This interleaved thing-itselfness of existence, hidden in plain sight, is what two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov (February 29, 1920–July 5, 1991) takes up, two centuries after William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand, in a spare masterpiece of image and insight, found in his altogether wondrous Collected Poems (public library), winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
On Being creator and Becoming Wise author Krista Tippett brought the poem to life at the third annual Universe in Verse, with a lovely prefatory meditation on the role of poetry — ancient, somehow forgotten in our culture, newly rediscovered — as sustenance and salve for the tenderest, truest, most vital parts of our being.
FIGURES OF THOUGHT by Howard Nemerov
To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs
Who cannot see to fly straight into death
But have to cast their sidelong glance at it
And come but cranking to the candle’s flame —
How secret that is, and how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise
Without kinship — that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.
It may diminish some our dry delight
To wonder if everything we are and do
Lies subject to some little law like that;
Hidden in nature, but not deeply so.
“If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means… what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.”
By Maria Popova
“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the power and magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Hardly anyone in our time has been a greater amplifier of spirits than longtime journalist, On Being host, and patron saint of nuance Krista Tippett — a modern-day Simone Weil who has been fusing spiritual life and secular culture with remarkable virtuosity through her conversations with physicists and poets, neuroscientists and novelists, biologists and Benedictine monks, united by the quality of heart and mind that Einstein so beautifully termed “spiritual genius.”
In her interviews with the great spiritual geniuses of our time, Tippett has cultivated a rare space for reflection and redemption amid our reactionary culture — a space framed by her generous questions exploring the life of meaning. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (public library), Tippett distills more than a decade of these conversations across disciplines and denominations into a wellspring of wisdom on the most elemental questions of being human — questions about happiness, morality, justice, wellbeing, and love — reanimated with a fresh vitality of insight.
At the core of Tippett’s inquiry is the notion virtue — not in the limiting, prescriptive sense with which scripture has imbued it, but in the expansive, empowering sense of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual technology that allows us to first fully inhabit, then conscientiously close the gap between who we are and who we aspire to be.
She explores five primary fertilizers of virtue: words — the language we use to tell the stories we tell about who we are and how the world works; flesh — the body as the birthplace of every virtue, rooted in the idea that “how we inhabit our senses tests the mettle of our souls”; love — a word so overused that it has been emptied of meaning yet one that gives meaning to our existence, both in our most private selves and in the fabric of public life; faith — Tippett left a successful career as a political journalist in divided Berlin in the 1980s to study theology not in order to be ordained but in order to question power structures and examine the grounds of moral imagination through the spiritual wisdom of the ages; and hope — an orientation of the mind and spirit predicated not on the blinders of optimism but on a lucid lens on the possible furnished by an active, unflinching reach for it.
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.
If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.
With an eye to Rilke’s immortal words — love, the poet wrote to his young friend, “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation” — Tippett observes:
Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief.
It was in the heartbreak of her own marriage — a youthful fairy-tale romance that ended, many years and two children later, in deep mutual loneliness — that Tippett came to know the inescapable dualities of love, this “merger of pleasure and risk and sacrifice,” this “dance of alternating vulnerabilities.” She writes:
The nuclear family is a recent invention and a death blow to love — an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep. None of the great virtues … is meant to be carried in isolation.
When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion… After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.
This is the opposite of a healing story — it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.
The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.
But this adventure of expanding the understanding and practice of love plays out as much in our private lives as it does in our public lives. The poet Elizabeth Alexander — one of Tippett’s most enchanting conversation partners on On Being — captured this perfectly in her reading at Barack Obama’s inauguration, where she became only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration: “What if love,” Alexander asked, “is the mightiest word?” Tippett writes:
A poet can’t carry this question alone, nor can a politician.
Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic spaces.
Half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s increasingly timely clarion call for an “experiment in love,” Tippett winces at the modern media environment shaping our perception of reality by highlighting humanity at its most hateful. She writes:
Antiseptic language … puts our human dramas in political and economic boxes and holds us at arm’s length from the heart of the matter. Still, I feel more and more of us willingly seeing, choosing to care about the heart of the matter, holding the question of love … across all kinds of ingrained ideological, political, economic difference.
To grasp this heart of the matter, Tippett mines the wisdom of her vibrant and variedly insightful conversation partners over the years for metaphors that articulate the nature and nurture of love, both as a private experience and a public encounter. From an astrophysicist, she borrows dark matter as a metaphor — like the invisible cosmic stuff, love is a “force that permeates everything and yet remains essentially mysterious, something we have scarcely begun to understand and to mine.” A geophysicist studying plate tectonics reveals to her love’s necessary “capacity to accommodate fragility.” A moral philosopher points to the gestational period of love, for “change begins to happen in the human heart slowly, over time.”
Still, Tippett takes care to temper the romantic with the realistic. At the remarkably courageous intersection of her private experience and her public philosophy, she reflects on becoming estranged from her own father after a deeply traumatic relationship that stretched for decades, and writes:
It is a biological truth that safety is almost always a prerequisite for the best in us to emerge… Love doesn’t always work as we want it to, or look like something intimate and beautiful… Sometimes love, in public and in private, means stepping back.
We all live lives that are complicated and that at times, with infinite variation, feel overwhelming. But we know people in our immediate world who step beyond themselves, into care. If you know them up close, you know they are not saints or heroes — take note of that, and take comfort. Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted. Scientists … are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.
Becoming Wise is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality — a wellspring of nuance and dimension amid our Flatland of artificial polarities, touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness. Complement this particular dimension with Thich Nhat Hahn — whose conversation with Tippett is a pinnacle of spiritual genius — on how to love and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
For more of Tippett’s own spiritual genius, including her remarkably courageous reflections on her struggle with depression, hear her magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
We’ve all been trained and raised as advocates, so we go in with a position. There’s a place for that. But we need to be able to set that aside, because we need places where that’s not all we’re doing… So one thing about listening — generous listening — one really simple characteristic of it is that the generous listener is ready to be surprised. You go into [a conversation] with an assumption that you don’t know everything or understand everything, and you’re truly curious — which means you’re open to having whatever assumptions you do bring unsettled, and you’re going to be graceful about that and kind of curious about that when that happens.
“Marriage is rarely bliss / But, surely it would be worse / As particles to pelt / At thousands of miles per sec / About a universe / Wherein a lover’s kiss / Would either not be felt / Or break the loved one’s neck.”
By Maria Popova
“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) in “The More Loving One” — one of the greatest, most largehearted poems ever written. The son of a physicist, Auden wove science throughout much of his poetry — sometimes playfully, sometimes poignantly, always as a finely polished lens on the deepest moral and humanistic questions with which we live and for which we die. At the heart of his scientific poetics was the understanding that the eternal tension between knowledge and the unknown, enveloped in our ambivalent longings, is what makes us human.
Nowhere do these tessellated ideas and sensibilities come together more vibrantly than in his 1961 poem “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics,” found in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library) and brought to life by musician Josh Groban at the third annual Universe in Verse.
Following theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s ardent case for the interbelonging of art and science, and reading to the background of an Auden portrait painted by astrophysicist, novelist, and poetry enchantress Janna Levin, Groban prefaced his reading of Auden with a remarkable personal story about his own great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather — a 17th-century German rebel astronomer and theologian, who allowed his scientific understanding of the cosmos to expand his spiritual life rather than contracting it with fear and dogma as the era’s church did — the same era in which Kepler’s revolutionary astronomy thrust his mother into a witchcraft trial.
AFTER READING A CHILD’S GUIDE TO MODERN PHYSICS by W.H. Auden
If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.
Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.
Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.
Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths — but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?
This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
That timeless, generous poem came alive at The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in partnership with Pioneer Works — in a soulful performance by designer, artist, architect, inventor, and poet of matter Neri Oxman.
Half a century after Rachel Carson made ecology a household word, Oxman coined the term material ecology — a term Whitman would have cherished — to describe her singular work weaving the structures, systems, and aesthetics of nature, from silkworms to honeybees to the human breath, into our built environment. That term became the title of a visionary Museum of Modern Art exhibition by curator Paola Antonelli, making Oxman the first designer working in material science to have a major exhibition at a major New York art museum, a century and a half after Whitman envisioned museums as places to teach us “the infinite lessons of minerals… wood, plants, vegetation.” At the time of her Universe in Verse performance, she had just given birth to her first child — that supreme attunement of the body and the soul in the poetry of being, an embodied consecration of Whitman’s conviction, thoroughly countercultural in his day, that “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” and that “there is nothing greater than the mother of men.”
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night — press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds — night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night — mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset — earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow’d earth — rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.