On saying "I love you" only when you mean it, E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, Amanda Palmer reads a stunning Jane Kenyon poem about life with and after depression.
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Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Beethoven on creative vitality and resilience in the face of suffering, Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler's lyrical illustrated love letter to the weather, Caitlin Moran on fighting the cowardice of cynicism, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,”wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young more than a century later in his magnificent commencement address, “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”
Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own presentism bias, ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues. But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.
Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality more courageously and consistently than E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who never cowered from being his conventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”
A fortnight after the poet’s fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short, enormous piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” radiating expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself. It went on to inspire Buckminster Fuller and was later included in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — that wonderful out-of-print collection which the poet himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays,” and which gave us Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.
Illustration from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
Cummings should know — just four years earlier, he had fought that hardest battle himself: When he was awarded the prestigious Academy of American Poets annual fellowship — the MacArthur of poetry — Cummings had to withstand harsh criticism from traditionalists who besieged him with hate for the bravery of breaking with tradition and being nobody-but-himself in his art. With an eye to that unassailable creative integrity buoyed by relentless work ethic, he adds:
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
“The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote in what remains the most gripping account of living with depression. As time pools that gray drizzle into an ocean of anguish, we begin to lose sight of the other shore — but there is, always, an other shore.
A century after Tchaikovsky contemplated finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, the poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995) captured with exquisite elegance of insight life with and after depression in a stunning poem titled “Having It Out with Melancholy,” found in Constance (public library) — the final poetry collection published in Kenyon’s unreasonably brief lifetime.
I asked my largehearted friend and fellow poetry-lover Amanda Palmer — who has read many poems for me in the past — to record a reading of Kenyon’s masterpiece, which she did generously, beautifully, and with the subtle solidarity of the piano’s native melancholy. Special thanks to audio engineer James Bridges.
HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY by Jane Kenyon
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited behind a pile of linen in the nursery, and when we were alone, you lay down on top of me, pressing the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on everything under the sun and moon made me sad — even the yellow wooden beads that slid and spun along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude. You ruined my manners toward God: “We’re here simply to wait for death; the pleasures of earth are overrated.”
I only appeared to belong to my mother, to live among blocks and cotton undershirts with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. I was already yours — the anti-urge, the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. The coated ones smell sweet or have no smell; the powdery ones smell like the chemistry lab at school that made me hold my breath.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn’t be so depressed if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner as seems adult (I mean I try to wait for dark) in order to push away from the massive pain in sleep’s frail wicker coracle.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors—those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood you came flying to pull me out of the glowing stream. “I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me upstairs, lies down with a clatter of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing saves my life — in and out, in and out; a pause, a long sigh….
A piece of burned meat wears my clothes, speaks in my voice, dispatches obligations haltingly, or not at all. It is tired of trying to be stouthearted, tired beyond measure.
We move on to the monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Day and night I feel as if I had drunk six cups of coffee, but the pain stops abruptly. With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends, to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet on the coffee table, lean back, and turn me into someone who can’t take the trouble to speak; someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep; can’t read, or call for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do against your coming. When I awake, I am still with thee.
9 WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light I wake at four, waiting greedily for the first note of the wood thrush. Easeful air presses through the screen with the wild, complex song of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment. What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment? How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples; its bright, unequivocal eye.
Amanda’s work, like my own, is supported by donations. Please consider joining me in supporting her on Patreon so that she can continue to have breathing room for such spontaneous, generous, and life-giving collaborations.
Just as we have drained the word friend of meaning by misuse and overuse, we are constantly abrading the integrity of the word love with insincerity of sentiment. Adrienne Rich wrote that in any honorable relationship, we earn the right to use the word love through “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” But what happens when the snake bites its own tail and the very truthfulness which this process presupposes flees from the object of its end result? The consequent paradox is that the more we say we “love” things and people we merely like — or admire, or appreciate, or wish for — the more fearful we become of saying “I love you” with unguarded sincerity to those who truly merit it. Amid this maelstrom of daunted and daunting confusions, few things are more courageous than to stand behind the sincerity of those words with equal parts unselfconscious tenderness and unflinching conviction.
It may seem at first glance that Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) was particularly careless with how he used the word love when, after reading a volume of Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry, he wrote to her: “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett, …. and I love you too.” But Browning was a poet — that is, a person tasked with honoring the integrity of words and protecting it with absolute precision of sentiment in language — so he meant exactly what he wrote. In what remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record, the two poets soon eloped and lived in love until death did them part.
People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning, for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has, for instance, used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could, even if by the devil’s help he would, reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over — and so, if “I love you” were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.
By the end of August, Browning’s conviction in the purity of these three words has only intensified despite Barrett’s initial reservations that her severe disability would render her unlovable in the long run. He writes:
Let me say now — this only once — that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, so much of it as you would take, — and all that is done, not to be altered now: it was, in the nature of the proceeding, wholly independent of any return on your part. I will not think on extremes you might have resorted to; as it is, the assurance of your
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