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Poetry and the Creative Mind: Bill T. Jones’s Electrifying Reading of Four Beloved Poems

A scintillating spoken love letter to the power of the written word.

Poetry and the Creative Mind: Bill T. Jones’s Electrifying Reading of Four Beloved Poems

“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in one of the greatest speeches ever given. A year later, in contemplating the artist’s struggle for integrity, James Baldwin asserted: “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.”

I recently had the tremendous thrill of participating in the 14th annual Poetry and the Creative Mind celebration by the Academy of American Poets, hosted at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Among my fellow poetry readers was one of the most magnificent artists of our time — the choreographer, dancer, and artist director Bill T. Jones.

Jones performed four poems, enveloped in a song — “Nothing Stays Put” by Amy Clampitt (June 15, 1920–September 10, 1994) from The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt (public library), “Witchgrass” by Louise Glück (b. April 22, 1943) from Poems 1962–2012 (public library), “Yet Do I Marvel” by Countee Cullen from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (public library), and “A Blessing” by James Wright (December 13, 1927–March 25, 1980) from Above the River: The Complete Poems (public library).

Sit down someplace that can contain your chills and enjoy:

NOTHING STAYS PUT
by Amy Clampitt

In memory of Father Flye, 1884–1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes—a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom—
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics—
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?

The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor’s buttons. But it isn’t the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it’s

a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother’s garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.

But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above–
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.

WITCHGRASS
by Louise Glück

Something
comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—

If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything—

as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
One enemy—

I’m not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion—

It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.

I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

YET DO I MARVEL
by Countee Cullen

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

A BLESSING
by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

For other beautiful performances of beloved poems, treat yourself to Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, and David Whyte reading Mary Oliver.

BP

An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness

The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.

[…]

I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

BP

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance…”

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

The great Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) was only a small boy, just over the cusp of preconscious memory, when he had a revelation about why we make art. It seeded in him a lifelong devotion to literature as a supreme tool that “widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Although his father discouraged his precocious literary aspirations, the young Neruda found a creative lifeline in the poet, educator, and diplomat Gabriela Mistral — the director of his hometown school. Mistral — who would later become the first Latin American woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and Chilean consul in Madrid, a post in which Neruda would succeed her during his own diplomatic career — recognized and nurtured the boy’s uncommon talent. Fittingly, Neruda’s first published piece, written when he was only thirteen and printed in a local daily newspaper, was an essay titled “Enthusiasm and Perseverance.”

These twin threads ran through the length of his life, from his devoted diplomatic career to his soulful, sorrowful, yet buoyant poetry. His landmark collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, composed before he turned twenty, is to this day the most widely read book of verse in Latin literature and contains some of the truest, most beautiful insight into the life of the heart humanity has ever committed to words.

Pablo Neruda as a young man

By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature less than two years before his death, Neruda had become an icon. Gabriel García Márquez, whose own subsequent Nobel Prize acceptance speech echoed Neruda’s humanistic ideals, considered him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language.”

On December 13, 1971, Neruda took the podium in Stockholm to deliver an extraordinary acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library). He begins with a lyrical, almost cinematic recollection of his 1948 escape to Argentina through a mountain pass when Chile’s dictatorial government issued an order for his arrest on account of his extreme leftist politics — a long, trying journey which embodied for the poet “the necessary components for the making of the poem.” He recounts:

Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina. Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way. There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay. Those who were with me knew how to make their way forward between the dense leaves of the forest, but to feel safer they marked their route by slashing with their machetes here and there in the bark of the great trees, leaving tracks which they would follow back when they had left me alone with my destiny.

Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.

Through this dangerous and harrowing journey, Neruda arrived at “an insight which the poet must learn through other people” — a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of each life with every other, echoing his childhood revelation about the purpose of art. In consonance with the Lebanese-American poet and painter Kahlil Gibran’s insight into why we create, Neruda writes:

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

Echoing physicist Freeman Dyson’s meditation on how our self-expatriation from history makes for a deep loneliness, Neruda adds:

Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope. But there is no such thing as a lone struggle, no such thing as a lone hope. In every human being are combined the most distant epochs, passivity, mistakes, sufferings, the pressing urgencies of our own time, the pace of history.

He concludes with a vision for what it would take to let go of our damaging illusion of separateness and inhabit our shared humanity:

It is today exactly one hundred years since an unhappy and brilliant poet, the most awesome of all despairing souls, wrote down this prophecy: “A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes.” “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”

I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.

Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.

In this way the song will not have been sung in vain.

Complement with Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence and this lovely picture-book about his life, then revisit other timeless Nobel Prize acceptance speeches from great writers: Toni Morrison (the first black woman awarded the accolade) on the power of language, Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck (the youngest woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature) on writing and the nature of creativity, and Saul Bellow on how art ennobles us.

BP

The Sound of Silence: An Illustrated Serenade to the Art of Listening to Your Inner Voice Amid the Noise of Modern Life

A tender reminder that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness.

The Sound of Silence: An Illustrated Serenade to the Art of Listening to Your Inner Voice Amid the Noise of Modern Life

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.

Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.

That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.

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Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.

Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.

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We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”

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As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.

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Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”

The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.

“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.

Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.

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He goes to the quietest place he knows, the bamboo grove behind the playground, but even there silence is ushered out by the sound of the living world.

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The bamboo made a takeh-takeh-takeh sound as the wind banged its stalks together. He closed his eyes and heard the swish-swish-swish of the wind making the leaves talk. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t silence.

As Yoshio makes his way home through the city, he continues to look for silence — at the train station, at the dinner table, in the bath.

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Even at night, while the rest of the family is sleeping, he listens for the silence only to hear the faint hum of a distant radio.

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The next morning, he arrives at school before everyone else and sits down to read a story, which absorbs him so wholly that he is transported to the elusive place he had been searching for all along.

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Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it.

No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned.

In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.

Silence had been there all along.

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In that moment, he learns what we so easily forget: that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness, an attunement of the mind’s ear and an orientation of the spirit toward a certain inner stillness — perhaps the positive counterpoint to loneliness, which so often thrives amid the crowd.

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Complement the immeasurably wonderful The Sound of Silence with Pablo Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence and John Cage on how silence helps us enlarge each other’s goodness, then revisit this manifesto for silence’s sister virtue, solitude.

Illustrations © Julia Kuo, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company; photographs by Maria Popova

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