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On “Beauty”: Marilynne Robinson on Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty

“We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature.”

Since 1984, Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts has been inviting some of the world’s most celebrated authors to share their ideas on the craft — ideas like Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular meditation on where creativity comes from and the “secret” to great writing. To mark the 30th anniversary of the series, Literary Arts has collected some of the best such lectures — including Le Guin’s aforementioned piece, as well as contributions by Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Chimamanda Adichie, and Jeanette Winterson — in the magnificent anthology The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (public library).

In one particularly fantastic piece titled On “Beauty,” Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (b. November 26, 1943) explores that elusive concept we are so deeply wired to desire, even to dangerously overdesire, yet so profoundly conflicted about that desire and, on occasion, brilliantly self-aware of its paradoxes.

Robinson writes:

It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us. I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me intrinsic to experience, everywhere to be found. The pitch of a voice, the gesture of a hand, can be very beautiful. I need hardly speak of daylight, warmth, silence.

Reflecting on her own journey as a writer, Robinson observes the enduring sense that she “must try to be an interpreter of the true and absolute world, the very planet,” and considers how the paradoxes of “beauty” bristle amid that quest:

The word beauty has always seemed to me unsatisfactory. I have often felt there is an essential quality for which we have no word, and that therefore I am driven back on beauty, or elegance, which has the same problem. It is interesting that both these words are French, that they displaced Old English precursors. In any case, the word beauty has never seemed to me quite suited to the uses I have had to make of it, as though it were never really naturalized into my interior language, or what I might call my aesthetic experience, if that did not oblige me to use the word aesthetic. Why this awkwardness? Why must we lapse into French or Greek to speak of an experience that is surely primary and universal? Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.

In a remark of terrific timeliness in the context of today’s news landscape, Robinson laments the loss of the nineteenth-century reverence for the dignity of ordinary language, the language of the people, and its ability to “do as much as the mind can ask of it, and do it with extraordinary integrity.” With an eye to journalism, publishing, and the media, which “are no true gauge of what public feeling is, or what it could be if it formed under other influences or had other choices,” she writes:

What we have lost with this awareness is respect for people in general, to whom we condescend, as though we were not all ourselves members in good standing of people in general. We explain others to ourselves without reference to what were once called their souls, to their solitary and singular participation in this mystery of being. We are not much in awe of one another these days. We do not hesitate to deprive each other of dignity or privacy, or even to deprive ourselves of them.

Echoing Dostoyevsky’s case for the human spirit, she adds:

What reason can there be for protecting the privacy and freedom of the conscience, or even the franchise, of anyone, if we assume nothing good about those whom we are protecting and enfranchising?

Reflecting on the political and social polarizations afflicting contemporary culture, she laments:

Neither [side] acts in a way that acknowledges the beauty and complexity of individual human experience. Neither treats the public—the people—with real respect.

One recurring such toxic polarization, particularly as it pertains to the deeper questions of beauty, is that between physical and metaphysical pursuits of truth, between science and spirituality — an age-old tension that has spurred such famous reflections as Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit. Robinson adds to this lineage of wisdom:

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard. If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Echoing Sagan’s deep conviction in embracing rather than eradicating our ignorance and Hannah Arendt’s celebration of unanswerable questions, Robinson adds:

We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Donald Barthelme’s notion of writing as an art of not-knowing, Robinson contemplates the mesmerizing mysteries of science — mysteries like the “great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them” — and makes a beautiful case for why science and the humanities belong together:

To what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them. Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming. When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them. What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

Robinson considers the wisdom of the ancients, who “recognized a special destiny for humankind, when grueling labor and early death would have consumed most of them,” as she returns to the question of beauty:

The destiny we have made for ourselves may well be the end of us; we all know that, and they seem to have known it too. Still, there is magnificence in it all. So the supposed conflict of science and religion is meaningless, because these two most beautiful ventures of expression of the human spirit are reduced to disembodied fragments of themselves with no beauty about them at all, which is a great pity, since their beauty should have been the basis for harmony between them.

Like science, she argues, writing deals in the potentialities of reality, weaving similar “webs of possibility fashioned from conjecture and observation” — and language, style, and form are the essential tools of this observation, inseparable from the possibilities conjectured:

To approach any utterance as if its meaning were separable from its presentation is to disallow art in every positive sense of that word. It is to strip away the individuation that might make a work a new witness, and it is to violate the bond of reader and writer. The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter. Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.

The abeyance of beauty, Robinson suggests, can be attributed in no small part to the rift between dreams and agendas upon which the news-media industrial complex — be it CNN or Buzzfeed, it’s worth adding — is built:

Everything we are asked to look at is abrupt, bright, and loud in the visual sense of the word, especially the evening news. We are expected to react to it, not to consider it. It is addressed to our nervous systems, never to our minds.

And yet Robinson is no techno-dystopian — she fully accounts for the role of choice and personal responsibility in reclaiming our higher potentialities:

There is no inevitability in any of it. The visual technologies are blamed, but in fact no more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.

Revisiting “the epic battle between parody science and parody religion,” Robinson finds similar parody in the institutions and industries purporting to represent public life:

Anything stripped of the beauty and dignity proper to it is a parody. Public life itself is now entirely too vivid an instance of this phenomenon. We are losing an atmosphere that is necessary to our survival. We are losing the motive and the rationale that supported everything we claim to value. But the solution is everywhere around us and is as simple as seeing and hearing. We are a grand and tragic creature, humankind, and we must see ourselves as we are … alone in our capacity for awe, and in that fact altogether worthy of awe… Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things — that is, our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves, more or less true, depending on circumstance. I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.

This crucial role of the hypothetical is also what makes the parallel between science and storytelling so apt:

I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this.

In sentiment that evokes the essence of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit and Jacob Bronowski’s admonition about the dark side of certainty, she adds:

All thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error… The mind is prolific in generating false narrative. Like the immune system, it can turn against itself, defeat itself.

[…]

We have all forgotten what ought to be the hypothetical character of our thinking… We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch. This is a special problem in a climate of urgency and anxiety.

But in this very tendency lies the greatest promise of storytelling as a tool of questioning and a hedge against the paralyzing modern notion that “the great questions are closed.” Inviting us to “participate in the mystery of these facts as surely as Shakespeare ever did” — Shakespeare, lest we forget, was inspired by Galileo’s scientific discoveries — Robinson writes:

There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.

[…]

The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.

[…]

Meaning is essentially a new discovery of the joy of consciousness—and, of course, the perils of it. We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.

The World Split Open is an emboldening read in its entirety and a remarkable addition to the collected wisdom of great authors.

For more perspectives on why writers write, see George Orwell’s four universal motives, Mary Gaitskill’s six creative impulses, Joan Didion on writing as access to her own mind, David Foster Wallace on the fun of it, Michael Lewis on how it exorcises the the necessary self-delusions of creativity, Joy Williams on how it offers a gateway from the darkness to the light, and Italo Calvino on its assurance of belonging to a collective enterprise.

BP

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writers, Penned in a Letter to His Lover and Muse

“Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”

More than a century before Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing inspired similar sets of commandments by Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood, one of humanity’s greatest minds did precisely that. Between August 8 and August 24 of 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche set down ten stylistic rules of writing in a series of letters to the Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé — the first female psychoanalyst, who corresponded with Freud about human nature, and an extraordinary woman celebrated as the “muse of Europe’s fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists,” to whom Rainer Maria Rilke would later come to write breathtaking love letters.

Smitten with 21-year-old Andreas-Salomé, Nietzsche decided to make her not only his intellectual protégé, but also his wife, allegedly proposing marriage at only their second meeting earlier that year. Despite Andreas-Salomé’s rejection of his romantic advances and the subsequent break in the friendship, she retained a lifelong respect for his mind and work. More than two decades later, she included his ten rules of writing in Nietzsche (public library) — her superb study of Nietzsche’s personality, philosophy, and psyche.

Collected under the heading “Toward the Teaching of Style,” they read:

  1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
  2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate. (The law of mutual relation.)
  3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.
  4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.
  5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything — the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments — like gestures.
  6. Be careful with periods! Only those people who also have long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods. With most people, the period is a matter of affectation.
  7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
  9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.
  10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

These commandments are obviously rather aphoristic. In fact, unlike Susan Sontag, who vehemently denounced it, both Nietzsche and Andreas-Salomé had a fondness for aphorism. Beneath the list, Andreas-Salomé reflects on Nietzsche’s style in light of his aphoristic predilection:

To examine Nietzsche’s style for causes and conditions means far more than examining the mere form in which his ideas are expressed; rather, it means that we can listen to his inner soundings. [His style] came about through the willing, enthusiastic, self-sacrificing, and lavish expenditure of great artistic talents … and an attempt to render knowledge through individual nuancing, reflective of the excitations of a soul in upheaval. Like a gold ring, each aphorism tightly encircles thought and emotion. Nietzsche created, so to speak, a new style in philosophical writing, which up until then was couched in academic tones or in effusive poetry: he created a personalized style; Nietzsche not only mastered language but also transcended its inadequacies. What had been mute, achieved great resonance.

Her Nietzsche is a magnificent read in its entirety. For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility and the collected advice of great writers.

Thanks, Dan

BP

33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization

Books that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

In a recent piece about the Manual for Civilization — the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library of 3,500 books for long-term thinking — I lamented the fact that Stewart Brand’s 76-book contribution to the Manual contained only one and a half books authored by a woman. To their credit, the folks at the Long Now reached out immediately, inviting me to contribute my own list to the collaborative library they’re building.

In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

But I had to start somewhere. So, with the discomfort of that inescapable disclaimer, I approached my private, subjective, wholly non-exhaustive selection of thirty-three books to sustain modern civilization and the human spirit — books at the intersection of introspection and outrospection, art and science, self and society.Above all, books that help us (or, at least, have helped me) learn how to live — how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Please enjoy. (A parenthetical “more” link appears after books I’ve previously contemplated in greater detail on Brain Pickings.)

  1. The Principles of Uncertainty (public library) by Maira Kalman (more here)
  2. On Photography (public library) by Susan Sontag (more here and here)
  3. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) by Alan Watts (more here and here)
  4. Varieties of Scientific Experience (public library) by Carl Sagan (more here)
  5. Ways of Seeing (public library) by John Berger (more here)
  6. Optimism (public library) by Helen Keller (more here)
  7. Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) by Viktor Frankl (more here)
  8. The Diaries of Maria Mitchell (public library) by Maria Mitchell (more here and here)
  9. I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (more here)
  10. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by Alexandra Horowitz (more here and here)
  11. Letter to My Daughter (public library) by Maya Angelou (more here)
  12. The Accidental Universe (public library) by Alan Lightman (more here and here)
  13. Collected Poems (public library) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  14. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion (more here)
  15. The Color Purple (public library) by Alice Walker
  16. Here Is New York (public library) by E.B. White (more here)
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) by Hans Christian Andersen (more here)
  18. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) by Kay Larson (more here)
  19. Orlando: A Biography (public library) by Virginia Woolf (more here)
  20. A Short History of Nearly Everything (public library) by Bill Bryson
  21. The Collected Poems (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  22. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) by Sarah Bakewell (more here)
  23. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (public library) by Lisa Randall
  24. The Politics (public library) by Aristotle
  25. Freedom from Fear (public library) by Aung San Suu Kyi (more here)
  26. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (public library) by James Gleick (more here)
  27. Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? edited by Gemma Elwyn Harris (more here)
  28. The Feminine Mystique (public library) by Betty Friedan (more here)
  29. The Collected Poems (public library) by Denise Levertov
  30. The Pillow Book (public library) by Sei Shonagon (more here)
  31. Bird by Bird (public library) by Anne Lamott (more here)
  32. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library) by Cheryl Strayed (more here)
  33. The Little Prince (public library) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (more here)

Keep an eye on the Manual for Civilization for more reading lists to complete the 3,500-book library, and consider joining me in supporting the project here.

BP

Joseph Brodsky on How to Develop Your Taste in Reading

“You stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.”

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Kurt Vonnegut famously proclaimed. But how is one to develop that discerning taste, especially in determining what is worth reading and what is not?

On May 18, 1988, several months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and exactly seven months before he delivered the greatest commencement address of all time, the prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) gave the opening keynote at Turin’s very first book fair. His talk, titled “How to Read a Book” and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library), is a beautiful and timeless meditation on the value — the purpose, the challenge, the transcendent joy — of the written word. Although it was written with books in mind, it applies just as brilliantly to the question of what is worth engaging in, in any medium — a question all the more pressing amidst our era’s constant influx of information of increasingly questionable quality, delivered with increasingly uncompromising ploys for our attention.

Brodsky begins by contemplating how books address our mortality paradox and serve as assurance against the uncomfortable impermanence of existence:

On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author’s existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.

On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors — mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one’s pen in motion.

So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands — those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. — we won’t be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone’s rustling ashes.

He then moves on to the spectrum of creative merit in readable material and the value of the books that Susan Sontag didn’t consider part of literature in honing a writer’s taste:

In order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash — otherwise, he won’t be able to develop the necessary criteria. That’s what may constitute bad literature’s best defense at the Last Judgment. . . .

But despite this potential value of bad books, Brodsky argues that for time-economy reasons, we need a system of separating the good from the bad and points, “some compass in the ocean of available literature.” The formal role of that compass in society is played by the reviewer and literary critic, Brodsky argues, but that is a compass whose needle “oscillates wildly.” He considers the problems with criticism:

The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form — Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point — and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.

(To that, we might begrudgingly add (D) “he” is, indeed, primarily male — a statistic that bespeaks a whole other set of problems in literature.)

Brodsky continues by exploring the alternative to the flawed system of relying on professional reviewers — or “tastemakers,” as it were — presaging the equally questionable era of Amazon reviews and crowdsourced opinion-homogenization:

In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations — dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative — or perhaps just a part of the same — is to rely on hearsay; a friend’s advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.

So what is one to do amidst this grim set of options? Brodsky sees only one viable way to cultivate that compass — to learn what Wordsworth believed to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” and to develop what Edward Hirsch so memorably called “a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” that special thing that, as James Dickey put it, “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” Brodsky writes:

The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.

The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.

Noting that all you need to do is “arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of [the twentieth] century, he goes on to offer specific reading recommendations for poetry in some of the major world languages:

If your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish — or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) — I’d like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning “Awater.” If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don’t presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.

One of the chief benefits of cultivating such taste, Brodsky suggests, is the confidence of knowing which books are not worth reading, which in turn makes the choice of the worthy all the more meaningful. (“Non-reading, Pierre Bayard wrote in his excellent How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”) Brodsky adds:

If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won’t be your fault. If you’d continue to read it, that will be to the author’s credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.

What makes poetry so exceptional at honing literary taste, Brodsky argues, is how little room for hackery it leaves:

Poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately.

Above all, however, poetry promises to do for the mind what Vannevar Bush presaged the internet would — create a network of associative trails that link up ideas, which is, of course, the foundation of creativity. Brodsky concludes with a beautiful sentiment:

Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.

On Grief and Reason is a soul-stimulating read in its entirety. Sample it further with Brodsky on how to play the game of life, then see Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry.

BP

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