“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”
By Maria Popova
In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries. Elizabeth Kray, the Academy’s first Executive Director, was one of poetry’s most spirited advocates in the whole of Western civilization, and she held two things particularly dear — civil rights (she had overseen the remarkable poet-led protest that revoked Amiri Baraka’s wrongful imprisonment) and the life-transforming power of enchanting young minds with poetry (she had founded the Poets-in-the-Schools program, which also received NEA support and which gave us Thom Gunn’s reading list of essential poetry for young readers). Upon receiving the grant, Kray hastened to invite the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) to host a series of “poetry readings and rap sessions” at an Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library in the spring of 1971. (Lorde had benefited from an NEA grant herself the previous spring through the Poets-in-the-Schools program — a modest sum by corporate standards, but a transformative one for any artist, especially for that supreme martyr for creativity amid a culture of commerce, the working poet.)
“The readings will attract a general audience,” Kray wrote in her invitation, “but the bulk would be ‘young adults,’ junior and senior high school aged kids.” Lorde gladly agreed. “As a former Young Adult Librarian,” she replied, “it has always given me great pleasure to work with this age group.” But her impetus was even more personal: Having published her own first poem in Seventeen magazine at the age of fifteen, Lorde had a profound appreciation for the power of finding one’s voice in poetry as a youngster.
On a recent research visit to the Academy’s ceaselesslyrewarding archive, I discovered the short and exquisite piece Lorde had written for the promotional flyer announcing the readings. Printed on the inside of the folded brochure, it is part meditation on the indivisible cohesion of identity, part beautiful manifesto for the importance of arts education and arts funding, and part poetic micro-biography akin to Italo Calvino’s delightful CV and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playful self-portrait in verse.
I am Black, Woman, and Poet — fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word “I.”
Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.
Last spring, under a National Endowment [for] the Arts Grant, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.
At The City University of New York, I teach young people.
A decade later, Lorde was awarded the NEA’s esteemed Literature Fellowship. She was among three thousand individual writers who have received a total of $46 million from the NEA since the agency’s inception in 1965 — aid without which, it may be safe to say, many of the most beloved artists of the past half-century would have struggled to survive and some may have never brought to life the works for which they are now beloved.
Then, complement the work of resistance with the work of persistence by joining me in donating to the Academy of American Poets so they may continue to do their increasingly important mission of buoying the human spirit in this time of dire need.
“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.”
By Maria Popova
Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it. Take, for instance, Joseph Weber, whose spectacle of failed experiments made him the most derided scientist of his time yet paved the way for the detection of gravitational waves — one of the most monumental discoveries in the whole of modern science, as full of potential for revolutionary knowledge as the invention of the telescope. We rarely know which missteps will become stepping stones in the advancement of knowledge, for the pursuit of truth requires a certain discipline of deferring judgment for periods longer than our appetite for instant answers allows.
Although Lewis was educated at Harvard and Princeton, served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and presided over the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, he wrote humbly and poetically from the self-described position of “a citizen and a sometime scientist.” In one of the essays, titled “Alchemy,” he starts someplace unlikely and leads us someplace monumental:
Alchemy began long ago as an expression of the deepest and oldest of human wishes: to discover that the world makes sense. The working assumption — the everything on earth must be made up from a single, primal sort of matter — led to centuries of hard work aimed at isolating the original stuff and rearranging it to the alchemists’ liking. If it could be found, nothing would lie beyond human grasp. The transmutation of base metals to gold was only a modest part of the prospect. If you knew about the fundamental substance, you could do much more than make simple money: you could boil up a cure-all for every disease affecting humankind, you could rid the world of evil, and, while doing this, you could make a universal solvent capable of dissolving anything you might want to dissolve.
With an eye to our haughty hunger for deriding yesteryear’s errors, Lewis reminds us that every error inches us closer to the truth, but not all errors are created equal — those undergirded by a great deal of scholarship and earnest scientific effort are more likely to yield byproducts that can eventually be transmuted into some proto-truth. Noting that the alchemists were serious professionals in their time, who honed their skills through “long periods of apprenticeship and a great deal of late-night study,” he writes:
We tend to look back at them from today’s pinnacle of science as figures of fun, eccentric solitary men wearing comical conical hats, engaged in meaningless explorations down one blind alley after another. It was not necessarily so: the work they were doing was hard and frustrating, but it was the start-up of experimental chemistry and physics… They never succeeded in making gold from base metals, nor did they find a universal elixir in their plant extracts; they certainly didn’t rid the world of evil. What they did accomplish, however, was no small thing: they got the work going… As time went on and the work progressed, error after error, new and accurate things began to turn up. Hard facts were learned about the behavior of metals and their alloys, the mathematics of thermodynamics were worked out, and, with just a few jumps through the centuries, the helical molecule of DNA was revealed in all its mystery.
[Now] alchemy exists only as a museum piece, an intellectual fossil, so antique that we no longer need be embarrassed by the memory, but the memory is there. Science began by fumbling. It works because the people involved in it work, and work together. They become excited and exasperated, they exchange their bits of information at a full shout, and, the most wonderful thing of all, they keep at one another.
With that singular superpower of the essayist to draw connections between the seemingly unrelated, Lewis pivots to his central point — a point tenfold more relevant, urgent even, three and a half decades later:
Something rather like this may be going on now, without realizing it, in the latest and grandest of all fields of science. People in my field, and some of my colleagues in the real “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry, have a tendency to take lightly and often disparagingly the efforts of workers in the so-called social sciences. We like to refer to their data as soft. We do not acknowledge as we should the difference between the various disciplines within behavioral research — we speak of analytical psychiatry, sociology, linguistics, economics, and computer intelligence as though these inquiries were all of a piece, with all parties wearing the same old comical conical hats. It is of course not so. The principal feature that the social sciences share these days is the attraction they exert on considerable numbers of students, who see the prospect of exploring human behavior as irresistible and hope fervently that a powerful scientific method for doing the exploring can be worked out. All of the matters on the social-science agenda seem more urgent to these young people than they did at any other time in human memory. It may turn out, years hence, that a solid discipline of human science will have come into existence, hard as quantum physics, filled with deep insights, plagued as physics still is by ambiguities but with new rules and new ways of getting things done. Like, for instance, getting rid of thermonuclear weapons, patriotic rhetoric, and nationalism all at once. If anything like this does turn up we will be looking back at today’s social scientists, and their close colleagues the humanists, as having launched the new science in a way not all that different from the accomplishment of the old alchemists, by simply working on the problem — this time, the fundamental, primal universality of the human mind.
In another essay from the collection, titled “Making Science Work,” Thomas revisits the subject, reaching across time and space to shake us out of our present cult of “big data” and remind us of the significance of small, humane data:
The social scientists … may be up to the most important scientific business of all… Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and almost entirely unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself. We need, for this most worrying of puzzles, the brightest and youngest of our most agile minds, capable of dreaming up ideas not dreamed before, ready to carry the imagination to great depths and, I should hope, handy with big computers but skeptical about long questionnaires and big numbers.
In yet another prescient essay titled “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” Thomas stresses the urgency of funding basic science — science marked by “the absence of any predictable, usable product,” carried out “in an atmosphere of high uncertainty,” and built on “What if?” questions rather than “How to?” questions — and the importance of incorporating social science into our most pressing research priorities. He writes:
The present administration has no special fondness for the social and behavioral sciences, and the National Science Foundation is sharply reducing its funding — never generous at best — for these stepchildren of scholarship. Very well, the country will survive, and the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and their siblings will have to eat grass until their time comes again. But the basic research enterprise involved in thermonuclear warfare contains a staggering array of behavioral research questions, the purest kind of social science, questions never before asked about human behavior, deep ambiguities approachable only in an atmosphere of almost total uncertainty.
Who will be bringing in the data telling us what to expect when, say, five million of us vanish in twenty minutes and another five million are left behind with bone marrows burned out and skins in shreds, looking at what is left of the dead and waiting to die? Or, to magnify the problem to what will more likely be its true dimension, what will the few million survivors say to each other, or do to each other, at the moment when the other hundred millions are being transmuted back to the old interstellar dust? This, it seems to me, requires study; mandates study. Will no one be casting an anthropological eye at the dilemma to be faced when human beings cease being human?
“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.”
By Maria Popova
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” But Anderson himself already had a great deal to teach about what it means to be an artist. Around that time, he met young William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), who considered himself lucky to be “uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions.” Anderson recognized the kernel of immense talent in the young writer and took him under his wing. Decades later, Faulkner would remember Anderson as his sole important mentor in a beautiful 1953 piece originally published in The Atlantic as “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation” and subsequently included in the Faulkner anthology Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (public library) under his original typescript title, “A Note on Sherwood Anderson.”
Faulkner reflects on the most important thing Anderson taught him about being a writer:
I learned that, to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born; that to be an American and a writer, one does not necessarily have to pay lip-service to any conventional American image… You had only to remember what you were.
He quotes Anderson’s own words to him as a young writer — words of immense timeliness nearly a century later; words that apply as much to literature as they do to any wakeful artist’s task:
America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning… All America asks is to look at it and listen to it and understand it if you can. Only the understanding ain’t important either: the important thing is to believe in it even if you don’t understand it, and then try to tell it, put it down. It won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper, and something else to try to understand and tell. And that one probably wont be exactly right either, but there is a next time to that one, too. Because tomorrow America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.
To believe, to believe in the value of purity, and to believe more. To believe not in just the value, but the necessity for fidelity and integrity; lucky is that man whom the vocation of art elected and chose to be faithful to it, because the reward for art does not wait on the postman.
Faulkner clearly kept his mentor’s words close to heart as he grew into himself as a writer. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature a quarter century after meeting Anderson, he echoed the heart of this abiding advice in his spectacular acceptance speech, in which he asserted that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
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