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The River: Exploring the Inner Seasonality of Being Human in Gorgeous Watercolors by Italian Artist Alessandro Sanna

A beautiful reminder that despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and above all ever-flowing.

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library | IndieBound) from Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that gave us such treasures as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the existentially profound The Hole, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in Northern Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

The Project of Literature: Susan Sontag on Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.”

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:

That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.

Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers

I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”

[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.

[…]

But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.

Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:

A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.

To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more… That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.

In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:

Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop… A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.

On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:

I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think…

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative… To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:

You have to be obsessed… [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule… Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch… And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)

On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:

I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.

Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:

The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.

Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

BP

The Love Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, with a Cameo by William S. Burroughs

“Life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around…”

Among humanity’s greatest art-forms is the love letter. From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco, 1955

In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:

Dear Petey:

O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!

What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .

I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.

A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:

…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .

As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:

I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .

Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to —

Love,

Allen

In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:

I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .

Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:

Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.

He ends the letter with a short verse:

Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen

My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries is fantastic in its entirety, featuring letters from and to such cultural icons as Lord Byron, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Marcus Aurelius, Alexander Hamilton, Michelangelo, and more. Complement it with the beautiful love letters exchanged between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

BP

The Only Surviving Recording of Raymond Chandler’s Voice, in a BBC Conversation with Ian Fleming

“You starve to death for ten years before your publisher knows you’re any good.”

Raymond Chandler (July 23, 1888–March 26, 1959) endures as one of the most celebrated novelists and screenwriters in literary history, an oracle of insight on the written word, a lovable grump dispensing delightfully curmudgeonly advice on editorial manners, and a hopeless cat-lover. In July of 1958, to mark the publication of Chandler’s last book, Playback, BBC brought Chandler and Ian Fleming together on the air. Fleming and the BBC broadcaster producing the program picked up Chandler at 11 A.M. on the day of the interview and even though they “found his voice slurred with whisky,” the broadcast went quite well. Seven months later, Chandler died. This discussion, which covers heroes and villains — Fleming’s James Bond and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — and the relationship between author and character, is believed to be the only surviving recording of the author’s voice. Transcribed highlights below.

Chandler on the doggedness literary success (or any creative success) requires:

How long did it take me [to become a successful writer]? You starve to death for ten years before your publisher knows you’re any good.

Fleming on villains:

I find it … extremely difficult to write about villains, villains I find extremely difficult people to put my finger on. … The really good, solid villain is a very difficult person to build up, I think.

Fleming and Chandler on heroes:

Your hero, Philip Marlowe, is a real hero — he behaves in a heroic fashion. My leading character, James Bond, I never intended to be a hero — I intended him to be a sort of blank instrument wielded by a government department, who would get into bizarre, fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, get out of them one way or another.

Chandler on James Bond and how he differs from Marlowe:

A man with his job can’t afford to feel tender emotions — he feels them but he has to quell them.

Fleming, responding to Chandler’s amazement at how he can write so many James Bond books in addition to his intense editorial commitments, offers a glimpse of his creative routine and a testament to the value of discipline:

I have two months off in Jamaica every year, in my contract with the Sunday Times, and I sit down and a write a book every year during those two months.

Chandler on the difference between the British and the American thriller:

The American thriller is much faster paced.

Complement this with Chandler’s collected wisdom on writing, which is among history’s finest advice on the craft, then revisit the only surviving recordings of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman.

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