Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 739

Wondrous the Merge: Why Love Knows No Boundaries

“At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle.”

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Big Joy — a wonderful documentary about the life of the poet, filmmaker, gay liberation champion, and counterculture hero James Broughton (1913–1999):

Though Broughton was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and left a powerful imprint on culture with his experimental cinema and expressive poetry, what makes the film most soul-stirring of all is Broughton’s remarkable and unlikely love story.

Already twice married and the father of two daughters and a son, it wasn’t until late in life that he met his soulmate.

James was 61. Joel was 26.

Exultantly besotted, James wrote Joel in a letter:

I did not think you would come to me in this lifetime.

On April 5th, 1975, James captured in his journal, preserved at the Kent State archives, a joyously disbelieving account of their first time making love:

And it was wonderful, truly wondrous. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I can still scarcely believe it. Such mutual joy. I was half my age. Age vanished. There was only lovingness. And connecting. And ecstasy. As if this were what I had been waiting for all my life, since … Littlejohn of boyhood. And thought had long since passed all opportunity by me.

And it was suddenly here. So very here. So tenderly and strongly. At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle. It is from Hermes himself. It is a manifestation of so much that I have been feeling under surface in my soul so long: an incarnation. It had to become manifest. So much desire must create a reality.

Seven years later, in “Wondrous the Merge”, one of his many love poems for Joel, found in the sublime collection Special Deliveries: New and Selected Poems (public library), James offered a lyrical addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Wondrous Wondrous the merge
Wondrous the merge of soulmates
the surprises of recognition
Wondrous the flowerings of renewal
Wondrous the wings of the air
clapping their happy approval

* * *

I severed my respectabilities
and bought a yellow mobile home
in an unlikely neighborhood
He moved in his toaster his camera
and his eagerness to become
my courier seed-carrier and consort

Above all he brought the flying carpet
that upholsters his boundless embrace
Year after year he takes me soaring
out to the ecstasies of the cosmos
that await all beings in love

One day we shall not bother to return

The two remained together for 25 years, as muses for each other, until James departed this world on his flying carpet.

If you can, treat yourself to a local screening of Big Joy and consider helping the filmmakers crowdfund the film tour.

BP

Cats vs. Dogs: A Poem by T. S. Eliot, with Stunning Vintage Illustrations by Dame Eileen Mayo

“You now have learned enough to see / That Cats are much like you and me / And other people whom we find / Possessed of various types of mind.”

While researching the endlessly entertaining 1982 gem A Cat-Hater’s Handbook, I came upon Best Cat Stories (public library) — a rare 1953 anthology, long out of print, edited by Michael Joseph and featuring 19 short stories about cats by some of the era’s most celebrated authors, with delightful black-and-white illustrations by English artist Dame Eileen Mayo.

Joseph writes in the introduction:

What outsiders do not understand is that we are not just infatuated worshippers at the shrine of the cat. We can scold our cats (not that it ever does anyone any good), laugh at our cats, play with them, find faults with them, and be exasperated by their unpredictable moods. The only thing we cannot do is to live without them.

So, in compiling a book for other cat-lovers, I have tried to present the cat in all moods; to show him as a cunning rascal with a nice sense of humour…; as a creature of infinite resources and courage… ; as the victim of his own perversity…; as the disciple of witchcraft; as an animal for the loss of whom a child will shed tears of inconsolable grief; the cat in fable, superstition, comedy, tragedy; the cat we all know and can never fully understand.

The final piece in the book is a lovely set of verses by beloved poet, playwright, and literary critic T. S. Eliot — a famous felinophile, whose 1939 children’s book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats — playfully contrasting cats and dogs:

From ‘The Ad-Dressing of Cats’ by T. S. Eliot

THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS

You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse —
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
But

How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in —
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James —
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste —
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

Complement with some canine-inspired literature and art from The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of last year’s best art books.

Best Cat Stories features more of Mayo’s charming illustrations, one for each of the stories:

From ‘A Little White Cat’ by Dorothy Baker
From ‘A Fine Place for the Cat’ by Margaret Bonham
From ‘Smith’ by Ann Chadwick
From ‘When in Doubt — Wash’ by Paul Gallico
From ‘The Blue Flag’ by Kay Hill
From ‘God and the Little Cat’ by Selwyn Jepson
From ‘The Fat of the Cat’ by Gottfried Keller
From ‘Broomsticks’ by Walter de la Mare
From ‘New Conquest of the Matterhorn’ by T. S. Blakeney
From ‘Johnnie Poothers’ by Charles Odger
From ‘The Fat Cat’ by Q. Patrick
From ‘Kitty Kitty Kitty’ by John Pudney
From ‘Mr. Carmody’s Safari’ by Kermit Rolland
From ‘Feathers’ by Carl Van Vechten
From ‘Cat Up a Tree’ by William Sansom
From ‘Calvin, the Cat’ by Charles Dudley Warner
From ‘The Travellers from West and East’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner
From ‘The Story of Webster’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Pair with Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity and some heart-warming Indian folk drawings of cats, then ready a tissue — nay, a box — and read about how Hemingway shot his cat.

BP

Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

“Employ a simple and straightforward style,” Mark Twain instructed in the 18th of his 18 famous literary admonitions. And what greater enemy of simplicity and straightforwardness than the adverb? Or so argues Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), one of 9 essential books to help you write better.

While he may have used a handful of well-placed adverbs in his excellent recent case for gun control, King embarks upon a forceful crusade against this malignant part of speech:

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

King uses the admonition against adverbs as a springboard for a wider lens on good and bad writing, exploring the interplay of fear, timidity, and affectation:

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

[…]

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior.

This latter part, touching on the contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, illustrates the critical difference between working for prestige and working for purpose.

Complement On Writing with more famous wisdom on the craft from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. P. Lovecraft, Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Mary Karr, Isabel Allende, and Susan Orlean.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated