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Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

BP

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Finding One’s Community

“You can be far away inside, and far away outside.”

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Finding One’s Community

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Olivia Laing wrote in her lyrical exploration of loneliness and the search for belonging. Our need for belonging is indeed the warp thread of our humanity, and our locus of belonging — determined in part by our choices and in part by the cards chance has dealt us in what we were born as and where — is a pillar of our identity. For those who have migrated far from their homeland, and especially for those of us who have migrated alone, without the built-in social support structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom — a freedom the conquest of which can be a whole life’s work.

Poet JonArno Lawson, author of the wondrous Sidewalk Flowers, and artist Nahid Kazemi take up these complex questions with great simplicity and thoughtful sensitivity in Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (public library) — a spare, uncommonly poetic meditation on belonging and what it means to be oneself as both counterpoint and counterpart to otherness, as a thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms.

We meet a melancholy young bird, lonesome even among the other birds, lonesome while soaring above the cityscape, above houses filled with innumerable lives that feel so impossibly distant and alien.

Lawson writes:

You can be far away inside,
and far away outside.

One day, something subtle but profound shifts in the bird — the gaze of a young girl sparks a quickening of heart, a certain opening to the possibility of belonging, a new curiosity about the nature of life — about what it means to be.

We see the bird’s plumage suddenly explode with color — the radiance of awakening, evocative of poet Jane Kenyon’s piercing line: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”

Color arrives,
sometimes when
you least expect it.

The story unfolds with a poet’s precision and economy of words, punctuated by Kazemi’s sprawling, stunning watercolors. What emerges is a gentle invitation to what Bertrand Russell so beautifully termed “a largeness of contemplation.”

The bird moves through seasons of change, floats wordlessly across landscapes of possibility, alighting at last to a vastly different world — more colorful, more alive. In this foreign-looking land, which Kazemi’s palm trees and Middle Eastern architecture contrast with the deciduous crowns and Western cityscapes of the melancholy world, the bird finds a homecoming among other birds — a newfound joy in being “alone and together, over the rooftops and under the moon.”

It is impossible, perhaps even absurd, to attempt conveying the largehearted loveliness of Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a nearly wordless book of supreme analog splendor — in sentences and images on a digital screen. Hold it in hand and in heart, then couple it with other poetic and profound treasures from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse (and my collaborator in A Velocity of Being) Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish.

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience and Amin Maalouf on belonging and how we inhabit our identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy

An incantation to “join the imperfect universe at peace with the disorder that orders.”

The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy

“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.

Art by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.

Published in Hoffmann’s book Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — that unusual cross-genre, cross-disciplinary beauty featuring art by Vivian Torrence and a preface by Carl Sagan — the poem came alive at the second annual Universe in Verse in this charming and touching reading by musician and friend-of-science Sean Ono Lennon:

THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS
by Roald Hoffmann

My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…

The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse — the show I host each spring at Pioneer Works, celebrating science and reason through poetry and beauty — savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

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After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage

“Nothing is ever over / life breathes life in its turn / Sometimes the people listen / Sometimes the people learn”

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.

How Rachel Carson signed her letters to her loved ones. (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:

AFTER SILENCE
for Rachel Carson

Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
we grew.

Who speaks? And why?

She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.

Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.

All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?

Someone could ask the questions, too.
Like who?
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?

The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.

There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.

After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.

Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn

Who speaks? And why?

Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.

BP

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