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Inside Kurt Cobain’s Letters and Journals

“No amount of effort can save you from oblivion.”

On February 20, 1967, legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his first breath. Twenty-seven years later, after a debilitating struggle with addiction and depression, he took his own life with a shotgun to the head and became the tragic patron-saint of the grunge generation. The posthumously released Kurt Cobain: Journals (public library) offers an unprecedented glimpse of the modern icon’s inner life, from an anatomy of his eclectic influences — John Lennon, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy, David Bowie — to a chronicle of his tumultuous psychoemotional landscape to sketches and drawings that would later grace Nirvana album covers and that, like those of Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria, and Richard Feynman, have been acclaimed for their artistic acumen.

The book begins with a meandering letter Cobain wrote to Melvins drummer Dale Crover in 1988, discussing the first glimmers of fame, the mediocrity of late-night television, the superficiality of publicity, and the decision to name the band Nirvana:

Hello, this is me saying ‘everything is basically raining, dull, and OK.’

In another piece, Cobain offers a mediation on culture underpinned by deep self-awareness with undertones of self-loathing:

I like to complain and do nothing to make things better. I like to blame my parents generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media & government to deface the movement by using the Mansons and other Hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases, and in turn the baby boomers became the ultimate, conforming, yuppie hypocrites a generation has ever produced.

What might at first appear as an inability to embody the ideals of Bertrand Russell, Galileo, and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding conformity, opinion, and conviction is in fact Cobain’s subversive strategy for changing the status quo from the inside:

I like to calmly and rationally discuss my views in a conformist manor even though I consider myself to the extreme left.

I like to infiltrate the mechanics of a system by posing as one of them, then slowly start the rot from the inside of the empire.

In what reads like the more hopeless counterpart to David Foster Wallace’s meditation on popular taste, Cobain bemoans the American propensity for fads:

The conspiracy toward success in America is immediacy. … Here today, gone tomorrow because yesterday’s following was nothing more than a tool in every individuals need for self-importance, entertainment, and social rituals. Art that has long lasting value cannot be appreciated by the majorities. Only the same, small percent will value arts patience as they always have. This is good. The ones who are unaware do not deserve false suggestions in their purchasing duties.

Cobain notes the warped mythologies of fame, which disguise for the mainstream the enormous role of “minorities” — who were really creative majorities in many regards — in shaping the history of modern culture:

I like the comfort in knowing that women are generally superior and naturally less violent than men.

I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American invented rock and roll yet has only been rewarded or awarded for their accomplishments when conforming to the white mans standards.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American has once again been the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade.

(For an inspired and timeless testament to all of the above, look no further than reconstructionist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “grandmother of rock and roll.”)

A grim, angry, fragmented note laments the cult of commercialism:

The late 1980’s

This is a subliminal example of a society that has sucked & fucked itself into a rehashing value of greed.


You get the overall feeling that you paid way too much for literally nothing stimulating.


The jokes on you so kill yourself

No amount of effort can save you from oblivion. …

No Address
No Editor
No Ad rates

On page 204 of Journals, which writers were reportedly forbidden from reproducing due to the controversial nature of a self-portrait it contains, Cobain cites six cut-and-pasted lines from Alicia Ostriker’s stirring poem “A Young Woman, A Tree”:

Passing that fiery tree — if only she could

Be making love,
Be making a painting,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe

Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes —

But perhaps most moving of all is Cobain’s strikingly earnest and aspirational, if also strikingly misspelled, list of life advice — reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 New Year’s Resolution list — followed by a disclaimer that applies to just about every aspect of living with personal integrity:

  1. Dont rape
  2. Dont be prejudice
  3. Dont be sexist
  4. Love your children
  5. Love your neighbor
  6. Love yourself

Dont let your opinions obstruct the aforementioned list.

The brilliance and tragedy of Cobain’s inner life unfolds further across the remainder of Kurt Cobain: Journals.


William Butler Yeats on Modern Poetry: A Rare 1936 BBC Recording

“Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time.”

On October 11, 1936, the BBC invited William Butler Yeats to share a meditation on modern poetry. In the surviving recording, available courtesy of the PennSound archive at my alma mater — which has previously given us rare audio of Gertrude Stein, Charles Olson, and Adrienne Rich — Yeats discusses the tendency of poets from older traditions to criticize the modern school and points to Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) as an echelon of modern poetry at its most powerful.

[Edith Sitwell’s] language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise. I find her obscure, exasperating, delightful. I think I like her best when she seems a child — terrified and delighted in the story it is inventing.

Portrait of Edith Sitwell by Roger Fry, 1915 (public domain)

Here is one of Sitwell’s exquisite poems Yeats references:


Beneath the flat and paper sky
The sun, a demon’s eye,
Glowed through the air, that mask of glass;
All wand’ring sounds that pass

Seemed out of tune, as if the light
Were fiddle-strings pulled tight.
The market-square with spire and bell
Clanged out the hour in Hell;

The busy chatter of the heat
Shrilled like a parakeet;
And shuddering at the noonday light
The dust lay dead and white

As powder on a mummy’s face,
Or fawned with simian grace
Round booths with many a hard bright toy
And wooden brittle joy:

The cap and bells of Time the Clown
That, jangling, whistled down
Young cherubs hidden in the guise
Of every bird that flies;

And star-bright masks for youth to wear,
Lest any dream that fare
–Bright pilgrim–past our ken, should see
Hints of Reality.

Upon the sharp-set grass, shrill-green,
Tall trees like rattles lean,
And jangle sharp and dissily;
But when night falls they sign

Till Pierrot moon steals slyly in,
His face more white than sin,
Black-masked, and with cool touch lays bare
Each cherry, plum, and pear.

Then underneath the veiled eyes
Of houses, darkness lies–
Tall houses; like a hopeless prayer
They cleave the sly dumb air.

Blind are those houses, paper-thin
Old shadows hid therein,
With sly and crazy movements creep
Like marionettes, and weep.

Tall windows show Infinity;
And, hard reality,
The candles weep and pry and dance
Like lives mocked at by Chance.

The rooms are vast as Sleep within;
When once I ventured in,
Chill Silence, like a surging sea,
Slowly enveloped me.

Complement with 13 songs based on the poetry of Yeats.


Famous Graphic Designers Offer Advice on Design and Life to the Young

“Work your ass off + Don’t be an asshole”

“A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” iconic graphic designer Massimo Vignelli famously declared. But this maxim holds true — if not truer — of personal history: It’s that agglomeration of lived experience that centers our sense of self and fuels our slot machine of creativity. In I Used to Be a Design Student: 50 Graphic Designers Then and Now (public library), the more pragmatic counterpart to Advice to Sink in Slowly, Billy Kiosoglou and Philippin Frank set out to reverse-engineer the power of personal history by tracing the creative evolution of influential designers, who reflect on their education, profession, and how their preferences in everything from reading to food to modes of transportation have changed since their university days.

Besides short interviews and work samples, the book features several than-and-now comparative grids that reveal a number of recurring patterns — designers tend to cycle, walk, or take public transit to work; consistent with the life-stage evolution of our internal clocks, their wake times have gotten slightly earlier; many couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine any calling other than being a designer; their influences are wildly eclectic; their most precious valuables have shifted from status symbols and technical tools (camera, watch, walkman) to existential anchors (love, legacy, literature).

One of the questions asks for a piece of advice and a single warning to a budding designer. Here are some favorite responses:

Like another wise woman of design famously advised, Margaret Calvert urges:

Enjoy +
Don’t waste time

Reminding students to define their own success and beware of prestige, Kai von Rabenau advises:

Follow your own path +
Don’t do it for the money or glamour — neither will come true

Like other famous champions of the habit, Isabelle Swiderski swears by the sketchbook:

Sketch, sketch, sketch +
Don’t fall in love with your ideas

António Silveira Gomes cautions against over-reliance on technology:

Design affects the way we perceive information. Students must understand the consequences of their work before placing a new artefact into the world +
I would like to quote Cedric Price: ‘Technology is the answer, but what was the question?’

Emmi Salonen echoes artist Austin Kleon in reminding us that “the world is a small village” and kindness is king:

Avoid automatically applying your ‘style’ to a project — let each assignment influence you, your approach and the way you work +
Be nice to people, respectful.

Lars Harmsen echoes Jackson Pollock’s dad:

Work awake +
Get out of the dogma house

Michael Georgiou stresses the line between plagiarism and influence:

Do as much research as you can +
Never copy, only get influenced

Renata Graw reminds us that the fear of failure is one of the greatest hindrances to creative work:

One can never say something won’t work until they have done it +
Don’t be afraid to fail

Richard Walker assures in the dignity of ignorance:

Always finish your work +
Don’t feel obliged to have an opinion on everything. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.

But perhaps the sagest, most timeless and universal piece of advice comes from Stefan Sagmeister, who makes a case for the timelessly potent combination of work ethic and kindness:

Work your ass off +
Don’t be an asshole

I Used to Be a Design Student comes from British publisher Laurence King, who previously brought us the formidable Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Complement it with How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

Images courtesy Laurence King


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