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How to enjoy poetry, why the adverb is not your friend, Tolstoy on knowledge and the meaning of life, and more.

Hey Deric Bownds! If you missed last week's edition – Amanda Palmer on the art of asking, Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Richard Feynman on the responsibility of scientists, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.

How to Enjoy Poetry

"Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world."

"True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity," Edward Hirsch advised in his directive on how to read a poem. But how, exactly, does one cultivate such "true poetic practice"? In an essay plainly, promisingly titled "How to Enjoy Poetry," found in the 1985 anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) – the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut's 8 timeless rules of writing, and Bill Cosby's 3 proven strategies for reading faster – the poet and novelist James Dickey, winner of the National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer's Choice, offers some timeless and breathtakingly articulated advice:

Dickey begins at the beginning:

What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? … When you really feel it, a new part of you happens, or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.

Exploring your connection with other imaginations and the mystical quality of creativity, Dickey writes:

The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.

Dickey reverses E. B. White's famous statement that the writer should seek to lift the reader up, placing an equal responsibility on the reader in turn:

When you read, don't let the poet write down to you; read up to him. Reach for him from your gut out, and the heart and muscles will come into it, too.

"The poet is always our contemporary," Virginia Woolf memorably remarked in her timeless meditation on how to read a book, and Dickey reminds us of this eternal, perpetually self-renovating quality of poetry with a beautiful metaphor, revealing the heart of what makes poetry at once so profoundly personal and so boundlessly connective:

The sun is new every day, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said. The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun – everybody's sun; yours, too – you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.

On where to start, Dickey advises:

The beginning of your true encounter with poetry should be simple. It should bypass all classrooms, all textbooks, courses, examinations and libraries and go straight to the things that make your own existence exist: to your body and nerves and blood and muscles. Find you own way – a secret way that just maybe you don't know yet – to open yourself as wide as you can and as deep as you can to the moment, the now of your own existence and the endless mystery of it, and perhaps at the same time to one other thing that is not you, but is out there: a handful of gravel is a good place to start. So is an ice cube – what more mysterious and beautiful interior of something has there ever been?

He offers a starting point equal parts practical and poetic:

As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. 'Start with the sun,' D. H. Lawrence said, 'and everything will slowly, slowly happen.' Good advice. And a lot will happen.

What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf?

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;

Mosses, and stars; and gravelly

Rivers, and fruit.

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;

Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice …

Go back and read this list – it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren's list! – item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life.

Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours?

Though, as Coleridge famously noted, "the mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem," Dickey defends the enchantment of rhythm, with a conviction in its embodied power that parallels Lilli Lehmann's 1903 manifesto for singing. Dickey writes:

Part of the spell of poetry is the rhythm of language, used by poets who understand how powerful a factor rhythm can be, how compelling and unforgettable. Almost anything put into rhyme is more memorable than the same thing in prose. Why this is, no one knows completely, though the answer is surely rooted far down in the biology by means of which we exist; in the circulation of the blood that goes forth from the heart and comes back, and in the repetition of breathing.

Ultimately, Dickey champions the enlivening potency of the learn-by-doing approach:

The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.

You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images. You'll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly – and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and others.

Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wide-openness, and you will go toward them, on your own path. 'Then,' as Dante says, 'will your feet be filled with good desire.' You will know this is happening the first time you say, of something you never would have noticed before, 'Well, would you look at that! Who'd 'a thunk it?' (Pause, full of new light.)

'I thunk it!'

Complement Dickey's essay with this exquisite, rare 1936 BBC radio recording of W. B. Yeats on modern poetry and treat yourself to How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, which brings together a fantastic selection of such similarly spirited gems.

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Sorted Books Revisited: Artist Nina Katchadourian's Playfully Arranged Book Spine Sentences

"Friendship: The silent places where speech ends."

As a longtime fan of artist Nina Katchadourian's long-running Sorted Books project, which even inspired some playful book spine poetry experiments of my own, I'm thrilled for the release of Sorted Books (public library) – a collection spanning nearly two decades of her witty and wise minimalist mediations on life by way of ingeniously arranged book spines, including some pieces never seen online.

A heart-warming bonus: Most of the books Katchadourian uses are library copies, presenting a subtle conceptual addition to other love letters to libraries.

Brian Dillon writes in the introduction:

'Sorted Books' is many things at the same time: a series of sculptures or photographs, or site-specific installations; a collection of short stories, or poems, or jokes; a work in which the 'found object' is subject alike to chance and the most painstaking choices; a delicate conceptual game with the horizontal and the vertical. But it is first of all an act of reading. We have to picture the artist at large between the bookshelves, scanning the spines for likely, or unlikely, meetings among their titles.

Katchadourian's project began in 1993, somewhat serendipitously – as most great side-projects-turned-lifelong-passions tend to – while she was pursuing an MFA at University of California, San Diego. She recounts the origin story:

We studied – and were trying to put into practice – an engagement with the everyday, a stance toward art that located it in unlikely places, and ways of working collaboratively. In that spirit, an art major undergraduate, who was friendly with some of the graduate students, invited a group of us to move into her parents' house for a week and make art with what we found. Her parents – who were not art collectors but simply welcoming and curious people – generously agreed to be invaded by the six of us. The house where we stayed was in a small town called Half Moon Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco on the foggy California coast, so we decided to call the project 'The Half Moon Bay Experiment.' We spent about a week there, poking around and thinking about what to make. Eventually each of us found different zones in the house that interested us, and in the end we had a small show, which essentially meant running an announcement in the local paper, opening the font door for the afternoon, and having some friends, family, and locals come by. Quite early in the week, I latched onto the library. Our hosts had married late in life – a second marriage for both – and they had merged their separate book collections when they moved in together. It seemed like they had decided to keep everything, and so they had a lot of books, organized in casually thematic manner on wooden shelves. I spent a long time looking at the books and getting acquainted with the wide variety of subjects in the library: Shakespeare, self-help, gambling, addiction, health care, history, and investment strategy guides. I suddenly recalled a moment in the university library when, looking for a book, I had turned my head sideways as I walked down the stacks and thought how spectacular it would be if all the titles formed an accidental sentence when read one after the other in a long chain. Standing amidst the bookshelves in Half Moon Bay, my next move was simply to make this imaginary accident real. I spent days shifting and arranging books, composing them so that their titles formed short sentences. The exercise was intimate, like a form of portraiture, and it felt important that the books I selected should function as a cross section of the larger collection.

The rest, as they say, is history – but Katchadourian remained true to the same methodology and ethos of curiosity over the years. In an era drowned in periodic death tolls for the future of the physical book, her project stands as a celebration of the spirit embedded in the magnificent materiality of the printed page. Katchadourian writes:

I am always paying attention to the physical qualities of the books, and I try to work with their particular attributes as much as possible. The size of a book carries temperament and tonality, as does the way the text sits on the spine. A heavy volume with large text on the spine, for example, might be exuberant, urgent, pushy; a small typeface might communicate a voice that's exacting, shy, insecure, or furtive.

My favorite arrangement is this laconic addition to history's finest definitions of art:

Above all, however, Sorted Books is a visceral reminder of that powerful interplay between context and subtext, which embodies – and emboldens – the wellspring of meaning.

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A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy on Knowledge and the Meaning of Life

"The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life."

On this day in 1884, Leo Tolstoy, wrote in his diary:

I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.

So he set out to compile "a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people" – a florilegium five centuries after the golden age of florilegia and a Tumblr a century and a half before the golden age of Tumblr, a collection of famous words on the meaning of life long before the concept had become a cultural trope. The following year, he wrote to his assistant, describing the project:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

Tolstoy spent the next seventeen years collecting those pieces of wisdom. In 1902, in his late seventies, seriously ill and confronting mortality, he finally sat down to write the book under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. Once he sent the manuscript to his publisher, he returned to the diary and exhaled:

I felt that I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading.

Retitled to Thoughts of Wise Men, the book was first published in 1904, followed closely by an expanded and reorganized edition titled A Calendar of Wisdom, in which the quotes were organized around specific daily themes and which included several hundred of Tolstoy's own thoughts. It wasn't until 1997 that the compendium received its first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, titled A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World's Sacred Texts (public library).

Tolstoy writes in the introduction:

I hope that the readers of this book may experience the same benevolent and elevating feeling which I have experienced when I was working on its creation, and which I experience again and again, when I reread it every day, working on the enlargement and improvement of the previous edition.

Running through the book are several big-picture threads that string together the different quotations. One of them is Tolstoy's intense preoccupation with the acquisition and architecture of knowledge, ignorance, and the meaning of life. Here are several of the insights he culls from other thinkers, along with the respective days of the year to which Tolstoy assigned them:

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.

What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century. Yes, we should be grateful for the best books, for the best spiritual achievements in our lives. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 1)

Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time. (Henry David Thoreau, January 1)

A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…. That is why constant learning softens your brain…. Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries. (Arthur Schopenhauer, January 9)

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge. (Jean Jaques Rousseau, March 16)

Science can be divided into an infinite number of disciplines, and the amount of knowledge that can be pursued in each discipline is limitless. The most critical piece of knowledge, then, is the knowledge of what is essential to learn and what isn’t.

A huge amount of knowledge is accumulated at present. Soon our abilities will be too weak, and our lives too short, to study this knowledge. We have vast treasures of knowledge at our disposal but after we study them, we often do not use them at all. It would be better not to have this burden, this unnecessary knowledge, which we do not really need. (Immanuel Kant, April 1)

There is only one real knowledge: that which helps us to be free. Every other type of knowledge is mere amusement. (Vishnu Purana, Indian Wisdom, June 23)

The way to true knowledge does not go through soft grass covered with flowers. To find it, a person must climb steep mountains. (Josh Ruskin, September 20)

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life. (Seneca, November 14)

But most poignant of all are Tolstoy's own thoughts, which appear after the collected quotations on various days. A sampling:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive. (January 1)

A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more.

Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know. (January 9)

A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.

We live a senseless life, contrary to the understanding of life by the wisest people of all times. This happens because our young generations are educated in the wrong way – they are taught different sciences but they are not taught the meaning of life.

The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone. (January 18)

If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself. (March 17)

Ignorance in itself is neither shameful nor harmful. Nobody can know everything. But pretending that you know what you actually do not know is both shameful and harmful.(April 18)

Every person has only one purpose: to find perfection in goodness. Therefore, only that knowledge is necessary which leads us to this. (May 3)

There are two very clear indications of real science and real art: the first inner sign is that a scholar or an artist works not for profit, but for sacrifice, for his calling; the second, outer sign is that his works are understandable to all people. Real science studies and makes accessible that knowledge which people at that period of history think important, and real art transfers this truth from the domain of knowledge to the domain of feelings.

Creating art is not as elevated a thing as many people guess, but certainly it is a useful and kind thing to do, especially if it brings people together and arouses kind feelings in them. (July 2)

It is better to know less than necessary than to know more than necessary. Do not fear the lack of knowledge, but truly fear unnecessary knowledge which is acquired only to please vanity. (September 23)

Though much of A Calendar of Wisdom bears the dated religiosity of the era – and of an old man confronting his mortality in that era – many of the collected thoughts resonate with timeless secular sagacity. Complement it with Montaigne on the art of living and the collected wisdom of modern icons on the meaning of life.

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The Adverb Is Not Your Friend: Stephen King on Simplicity of Style

"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.

Though he may have used a handful of well-placed adverbs in his recent eloquent 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.

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