Hear Meryl Streep Read Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” a Poem Written After the Birth of Her Daughter

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Pregnancy and parenting are “extreme experiences that stretch our understanding,” writes Lily Gurton-Wachter at the Los Angeles Review of Books. They “push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.” Women risk their own lives to give life to a stranger, a tiny human whose future is entirely uncertain. Parents live with constant dread of all that could befall their children, an anxious state, but also a vulnerability that can make us deeply sensitive to the fragility of human life. Gurton-Wachter compares motherhood to going to war, “a profound, frightening, exhilarating, transformative experience at the boundary of life, an experience from which one comes back a different person.”

It’s a comparison Sylvia Plath would likely appreciate. With her ability to compress personal experience in collections of surprising, often violent, images, Plath expressed deep ambivalence about motherhood, undercutting a tradition of sentimental idealization, giving voice to fear, discomfort, bewilderment, and mystery.




In “Metaphors,” from 1960’s Colossus, she begins with a playful description of pregnancy as “a riddle in nine syllables.” Within a few lines she feels effaced and starts to "see herself merely as a ‘means,’” notes Shenandoah, “almost an incubator… This culminates with the last line, where she realizes that she is forever changed, irrevocably”: “Boarded the train,” she writes, “there’s no getting off.”

In 1961, after the birth of her daughter, Frieda, Plath wrote “Morning Song, which might be read as almost an extension of “Metaphors.” It is “one of her most unusual poems,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, “both paean and requiem for new motherhood—the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.” Published posthumously in Ariel, the poem addresses itself to the new arrival, in a series of stanzas that capture the awe and anxiety of those first hours after her birth. In the audio above from the Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind event, hear Meryl Streep read the poem “with uncommon sensitivity,” Popova writes, “to the innumerable nuances it holds.” As you listen, read along below.

MORNING SONG

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Streep's reading of Plath will be added to the poetry section of our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Carl Sagan Returns to His Old Sixth-Grade Classroom to Turn a New Generation of Kids On To Science

All throughout his career, Carl Sagan cited the events in his formative years that set him on the road to becoming, well, Carl Sagan: the introduction to "skepticism and wonder" provided by his parents; his visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair; his first trips to the public library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium; his discovery of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and its fantastic visions undergirded by genuine knowledge. That last happened around the same time he entered the sixth grade at David A. Boody Junior High School, where he would eventually return, decades later, to teach the lesson seen in the video above.

"As a child, it was my immense good fortune to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my curiosity," Sagan says in voiceover. "This was my sixth-grade classroom. I came back here one afternoon to remember what it was like." Anyone watching him handing out the "breathtaking pictures of other worlds that had been radioed back by the Voyager spacecraft" and addressing the excited students' questions will understand that, in addition to his formidable hunger for knowledge and deep understanding of his subjects, Sagan also possessed a quality rare in the scientific community: the ability and willingness to talk about science clearly and engagingly, and transmit his excitement about science, to absolutely anyone.

The clip also provides a sense of what it was like to learn directly from Sagan. In the interview clip above, no less a science guy than Bill Nye talks about his own experience taking Sagan's classes at Cornell in the 1970s. "If you saw his series Cosmos — the original Cosmos — his lectures were like those television shows," says Nye. He goes on to tell the story of meeting Sagan again, at his ten-year class reunion. "I said I want to do this show about science for kids. He said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science.' That was his verb, resonate." And so, when Bill Nye the Science Guy debuted a few years later, it spent most of its time not on the fruits of science — "bridges, dams, and civil engineering works and gears" and so on — but on science itself.

Carl Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye, drawn by its mission of "empowering the world's citizens to advance planetary science and exploration," joined that same year. After speaking at Sagan's memorial a decade and a half later, Nye found himself on its board of directors. Then he became Vice President, and then "there was a dinner party, there was wine or something, and now I'm the CEO." In that way and others, Nye continues Sagan's legacy, and Nye hardly counts as Sagan's only successor. "This is how we know nature," as Nye puts Sagan's view of science. "It's the best idea humans have ever come up with." That view, whether expressed in Sagan's own work or that of the countless many he has directly or indirectly influenced, will surely continue to inspire generations of learners, inside or outside the classroom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Barack Obama Shares a List of Enlightening Books Worth Reading

Photo by Pete Souza via obamawhitehouse.archive.gov

Whatever historians have to say about his political legacy, Barack Obama will be remembered as charming, diplomatic, thoughtful, and very well-read. He honed these personal qualities not only as a politician but as a scholar, writer, and teacher, roles that require intellectual curiosity and openness to other points of view. The former president was something of a dream come true for teachers and librarians, who could point to him as a shining example of a world leader who loves to read, talk about books, and share books with others. All kinds of books: from novels and poetry to biography, philosophy, sociology, and political and scientific nonfiction; books for children and books for young adults.

It is refreshing to look back at his tenure as a reliable recommender of quality books during his eight years in office. (See every book he recommended during his two terms here.) Reading gave him the ability to “slow down and get perspective,” he told Michiko Kakutani last year. He hoped to use his office, he said, “to widen the audience for good books. At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify—as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize—is more important than ever.”




While many people have been hoping he would weigh in on deeply disturbing current events, he “has been relatively quiet on social media of late,” notes Thu-Huong Ha at Quartz. But he has continued to use his platform to recommend good books, suggesting that the perspectives we gain from reading are as critical as ever. “In a Facebook post published on Saturday, Obama recommended some of the nonfiction he’s read recently, focused on government, inequality, and history, with one book that addresses immigration. Together the recommendations are an intellectual antidote to the current US president, who eschews reading,” says Ha.

The list below includes Obama’s brief commentary on each book and article.

Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging, by Alex Wagner (2018)

Journalist Alex Wagner investigates a potential new twist in her family’s history. “What she came up with,” Obama writes, “is a thoughtful, beautiful meditation on what makes us who we are—the search for harmony between our own individual identities and the values and ideals that bind us together as Americans.”

The New Geography of Jobs, by Enrico Moretti (2012)

Economist Enrico Moretti argues that there are three Americas: brain-hub cities like Austin and Boston; cities once dominated by traditional manufacturing; and the cities in between. “Still a timely and smart discussion of how different cities and regions have made a changing economy work for them,” writes Obama, “and how policymakers can learn from that to lift the circumstances of working Americans everywhere.”

Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (2018)

Political scientist Patrick J. Deneen argues that liberalism is not the result of the natural state of politics and lays out the ideology’s inherent contradictions. “In a time of growing inequality, accelerating change, and increasing disillusionment with the liberal democratic order we’ve known for the past few centuries,” says the former president, “I found this book thought-provoking.”

“The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” by Matthew Stewart (June 2018)

In The Atlantic, Matthew Stewart, author of The Management Myth, defines a “cognitive elite,” a “9.9%” of Americans who value meritocracy and, he argues, are complicit in the erosion of democracy. “Another thought-provoking analysis, this one about how economic inequality in America isn’t just growing, but self-reinforcing,” says Obama.

In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, by Mitch Landrieu (2018)

Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, writes in his memoir of the personal history and reckoning with race that led him to take down four Confederate statues in 2017. “It’s an ultimately optimistic take from someone who believes the South will rise again not by reasserting the past, but by transcending it,” writes Obama.

“Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life,” by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, RAND Corporation (2018)

This report for the nonprofit RAND Corporation, available as a free ebook, attempts to study the erosion of fact-based policy making and discourse in the US. “A look at how a selective sorting of facts and evidence isn’t just dishonest, but self-defeating,” says Obama.

While the former president no longer has the power to sway policy, he can still inspire millions of people to read—essential for staying balanced, informed, and reflective in our perilous times.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chris Cornell’s Daughter Pays Tribute to Her Father, Singing an Achingly Pretty Cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Just a little more than a year after Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell took his own life, his daughter Toni, only 13 years old, released an achingly beautiful tribute to her father. Recorded for Father's Day, she sings a poignant version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," a song her father also performed live on many occasions. Indeed you can hear his voice on this track too. It's a duet of sorts.

Released on YouTube, the song came accompanied by this short letter:

Daddy, I love you and miss you so much. You were the best father anyone could ask for. Our relationship was so special, and you were always there for me. You gave me courage when I didn’t have any. You believed in me when I didn’t. I miss your love everyday. Recording this song with you was a special and amazing experience I wish I could repeat 100 times over and I know you would too. Happy Father’s Day daddy, nothing compares to you. - Toni

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A Meditative Look at a Japanese Artisan’s Quest to Save the Brilliant, Forgotten Colors of Japan’s Past

We might assume that 21st-century technology enables us to produce fabric in all imaginable colors, most of them totally unknown to our ancestors. Yet none of it has ever quite replicated the striking hues achieved by dyers of centuries and centuries ago. That premise underlies the slow and painstaking work of Sachio Yoshioka, whose family's fabric-dyeing heritage goes back to Japan's Edo period of the 17th to the mid-19th century. Having taken over his father's workshop Textiles Yoshioka in 1988, he has spent the past thirty years working only with traditional plant dyes, the kind that once, in a time long before his family even got into the dyeing business, made his homeland so colorful.

The Japanese dyeing tradition, in this reading of its history, reached its long apex of brilliance in the Nara and Heian periods, which together lasted from the years 710 to 1185. Most of the world admires Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, but often with reference to internationally well-known concepts like wabi-sabi that idealize the rustic, the imperfect, and the subdued. Unlike in the Edo period, when the strict Tokyugawa Shogunate mandated that common people stick to grays and browns, Nara and Heian cities would have been rich with vivid reds, blues, yellows, oranges, and even purples, all in varieties one seldom sees even today, in Japan or anywhere else.




Hence Yoshioka's mission to practice and even refine the same labor-intensive dyeing methods used back then. Formerly a student of philosophy as well as a publisher of books on the history of color and fabric arts, he now seems devoted to what goes on in his Kyoto workshop. You can watch what he and his assistants do there in the video from the Victoria and Albert Museum above. Composed of four short films, it includes a segment on Yoshioka's production of paper flowers for the Omizutori festival at the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara, the historical capital outside Kyoto, that culminates in an evening fire ceremony.

That fire ceremony, called Otaimatsu, remains as compelling a spectacle today as it must have been more than a millennium ago, just as surely as the colors Yoshioka has rediscovered have lost none of their allure since then. His dedication to the work of traditional dyeing — work his daughter Sarasa will take into its sixth generation — comes not out of a desire to pay tribute to Japanese history, nor even out of filial piety, but something much simpler: "The colors you can obtain from plants are so beautiful," he says. "This is the one and only reason I do what I do." 

via Kottke/Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. "If everything has gone relatively well in your life so far," cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says in the TED Talk above, "you probably haven't had that thought before." But now you have, all thanks to language, the remarkable ability by which "we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time" and "knowledge across minds."

Though we occasionally hear about startling rates of language extinction — Boroditsky quotes some estimates as predicting half the world's languages gone in the next century — a great variety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge.org, Boroditsky presents intriguing pieces of evidence that what language we speak does affect the way we conceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space ("Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg") and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum.




"Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, goluboy, and dark blue, siniy," says the Belarus-born, American-raised Boroditsky. "When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They're faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue." Hardly a yawning cognitive gap, you might think, but just imagine how many such differences exist between languages, and how the habits of mind they shape potentially add up.

"You don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery," writes Boroditsky in her Edge essay. "How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language." More Germans paint death as a man, and more Russians paint it as a woman. Personally, I'd like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world's languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library. We'd better hurry commissioning them, though, before too many more of those languages vanish.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

130 Courses Starting at Stanford Continuing Studies Next Week: Explore the Catalogue of Campus and Online Courses

Quick fyi: I spend my days at Stanford Continuing Studies, where we've developed a rich lineup of online courses, many of which will get started next week. The courses aren't free. But they're first rate, giving adult students--no matter where they live--the chance to work with dedicated teachers and students.

The catalogue includes a large number of online Creative Writing courses, covering the Novel, the Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Travel Writing, Poetry and more. For the professional, the program offers online business courses in subjects like An Introduction to Project ManagementHow to Build Successful Startups: Learn Lessons Straight from Silicon Valley EntrepreneursValue Investing: An Introduction, and Leadership by Design: Using Design Thinking to Transform Companies and CareersAnd there's a growing number of online Liberal Arts courses too. Take for example Leo Tolstoy's War and PeaceThe History of WineGreek Mythology and Drawing Inspiration: Developing a Creative Practice.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the larger catalogue. Stanford Continuing Studies has 130+ courses getting started this Summer quarter (next week), many taking place in Stanford's classrooms. For anyone living outside of California, check out the program's list of online courses here.

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