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May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive.”

May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“All too often,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her incisive inquiry into anger and forgiveness, “anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control.” The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in reexamining the deeper meanings of everyday words, argued that anger is a supreme form of compassion: “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” The great Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa found a constructive side to anger’s four faces.

Across the canon of thought, two things emerge as constants: that however varied its manifestations and repressions, the fiery upswell of anger is one of the commonest human experiences; and that it often masks something else — beneath its boiling surface rest deep and murky waters of incredible emotional complexity.

That opaque complexity is what poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in one of the entries from her Journal of a Solitude (public library) — the 1973 masterpiece that gave us Sarton on solitude as the seedbed for self-discovery.

May Sarton
May Sarton

In an entry from the early autumn of her sixtieth year, Sarton writes:

Sometimes I think the fits of rage are like a huge creative urge gone into reverse, something dammed up that spills over, not an accumulated frustration that must find a way out and blows off at some tiny irrelevant thing.


I have sometimes wondered also whether in people like me who come to the boil fast (soupe au lait, the French call this trait, like a milk soup that boils over) the tantrum is not a built-in safety valve against madness or illness. My mother buried her anger against my father and I saw the effects in her of this restraint — migraine headaches and tachycardia, to name only two. The nervous system is very mysterious. For the very thing that made her an angry person also gave her amazing strength with which to meet every kind of ordeal. The anger was buried fire; the flame sustained my father and me through the hard years when we were refugees from Belgium and slowly finding our place in American life. The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive. How to isolate that good tension is my problem these days. Or, put in another way, how to turn the heat down fast enough so the soup won’t boil over!

That delicate dialing of the temperature knob of temperament is, of course, among the great arts of living and among the artist’s central responsibilities to her or his art — for, as Joni Mitchell memorably put it, “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.” Not the cause of the raging turmoil but what we do with it — whether we use it to destructive or constructive ends — is what defines us. Who could forget Bertrand Russell’s abiding wisdom on construction vs. destruction? “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it… We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy.”

The artist is one who uses that energetic inner tension, that “divine discontent,” as fuel for creative work — as raw material for building up rather than ammunition for tearing down. Art, after all, is at bottom a coping mechanism.


The King of the Birds: The Illustrated Story of Flannery O’Connor and Her Beloved Peacock

“It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.”

The King of the Birds: The Illustrated Story of Flannery O’Connor and Her Beloved Peacock

On the vast spectrum of great writers and their pets, Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) falls on the odder side. An ardent fan of fowl, O’Connor began her avian collection at the age of five with a backward-walking chicken and went zealously from there, collecting more and fancier birds — turkeys, geese, pheasants, quail, mallard ducks, Japanese silky bantams. Perhaps she saw part of herself in these feathered creatures — she would later describe her young self as “a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” Eventually, upon seeing a newspaper ad for the king of all birds, O’Connor had to have this crowning curio of her collection — she mail-ordered four peacocks, which later came to populate her fiction.

Indeed, the appreciation of birds was for O’Connor a special creative capacity, which sprang from the same source as her literary sensibility. In a sentiment analogous to her assertion that art “is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it,” she wrote in a 1961 essay about her life with peacocks:

Many people, I have found, are con­genitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for” — a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none.

In The King of the Birds (public library), writer Acree Graham Macam and illustrator Natalie Nelson bring to life O’Connor’s unusual and endearing fancy of fowl in a story about her ill-behaved peacock, her efforts to get him to display his tail, and the unplanned consequences of succeeding.

As little Flannery tries over and over to get her prized fowl to perform the very act for which she recruited him, a theme central to O’Connor’s fiction emerges — the notion that foibles lurk underneath even the handsomest exteriors and that forgiveness for those foibles is the most sanctifying and necessary of all human gifts.

Nelson’s distinctive mixed-media art, fusing illustration with archival photographs, is the perfect visual counterpart to this imaginative interpretation of the facts of O’Connor’s life.


It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.

A newspaperman came from New York to see the chicken, and Flannery became famous.

But not long after, people forgot about Flannery. And she began to feel that life was a little too quiet.

More birds would do the trick. She collected her savings and bought one of every type she could find.





When Flannery eventually sets her heart on a peacock — who is “more exciting than a thousand birds” — she persuades her mother by doing extra chores for a week.



She mail-orders this fanciest fowl, picks him up at the train station, and promptly appoints him king of her avian kingdom.




But the peacock finds the scene “a little too quiet” and proceeds to shy away from his chief duty — the display of his magnificent tail. To encourage him, Flannery feeds him flowers, throws him a party, lets him play in the fig tree, leads a parade in his honor — all to no avail.






One night, a terrible wailing noise awakens her and she knows instantly — we aren’t told how, suggesting either O’Connor’s precociousness or the discomfort of detailing the biology of reproduction in a children’s book — that her peacock is crying for a mate. That afternoon, Flannery supplies her king with a queen, and his tail immediately rises to its evolutionary purpose.



At first, to everyone’s exasperation, the queen seems more interested in the rocks than in the king.



But after a courtship propelled by the most glorious plumage, the royal couple jointly solve the quietude problem of the pen.





Complement The King of the Birds with the charming picture-book about Jane Goodall’s early life and the illustrated story of how Henri Matisse’s childhood shaped his creative legacy, then revisit O’Connor on art, integrity, and the writer’s responsibility to her talent, the difference between belief and faith, her little-known cartoons, and this rare recording of her reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Illustrations © Natalie Nelson, courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova


The Women Who Made New York: Restoring the Rightful Ratio of Remembrance

From artists to activists, an homage to the unheralded hands and hearts who built one of humanity’s most iconic cities.

The Women Who Made New York: Restoring the Rightful Ratio of Remembrance

“Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in introducing her magnificent remapping of the NYC subway with stops named after notable women. “Almost every city,
she observed, “is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered.” Somehow, although the gateway to this city of immigrants is guarded by a 300-foot woman, the women who entered its gates were not granted equal liberty to make a name for themselves even when they made equal and often unparalleled contributions.

In The Women Who Made New York (public library), longtime journalist Julie Scelfo sets out to reclaim the rightful proportions of remembrance by celebrating more than two hundred of the women without whom this poem of a city wouldn’t exist — women ranging from intellectual titans like Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt to pioneering artists like Frida Kahlo and Berenice Abbott to society-shifting visionaries like Margaret Mead and Audre Lorde.

Among them are also innumerable unsung heroines like Emily Roebling, who taught herself physics, architecture, and engineering in order to finish the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, the lead engineer, died of the bends mid-construction — women who, with the contrast between the unfamiliarity of their names and their momentous contributions to the city’s identity, jolt us into the awareness that history is not what happened but what was recorded and how those records reverberated across the body of culture over time.

Human rights activist and social reformer Ella Baker "deserves recognition as the City's — and the country's — first lady of civil rights. (Art by Hallie Heald for The Women Who Made New York)
Human rights activist and social reformer Ella Baker “deserves recognition as the City’s — and the country’s — first lady of civil rights.” (Art by Hallie Heald for The Women Who Made New York)

Scelfo writes in the introduction:

For centuries New York has been the place where immigrants come in search of a better life. It’s also where individuals have been able to finally find themselves — or undertake complete reinvention.

While an endless number of writers, from Walt Whitman to Ada Calhoun, have tried to describe the miracle that is New York, I think Colson Whitehead singled out something essential when he wrote, two months after the World Trade Center attack: “There are eight million naked cities in this naked city.” He observed how “you start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” The coffee shop where you waited for a job interview. The drugstore where you buy gum and imported magazines. “Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.”

For every last straggler, New York has offered a unique blend of promise and despair, screaming skyscrapers and gritty sidewalks, Turkish coffee and Sichuan shrimp. The New York that exists in my mind and heart is the place where, during my first visit from Virginia at the age of twelve, I witnessed taxi drivers fighting in several languages, marveled at professional ballerinas in the Capezio store trying on pointe shoes, and, as I inhaled the funky smells and absorbed the cacophony, felt, for the first time, completely at home.

My New York was on Bleecker Street, where artists in slashed t-shirts peddled trash-sculptures; it was inside the Craft Caravan, where I bought African tribal jewelry; and it was the Spanish restaurant in SoHo where my groovy aunt shared our teeming plate of mussels with customers at the next table, infuriating the surly, chain-smoking waitress.


My New York also includes unexpected friendships with teachers and writers. Neil Postman, the acclaimed media critic, became a friend and mentor and, while I worked as his assistant, treated me to a year of lunches at Poppolini’s near NYU. It includes [the time] when, while touring a townhouse for sale in Park Slope, the realtor introduced me to the homeowner, Gloria Naylor, a writer whose work had torn open a chamber in my heart and filled it with love.


That’s really the best part of New York: how it’s filled with magic. Finding chalk sidewalk messages from De La Vega outside your apartment. A dead Christmas tree, deposited in a trash can, joyfully presiding over a snowy street corner. Bumping into Al Franken at the airport, who offers a ride home. The bulk foods guy at Sahadi’s Fine Foods handing my stroller-parked toddler his own bag of olives. Resonant chamber music from a neighbor’s cello wafting out in an open window. And watching the other tortured, twentysomething misfits grow up to win Pulitzers, run companies, and write Broadway shows.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith (Art by Hallie Heald for The Women Who Made New York)

In the rigorously researched and elegantly written biographical portraits comprising The Women Who Made New York, Scelfo goes on to reappoint the unsung makers of this irreplicable magic not only in the historical record where they belong but in the collective conscience, in the living awareness with which we perceive the cultural and civic reality of our daily lives. Complement it with Solnit’s indispensable atlas of New York’s untold stories, then revisit four centuries of great writers’ reflections on New York.


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