“I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
By Maria Popova
“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in his sublime 1962 meditation on the artist’s struggle, just as John F. Kennedy was preparing to address poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society in what would become one of the most poetic and powerful speeches ever delivered.
Two years earlier, the great poet Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was asked to contribute a statement on the power and responsibility of poetry for The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 — an influential anthology by Donald Allen, which shone the beam of mainstream attention upon such beloved writers as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and Levertov herself. Of the fifteen poets who contributed statements on poetics for the volume — including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Levertov was the only woman.
Her piece, posthumously cited and discussed in Dana Greene’s excellent biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (public library), is part personal credo, part cultural manifesto, sophisticated yet precise, speaking at once to poetry, to all art, and to society itself.
Two years before James Baldwin asserted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us,” Levertov writes:
I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays.
But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”
I believe every space and every comma is a living part of the poem and has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.
I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery. The revelation of form itself can be a deep joy; yet I think form as means should never obtrude, whether from intention or carelessness, between the reader and the essential force of the poem, it must be so focused with that force.
In a passage of timeless sagacity, and one which transcends poetry to apply to art in the largest possible sense and its function in human life, Levertov speaks to the particularly challenging though not uncommon predicament of making art in violent and disorienting times. Echoing William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech assertion that it is the poet’s and the artist’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” she writes:
I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more “in their stride” — the hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.
“It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured.”
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated the experience of identity and the paradox of the self. And yet we know — we even feel — that what we experience as ourselves is not eternal but transient, an ever-changing constellation of components drawn from our living lives. This transient, emergent nature of personhood becomes acutely apparent and acutely disorienting as soon as we consider what makes one and one’s childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of biological, psychological, and spiritual change. But this transience itself is the wellspring of our vitality, the fountain at which we slake our thirst for life.
That paradoxical notion is what the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in a portion of Four Elements: Reflections on Nature (public library) — a posthumous collection of previously unpublished papers, in which O’Donohue draws on his Celtic heritage, his poetic gift, and his lyrical approach to philosophy to explore how the corporeality and spirituality that mark our existence interact to reveal us to ourselves.
Selfhood is not an imperial possession of the human orphan. It is not exclusively human. Selfhood is more patient and ancient, a diverse intimacy of the earth with itself.
If the earth has the most ancient networks of selfhood, then the memory of the earth is the ultimate harvester and preserver of all happening and experience. In modern life, experience enjoys privileged status as the force which awakens, enables and stabilizes human growth. The significance of experience is intimately bound up with the urgency of modern individuality. This sense of individuality achieved its classical contour through the metaphysical scalpel of Descartes’ “Cogito” which cut the individual free from the cosmic webbing of scholasticism.
This concept of individuality was further intensified in German Idealism and Existentialism. Life is seen to be woven on the loom of individual experience.
Taking experience seriously must make it equally necessary to take the destiny or future of experience seriously. This is a particularly poignant necessity, given that the future of each experience is its disappearance. The destiny of every experience is transience.
Transience makes a ghost out of each experience. There was never a dawn that did not drop down into noon, never a noon which did not fade into evening, and never an evening that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night.
One remembers the sentence which won the contest of wisdom in ancient Greece: “This too will pass.” The pain of transience haunted Goethe’s Faust; he implored the beautiful figure who appeared to him: “Verweile doch, Du bist so schön!” Linger a while, for you are so beautiful!
O’Donohue considers the only human faculty that appeases and anneals us to the inescapable transience of all experience, including life itself:
Out of the fiber and density of each experience transience makes a ghost. The future, rich with possibility, becomes a vacant past. Every thing, no matter how painful, beautiful or sonorous, recedes into the silence of transience. Transience too is the maker of the final silence, the silence of death.
Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.
Memoria is always quietly at work, gathering and interweaving experience. Memoria is the place where our vanished lives secretly gather. For nothing that happens to us is ever finally lost or forgotten. In a strange way, everything that happens to us remains somehow still alive within us.
It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.
Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.
“All great truths are obvious truths,” Aldoux Huxley wrote, “but not all obvious truths are great truths.” Perhaps it is an obvious truth, but it is also a great truth that years after his sudden and untimely death, O’Donohue lives on in our collective memoria through his transcendent writings, which continue to offer a consecrating lens on the transience we call life.
“One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”
By Maria Popova
A century before Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, a century before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish polymath Mary Somerville, another woman of towering genius and determination subverted the limiting opportunities her era afforded her and transcended what astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin has aptly called “the enraging pointlessness of small-minded repressions of a soaring and generous human urge” — the urge to understand the nature of reality and use that understanding to expand the corpus of human knowledge.
Émilie du Châtelet (December 17, 1706–September 10, 1749), born nineteen years after the publication of Newton’s revolutionary Principia, became besotted with science at the age of twelve and devoted the remainder of her life to the passionate quest for mathematical illumination. Although she was ineligible for academic training — it would be nearly two centuries until universities finally opened their doors to women — and was even excluded from the salons and cafés that served as the era’s informal epicenters of intellectual life, open only to men, Du Châtelet made herself into a formidable mathematician, a scholar of unparalleled rigor, and a pioneer of popular science.
Together with her collaborator and lover Voltaire, who considered her in possession of “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton” and referred to her jocularly as “Madame Newton du Châtelet,” she set about popularizing Newton’s then-radical ideas at a time when even gravity was a controversial notion. The resulting 1738 book, Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, listed Voltaire as the author. But without Du Châtelet’s mathematical brilliance, he — a poet, playwright, philosopher, and political essayist — would’ve been swallowed whole by Newton’s science.
Voltaire knew this and acknowledged it readily in the preface, naming Du Châtelet as an indispensable colleague. The frontispiece of the book depicted her as Minerva, the Roman goddess of truth and wisdom, beaming down upon the seated Voltaire as he wrote. Voltaire’s dedicatory poem celebrated her “vast and powerful Genius” and called her the “Minerva of France,” a “disciple of Newton and of Truth.” In a letter to his friend Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, Voltaire was even more explicit about the division of labor in their Newtonian collaboration: “Minerva dictated and I wrote.”
By the end of her lamentably short life, Du Châtelet had become a dominant world authority on Newtonian physics. In her final year, she undertook her most ambitious project yet — a translation of Newton’s Principia into French, which became a centerpiece of the Scientific Revolution in Europe and remains the standard French text to this day. Du Châtelet’s accompanying commentary added a great deal of original thought and conveyed to the popular imagination the ideas that would come to shape the modern world, embodying the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska‘s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”
But it was in another work of translation, which Du Châtelet had undertaken a decade earlier with Voltaire’s encouragement, that she first honed the art of that “rare miracle.” In the late 1730s, while living with Voltaire in her country house in Cirey and collaborating on their Newtonian primer, she read and was deeply moved by The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits — Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 prose commentary on his 1705 satirical poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, exploring ethics, economics, and the deleterious role of cultural conditioning in gender norms. It was a visionary work centuries ahead of its time in many ways, asserting that human societies prosper through collaboration rather than selfishness, outlining what psychologists now call “the power paradox,” presaging the principle that Adam Smith would term the “invisible hand” seven decades later, and making a case for equal educational opportunities for women a quarter millennium before the modern feminist movement.
Du Châtelet writes from Cirey in her early thirties:
Since I began to live with myself, and to pay attention to the price of time, to the brevity of life, to the uselessness of the things one spends one’s time with in the world, I have wondered at my former behavior: at taking extreme care of my teeth, of my hair and at neglecting my mind and my understanding. I have observed that the mind rusts more easily than iron, and that it is even more difficult to restore to its first polish.
Centuries before modern psychologists conceived of the 10,000 hours rule of genius, she argues for giving the intellect a disciplined opportunity to incline itself toward its goals through regular practice:
The fakirs of the East Indies lose the use of the muscles in their arms, because those are always in the same position and are not used at all. Thus do we lose our own ideas when we neglect to cultivate them. It is a fire that dies if one does not continually give it the wood needed to maintain it… Firmness … can never be acquired unless one has chosen a goal for one’s studies. One must conduct oneself as in everyday life; one must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.
Those who have received very decided talent from nature can give themselves up to the force that impels their genius, but there are few such souls which nature leads by the hand through the field that they must clear for cultivation or improvement. Even fewer are sublime geniuses, who have in them the seeds of all talents and whose superiority can embrace and perform everything.
It sometimes happens that work and study force genius to declare itself, like the fruits that art produces in a soil where nature did not intend it, but these efforts of art are nearly as rare as natural genius itself. The vast majority of thinking men — the others, the geniuses, are in a class of their own — need to search within themselves for their talent. They know the difficulties of each art, and the mistakes of those who engage in each one, but they lack the courage that is not disheartened by such reflections, and the superiority that would enable them to overcome such difficulties. Mediocrity is, even among the elect, the lot of the greatest number.
But one must cultivate the portion one has received and not give in to despair, because one has only two arpents [French measurement] of land while others have ten lieues of land.
In a passage of courage so tremendous and so near-impossible to grasp with our modern imagination, for we have only a detached and abstract idea of what life was like for women in the early 18th century, Du Châtelet proceeds into a visionary critique of patriarchal power structures in science and in life itself:
I feel the full weight of prejudice that excludes us [women] so universally from the sciences, this being one of the contradictions of this world, which has always astonished me, as there are great countries whose laws allow us to decide their destiny, but none where we are brought up to think.
Considering the era’s standard practice of excommunicating actors from the Catholic Church, which considered them “instruments of Satan,” she adds:
Another observation that one can make about this prejudice, which is odd enough, is that acting is the only occupation requiring some study and a trained mind to which women are admitted, and it is at the same time the only one that regards its professionals as infamous.
Du Châtelet, who embodied Adrienne Rich’s notion that an education is something you claim rather than get, points to education as the fulcrum of women’s absence — for, at that point, it was an absence rather than the underrepresentation it is today — from the professional worlds of science, philosophy, and the arts, and proposes a radical vision for education reform that would bolster equality:
Why do these creatures whose understanding appears in all things equal to that of men, seem, for all that, to be stopped by an invincible force on this side of a barrier; let someone give me some explanation, if there is one. I leave it to naturalists to find a physical explanation, but until that happens, women will be entitled to protest against their education. As for me, I confess that if I were king I would wish to make this scientific experiment. I would reform an abuse that cuts out, so to speak, half of humanity. I would allow women to share in all the rights of humanity, and most of all those of the mind… This new system of education that I propose would in all respects be beneficial to the human species. Women would be more valuable beings, men would thereby gain a new object of emulation, and our social interchanges which, in refining women’s minds in the past, too often weakened and narrowed them, would now only serve to extend their knowledge.
In a bittersweet reflection on her own life, which has emboldened women in science for centuries, she adds:
I am convinced that many women are either ignorant of their talents, because of the flaws in their education, or bury them out of prejudice and for lack of a bold spirit. What I have experienced myself confirms me in this opinion. Chance led me to become acquainted with men of letters, I gained their friendship, and I saw with extreme surprise that they valued this amity. I began to believe that I was a thinking creature. But I only glimpsed this, and the world, the dissipation, for which alone I believed I had been born, carried away all my time and all my soul. I only believed in earnest in my capacity to think at an age when there was still time to become reasonable, but when it was too late to acquire talents.
Being aware of that has not discouraged me at all. I hold myself quite fortunate to have renounced in mid-course frivolous things that occupy most women all their lives, and I want to use what time remains to cultivate my soul.
Her closing words — wry, unsentimental, quietly poetic — radiate Du Châtelet’s defiant genius:
The unfairness of men in excluding us women from the sciences should at least be of use in preventing us from writing bad books. Let us try to enjoy this advantage over them, so that this tyranny will be a happy necessity for us, leaving nothing for them to condemn in our works but our names.
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