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Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood

“You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”

Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin observed in his terrific forgotten conversation with Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” A generation later, the great poet (both in the literal and in the Baldwian sense), essayist, playwright, memoirist, and beloved professor Elizabeth Alexander explores the trying, triumphant art of that telling in Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (public library) — a slim, towering treasure of a book.

Weaving together history, literature, politics, and personal experience, Alexander — who became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day” — examines the rewards and challenges of being a black woman, a poet, an academic figure of authority and, above all, of inhabiting a culture in which the Venn diagram of these psychographic particulars is still lamentably improbable.

Radiating from these essays and interviews is incisive and generous insight into writing, the creative process, and the complexity of the self.

Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander

Echoing Audre Lorde’s abiding wisdom on the responsibility, to ourselves and others, of breaking our silences and Adrienne Rich’s insistence that an education is something you claim rather than something you get, Alexander considers the reactions and resistances she frequently encounters in those “feeling displaced in a room where the first-person voices of black women are primary”:

I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.

And yet the necessity of speaking and the authority of visibility come with a personal cost, which Alexander articulates with a vulnerable self-awareness tremendously inspiring amid our culture of invulnerable facades:

I have been in public discussions where my own paralysis had made me quiet or less articulate than I can be and kept me, perhaps, from being the role model a young woman needed at that moment. I now choose my battles and deal with the same beleagueredness that perhaps my teachers those years ago felt. I have learned that you can’t always be who others need you to be at any moment.

Alexander revisits this question in another interview:

I try to remember that you can get really distracted by the demands people make on you. Demands that are real are one thing, demands that come from a real community in need, or a real person in need. We’re asked all the time to be of service. But demands that are about posturing — you may have to deal with them, but I’m trying to figure out a way not to let them worm their way in too much.

Asserting that this obligation to the truth of one’s story must be “lived in our day-to-day lives, in the way we conduct the business of our lives, in the way we spend our money and raise our children and make a multitude of decisions every day,” Alexander considers the role of writing in inhabiting one’s visibility:

Great writing can make you face the truth around you and within yourself.

In another interview from the collection, Alexander turns to the transmutation of personal truth into writing:

A lot of my poetry comes from “personal” or autobiographical material. What is the transformation that has to happen in order for those details and that realm of personal to work within a poem? I can’t really say that I could anatomize it, but I know that there’s a transformation that has to take place.

Citing Sterling Brown’s pronouncement that “every I is a dramatic I” — a quote she wove into her beautiful poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — Alexander adds:

Regardless of whether or not you’re working in an autobiographical or personal mode, if there is a persona in the poem, you have certain charges to make it work dramatically in the poem itself. So, fulfilling those demands in the poem as such puts a nice set of parameters around the question of working within the infinite personal, because it’s quite infinite… The day-to-day me “I” [is] one level removed, or alchemized.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Alexander cautions:

For any poem to succeed, whatever its rules, there are strict rules, or else the whole thing falls apart.

She recounts what the inimitable Derek Walcott, her only poetry teacher, taught her about writing and about the loaded interplay between personal identity and creative integrity:

He would always say never try to charm in your poems, never try to charm with your identity, it’s not enough that you’re a cute, black girl.

That was very useful advice, though I was already averse to exploiting “identity.” I think the point is, he’s saying, none of us as persona is ever enough. Whatever your identity, your set of particulars, there is going to be someone out there who thinks it’s fascinating unto itself. But that unto itself doesn’t make for a fine poem you could stand with. So he was also saying, don’t be swayed and don’t let praise go to your head. And don’t let it get into your writing, and don’t let it get into your quest.

But Alexander notes that there is a universe of difference between not being swayed by praise and being wholly impermeable, severing one’s connection to the world — a connection carried out through the authenticity of the word:

We live in the word. And the word is precious, and the word must be precise, and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other, and … it has to be tended with that degree of respect… I believe that life itself is profoundly poetic, in all sorts of … guises and unexpected places.

Being open to those poetic surprises, Alexander argues, also requires a certain openness to the audience and to the range of possible receptions:

To be presumptuous about any kind of audience is not a good thing. I’ve had too many wonderful surprises… I’ve had many surprises with people who read poetry who I wouldn’t have imagined read poetry, that it has a place in their lives. You just really never know. You just can’t let that imagining get into the creative process because it would twist it and distort it and shut it down… Some people talk about the ideal reader, and I don’t really have an ideal reader… I just trust that when it goes out there, it will be found by whoever can make use of it… The beautiful thing about poetry is that you never know who will find it, and you never know what will be found in it.

In fact, one of the most beautiful articulations of poetry’s singular power comes from the poet Vassar Miller, quoted in this book:

Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.

In another interview from the same volume, she considers the origin of the creative impulse. In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion that unanswerable questions are the wellspring of our spiritual and intellectual vitality, Alexander offers:

Spiritual and ethical situations and conundrums are occasions for poems — though I am rarely aware of the conundrum as such when I embark upon the poem — and the writing of the poem is a way of working through those conundrums and accepting their frequent open-endedness. Besides making and raising children, the mystery of making art is the most spiritual zone of my life.

Among those conundrums is the way we relate to one another, or what Adrienne Rich called the alchemy of possibility between us. Alexander observes:

No matter how devoted we are to the culture and to each other, we have a lot to overcome, imagining ourselves, or imagining each other. And in receiving each other.

Language, Alexander argues, is the locus of reception — the medium in which we imagine ourselves and each other — something she captures beautifully in the piercing final line of a poem: “…and are we not of interest to each other?” She revisits the complexity of personal identity and considers how the self lives in language:

It’s all well and good to have an idea, to say, I want to write about such-and-such and such-and-such. But I think the idea has to be rooted in language. It has to live in language.

[…]

That’s what catches the imagination of somebody else, a listener or a reader. Even the way that we express ourselves as non-poet “civilians,” if you will, is what makes us interesting to other people… Who is the self in language? And what is the revelatory and unguarded and surprising self in language? That’s what makes somebody else pay attention. When you start turning that into art, that’s what making poems is about.

But this unguarded self in language, she argues, isn’t about “superseding the social identity, but it is about protecting the full dimension of the self.” And yet social identity and the poetics of personhood can never be fully disentwined from one another, nor unmoored from the wider cultural context. Alexander writes:

Being an empowered and intelligent black person and even more so being an empowered and intelligent and self-respecting black woman is profoundly destabilizing to most status quo. You’ve got to remember that in a way that’s not disabling.

Turning to some of her creative and cultural heroes — Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Melvin Dixon — she echoes Bertrand Russell’s assertion that construction is both more difficult and more satisfying than destruction, and adds:

Those [are] examples of brilliant, courageous, beautiful, engaged lives full of rampant loving, loving of the world. Loving of the work. Loving of each other. Moving toward what we love and not just toward the destruction of enemies… And that’s what I feel like it’s important to do upon rising each day.

Half a century after Dr. King’s beautiful case for an ethic of love inspired by the Greek notion of agape, Alexander reflects:

When I was younger I used to think that love as an ethic was … obviously a good thing, but a little corny. I am certainly an optimist but not a fool. In academic environments, we are taught a skepticism that can lead us to discount the power and force of love. But the older I get, the more I think of all the possible permutations and possibilities of a love ethic. To love someone or something is not just to agree with them or affirm them. To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love. So what does it mean in a complex and dead-serious way to come from that place of love?

When asked about the mental habits and practicalities of her creative process in writing poetry, Alexander offers:

I try to grab things when I can, to keep notes of things as I internally hear them so that when I do have writing time I have something to begin with.

[…]

Paper first, then the screen, for I feel bollixed up if I don’t attend to my internal soundtrack, so there is a personal satisfaction that comes from attending to it in writing. Also, at this point, twenty years into my life as a poet, I feel clearer about having something to say and people who benefit from hearing it.

A generation after Susan Sontag urged aspiring writers to “love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world,” Alexander offers her advice to the young:

I always tell student poets to read and listen as much and as variously as they can to build up a rolodex of possibilities in their minds when they sit down to write a poem. You always need to have many more possibilities of approaching a poem than you end up using… It’s about tuning your internal ear and listening to what the poem at hand is trying to do and be.

This internal process, Alexander enjoins, should be the primary focus of creative work:

Submit to it, tend it, nurture it, honor it. Too many young writers get distracted by thinking about career before process; without process, there is no real work and thus, no career. Every day is another blank page to be filled from your own particular landscape. Process it all.

Power and Possibility is an illuminating read in its totality and a fine addition to this evolving collection of writers’ advice on the craft. Complement it with Alexander’s stirring memoir of love and loss, one of the best books of 2015, then revisit her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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Nobel-Winning Physicist Frank Wilczek on Complementarity as the Quantum of Life and Why Reality Is Woven of Opposing Truths

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Frank Wilczek on Complementarity as the Quantum of Life and Why Reality Is Woven of Opposing Truths

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut lamented in his terrific lecture on storytelling. But one of life’s greatest confusions stems from our tendency to divide the world into such polarities in the first place — something Susan Sontag considered an immensely limiting impulse. When confronted with the world’s complexity, we default into navigating it by creating artificial binaries, perceiving contradiction where they might in fact only be complementarity. Cheryl Strayed captured this perfectly: “Two things can be true at once — even opposing truths.” Then there is, always, Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design (public library), Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek considers this paradoxical notion of complementarity not only as raw material for the philosophical and the poetic but as one of the four cornerstones of modern physics, alongside relativity, symmetry, and invariance.

Art by Salvador Dalí for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Complementarity — the idea that two different ways of regarding reality can both be true, but not at the same time, so in order to describe reality we must choose between the two because the internal validity and coherence of one would interfere with that of the other — is a centerpiece of quantum theory. Wilczek points to one familiar example — the fact that light is neither inherently a particle nor inherently a wave, but can be either depending on how we measure it.

True knowledge, Wilczek intimates, progresses not toward simplifying our answers but toward improving our questioning mechanisms to better address complexity — Newton fancied the idea that light was a particle but was also curious about alternatives; a century and a half later, Maxwell ushered in electromagnetism and rendered wave theory victorious; when quantum mechanics came into bloom three generations later, scientists pointed to the photon, an elementary particle, as the ultimate quantum of light. Wilczek writes:

Particle and wave offer complementary perspectives on the reality of light. Newton’s practice of keeping many alternatives in play, while refusing to put forward any one Hypothesis exclusively, anticipates modern complementarity.

Newton at work by William Blake (1795-1805)
Newton at work by William Blake (1795-1805)

But between Newton and modernity stood the Romantic era, in which artists rebelled against scientific reductionism and what they perceived to be its assault on complementarity. Wilczek points to one particularly resplendent example involving Newton himself:

William Blake protested against reductionism’s blinkered vision. In this depiction of Isaac Newton at work, Blake’s conflicted feelings for his subject are on display. His Newton is a figure of extraordinary concentration and purpose, not to mention superhuman anatomy. On the other hand, he is shown looking down, lost in abstractions having literally turned his back on the strange, colorful landscape. Yet Blake admitted (as did Keats) that mathematical order governs the world. In Blake’s complex mythology Urizen, depicted here, is a dualistic Father figure, who both brings life and constrains it. One can hardly fail to notice a certain resemblance to the preceding drawing. Is Newton Urizen’s interpreter, or his incarnation?

The Ancient of Days, William Blake's depiction of Urizen (1794)
The Ancient of Days, William Blake’s depiction of Urizen (1794)

Indeed, although rooted in physics, complementarity’s central proposition extends into the metaphysical — a dimension that goes all the way back to quantum theory pioneer Niels Bohr, who originated the complementarity principle. Wilczek writes:

[Bohr] was fond of a concept he called “deep truth.” It exemplifies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s proposal that all of philosophy can, and probably should, be conveyed in the form of jokes. According to Bohr, ordinary propositions are exhausted by their literal meaning, and ordinarily the opposite of a truth is a falsehood. Deep propositions, however, have meaning that goes beneath their surface. You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.

Bohr was so enchanted by complementarity and its manifestations beyond science that he became fascinated with the unified duality of yin-yang in the Eastern philosophy — so fascinated that he placed the yin-yang symbol in the middle of the coat of arms he designed for himself, under the banner Contraria sunt complementa [Opposites Are Complementary].

Niels Bohr's coat of arms
Niels Bohr’s coat of arms

Wilczek writes:

From his immersion in the quantum world, where contradiction and truth are near neighbors, Niels Bohr drew the lesson of complementarity: No one perspective exhausts reality, and different perspectives may be valuable, yet mutually exclusive. The yin-yang sign is an appropriate symbol for complementarity, and was adopted as such by Niels Bohr. Its two aspects are equal, but different; each contains, and is contained within, the other. Perhaps not coincidentally, Niels Bohr was very happily married. Once recognized, complementarity is a wisdom we rediscover, and confirm, both in the physical world and beyond.

(Although Wilczek’s remark about marriage is a facetious wink, the poet Mary Oliver has written beautifully about the vitalizing role of complementarity in love.)

Wilczek synthesizes the larger truth to which complementarity speaks:

To address different questions, we must process information in different ways. In important examples, those methods of processing prove to be mutually incompatible. Thus no one approach, however clever, can provide answers to all possible questions. To do full justice to reality, we must engage it from different perspectives. That is the philosophical principle of complementarity. It is a lesson in humility that quantum theory forces to our attention… Complementarity is both a feature of physical reality and a lesson in wisdom.

Complement the wholly magnificent A Beautiful Question with Simone Weil on how quantum theory changed science and society and Alice in Quantumland — an allegory of quantum mechanics inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic — then treat yourself to Wilczek’s enchanting On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

You have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules. But they may be mutually incompatible — and to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.

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Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on How Our Questions Shape Our Answers and Direct Our Orientation of Mind

“The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given.”

Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on How Our Questions Shape Our Answers and Direct Our Orientation of Mind

“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking,” John Dewey wrote in his increasingly timely 1910 meditation on how to cultivate reflective curiosity in an age of instant opinions. But the mechanisms by which we seek to resolve our doubt too often curtail our inquiry rather than protracting it — unsettled by uncertainty, we rush to answers that contract our questions rather than expanding our curiosity. Krista Tippett, one of the great question-expanders of our time, captures this beautifully: “Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.”

No one has addressed this osmotic relationship between question and answer more incisively than Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985) — one of modernity’s first women philosophers, whose work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of art has influenced generations of thinkers.

susannelanger
Susanne Langer

Langer writes in her magnificent 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (public library):

The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. We may be right or we may be wrong. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or “unsympathetic.” For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. “Then how did the world become as it is?” If now we answer: “It has not ‘become’ at all,” he will be really disturbed. This “answer” clearly repudiates the very framework of his thinking, the orientation of his mind, the basic assumptions he has always entertained as commonsense notions about things in general. Everything has become what it is; everything has a cause; every change must be to some end; the world is a thing, and must have been made by some agency, out of some original stuff, for some reason.

In a sentiment which Hannah Arendt, another female trailblazer of intellectual life, would echo a generation later in her invigorating treatise on the life of the mind and the crucial distinction between thinking and knowing, Langer considers this tendency to reject the question with a non-answer:

These are natural ways of thinking. Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung,” his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot.

But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

Many decades later, Philosophy in a New Key remains an intellectually electrifying and abidingly rewarding read. Complement it with John Dewey on how we think, René Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets of critical thinking, and Simone Weil on the purest and most fertile form of thought.

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David Whyte on Vulnerability, Presence, and How We Enlarge Ourselves by Surrendering to the Uncontrollable

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Vulnerability is a guardian of integrity,” artist and unheralded philosopher Anne Truitt wrote as she contemplated what sustains the creative spirit. Social scientist Brené Brown conveyed the same sentiment somewhat differently in considering what resilient people have in common: “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.” However we may formulate it, the equation holds true — uncomfortably, devastatingly, often intolerably true. Although we may intellectually recognize how essential vulnerability is to our aliveness and every significant expression of it, we remain astonishingly averse to being vulnerable, expending tremendous resources on constructing elaborate and ultimately illusory defenses against this basic condition of being alive.

Why we do that and how we can transcend it is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of his endlessly insightful Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), which also gave us Whyte’s wisdom on aloneness, the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, and anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means.

In his recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Whyte reads his meditation on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

In his beautiful poem “Sweet Darkness,” found in his collection The House of Belonging (public library) — which also gave us “The Journey” — Whyte unravels another aspect of our deepest vulnerability:

SWEET DARKNESS

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

In his altogether spectacular conversation with Tippett — my favorite from the show’s fifteen-year archive — Whyte, who grew up bewitched by poetry but became a marine zoologist and naturalist before returning to his first love, reflects on the multiple dimensions of vulnerability, including our dance with control and surrender:

I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention. And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes … my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. [As] you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.

Complement Whyte’s Consolations, one of the best books of 2015, with Seth Godin’s marvelous children’s book for grownups, V is for Vulnerable, and Dani Shapiro on the creative rewards of being vulnerable.

Subscribe to On Being, one of these favorite podcasts for a fuller life, here.

Portrait of Whyte by Nicol Ragland Photography

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