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Keeping Quiet: Sylvia Boorstein Reads Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful Ode to Silence

A lyrical reminder to break the momentum of busyness that fuels “the sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…” So begins Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet,” tucked into which is tremendous sagacity on how to be a good human being. “The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her tremendous lecture on art and freedom. “Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

No poet breaks the silence with silence, nor slices through its vitalizing, clarifying, and transcendent power, with more piercing elegance than Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) in a poem titled “Keep Quiet” from his 1974 volume Extravagaria (public library), translated by Alastair Reid.

The only thing to lend Neruda’s words and wisdom more mesmerism is this beautiful reading by the venerable Jewish-Buddhist teacher and prolific author Sylvia Boorstein, excerpted from the closing moments of her conversation with Krista Tippett on one of the finest podcasts for a fuller life.

Please enjoy.

KEEPING QUIET
by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Every single poem in Extravagaria is rewarding beyond words, beyond time. Complement it with Neruda’s beautiful metaphor of the hand through the fence and the story of his extraordinary life adapted in an illustrated love letter to language, then revisit Paul Goodman on the nine types of silence and the lovely The Quiet Book.

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Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

A paean and requiem for new parenthood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

In contemplating the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote of “an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

A decade earlier, another trailblazing artist contemplated the shock and splendor of new parenthood in her own art. In February of 1961, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Frieda, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) penned one of her most unusual poems. “Morning Song,” later included in the posthumously published 1965 classic Ariel (public library), is both paean and requiem for new motherhood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind celebration, Meryl Streep brings Plath’s masterpiece to life with uncommon sensitivity to the innumerable nuances it holds:

MORNING SONG

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas. Photograph by Siv Arb, from One Life: Sylvia Plath

Complement with Plath on what makes us who we are, the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids, her recently revealed visual art, and her own haunting reading of her poem “Spinster,” then revisit other great readings of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

Should you find yourself in New York City, The Academy of American Poets’ Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — takes place every April at Lincoln Center and is consistently magnificent, featuring readings of beloved poems by inspiring cultural figures who love them, ranging from artists to astrophysicists.

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Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

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Rosanne Cash on How Science Saved Her Life, the Source of Every Artist’s Power, and Her Beautiful Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Marie Curie

“All creative people feel that the source of their creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain.”

Most know Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) as a trailblazing scientist — a pioneer of radioactivity, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, and to this day the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences, chemistry and physics. But unbeknownst to most, she was also a woman of tremendous humanitarian heroism and courage: When WWI swept Europe, Curie, a vehement pacifist, invented and operated mobile X-ray units known as “Little Curies” — ambulances which she herself drove, treating an estimated one million wounded soldiers and civilians, using the technology her own discoveries had made possible to save innumerable lives.

It fell on another extraordinary woman, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), to eulogize Curie exactly forty years after the trailblazing scientist’s death in the 1974 poem “Power,” which opens Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library).

Marie Curie

Another forty years later, another remarkable woman animated this double legacy of greatness — multiple Grammy winner Rosanne Cash, a musician of enormous poetic potency, a beautiful memoirist, and one of very few women inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cash brought Rich’s masterpiece to life at The Universe in Verse — the celebration of science through poetry, which gave us Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s sublime performance of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy.

Prefacing her reading, Cash offered the greatest testimonial to the power of science there is — one attested to with her very life, which science saved after pseudo-science and today’s fossils of superstition imperiled it — and reflected on how Rich’s poem, while celebrating a scientist, also speaks to the deepest source of every artist’s power.

Persist and verify… The power that we abdicate to others out of our insecurity — to others who insult us with their faux-intuition or their authoritarian smugness — that comes back to hurt us so deeply… But the power we wrest from our own certitude — that saves us.

And here is the isolated poem:

POWER

Living    in the earth-deposits    of our history

Today a backhoe divulged    out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle    amber    perfect    a hundred-year-old
cure for fever    or melancholy    a tonic
for living on this earth    in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered    from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years    by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin    of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold    a test-tube or a pencil

She died    a famous woman    denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds    came    from the same source as her power

Rich was the only poet with two poems represented in The Universe in Verse. Devour the other one — her tribute to Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer — here, then revisit Rich herself reading her increasingly timely poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”

For other enchanting readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska.

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