“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
By Maria Popova
“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too,” the irreplaceable Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) reflected in her lovely autobiographical essay on how literature saved her life. But what does it take to write such buoyant literature — be it poetry or prose — that lends itself as a lifeboat to those far from the shore of being?
A decade after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and three years after receiving the National Book Award, Oliver distilled her wisdom on writing into a short prose poem titled “Sand Dabs, One,” found in her 1995 book Blue Pastures (public library) — just a few lines, largehearted and limber, each saturated with meaning and illustrating the principle it espouses in a clever meta-manifestation of that principle embedded in the language itself.
Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.
To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.
Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.
Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.
The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.
Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.
“How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul.”
By Maria Popova
A quarter century before his now-classic epistolary novel Dracula catapulted Abraham “Bram” Stoker (November 8, 1847–April 20, 1912) into literary celebrity, the twenty-four-year-old aspiring author used the epistolary form for a masterpiece of a different order. Still months away from his first published short story, he composed a stunning letter of admiration and adoration to his great literary idol: Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).
Long before William James coined the notion of stream of consciousness, Stoker poured forth a long stream of sentiment cascading through various emotions — surging confidence bordering on hubris, delicate self-doubt, absolute artist-to-artist adoration — channeled with the breathless intensity of a love letter, without interruption. He had fallen under Whitman’s spell when Leaves of Grass made its belated debut in England in 1868, with Whitman’s stunning preface to the 1855 edition. Stoker would later recount that ever since that initial enchantment, he had been wishing to pour out his heart in such a way “but was, somehow, ashamed or diffident — the qualities are much alike.” In February of 1872, the time for this effusion of enchantment seemed to have come.
But it was a fleeting moment of courage — Stoker couldn’t bring himself to mail his extraordinary letter. For four years, it haunted his desk, part muse and part goblin.
Stoker — now twenty-eight and finally a published author of three short stories that had appeared in a couple of English and Irish magazines — writes:
My dear Mr. Whitman.
I hope you will not consider this letter from an utter stranger a liberty. Indeed, I hardly feel a stranger to you, nor is this the first letter that I have written to you. My friend Edward Dowden has told me often that you like new acquaintances or I should rather say friends. And as an old friend I send you an enclosure which may interest you. Four years ago I wrote the enclosed draft of a letter which I intended to copy out and send to you — it has lain in my desk since then — when I heard that you were addressed as Mr. Whitman. It speaks for itself and needs no comment. It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light. The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first. The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation — and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress. I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views — I think with success. Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write. Dowden promised to get me a copy of your new edition and I hope that for any other work which you may have you will let me always be an early subscriber. I am sorry that you’re not strong. Many of us are hoping to see you in Ireland. We had arranged to have a meeting for you. I do not know if you like getting letters. If you do I shall only be too happy to send you news of how thought goes among the men I know. With truest wishes for your health and happiness believe me
Enclosed is Stoker’s passionate previously unsent effusion, which opens with an abrupt directness unguarded even by a form of address:
If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask that you put it into the fire without reading any farther. But I believe you will like it. I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world — a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose — is that you will in some manner let me know that my words have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like — but if you do you will miss the pleasure of the next sentence which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is certain of his own strength might try to encourage himself a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man — a man to whose candor Rousseau’s Confessions is reticence — can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call YOU Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still — but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to “give up all else” so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet. I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all — and I have chosen the latter course. I do not know whether it is unusual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you — for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life … The way I came to you was this. A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among friends. I say it to my own shame but not to regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out — without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti’s edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer’s day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti’s edition (for Rossetti is all I have got till I get the complete set of your works which I have ordered from America). One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours — “the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman — that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to quote an instances of what thoughts of yours I like best — for I like them all and you must feel you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you — have said more about myself to you than I have said to anyone before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you would ever care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.
It is hard not to wonder what Stoker meant by “my kind.” Surely, those besotted with the poetic and governed by the profoundest truths of nature and the human heart. But, possibly, also those cast out and made invisible by their time and their society for possessing a heart too defiant of convention. Stoker was then working in theater, still single — an old bachelor by the era’s standards. When he did marry in his thirtieth year, he entered into a celibate union with a beauty previously courted by Oscar Wilde, with whom he strongly identified. The rich homoerotic overtones of Leaves of Grass could not have escaped Stoker, whose Dracula reverberates with echoes of such themes. Perhaps the gift of Whitman’s poems for him, beyond the enchantment of beauty and poetic truth, was the supreme gift a work of art can confer upon its beholder — the gift of being seen.
Three weeks later — which means immediately, by the transatlantic mail standards of 1876 — Whitman responded from the woods of New Jersey while recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled three years earlier. In a letter from March 6, he writes to his young admirer:
BRAM STOKER, —
My dear young man, — Your letters have been most welcome to me — welcome to me as a Person and then as Author — I don’t know which most. You did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and affectionately too. I, too, hope (though it is not probable) that we will some day personally meet each other. Meantime, I send my friendship and thanks.
Edward Dowden’s letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been recd. I shall send the book very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written to E.D.
My physique is entirely shatter’d — doubtless permanently — from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits. — Write to me again.
How moving it must have been for the young Stoker to hear back from his literary hero — perhaps nearly as moving as it had been for the young Whitman to receive that transformative, career-charging letter from Emerson, his own greatest idol, while struggling with the disheartening initial reception of his self-published Leaves of Grass. But it may be that the correspondence was existential tonic for both. Within a year, Whitman would summon his strength to engage in the singular outdoor workout that would help him unshatter his physique and regain near-complete function of his body as his mind and spirit continued soaring to poetic heights. In a lovely symmetry, Stoker’s letter mirrors Whitman’s own conviction, acquired while working as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War more than a decade earlier that “there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world.”
“In the vast abyss before time, self is not, and soul commingles with mist, and rock, and light.”
By Maria Popova
“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time,” the German psychologist Marc Wittman wrote in his insightful investigation of the psychology of time. “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in the opening lines of her stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking — a question that cuts to the heart of our uneasy embodied temporality. How do creatures with lifespans that rarely stretch past a century fathom cosmic scales stretching billions of years, back to the dawn of everything, when time and matter were undivided as the raw material of the universe? How does the very notion of a self, around which we orient our entire existence, hold up against such sweeps at all?
Perhaps the interplay between deep time and self is more fathomable to those perched on the overlook of life, who have lived long enough to view being and nonbeing with equal immediacy.
Amanda immortalized this sweet and rather profound moment in a short video, shared here with the kind permission of everyone involved:
HOW IT SEEMS TO ME by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.
A voracious reader and lifelong lover of poetry, Helen arrived in America in 1946 not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor of literature. She recently shared with me a kindred verse by her favorite American poet, Walt Whitman — a man who contemplated the paradox of the self throughout his lush body of work — which she long ago adopted as her personal motto:
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
In striking consonance with the nonduality at the heart of Le Guin’s poem, the line that prefaces this passage in Whitman’s Song of Myself is “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul.”
Celestial splendor from a forgotten woman who broke the bounds of her time.
By Maria Popova
Born in Germany in an era when no woman could obtain a formal education in science anywhere in the world, Maria Clara Eimmart (May 27, 1676–October 29, 1707) predated Caroline Herschel — the world’s first professional woman astronomer — by a century. She went on to become an artist, engraver, and astronomer who produced some of the most striking astronomical art since the invention of the telescope, in a time when humanity had no idea that the universe contained galaxies other than our own.
Like Margaret Fuller, Eimmart benefitted from the love and intellectual generosity of a father who equipped her with a rigorous foundation of French, Latin, mathematics, and art. A successful engraver, draughtsman, and painter with a passion for astronomy, he spent most of his earnings on astronomical instruments and eventually built a small observatory on the city walls of Nuremberg, where he served as director of the Academy of Art. The young Maria Clara began apprenticing with her father both as an artist and an astronomer, assisting in his observations and creating pictorial depictions of his data.
Between her late teens and her mid-twenties — around the time her compatriot Maria Sibylla Merian was revolutionizing entomology with her own work as a self-taught artist and naturalist — Eimmart created a series of exquisite, detailed illustrations of celestial objects. Among them are the phases of Venus, Galileo’s observations of which furnished the first nail in the coffin of the geocentric model of the universe less than a century earlier.
In her thirtieth year — an old maid by the era’s standards — she married one of his father’s pupils, a budding physicist who would eventually come to direct the observatory. A year later, at only thirty-one, Eimmart died in childbirth — a common tragedy at the time — leaving behind some stunning astronomical engravings of the Moon, the planets of the Solar System, comets, and the atmospheric optical phenomena paraselene and parhelion, Latin for “beside the Moon” and “beside the Sun,” commonly known as moon dog and sun dog.
I have made some of Eimmart’s etchings, which are in the public domain, available as art prints, with all proceeds benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works: