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Emily Dickinson’s Revolutionary and Reclusive Life, in a Lyrical Picture-Book from the Lacuna Between Fact and Myth

…and one of the loveliest definitions of what poetry is.

Emily Dickinson’s Revolutionary and Reclusive Life, in a Lyrical Picture-Book from the Lacuna Between Fact and Myth

“I love so to be a child,” Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) wrote to her brother when she was twenty-two. “I wish we were always children, how to grow up I don’t know.” She would go on to draw on that inner child in her profoundest and most prescient meditations on reality, proffered in small and staggering poems, poems that bent language into new forms of meaning, bent tradition into new forms of truth, bent the reality of her existence into a myth, until her very life became a poem — a contour of truth on a canvas of interpretation.

Out of that lacuna between fact and fiction rises the wondrous 2002 picture-book Emily (public library) by author Michael Bedard and artist Barbara Cooney — the story of a little girl whose parents move into a house across the street from Dickinson’s home in Amherst, the famous pale-yellow Homestead.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead (Photograph: Maria Popova)

When a letter is slipped under the door one day for the girl’s pianist mother — a letter containing an invitation for a visit and a pressed flower, just like those in Dickinson’s actual and astounding forgotten herbarium — the young narrator is instantly enchanted by the enigmatic woman across the street, known as The Myth, rumored to dress only in white, though she never leaves her house, and devoted to a strange line of work called poetry.

While fictional, the protagonist of the story may well be Millicent Todd, daughter of Mabel Loomis Todd — the great love and lover of Emily’s brother for the last two decades of his life (while he was married to Susan, the great love and muse of Emily’s own life). It was Mabel who came to the Homestead to play piano while Emily hid upstairs, sending down brandy and poems; Mabel who coined the poet’s moniker “the Myth of Amherst”; Mabel who painted the flowers Emily had once pressed into a letter in a letter, then had the painting grace the cover of the first edition of her revolutionary poems, published posthumously and edited by Mabel herself.

The day after the letter arrives, spellbound by this enigmatic neighbor and her otherworldly art, the little girl unspools her curiosity while watering flowers alongside her father as her mother’s piano makes the house bloom with music:

“What does she look like?” I said. “The lady in the yellow house?”

“I don’t know, my dear. Not many see her face-to-face. They say that she is small, though, and that she dresses always in white.”

We moved from pot to pot. He plucked the wilted petals as he went.

“Is she lonely, do you think?”

“Sometimes, I suppose. We all are lonely sometimes. But she has her sister to keep her company, and like us she has her flowers. And they say that she writes poetry.”

“What is poetry?” I asked.

He laid the wilted petals in his palm. “Listen to Mother play. She practices and practices a piece, and sometimes a magic thing happens and it seems the music starts to breathe. It sends a shiver through you. You can’t explain it, really; it’s a mystery. Well, when words do that, we call it poetry.”

The next morning, the little girl takes her mother’s hand and the two cross the snowy day to visit their mysterious neighbor. Emily’s sister greets them warmly, then tells them what all visitors are told — that the poet cannot see them, but will listen from upstairs.

And then, while her mother plays the piano beneath the famous painting of the Dickinson children, the young narrator quietly slips out of the parlor and up the stairs, where she proceeds to have an unexpected and lovely encounter with the slight, birdlike, chestnut-haired reality behind The Myth.

What passes between them in the final pages of this tender and soulful book is nothing less than living poetry.

Complement Emily with This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — an almost unbearably lovely French picture-book about how poetry touches and transforms us — and Patti Smith’s dreamlike reading of Dickinson’s stunning poem about how the world holds together, then savor some inspiring picture-book biographies based on the real lives of other visionaries: Frederick Douglass, John Lewis, Keith Haring, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Wangari Maathai, and Nellie Bly.

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The Big Picture: Ellen Bass’s Immense and Intimate Poem of Perspective and Persistence, Read by Amanda Palmer

On the precious smallnesses that matter amid the vast and transitory maelstrom of matter.

The Big Picture: Ellen Bass’s Immense and Intimate Poem of Perspective and Persistence, Read by Amanda Palmer

“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity,” the poet turned marine biologist Rachel Carson enjoined a gathering of young people about to commence their lives as she was exiting hers, having catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring “Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before,” she told the coming generations in what became her stunning and sobering farewell, “to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

A generation later, the ecologically sonorous poet Mary Oliver opened one of the century’s most beloved poems with this tender sidewise rejoinder to the call of overwhelming responsibility: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”

Yet another generation later, in the midst of a sixth extinction the function of a failed civilizational responsibility, the poet Ellen Bass twines these sentiments and sensibilities in her staggering poem “The Big Picture” — a rare masterpiece of perspective, immense and intimate, originally published in her 2007 collection The Human Line (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-steward, Carsonite, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer.

THE BIG PICTURE
by Ellen Bass

I try to look at the big picture. 
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted

with her new cub, will wear itself out. 
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor

that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period — all those burnt ferns

and reptiles, sharks and bony fish —
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.

And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.

But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,

Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
percent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.

And all the newborn marsupials —
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees — steelhead trout, river dolphins,
all we can save

so many species of frogs 
breathing through their 
damp permeable membranes.

Today on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed

on her pale shoulder, makes me ache 
for those bright flashes in the snow. 
And polar bears, the cream and amber

of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,

my son has a headache and, though he’s 
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song. 
We lie together on the lumpy couch

and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day”… 
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”… A cheap 
silver chain shimmers across his throat

rising and falling with his pulse. There never was 
anything else. Only these excruciatingly 
insignificant creatures we love.

Complement with Marie Howe’s sweeping “Singularity” — that crowning curio in the poetic canon of individual and collective self-awareness as small and feeling creatures aglow with potential amid a vast and unfeeling universe — and the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning response to Howe’s poem, then revisit Jane Hirshfield’s kindred-colored perspectival masterpiece “Today, Another Universe.”

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Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

“Rejoice, go and remember me.”

Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

A sole voice rises from antiquity, cuts through the long silencing and erasure of women, cuts through the Ancient Greek tradition of heroic poetry about war and worldly valor, to sing to us in her soulful authoritative voice a new kind of poetry — the personal, consummately intimate poetry of the inner world, the poetry of passionate love and heartbreak, of longing and loss, of the rapture of the natural world — a sensibility that would come to color everything from the cosmogony of the Romantics to pop music.

Celebrated as the Tenth Muse, Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) endures as the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression and of the basic human right to love whomever one loves — the original champion of what we, two and a half millennia later, have the hard-earned luxury of calling LGBT rights, for unlike Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson twenty-some centuries after her, Sappho did not alter the gender pronouns of her poems to conceal the same-sex nature of her loves — so much so that her native island of Lesbos has woven itself into the etymology of same-sex love in the modern world’s dominant languages.

Sappho tile, Victoria & Albert Museum. (Photograph: Mark Morgan CCBY)

And yet she comes to us only as a faint echo across the whispering gallery of time, erasure, and collective memory — the nine-volume set of her complete works burned with the Library of Alexandria; it is rumored that the early Christian dogmatists of the Byzantine empire burned most of her remaining works as too scandalous for so openly celebrating same-sex love. But the tiny subset of splendor that does survive — nowhere more splendidly than in poet Anne Carson’s enchanting translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (public library) — has radiated an aura of genius so immense that it has moved more than one hundred generations and influenced such disparate titans of thought and artistic vision as Mary Wollstonecraft, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsburg, and Judy Chicago.

Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate from artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979.

In one of her most staggering poems, Sappho invokes with intimate particularity one of the most universal human experiences: heartbreak at the end of love — that singularly discomposing maelstrom which, in the words of the contemporary poet and philosopher David Whyte, “begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot [and] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day,” and which modern science has shown to share a neuropsychology with drug withdrawal. Epochs and civilizations later, Sappho’s lyric portal into this elemental dimension of the human heart comes newly alive in a haunting choral invocation by Constellation Chor — New York City’s vocally and culturally kaleidoscopic vocal ensemble, founded by the visionary aural architect Marisa Michelson, who composed the piece and performed it with ensemble members Jen Anaya, Kalli Siamidou, and Tamrin Goldberg.

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
] at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
costly
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
delicate
you would let lose your longing

and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [ ] no dance
] no sound
[

Complement with Epictetus, writing seven centuries later, on the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak, Rebecca West’s extraordinary love letter to H.G. Wells in the wake of their romantic collapse, and the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time, then revisit James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on love, reimagined in music.

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The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

“Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”

The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

In the mid-1950s, as the icy terror of the Cold War was cloaking the embering rubble of two World Wars, the BBC producer and cartoonist Hugh Burnett envisioned an unexampled program to serve both as a cross-cultural bridge and a mirror beaming back to a dimmed and discomposed humanity the noblest and most beautiful ideas of its noblest and most beautiful minds. Face to Face — a series of intimate conversations with people of genius, influence, and exceptional largeness of spirit, interviewed by the British broadcaster and politician John Freeman — began as short-wave radio broadcasts to listeners in the Far East and soon became a BBC television program. Television was then a young medium, aglow as any young medium with the promise of its potential and blind to its peril — something reflected with chilling clarity in Burnett’s own idealistic vision for it, so starkly contrasted by the echo chamber and manipulation laboratory television has become in the half-century since:

One of the most important functions of television is the honest display of human beings to one another. When this happens, it becomes possible to judge whether the standards and beliefs being held up for approval are really as valid and generally supported as we are led to believe. Social progress is slowed by isolation, and one of the great advantages of good television is that people are exposed to wide varieties of views and attitudes quite different form their own.

This is the vision that shaped Face to Face, which set the template for what became, half a century later, the most popular manifestation of a new medium: the podcast. The best of these BBC conversations, accompanied by the great Polish expressionist painter Feliks Topolski’s live portraits of each subject, were later condensed and edited into what might best be described as first-person narratives fusing autobiography and existential reflection, and published as the out-of-print 1964 treasure Face to Face (public library).

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

Among the thirty-five subjects included in the book, alongside Martin Luther King, Edith Sitwell, and Carl Jung, was the Nobel-winning English mathematician, logician, philosopher, and sanity steward Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), whom I continue to consider one of the most lucid and luminous minds our civilization has produced, and by far the philosopher whose ideas — ideas at the rare and necessary nexus of science and humanitarianism — I most admire in totality.

Having lost his mother when he was two and his father when he was three, Russell fell in love with Euclid amid the loneliness of his childhood. In the loveliness of mathematics and logic, he discovered an instrument of thought that could have, were it more widely adopted, prevented the inhumanity of the world wars. Shortly before his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation, he reflects on the greatest peril of and to our humanity:

Fanaticism is the danger of the world. It always has been and has done untold harm. I think fanaticism is the greatest danger there is. I might almost say that I was fanatical against fanaticism.

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

When asked what, in nearly ninety years of living, he has learned about life that he considers most important to pass on to posterity, Russell offers two things — “one intellectual and one moral.” The first is a sentiment evocative of Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” for critical thinking:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and surely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

Two world wars after Tolstoy asserted in his little-known correspondence with Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” and a decade after W.H. Auden made what remains the single most poignant one-word revision in the history of the English language — the idealistic “we must love one another or die” before the Second World War to the disillusioned “we must love one another and die” after it — Russell adds his second vital learning:

The moral thing I should wish to say… is very simple. I should say: love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn the kind of charity and the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Complement with Russell’s kindred-spirited contemporary Albert Camus on the three antidotes to the absurdity of life — the third of which is an exquisite affirmation of Russell’s moral bequeathal — and a poetic counterpart in Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” and then revisit Russell on how to heal an ailing and divided world, our mightiest defense against political manipulation, what makes a fulfilling life, and his immensely insightful Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.

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