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A Sponge, Not a Fountain: Boris Pasternak on Art, the Source of Its Miraculousness, and Its Ultimate Function in Human Life

“A book is nothing but a cube of hot, smoking conscience.”

A Sponge, Not a Fountain: Boris Pasternak on Art, the Source of Its Miraculousness, and Its Ultimate Function in Human Life

In her memoir, Marina Abramović recalls being greatly influenced by an obscure book titled Letters: Summer 1926 (public library) — the immensely lyrical and profound correspondence between three of the greatest poets of the twentieth century: Rainer Maria Rilke, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva.

In the preface to the 2001 edition, Susan Sontag describes the volume as “a portrait of the sacred delirium of art” and writes that these three-way love letters “portray a domain of reckless feeling and purity of aspiration which it would be our loss to dismiss as ‘romantic.'” Indeed, what magnetized the three poets together was a remarkable purity of heart and sincerity of idealism, undimmed, at least for that one summer, by the darknesses each was battling — Pasternak and the Soviet political regime which would force him to decline the Nobel Prize three decades later; Tsvetayeva and her swelling despair, which would culminate in her suicide fifteen years later; and Rilke, dying of leukemia in a Swiss sanatorium.

Pasternak himself would articulate this common ground of intensity and integrity in a letter to Tsvetayeva from May of 1926:

Ours is the same aloneness, the same searchings and solutions, the same love for the labyrinths of literature and history, and the same role to be played out.

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak

In that selfsame letter, Pasternak promised to send Tsvetayeva — whom he considered the greater poet — passages from an article he had written seven years earlier, published in the literary miscellany Sovremennik [Contemporary] under the title “A Few Principles.” The piece, included alongside the letters, remains not only the most direct articulation of Pasternak’s creative credo but one of the most luminous things ever written about the perennial question of why we make art and what it does for the human spirit.

29-year-old Pasternak writes:

Contemporary trends assume that art is like a fountain, when really it is like a sponge.

They have decided that art ought to gush, but it ought, rather, to suck up and absorb.

They assert that art can be divided into categories according to means of representation, when actually it is composed of organs of perception.

Art must always remain among the spectators and see things more clearly, more truthfully, more perceptively than the others, but in our day it has resorted to using face powder and dressing rooms and displaying itself on the stage. It is as if there were two forms of art and one of them, knowing that it holds the other in reserve, allows itself the luxury of perversion, which is tantamount to suicide. It makes a display of itself when it ought to get lost in the top gallery, in anonymity, and be unaware that it cannot help being discovered, that while shrinking in the corner it is afflicted with a glowing translucence, the phosphorescence that goes with certain diseases.

Pasternak considers the “organs of perception” involved in his own art, literature, and writes:

A book is nothing but a cube of hot, smoking conscience.


One forgets that the only thing within our power is the ability to keep the voice of truth within us undistorted.

The inability to find and speak the truth is a failing that no talent for speaking the untruth can disguise.

This final sentence, which Pasternak himself italicizes for emphasis, calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s timeless and increasingly timely treatise on lying in politics, penned nearly half a century later on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In a passage that calls to mind James Baldwin’s assertion that the poet is one who knows that “that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him,” Pasternak examines the ultimate function of art and the source of its miraculousness through an exquisite parable. Drawing on a few verses which Mary, Queen of Scots, had penned upon the death of her first husband, King Francis II of France, and on the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Chastelard, which Pasternak himself had translated into Russian decade earlier on the turbulent cusp of the Russian Revolution, he writes:

What is the miracle? The miracle is that once there lived a seventeen-year-old girl named Mary Stuart who, sitting at a window while outside the Puritans howled, wrote a poem in French ending with the lines:

Car mon pis et mon mieux [For my worst and my best]
Sont les plus déserts lieux. [Are more bleak than the rest.]

The miracle is, second, that on a day in his youth Algernon Charles Swinburne sat at a window, with October whirling and raging outside, and finished his Chastelard, in which the subdued plaint of Tsvetayeva’s five stanzas sounded in the sinister throbbing of five tragic acts.

The miracle is, third, that on a day five years ago a translator gazed out of the window and wondered which was the grater marvel: that the Yelabuga [ed: Pasternak’s neighborhood] blizzard should know Scottish and be wailing, as on that earlier day, over the fate of the seventeen-year-old girl; or that the girl and the English bard who sang her lament were speaking to him in clear, soulful Russian about the tragedy they kept on reliving, the tragedy that would not let them go.

What is the meaning of it? the translator asked himself. What is happening out there? Why is it so serene today (though the blizzard is still raging)? One would expect blood to be flowing. Instead a smile lights the faces beyond the window.

Therein lies the miracle. In the happy recognition of the oneness, the indenticalness of the lives of those three and many, many others (eyewitnesses of three epochs; participants, readers). In the abiding truth of that October of an indefinite year that rages and roars beyond the window, on the hillside, in — art.

That is the miracle.

Letters: Summer 1926 is a miraculous read in its totality. Complement it with Pasternak’s cross-cultural bridge of kinship and mutual appreciation with Albert Camus through the Iron Curtain, then revisit Pablo Neruda’s wonderful childhood parable of why we make art and Rilke on what it takes to be an artist.


Multivocality, Polyphony, Gumbo Yaya: Elizabeth Alexander, Barack Obama’s Inaugural Poet, on the Power of Poetry in Moments of Powerlessness

“We just have to really, really, really dust ourselves off and do our work. That’s all there is to it — love each other, do your work.”

Four days after the 2016 election, I teamed up with the Academy of American Poets for an emergency pop-up reading of poetry we called Verses for Hope. We invited beloved writers to each read one or two poems that nourish resilience and restore our faith in the human spirit as we wade through these troubled and divisive times. Musicians bookended the reading with two tributes to Leonard Cohen. Although it all came together in less than 48 hours, nearly 200 people showed up in the flesh, thousands tuned in online, and a humbling roster of readers agreed to participate.

Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, who eight years earlier had become the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration with the poem she wrote to welcome Barack Obama to the presidency.

After some poignant words about the contrasting landscapes of possibility then and now, and how we can wrest meaning and empowerment out of our present predicament, Alexander read two poems — “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, that timeless ode to the irrepressible tenacity of the human spirit amid oppression, and “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem she herself had written for and read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, found in her collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).

Elizabeth Alexander (right) as I (left) record her speech. (Photograph: Susan)
Elizabeth Alexander (right) as I (left) record her speech. (Photograph: Susan Sanders)

Some context lost beyond the moment: Alexander opens with a warm remark about the hip-hop dance troupe performing nearby. (Just after our introductory remarks at the Washington Square Park fountain, these young men let us know that they perform there every Sunday for their livelihood. So we decided to transplant the entire operation — equipment, sign, books, and crowd — to another part of the park.) She then references W.H. Auden’s acutely timely poem “September 1, 1939,” which science writer Maria Konnikova had just read after a prefatory note about Auden’s famous one-word edit, perhaps the most poignant in the history of literature.

Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Echoing Rebecca Solnit’s assertion that troubled times are also the wellspring of transformative movements and “full engagement requires the ability to perceive both,” Alexander insists on the necessity of simultaneity and plurality:

It’s good having more than one thing going on at a time, which reminds me that there is more than one thing happening at a time right now and that something very frightening and enormous and awful happened on election day. There are a lot of people in this country and there are a lot of forces and a lot of ways of believing and going about our work, and a lot of love, and a lot of energy. And I think that we have to bear that in mind, always — there is more than one thing happening at once. So, as bad as this is, it’s not the only thing.

She considers the countercultural empowerment that black women have modeled for all of us:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the philosophy that black women have offered this country over time — a very, very necessary philosophy right know, when you think about what it is to come from no position of presumed power. What does it mean to start off as three-fifths of a human being in the eyes of the law and still find your way, in a meaningful way, into the populace? What does it mean to survive when you’re not supposed to survive?

There’s a powerful philosophy there that says, “Nobody gives you shit — nobody gives it to you.” I was raised by people — my parents, my mom and dad — who said things like, “Well, you didn’t expect they were going to give you the keys to the bank?” Or, I’d be at my little struggles, and my dad has actually said to me, “Well, Harriet Tubman figured it out.” Now, that’s sometimes not really so helpful — but the point is that Harriet Tubman figured something out. And that is serious. And that is not slip. That is actually a real challenge to our resources — to say what does it mean, what can we learn, from the resilience of people who were never at the center of power, who never expected to be given power, but who nonetheless found their way to make this amazing country.

I think these lessons are going to be more and more important.

In a sentiment evocative of Albert Camus’s notion that in our attachment to life “there is something stronger than all the ills in the world,” Alexander considers the necessity, the vitality, of keeping our will to live alive:

We have to laugh and we have to dance and we have to remember to do those things that keep us alive and keep us human and keep us together — because we do have that.

Where is Lucille Clifton? Well, she’s here with us in her words.

by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Echoing Chinua Achebe’s insistence on the plurality of perspectives, Alexander reflects the devotion to pluralism that undergirded the poem she wrote for Obama’s inauguration — a devotion all the more critically necessary for all of us today:

I have thought back to this exact time eight years ago, when I was given the honor of my life [and] asked to represent American poets — all my people — to compose and read a poem for [Barack Obama’s] inauguration in 2009. And I really thought, taking on that job, about the continuum of poets, living and dead, who I felt with me and around me at all times. And I really understood very profoundly what it was to be one of many vessels of the word, coming forward. And I tried to think about … my mother and father — Walt Whitman and Gwendolyn Brooks — they were with me all the time, saying, “Listen, listen: different voices, multivocality, polyphony, gumbo yaya.” Everything happening at once — right? All of that is what brought the country to that profoundly hopeful moment.

And I think it’s important to remember that in that moment, thinking always of our elders, that was a beautiful moment that so many elders never thought they’d live to see. So there are things that we don’t yet know, that we don’t think we’re going to live to see, that are also going to give us power and beauty if we hold up our own.


We hope that’s what poems do. So I want to read [“Praise Song for the Day”] … and just to say that everyone for whom this poem was meaningful, those people are still here — it’s us. We’re still here. So we just have to really, really, really dust ourselves off and do our work. That’s all there is to it — love each other, do your work. That’s all there is to it.


Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need
. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Complement with Alexander on power, possibility, and the ethic of love and her beautiful meta-poem about what poetry does for the human spirit, then join me in supporting the important and salvatory work of the Academy of American Poets.


Chinua Achebe on How Storytelling Helps Us Survive History’s Rough Patches

“There is no one way to anything.”

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” beloved Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) observed in his forgotten 1980 conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” By that point, Achebe had already been busy upsetting the system for more than two decades, beginning with his iconic debut novel Things Fall Apart, which remains the most widely read book in African literature.

Eight years after his conversation with Baldwin, 58-year-old Achebe sat down to discuss the storyteller’s task in both upsetting the system and stabilizing the spirit of the people with another exceptional interlocutor — Bill Moyers, who so poetically describes Achebe as “a storyteller who hears the music of history, weaves the fabric of memory, and sometimes offends the Emperor.” The conversation was later included in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library) — the indispensable 1989 tome that gave us Isaac Asimov on the role of science fiction in advancing society and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility.

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

Reflecting on a famous Ibo proverb — “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” — Achebe considers the complementarity at the heart of existence:

There is no one way to anything. The Ibo people who made that proverb are very insistent on this — there is no absolute anything. They are against excess — their world is a world of dualities… If there is one God, fine. There will be others as well. If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view.

When Achebe reflects on the damage done by missionaries and colonial administrators who had come to Africa with a single idea of truth — an ideology that promised those dissatisfied with the status quo a new world order — his words radiate tremendous relevance to the political situation in America today:

Those people who found themselves out of things embraced the new way, because it promised them an easy escape from whatever constraints they were suffering under.


But it was not necessary to throw overboard so much that was thrown overboard… It was not necessary. I think of the damage, not only to the material culture, but to the mind of the people.

In another passage of sobering prescience as we face a world in which the despot of Kremlin has “a friend in the White House,” Achebe remarks:

It seems to me that something happened in that period between Roosevelt and perhaps the period of McCarthy that made it possible for the South African regime, for example, to say they have a friend in the White House. I think what happened is that America became a power in the world and, after the Second World War, forgot its revolutionary origin.

In a sentiment that affirms Toni Morrison’s conviction that troubled times are precisely when artists must go to work, Achebe considers the different types of power that the storyteller and the political ruler have over the people:

A storyteller has a different agenda from the emperor. [And yet] there’s a limit to what storytelling can achieve. We’re not saying that a poet can stop a battalion with a couple of lines of his poetry. But there are other forms of power. The storyteller appeals to the mind, and appeals ultimately to generations and generations and generations.


If you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have, first of all, the man who agitates, the man who drums up the people — I call him the drummer. Then you have the warrior, who goes forward an fights. But you also have the storyteller who recounts the event — and this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that survivors must have — otherwise surviving would have no meaning… This is very, very important… Memory is necessary if surviving is going to be more than just a technical thing.

In yet another passage of piercing relevance to American politics today, Achebe considers the then-common Western perception that Africa’s path to independence has resulted in chaos, violence, and despair:

If you look at this very small segment of history, then you can talk about it in those terms. If you are frozen in time, you can say yes, it’s awful. And it is really awful. But I think if you take the wide view of things, then you begin to see it as history, as human history over a long period of time, and that we are passing through a bad patch. It’s not death. We are passing through a bad patch, and if we succeed, then even this experience of the bad patch will turn out to be an enrichment.

History’s hindsight has proven Achebe right: The African cultural renaissance in the decades since, with its incredible groundswell of literature, art, and entrepreneurship, offers, perhaps, some assurance that our present “bad patch” might lead, not without pain and exasperation, to similar enrichment.

Achebe considers the most difficult yet important path to ensuring that chaos results in something constructive:

Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education. We lack imagination. If we had enough imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we oppress, things would begin to happen. So it is important that we develop the ability to listen to the weak.

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas remains a ceaselessly rewarding read in its hefty totality, featuring wisdom from such luminaries as physicist Steven Weinberg, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, poet Derek Walcott, management legend Peter Drucker, geneticist Maxine Singer, linguist Noam Chomsky, and novelist E.L. Doctorow. Complement this particular fragment with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to the world, then revisit Moyers’s poignant conversation with Maya Angelou about courage and facing evil.


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