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Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.

The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley

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Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.

Solnit writes in the introduction:

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.

[…]

Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.

With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:

Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.

[…]

A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.

Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:

The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.

It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.

[…]

New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.

Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority

Solnit writes in the essay accompanying this “map of recovery and possibility”:

Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City. Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered… A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city int he western world. Their names are on the streets, the buildings, the parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and they are the figures on the monuments.

[…]

We tried on what it would look like to live in such power by paying homage to some of the great and significant women of New York City in the places where they lived, worked, competed, went to school, danced, painted, wrote, rebelled, organized, philosophized, taught, and made names for themselves… Many women were never allowed to be someone; many heroes of any gender live quiet lives. But some rose up; some became visible; and here they are by the hundreds. This map is their memorial and their celebration.

Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)

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Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon

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What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)

Cartography: Molly Roy
Cartography: Molly Roy

Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:

Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.

Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)

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Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:

What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?

The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.

Reflecting on a world where gentrification has inverted Langston Hughes’s lament about white flight, Solnit adds:

The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.

[…]

Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.

Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew

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And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.

Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:

Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.

By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.

Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:

A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…

A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.

We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…

In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.

Undergirding the project is a certain countercultural quality in calling on paper maps to nurture us with richer meaning in an age when digital maps feed us mere information. In a sentiment that harkens back to her beautiful meditation on how modern technology is changing our experience of time and place, Solnit writes:

Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.

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In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Nonstop Metropolis, Solnit, Shapiro, and their venerable stable of writers go on to celebrate “the complexity, the layers and tangles, the cross-pollinations and conflicts, the hidden and overlooked, the ugly and beautiful” aspects of the city. Complement it with pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott’s stunning black-and-white portraits of New York’s changing face and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how Muybridge shaped visual culture.

Maps courtesy of University of California Press; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

How to Meditate: An Animated Guide

A simple, assuring invitation into releasing the resistance to one of the most life-expanding practices possible.

How to Meditate: An Animated Guide

In his poem about how to meditate, penned decades before neuroscience as we know it, Jack Kerouac described meditation as the way to pump the brain’s “good glad fluid.” Half a century later, neuroscientist Sam Harris made an eloquent case for how meditation stretches our capacity for everyday self-transcendence. But meditation is somewhat like poetry — a lamentable number of many people hold a stubborn resistance to it, a resistance that “has the qualities of fear,” borne out of a certain impatience with learning a new mode of being that doesn’t come easily but, when it comes, brings tremendous and transcendent satisfaction.

This lovely primer by journalist Dan Harris in collaboration with Happify, animated by Katy Davis — who previously animated Brené Brown’s wisdom on vulnerability, human connection, and the difference between empathy and sympathy — explores how to overcome that self-defeating resistance and reap the enormous, far-reaching benefits of meditation:

Harris examines the more granular aspects of meditation and self-reflection in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story (public library).

Complement with Wendell Berry’s beautiful poem about how to be a poet and a complete human being, which begins with a most meditative invitation: “Make a place to sit down. / Sit down. Be quiet.”

BP

The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

A beacon of searing solidarity by Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other politically awake titans of poetic might.

The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

On a recent visit to the archive of the Academy of American Poets, which dates back to the 1930s and includes a wealth of ephemera by and about nearly every major poet of the past century, I chanced upon something that stopped my breath with its potency and timeliness — a 1968 open letter by an impressive roster starring some of the most prominent writers in the country, concerning the beating, arrest, and sentencing of Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014). The morning of my visit, almost half a century after the letter was written, news had broken of another heartbreaking case of police brutality with racial dimensions.

Some necessary context first: A prolific poet, essayist, playwright, music critic, novelist, and short story writer, Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, was a literary polymath with a strong political bend. His politics were radical and revolutionary, yes, but his writing was responsive rather than reactive. One of the most important and influential black voices in literary history, alongside titans like James Baldwin, he modeled the art of choosing poetic response over reflexive reaction amid a culture whose propensity for the latter and paucity of the former have only intensified in the half-century since.

Amiri Baraka in 1964
Amiri Baraka in 1964

Baraka urged black artists to cease measuring themselves against the standards of the white middle class, which are bound to always end in a repression of their authentic voice and a sense of personal failure. He influenced beloved writers like Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, who wrote at the end of her long life:

I would urge any serious student of the human scene, certainly any poet, who has not recently, or ever, read [Baraka’s 1964 poetry collection] The Dead Lecturer: borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand.

But Baraka became an exponentially contentious figure as he marched along the axis of his life. Having started out in the kinship circle of the Beats, with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as his peers, he traveled to Cuba in 1960 in Langston Hughes’s stead on a delegation of black writers invited to celebrate the first anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. A gifted twenty-something hungry for the spirit of rebellion, Baraka had his first taste of radical politics and was instantly intoxicated. “My mind and my life were changed forever,” he would later reflect on the trip.

Upon returning to New York, Baraka became increasingly awake to racial injustice. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 unsettled him into a new phase of life. He left his wife and two daughters, moved from the Village to Harlem, founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School, and was instrumental in advancing the Black Arts Movement. His writing became increasingly incendiary, animated by a restless sense of injustice, which in turn rendered him increasingly controversial. To be uncontroversial in one’s devotion to political change, of course, is to be ineffectual, for it is impossible to upend the status quo without the status quo shrieking “Fiddlesticks!” at the upender. But in his crusade against racial bigotry, Baraka danced dangerously close with other kinds of prejudicial propaganda.

I should note here that while I am among the many troubled by the misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic remarks in some of Baraka’s writings, as well as by his pro-violence stance in explosive opposition to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ethic of love and nonviolence, I am of the firm belief that if we are unable to make space for simultaneous contradictory truths, we are floundering at a basic task of being human. And what remains true is that, despite these questionable statements, Baraka has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the social, political, and poetic discourse in this country.

More than that, any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

Baraka is a supreme example: Late in life, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1965 collection Home: Social Essays (public library) — most of which he had written in his twenties — he reflects:

One heavy and aggravating problem with these early writings is that I’ve long since changed my views on some topics… For instance, the homophobic language in several of the essays … using the word “fag” homeboy style to refer to the right-leaning liberalism of too many Americans, males as well as females, is wrongheaded and unscientific… Now I must openly regret and apologize for the use of that metaphorically abusive term that was then part of my vocabulary.

In 1966, a year after the essay collection was originally published, 32-year-old Baraka — still LeRoi Jones at the time — moved back home to Newark. He recounts:

It was on my return to Newark in 1966 that what I knew superficially was thrust forcefully upon me to fully understand: that there were classes and class struggle among black people, just like all peoples. Coming home and seeing these struggles around real social and political issues transformed me from cultural nationalist to communist.

The following year, after traveling to Los Angeles and becoming enchanted by Kawaida — an activist philosophy celebrating indigenous African names — he changed his name to Imamu (honorific Swahili for “spiritual leader,” from the Arabic imam) Amear (derived from the Arabic for “prince”) Baraka (“divine blessing” in the Islamic tradition), which he eventually condensed into Amiri Baraka.

That July, riots broke out in Newark over the systemic police brutality to which the city’s black residents had been subjected. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (public library), Baraka recounts what happened late the first night of the upheaval:

The streets were quiet, eerie quiet, and it was pitch black and maybe one in the morning. We were moving slowly down South 7th Street … when we saw the lights. Red lights like vicious eyes blinking. A riot of red lights blinking. Like Devils or pieces of hell. We were slowing down, and the lights seemed to get frantic, batting and winking, little silent splinters of scream. Then we could see under the streetlights piles of police cars, maybe five or six. For one instant we started to stop and back up or try to U-turn or even speed up on the sidewalk and go past. But the fantasy had stopped. All of us could sense that if we did anything we would die. We could see the shotguns and helmets. They had the street blocked and as we slowed pulling up to them we looked at each other and got ourselves ready.

A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out the doors. Shorty, Barney, and I. I heard one guy say, “These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us!”

Another shouted, “Where are the guns?”

Then another cop stepped forward, I think he was saying the same thing. What was really out is that this cop I recognized, we had gone to high school together! His name was Salvatore Mellillo. The classic Italian American face. “Hey, I know you,” I said, just as the barrel of his .38 smashed into my forehead, dropping me into half-consciousness and covering every part of me with blood. Now blows rained down on my head. One dude was beating me with the long nightstick. I was held and staggering. The blood felt hot in my face. I couldn’t see, I could only feel the wet hot blood covering my entire head and face and hands and clothes. They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it.

Eventually, onlookers from nearby buildings attempted to intervene by shouting and throwing household objects at the police. To avoid a public scene, and possibly to escape the legal ramifications of eyewitness testimony, the cops shoved the three bleeding young men into a police car and took them to the station. Baraka was thrown in jail. Meanwhile, 23 of his fellow citizens were killed in the streets — 21 black and two white, a policeman and a fireman. That was the official count — but Baraka believed that many more blacks were killed, their bodies and records hidden away. The city incurred material damaged estimated at $10 million, mostly to the black community.

Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)
Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)

The police cited gun possession as the reason for Baraka’s arrest, but the poet insisted that he never had any weapons. He was tried by a racist judge, who read Baraka’s poem “Black People” during the trial and who was later removed from office for misconduct. The poet was released on a $25,000 bail — around $180,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation, and a record at the time — which his mother and her friends had scrapped together by putting up their homes as collateral. The trial, which Baraka later called “a comic opera,” only escalated the civil unrest. Eventually, the National Guard was sent into Newark and stationed in a vacant lot across from the jail.

The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)
The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)

On November 6, Baraka and his two friends were convicted on charges of illegal possession of two revolvers. Until his death nearly half a century later, the poet maintained that the evidence had been manufactured.

And so this brings us to what I found in the archive of the Academy — a hope-giving beacon of searing solidarity amid an episode of harrowing darkness both in the poet’s particular life and in the common life of our larger civil society.

Written in January of 1968, this open letter to the country’s creative community is co-signed by sixteen of the most important poets alive at the time, including Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg, all of them white. In a clever play on both the police and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) which Baraka had founded, they called themselves the “Committee on Poetry” — COP.

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C.O.P.
Committee on Poetry

We believe LeRoi Jones, not the Newark Police, that the poet carried no revolvers in his car, no revolvers in the car at all; that the police beat Jones up and then had to find a reason, thus found phony guns; that after the double-whammy of his beating and rabbit-in-hat guns, his trial before an all-white jury was triple-whammy. Lo & behold, fourth execrable whammy! — the Judge recited LeRoi’s visionary poem to the court (a butchered version) … and gave him a long 2½-3 year sentence because of it.

Mr. Jones’ whitekind is that self-same demon we call tyranny, injustice, dictatorship. As poet he champions the black imagination; as revolutionary poet his revolution is fought with words. He scribes that the police carried the guns. Lyres tell the Truth!

We herald to literary persons: get on the ball for LeRoi Jones, or else get off the poetic pot. LeRoi Jones is not only a black man, a Newark man, a revolutionary, he is a conspicuous American artist imprisoned for his poetry during a crisis of Authoritarianism in these States.

Signed:

John Ashbery
Gregory Corso
Robert Creeley
Diane di Prima
Robert Duncan
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
Kenneth Koch
Denise Levertov
Michael McClure
Charles Olson
Joel Oppenheimer
Peter Orlovsky
Gil Sorrentino
Philip Whalen
John Wieners

Baraka didn’t serve the sentence, and perhaps these sentences served his case — over the months that followed, public awareness of and outrage over his fate continued to gain momentum; a different judge overturned the verdict for lack of evidence in 1969.

And so today, when half a century of temporal progression has yielded shamefully insufficient cultural progress in the plight of civil rights, when we wonder what we can do about the anguishing injustice of it all, may we never forget the power of solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different stripes, those repressed and oppressed for any dimension of their identity. May we never forget the power of standing on the side of justice and speaking up, publicly and unflinchingly. May we never forget the power of the poetic as a vehicle for political change.

The Academy of American Poets, while enormous in scope, legacy, and cultural significance, is a modest organization powered by a tiny, passionate team. Join me in supporting their tremendous work of poetic advocacy with a donation, which will help, among other things, digitize and make widely accessible their extraordinary analog archive.

BP

Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight… so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world.”

Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. More than a century earlier, Thoreau made a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

But perhaps the most useful and timelessly insightful take on the perennial puzzlement over the difference between talent and genius came the year after Thoreau’s birth from the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) in his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library).

Schopenhauer’s central premise is that talent achieves what others cannot achieve, whereas genius achieves what others cannot imagine. This vision of a different order, he argues, is what sets geniuses apart from mere mortals, and it arises from a superior capacity for contemplation that leads the genius to transcend the smallness of the ego and enter the infinite world of ideas. He writes:

Only through [such] pure contemplation … can Ideas be comprehended; and the nature of genius consists in pre-eminent capacity for such contemplation. Now, as this requires that a man* should entirely forget himself and the relations in which he stands, genius is simply the completest objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind, as opposed to the subjective, which is directed to one’s own self — in other words, to the will. Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world; and this not merely at moments, but for a sufficient length of time, and with sufficient consciousness, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.

But although a superior capacity to imagine is a centerpiece of genius, Schopenhauer cautions against mistaking the imagination for the entirety of genius:

Imagination has rightly been recognized as an essential element of genius; it has sometimes even been regarded as identical with it; but this is a mistake. As the objects of genius are the eternal Ideas, the permanent, essential forms of the world and all its phenomena, and as the knowledge of the Idea is necessarily knowledge through perception, is not abstract, the knowledge of the genius would be limited to the Ideas of the objects actually present to his person, and dependent upon the chain of circumstances that brought these objects to him, if his imagination did not extend his horizon far beyond the limits of his actual personal existence, and thus enable him to construct the whole out of the little that comes into his own actual apperception, and so to let almost all possible scenes of life pass before him in his own consciousness… The imagination then extends the intellectual horizon of the man of genius beyond the objects which actually present themselves to him, both as regards quality and quantity. Therefore extraordinary strength of imagination accompanies, and is indeed a necessary condition of genius. But the converse does not hold, for strength of imagination does not indicate genius; on the contrary, men who have no touch of genius may have much imagination.

But the curse of the extraordinary, Schopenhauer suggests, is a certain loneliness with which the person of genius walks through life, always slightly apart from the ordinary world in being slightly above it:

The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may be… The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the world… The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.

In the second volume of his treatise, Schopenhauer revisits the subject of talent versus genius through the lens of time — talent, he argues, speaks brilliantly to the moment and is of the moment, while genius speaks of the eternal and to eternity. He writes:

Mere men of talent always come at the right time; for, as they are roused by the spirit of their age and are called into being by its needs, they are only just capable of satisfying them. They therefore go hand in hand with the advancing culture of their contemporaries, or with the gradual advancement of a special science; for this they reap reward and approbation. But to the next generation their works are no longer enjoyable; they must be replaced by others; and these do not fail to appear.

The genius, on the other hand, lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign. Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front (just as the emperor, giving himself up to death, flings his spear among the enemy), on which time has first to overtake them… Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.

The World as Will and Representation — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books and the source of Schopenhauer’s abiding insight into the power of music — is an indispensable read in its totality. Complement it with Schopenhauer on the intellectual rewards of boredom, then revisit William James on the habit of mind that sets geniuses apart and mathematician Mark Kac on the two types of geniuses.

* See Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the gendered language of yore

BP

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