venice would begin, and what happened after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin.
Complement with Strand himself reading his stirring poem “The End” in the final months of his life and his lyrical love letter to dreams, then treat yourself to this year’s Poetry & the Creative Mind if you are in New York and join me in supporting The Academy of American Poets with a donation so that they may continue to do their noble work of making this world a little more poetic.
“…a bowl full of joy, clear as the sky, pure as the falling cherry petals, without worry, without doubt…”
By Maria Popova
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her breathtaking love letter to the mountain. Around the same time, across an ocean and a landmass, another poet laureate of place was serenading nature in a different medium and with a singular voice.
Called to art since childhood, Chiura Obata (November 18, 1885–October 6, 1975) was trained in the traditional Japanese ink and brush painting technique sumi-e from the age of seven. When his family readied him for military school at age fourteen, he ran away, left his home prefecture, and traveled four hundred miles north to Tokyo, where he apprenticed himself to a prominent painter for three years. Shortly before his eighteen birthday, Obata left for the United States and settled in San Francisco, working as a domestic servant while pursuing an arts education. He was soon supporting himself with illustration work for Japanese-language magazines and newspapers. But the American Dream was not on offer — instead, Obata was met with the era’s prevalent racial animosity toward Japanese immigrants, who were socially ostracized, denied entry into restaurants, hotels, and entertainment establishments, and legally prohibited from owning land.
Perhaps it was this anguishing disappointment with the human world, with its seething cauldron of xenophobia and racism, that made Obata turn his heart and his paintbrush to the natural world. On his first trip to the High Sierra in 1927, watching “beautiful flowers bloom in a stream of icy water,” Obata wrote to his wife, Haruko:
I only feel full of gratitude.
He spent much of the 1920s traveling, capturing California’s tessellated natural beauty — from its bays and beaches to its mountains and redwood forests. In his exquisite watercolors and woodblock prints, Obata deliberately employed a combination of traditional Japanese techniques rather than abiding by any one school.
By the end of the decade, his paintings had garnered considerable attention. In 1928, Obata received his first one-person show in America at a fine arts gallery in San Francisco — a small selection drawn from the ten thousand paintings he had painted over the previous twenty years. The exhibition catapulted Obata into a new stratum of recognition and established him as a central figure in the newborn California Watercolor School, which would go on to shape the sensibility of twentieth-century American art.
But neither Obata’s stature in the creative world nor his appointment as an art instructor at U.C. Berkeley protected him from the swarming hostility of the country he had made his home and the recipient of his rare gift. In December of 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, locals fired shots at the art supply store Obata and his wife owned in Berkeley. After continued harassment and threats, the Obatas closed the store and cancelled the popular art classes they had been hosting for the community. By the spring, Obata was detained at one of California’s internment camps for Japanese Americans, where he founded an art school using his own funds and donations from friends at the university. Six hundred of the interned became art students and went on to produce work of such quality that it was being exhibited outside the camp by the summer.
After WWII, the Obatas bought a modest house near their old art supply store. Obata was rehired at U.C. Berkeley, from which he retired in 1953 as Professor Emeritus. The following year, he was naturalized as a Untied States citizen.
Reflecting on his life’s work, he captured his governing ethos of art’s regenerative power:
My aim is to create a bowl full of joy
Clear as the sky,
Pure as falling cherry petals,
Without worry, without doubt;
Then comes full energy, endless power
And the road to art.
As a young man, Obata had lived through and drawn the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 — a formative experience that seeded in him a reverence for nature’s might and the geologic grandeur of Earth. In 1927, under the spell of that fascination, Obata traveled to Yosemite National Park for the first time and produced one hundred brush-and-ink paintings that became a centerpiece of his first solo show. Enchanted, he returned to Yosemite over the next decade, painting a series of stunning watercolors and woodblock prints later collected in Obata’s Yosemite: Art and Letters of Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927 (public library).
Strewn throughout Obata’s descriptive and rather matter-of-factly letters from Yosemite to his wife are poetic bursts of reverie at nature’s majesty, generosity, and resilience:
The speed of the universe is surprisingly fast. The uproar of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight is no comparison to nature… At a place where yesterday I thought the snow was three to four feet high, a type of flower that I had never seen before is already smiling today. Even the sky deepens its blue color every day, adding infinite thoughts to the morning sunlight.
Mount Lyell stands majestically, 13,650 feet high, clad in brilliant snow and towering over the high peaks of the Sierra — Tioga Peak, Mount Dana, Ragged Peak, Johnson Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Mount San Joaquin, which surround her.
The spotlessly clear blue sky that sweeps high up over the mountains changes in a moment to a furious black color. Clouds call clouds. Pealing thunder shrieks and roars across the black heavens. Man stands awestruck in the face of the great change of wondrous nature.
Also included in Obata’s Yosemite are the four surviving nature articles Obata wrote for a Japanese newspaper in California in 1928. He closes the final installment in the series with these words:
The old pine on the Tioga plain has borne avalanches, fought wind, rain, ice, and snow, and has suffered bitter times for several hundred years. Like a warrior at the end of his life, he embraces with his rough roots the young trees growing up and surrounding the fallen parent. When I see this I feel that man should be devoted and struggle hard to follow his own ambition without willful, selfish reasons.
I feel that to weep and to be caught in trivial emotions is impure, and I would be ashamed before nature. Now, I have come to Southern California to exhibit my work of the past twenty years to brothers and sisters and young people who are also working hard with similar thoughts in spite of different vocations.
I dedicate my paintings, first, to the grand nature of California, which, over the long years, in sad as well as in delightful times, has always given me great lessons, comfort, and nourishment. Second, to the people who share the same thoughts, as though drawing water from one river under one tree.
My paintings, created by the humble brush of a mediocre man, are nothing but expressions of my wholehearted praise and gratitude.
“Euclid’s system,” mathematician Lillian Lieber, of whom Einstein was an admirer, wrote in her brilliant free-verse primer on mathematics and social justice, “has served for many centuries as a model for clear thinking, and has been and still is of the greatest value to the human race.” But more than a beacon of truth, Euclid was also a torchbearer of beauty. In fathering geometry with Euclid’s Elements, one of the most influential scientific texts of all time, he grounded mathematics in the real world — a groundbreaking cross-pollination of truth and beauty that shaped art through science and science through art. By giving rise to the development of perspective, Euclidean geometry invited architecture and the figurative arts into the three-dimensional world for the first time, then through them gave back to science — Galileo’s Moon drawings were so revolutionary in large part because his training in perspective allowed him to depict the topography of its mountains and craters, refuting the old notion that our satellite is a perfectly smooth orb of ethereal matter and revealing it instead to be as solid and rugged as the Earth.
Ralph Waldo Emerson grasped Euclid’s significance when he wrote in his journal:
The problem of the poet is to do the impossible… to unite the wildest freedom with the hardest precision… Dante was free imagination, all wings, yet he wrote like Euclid.
But it was another great poet who most precisely captured Euclid’s supreme and abiding contribution to humanity.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950) was twenty-one when she enrolled in Vassar College as a freshman. Immersed in the strong science curriculum established there by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had paved the way for women in science in the previous century, Millay composed one of her earliest sonnets as a tribute to Euclid’s legacy of revolutionizing how we look at the world and what we see.
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
“Everybody knows that children see a great deal which is hidden from grownups.”
By Maria Popova
In 1921, Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, conceived of a most unusual and imaginative present for her cousin, Queen Mary — an elaborate dollhouse populated with miniature replicas of artifacts in Windsor Castle, equipped with running water and electricity, and adorned with original works by prominent artists. Completed in 1924 and intended as a present from the people of England for their monarch, Queen Mary’s Dollhouse became part homage, part masterwork of craftsmanship, part time-capsule and singular historical document.
A lover and patron of the arts, Princess Marie Louise envisioned the project as a showcase for some of the era’s greatest artists and craftspersons, who created an astonishing array of items — from miniature monogramed linens to tiny paintings to a working elevator. But the crowning achievement was a library containing one hundred and seventy-one books by the most celebrated authors of the time — original stories by titans like Joseph Conrad, A.A. Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, and J.M. Barrie, inscribed by hand into miniature tomes.
Among the contributing authors was the poet, novelist, and famed garden designer Vita Sackville-West (March 9, 1892–June 2, 1962). Although most of the other stories in the dollhouse library have become part of the literary landscape over the past century, Sackville-West’s has remained largely unknown, even to her own heirs. It was only recently rediscovered and is finally published, nearly a century after it was written, as A Note of Explanation (public library) — a lovely cloth-bound picture-book with illustrations by the contemporary artist Kate Baylay in the Art Deco style of the era, evocative of Harry Clarke’s haunting 1925 illustrations for Goethe’s Faust and William Faulkner’s forgotten Jazz Age drawings.
In Sackville-West’s irreverent meta-fairy-tale, visitors queue up to see Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, eager to spend a shilling on the attraction. But despite their hungry squints and gloved hands and magnifying glasses, they fail to see the most curious feature of the dollhouse.
Weaving subtle social commentary into the story, Sackville-West writes:
Peer into the house as they might in consideration of their shilling, being greedy of every second allotted to them, there were some things which they could never see in the house, which nobody had ever seen, or would ever see, not even the maker of the house, although he wore big spectacles, nor even the Queen herself, even when she had her crown on, nor even the royal children, though everybody knows that children see a great deal which is hidden from grownups.
What visitors can’t see is the secret resident of the dollhouse: an elegant, curious, daring sprite who has traveled across time and space, dropping into some of history’s most beloved fairy tales — flying to China to hear the Emperor’s famous Nightingale, visiting Aladdin’s palace to find Scheherazade “long-winded and a bore,” becoming a voyeur to the Prince and Sleeping Beauty’s kiss — before she settled into Queen Mary’s Dollhouse. With her “boyish, page-like appearance,” the sprite is in part a self-portrait of Sackville-West, who wrote the story just before she met Virginia Woolf in 1922 — the beginning of a lifelong relationship, in the course of which Vita would be Virginia’s lover, friend, and muse. In 1928, Woolf would publish Orlando — her groundbreaking novel about an elegant, curious, daring protagonist, based on Vita, who changes genders and travels across the centuries, meeting the great writers of the epochs. Vita’s son would later describe it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
In the late summer of 1924, shortly after Queen Mary’s Dollhouse was completed, Vita visited Virginia’s home for the first time. After she left, Virginia recorded in her diary:
A perfect lady, with all the dash and courage of the aristocracy, and less of its childishness than I expected.
That day, she wrote to Vita to let her know that she’d be glad to publish a short story Vita had submitted to Woolf’s imprint. “[It is] the sort of thing I should like to write myself,” she exulted in her praise.
A hallmark of early love is a longing so intense that one wishes to possess the beloved so completely as to almost absorb them into one’s own being. Under such a spell, admiration, adoration, and emulation flow in and out of one another in a powerful, almost violent osmosis — each lover unconsciously takes on the likes and habits and sensibilities of the other, until it becomes difficult to discern where the lover ends and the beloved begins. All of this is to say, I doubt Virginia Woolf directly and consciously drew on A Note of Explanation in composing Orlando, that she saw in its creative premise something she herself “should like to write” — far more probably, this 330-page love letter to Vita folded unto itself everything Vita was and did, everything Virginia so adored and admired in the heat of her infatuation, the dollhouse story being but a fragment of the larger beloved whole.
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