Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 3

The Decades-Old Classic That Became the Ultimate Pandemic Poem

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

The Decades-Old Classic That Became the Ultimate Pandemic Poem

I will never forget the day I first encountered, in the midst of heartache, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) — a poem I have lived with for years, a poem that has helped me live.

Composed when Bishop was sorrowing after a separation from her partner, Alice Methfessel, it is a staggering poem about love and loneliness, about the feigned fearlessness and forced levity we put on like an armor, like a costume, to cope with the terrifying heaviness of loss. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 24, 1976, twenty years after Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and six years after she won the National Book Award, the following year it crowned the final book of poems published in Bishop’s lifetime and now lives on in her indispensable posthumously collected Poems (public library).

Alongside classics like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” “One Art” remains one of the greatest and most influential villanelles in the English language — sculptural masterworks of creative constraint, in which the virtuosity of language meets an exquisite mathematical precision in nineteen measured lines: five three-line stanzas and a final stanza of four lines, with the first and third line of the first stanza forming a refrain of alternating repetition across the remaining stanzas and then coming together into a chorus of a couplet in the closing verse. A haiku in the higher mathematics of meter.

Elizabeth Bishop

It is the only villanelle Bishop ever wrote. She surprised even herself. A spare and careful poet who published very few and very meticulous poems, she composed it with astonishing rapidity, feeling that it was “like writing a letter,” redrafting and retitling it over and over.

“How to Lose Things.”

“The Gift of Losing Things.”

“The Art of Losing Things.”

And finally, fifteen drafts later, “One Art.”

It is always a delight to witness someone you love discover something you have long loved, and so it was with immense delight that I watched my dear friend Amanda Palmer discover “One Art” in real time while we were smiling at each other screen-mediated and pandemic-strewn across opposite corners of the globe, each comforting the other’s recent losses. Having just come upon the poem via one of her patrons and not yet read it, she read it to me extemporaneously while I mouthed the words committed to heart. I watched ripples of deeply personal resonance animate Amanda’s face as she made her way through the poem — a poem universal and timeless, a beautiful and brutal emissary of elemental truth, written half a century ago out of the tumults of the poet’s personal life, out of her very particular time and place and circumstance, suddenly rendered the ultimate pandemic poem for this moment we share and the myriad personal losses within it — a testament to the young Sylvia Plath’s precocious observation that an artist never knows how their work will live in the world and touch other lives, that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

Bridging this bittersweet unbidden moment with our longtime collaboration around poetry, I asked Amanda to record a reading of the poem as it made its way into her veins to live with her as it has lived with, and as it will live with you.

ONE ART
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Bishop died not long after composing “One Art,” having requested the last two lines of another poem of hers as an epitaph:

All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Complement with Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life and James Gleick reading her monumental poem about the nature of our knowledge, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “Spell to Be Said Against Hatred” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Big Picture” by Ellen Bass, “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.

BP

Mass, Energy, and How Literature Transforms the Dead Weight of Being: Jeanette Winterson on Why We Read

“Books read us back to ourselves… The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined.”

Mass, Energy, and How Literature Transforms the Dead Weight of Being: Jeanette Winterson on Why We Read

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Kafka wrote to his childhood friend just as he was setting out on a life of making and honing axes of words. I have always been struck by his metaphor — by both the exquisite truth of its tenor and the awful violence of its vehicle. A good book is indeed a profound transformation and, yes, there can be a violence to how it awakens us from the trance of near-life, but it is often a transformation of great subtlety and tenderness — an act of healing, a self-salvation, a self-creation. “Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits,” Anne Lamott wrote in her lovely letter to children a century after Kafka. As a child, Jane Goodall read herself into her unexampled life. As a girl cusping on adulthood, Helen Fagin read herself alive through the Holocaust.

We read for countless reasons and books transform us in countless ways, reckoned and unreckoned. We read the way we love — with our whole selves, with the flickering constellation of values, longings, traumas, joys, hopes, despairs, formative experiences, and half-remembered impressions composing the self. We read with our whole being, but we also read ourselves into being as each book quietly reconfigures the constellation with its cosmogony of ideas and the emotional voyage on which it takes us, so that we emerge from it a different self. That, too, is how love transforms us.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Jeanette Winterson — one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, a maker of axes and lifelines welded and woven of words — takes up the subject of why we read, a subject on which a reader is tempted to think nothing novel could be said, with uncommon splendor of insight in the introduction to the Audible edition of her 1985 classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (public library).

Winterson begins where books begin — in the life and mind of the author, a fact so basic we have grown blind to its magic: How is it that a single person’s experience can become raw material for something that speaks to generations of strangers, something that shapes selves radically different from the author’s and from each other’s? She considers what it takes to write from a deeply personal place in a way that bridges the abyssal divide between consciousnesses:

The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own. Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.

The unknown in life — the unknown in ourselves, the unknowns of the world — is always a double-edged sword of thrill and terror. The unknown in literature, Winterson observes in consonance with the central fact of life — the fact that we are always figuring ourselves forward in an uncertain universe — becomes a safe vessel from which to explore the uncharted territories of our knowledge and our self-knowledge:

Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere — across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us — into the heart of anguish we have never felt — crimes we could not commit.

Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood — which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us.

Books read us back to ourselves.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment particularly resonant to those of us who read ourselves through difficult lives, and out of them, and into improbable new lives, Winterson counsels on how to best read for self-transformation:

One of the things the story teaches us is this: Read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact.

When I was growing up poor in a poor place with a pair of Pentecostal parents who were waiting for Jesus to return and roll up time and space like a scroll, I never thought my life was narrow or my chances bleak. I thought I was Heathcliff, Huck Finn, Hotspur, Aladdin, the Big Bad Wolf. The Fish with a Golden Ring.

And later, when I had left home at sixteen and was living in a Mini, I had my favourite books stashed in the boot and whenever I could be in the library, I was there. This wasn’t a fantasy world or escapism — though it was an escape; it was the hidden door in the blank wall. Open it.

I opened the book and went through.

The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined, not only one gender or passion. Learning to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is liberating — it is the difference between energy and mass. Mass is the beloved object — the world we can touch and feel — but mass is also the dead weight in ourselves and others.

Shifting the dead weight takes energy but at its atomic core the dead weight is energy. Transforming mass into energy, energy into mass is what creative work is about. An idea becomes embodied. A tragedy is released.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on how books empower, solace, and transform us and Alain de Botton on books as portals to self-understanding, then revisit Winterson on how art and storytelling redeem our inner lives, the paradox of active surrender at the heart of all art, and her 10 rules of writing

BP

Murmuration: A Stunning Animated Poem About Our Connection to Nature and to Each Other

A collaborative praise song for “indifference banished by love.”

Murmuration: A Stunning Animated Poem About Our Connection to Nature and to Each Other

In one of the essays collected in Vesper Flights (public library) — which was among the finest books of 2020 and includes one of the most magnificent things ever written about the enchantment of the total solar eclipseHelen Macdonald reflects on watching starlings swarm the sky like living constellations on their way to roost for the night, and writes:

We call them murmurations, but the Danish term, sort sol, is better: black sun. It captures their almost celestial strangeness. Standing on the Suffolk coast a few years ago, I saw a far-flung mist of starlings turn in a split second into an ominous sphere like a dark planet hanging over the marshes. Everyone around me gasped audibly before it exploded in a maelstrom of wings.

In a lovely echo of Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower — his timeless, poetic insistence that knowing the science behind something beautiful doesn’t rob it of enchantment but “only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe” — Macdonald unfurls the science behind the awe of murmurations:

The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity; their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching ninety miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.

Like all great essays, Macdonald’s begins with an observation of one thing and becomes a meditation on another, taking one fragment of elemental reality and polishing it to shine a sidewise gleam on a larger existential reality — in this case, the murmuration of human refugees trying to find their way to safety and belonging amid a gasping world.

Poet Linda France encountered Macdonald’s essay during a climate writing residency at New Writing North. Inspired by Neil Gaiman’s “What You Need to Be Warm” — his humanistic poem for refugees and the homeless, composed from thousands of definitions of warmth from around the world — she invited people to submit verses about our relationship to the natural world beginning with “Because I love…” and “What if…,” then set out to stitch the five hundred submission with the thread of her own poetic imagination into a lyric murmuration, which artist Kate Sweeney turned into a soulful animated short film. Amplifying the poignancy of the project is its timing — it was created for the 2020 Durham Book Festival, while the human world was roosting in confused and frightened isolation, swarmed by the shared terror of a pandemic and the smoke of unprecedented wildfires, suddenly more aware than ever that we are a single pulsing living dying organism.

France reflects on the inspiration she drew from the starlings:

I wanted to borrow their natural capacity for shared purpose, communication and movement to embody what human beings might be capable of if they worked together to address the biggest ever challenge facing the planet and all its species and systems — the perfect storm of the climate emergency, mass extinction and an unprecedented global pandemic… I wanted to catch the noise of it all, let the clash and clamour co-exist and recreate something of the starling murmuration’s fractal patterning both on the page and in the ear.

With an eye to the “interrogation of our relationship with the planet and other species” radiating from the submissions and to how they deepened her own understanding of “the dangers of ‘us’-and-‘them’-ing,” France adds:

Transforming our relationship with the natural world into something more reciprocal has little to do with righteousness or separation. The collective includes all beings and asks for mutual tolerance, transparency and trust.

MURMURATION
by Linda France

1
*
Because we love watching the flock’s precision glide
       upstroke for height, tilt of wing spun mid-flight
just for a moment
              we’re in the frenzied swirling rush

              home for the winged

       owls hoot their love through the dark
                     chiffchaff creeps up stalks
              fennel and flow
dipper and wagtail
              Arctic terns like darts
geese honking              each note weighed
a duck sits on top of the bowling club out king of the world

       if you love the bird, don’t cage it

              we’ll miss the starlings when April comes

*
on any high hilltop, breathing this air,
this precious air, remember those who lost their breath

       if you love the flower, don’t pick it

a sudden sweep of daisies in a green field
like counting stars
       losing count
              starting over again

more shades of green
than words scream Life!

life, damp grass between bare toes
light passing through poppy petals
the slow unfolding of a rose

              home for the prickly, those that slither
                     climb or crawl
                            for us all

       atom by atom
       cell by cell
       what else matters

we cherish these conversations when the vetchling speaks
the lavish eruption of nasturtiums, weaving ropes of white stems
orange flowers
       lush leaves
              hearts burnt open

       if you love wild things, let them be

*
follow the almost invisible path through the heather
summer’s easy grin, the slow smile of autumn
gaze of winter starlight

              isn’t this how we learn not to fear
change
       the seasons
              that mark time
shape our lives

       spangles of sunlight on a river
       otters rippling

the sting of cold sea on tight, red skin

       we feel it all, drink it in and love it

love honey, love bees
the smell of dust, hot rain
a damson tree
       dripping purple fruits

       love the kiss of a dandelion clock

wind-suck and time disappears

the pull of the moon
       waves that crash with forgotten history
              the rubbed edges of the world
                     a spider crab scurrying sideways

       we love the roaring isles
       the taste of a peach

       our neighbours busy in their vegetable patch
       the daylit gate

              tunnel of trees
              those little paths one-person-wide
              between hazel and ash
              warm bark

       in the city that birthed us
       bright tufts that grow in the cracks

*
because we love the way dawn wakes up
and switches night to day

       the twist and fall
              the surging sweeping joy of it all
              the visceral thrill

how dusk strips away the waste of worried days
       as birds yield to their roost
       and leave the night to moth and bat
beyond day, beyond everything

       we know we too are rock and star

but now              on the tip of our tongue

       even love’s not enough

2
*
At the midnight of the year
utter darkness
a million compasses fail
and the starlings don’t come
empty sky
no swallows, no swifts
no summer nests in the eaves
threads looped in the blue
a blackbird that isn’t there
opens his throat
into silence, thin air
no golden note

you wake to a dawn
unheralded
dusk, uninvited, doesn’t know
where to begin
ghost calls echo in the trees
dogs and deer stop barking
rain forgets to fall
its rhythm broken, lost
oak and elm hold their breath
you will never see another flower
the stars’ last vanishing act
no words left

3
*
April high tide
hurls driftwood
       oarweed
              sea-glass
a wreckage of shells

tomorrow comes soon

       how much would you pay to hear the sound
of rain
       or birdsong

what if couldn’t-care-less cared more
and we let the murmur of change
              change our ways

hear the roots of trees
                     whispering
dark soil’s cavernous memories
       tectonic plates shift

sit like a mountain
all weathers
in our hearts

       what if our flutterings become feathers
              the starlings lend us their wings

till we trust enough
              to fly together
       synchronised       one vast voice
all different, all the same
              to mend our wounded earth

ballads of continents crossed
       comrades lost to storm or predator
              the shockwave moving through the flock

see how we flit
       twist swell
                                   dive
co-mingle       co-exist       co-inhere

belong together

*
imagine we’re made of those slivers of sky
       know all the colours of light

hitch a ride on the bees’ flight
go to earth with badgers
       small as Alice       catch the worm
the keys of the ash
       rise like a dandelion
              the promise of a peony bud

where heather meets heaven
              home

this is the patience of the albatross
       a cormorant’s hunger
craning for a flash of silver
       beneath the water

the good omen of a crescent moon
       milky stars
              set in new stories
meadow orchids
       skeins of geese

a chance to constellate honesty
              justice
escape heroic fantasies
       gravity’s boots

so what if’s rubbed out
       and becomes what is

                     the path between

              then we can hear the hiss of rain

*
what is
       is more than the ear can hear
or eye see —

we will never have this time again
              can never rewind this moment

all the maybes, all the small things
       we touch
              gentle, curious
and let pass

like fruit in season
the secret language of earth
                     underland of coal, uranium, oil

              indifference banished by love

power to the parliament of rooks

it’s just this       us
       the people
              our footsteps
walking into all this wonder
       every day through every weather

              solidarity
                     the planet’s rage

making a stand
              for a different future

it’s just this
              our words
       building this home we share
       these bridges

nowhere else to go

       here we are
              turning over
       this tainted page

to start again

       and healing the earth
              the earth heals us

our better place
              not a destination
a method

       common ground

*
ask
       what if words could fly
              and this poem rose into the blueness
                     a whirr of black italic wings

breath by breath
       a prayer
              to give life back to life
                     all of us
       pieces of the world

what if all the time we were searching
       the sky
              the birds
       were watching for us

what, if not cartwheeling
       what, if not care
              what, if not a cadence
       like love
              held lightly

Complement with a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s “Singularity” — a kindred-spirited poem about our creaturely and cosmic interconnectedness — and a young poet’s staggering response to it, then revisit Hannah Arendt on identity and the meaning of refugee and Toni Morrison on borders, belonging, and the meaning of home.

BP

Confucius on Good Government, the 6 Steps to a Harmonious Society, and Self-Discipline as the Key to Democracy

“Things have roots and branches… If the root be in confusion, nothing will be well governed.”

Confucius on Good Government, the 6 Steps to a Harmonious Society, and Self-Discipline as the Key to Democracy

Two and a half millennia before Leonard Cohen wrote in his timeless and tender ode to democracy that “the heart has got to open in a fundamental way,” the ancient Chinese philosopher and statesman Confucius (551–479 BCE) recognized the indelible link between personal and political morality, recognized that interpersonal kindness is the foundation of social justice, recognized that democracy — a form of government only just invented on the other side of the globe in ancient Greece, not to take root in his own culture for epochs — begins in the heart.

Confucius. 1909 engraving, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

Centuries before the advent of Christianity and its central tenet of the golden rule, the Chinese sage pioneered the concept of compassion as a moral guiding principle — an ancient concept subtly yet profoundly different from empathy, which only entered the modern lexicon at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. On his existential reading list of essential books for every stage of life, Tolstoy listed Confucius among the most mature reading. His teachings went on to influence millennia of poets, political leaders, and ordinary people seeking to live nobler, kinder, more empowered lives.

Among them was the poet Ezra Pound (October 30, 1885–November 1, 1972) — a man of immense talent and immense blind spots, of sympathetic idealisms and troubling sympathies — who set out to translate and compile the most enduring teachings of the great Chinese sage. His 1927 more-than-translation earned Pound the $2,000 poetry prize of The Dial — the pioneering Transcendentalist magazine Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson had launched nearly a century earlier at the peak of their intense and complicated relationship, which shaped the history of modern thought. Pound used the funds to launch his own poetic-political magazine. The following year, his translation was published in book form as Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot / The Great Digest / The Analects (public library).

In his prefatory note, Pound observed that China was tranquil and harmonious for as long as its rulers followed the teachings of Confucius, but dynasties collapsed into chaos and social catastrophe as soon as these principles were neglected. In a sentiment that applies as much to those ancient sociopolitical collapses as to the perils of the present, he writes:

The proponents of a world order will neglect at their peril the study of the only process that has repeatedly proved its efficiency as a social coordinate.

The Sage and the Banditti. 1887 woodcut, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

That process, as Confucius conceived it, was one of treating public good as a matter of personal goodness, rooted in a purity of heart and a discipline of mind. Noting that “things have roots and branches” and that “if the root be in confusion, nothing will be well governed,” the ancient Chinese sage outlines the six steps to a harmonious society:

The [ancients], wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their own states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts. Wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.

Confucius. Colorized 1900 photogravure, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

This essential classification is the work of clarity and comprehension — we classify to understand and to order our priorities. Once this work is complete, Confucius counsels, the process is folded over and the six steps are retraced back to the original goal of good government:

When things had been classified in organic categories, knowledge moved toward fulfillment; given the extreme knowable points, the inarticulate thoughts were defined with precision… Having attained this precise verbal definition, they then stabilized their hearts, they disciplined themselves; having attained self-discipline, they set their own houses in order; having order in their own homes, they brought good government to their own states; and when their states were well governed, the empire was brought into equilibrium.

Complement with mathematician Lilian Lieber on how Euclid illuminates the roots of democracy and social justice and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what self-love really means and how it anchors a sane society, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s superb more-than-translation of Tao Te Ching and its ancient wisdom on the wellspring of personal and political power.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.