Watch a Hand-Drawn Animation of Neil Gaiman’s Poem “The Mushroom Hunters,” Narrated by Amanda Palmer

The arrival of a newborn son has inspired no few poets to compose works preserving the occasion. When Neil Gaiman wrote such a poem, he used its words to pay tribute to not just the creation of new life but to the scientific method as well. "Science, as you know, my little one, is the study / of the nature and behavior of the universe," begins Gaiman's "The Mushroom Hunters." An important thing for a child to know, certainly, but Gaiman doesn't hesitate to get into even more detail: "It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement / and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed." Go slightly over the head of a newborn as all this may, any parent of an older but still young child knows what question naturally comes next: "Why?"

As if in anticipation of that inevitable expression of curiosity, Gaiman harks back to "the old times," when "men came already fitted with brains / designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run," and with any luck to come back with a slain antelope for dinner. The women, "who did not need to run down prey / had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them," taking special note of the spots where they could find mushrooms. It was these mushroom hunters who used "the first tool of all," a sling to hold the baby but also to "put the berries and the mushrooms in / the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. / Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break." But how to know which of the mushrooms — to say nothing of the berries, roots, and leaves — will kill you, which will "show you gods," and which will "feed the hunger in our bellies?"




"Observe everything." That's what Gaiman's poem recommends, and what it memorializes these mushroom hunters for having done: observing the conditions under which mushrooms aren't deadly to eat, observing childbirth to "discover how to bring babies safely into the world," observing everything around them in order to create "the tools we make to build our lives / our clothes, our food, our path home..." In Gaiman's poetic view, the observations and formulations made by these early mushroom-hunting women to serve only the imperative of survival lead straight (if over a long distance), to the modern scientific enterprise, with its continued gathering of facts, as well as its constant proposal and revision of laws to describe the patterns in those facts.

You can see "The Mushroom Hunters" brought to life in the video above, a hand-drawn animation by Creative Connection scored by the composer Jherek Bischoff (previously heard in the David Bowie tribute Strung Out in Heaven). You can read the poem at Brain Pickings, whose creator Maria Popova hosts "The Universe in Verse," an annual "charitable celebration of science through poetry" where "The Mushroom Hunters" made its debut in 2017. There it was read aloud by the musician Amanda Palmer, Gaiman's wife and the mother of the aforementioned son, and so it is in this more recent animated video. Young Ash will surely grow up faced with few obstacles to the appreciation of science, and even less so to the kind of imagination that science requires. As for all the other children in the world — well, it certainly wouldn't hurt to show them the mushroom hunters at work.

This reading will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Brain Pickings

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Discover Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Collection of Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Joni Mitchell Publishes a Book of Her Rarely Seen Paintings & Poetry

Self Portrait.”Art work by Joni Mitchell, from "Morning Glory on the Vine" / Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Joni Mitchell is a woman of many talents—too many for the label “singer-songwriter” to encompass. It does not capture the literary depth of her lyricism, the unique strength of her distinctive voice, or the deftness and versatility of her guitar playing. Nor the fact that she’s one of the most interesting personalities in rock (or folk-rock/folk/folk-jazz, whatever). Mitchell’s biography is riveting; her chatty and cantankerous interviews a treat.

And, if you somehow didn’t know from her many album covers, Mitchell is also an accomplished visual artist. “I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance,” she said in 2000. “I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” It’s a great quote, though she also sings her joy and paints sorrow—as in the portrait of her hero, Miles Davis, made just after his death. (Davis was a painter too, and they bonded over art.)




Mitchell began selling her work “when I was in high school to dentists, doctors—small time,” she told Rolling Stone in 1990. She has written poetry since her teenage years. Her imagistic songwriting came from a love of literary language. “I wrote poetry,” she says, “and I always wanted to make music. But I never put the two things together,” until she heard Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” and realized “you could make your songs literature.”

Painter, poet, singer, songwriter, guitarist—all of the artistic sides of Mitchell have mingled throughout her career in the visual splendor of her covers, compositions, and lyrics. They also came together in a rare 1971 book. After the release of Blue, Mitchell “gathered more than thirty drawings and watercolors in a ring binder and paired them with handwritten lyrics and bits of poetry,” writes Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker.

She had the book handbound in an edition of 100 copies and gave it to friends for the holidays, calling it “The Christmas Book.” Now it has a different title, Morning Glory on the Vine, for a new edition to be released October 22nd. Part of the extensive celebrations for Mitchell’s 75th birthday, this edition fulfills a decade-long desire for the artist. “I always wanted to redo it and simplify the presentation,” she tells Petrusich. “Work is meant to be seen.”

The collection “feels consonant with Mitchell’s songwriting” in that it captures “tantalizing details about home,” in this case the home in Laurel Canyon that she shared with Graham Nash, the inspiration for the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Our House.” Still life compositions and self-portraits, both “vivid" and "intimate,” complement her vulnerable, playful, “funny and weird,” lyrics and verses. You can see more of the paintings from Morning Glory on the Vine at The New Yorker and order a copy of the book here.

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

How E.E. Cummings Writes a Poem

Most of us encounter E.E. Cummings at an early age; his poems for adults regularly appear in poetry anthologies for children. We derive great pleasure from his brazen misspellings, portmanteaus, neologisms, and “typographical high jinks,” as Paul Muldoon writes at The New Yorker. Look at this famous writer breaking all the rules, and thereby giving us occasion to talk about the rules, about how poetry is different, about how, among poets, E.E. Cummings stands alone.

Only someone with a keen facility for language can bend it to their individual will, something we may recognize when reading Cummings in high school, when we also recognize the irony and grim satire in his poems. The inventive whimsy had veiled something darker. In 1960, then-high-school student Peter Carlton got the chance to interview Cummings about his poem “Humanity, I love you,” then posted the exchange online 37 years later. “I, for one, do not love humanity,” the poet told him, “I feel that humanity itself is cruel and unjust.”




A common sentiment among modernists, especially those, like Cummings, who had served in World War I. But few of his contemporaries, who included James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, had his ability to speak to so many different audiences. It’s almost shocking to see the shift in voice between Cummings’ interview with young Carlton and a letter he wrote to Pound 20 years earlier, full of the usual Cummings coinages (“innulluxuls”) and vicious literary barbs (Archibald MacLeish becomes “the macarchibald maclapdog macleash”).

Was Cummings a radical? A romantic? A literary naïf? An outsider? A savvy, cynical player of the game? He contained multitudes. From Eliot he “learned to distrust the hierarchical in every aspect of life,” writes Muldoon, “beginning with his own being. In his poetry, ‘I’ becomes ‘i.’” Whatever attitudes he expresses, Cummings always forces us to wrestle with language—its durability and malleability, its familiar strangenesses—first.

In his most accessible poem, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in," Cummings draws our attention to the simplicity of his archetypal images, as if to smirkingly announce, “this is a universal love poem.” Standard fare. But such obvious mirroring of form and content does not diminish the poem's accomplishment, argues Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, in the video above. On the contrary, simple repetitions lead us into far more complicated recursions inside the poem.

Puschak quotes lines from Yeats to illustrate the deftness of Cummings' deceptive simplicity: “A line will take us hours maybe; / yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” While many a poet has made the art seem easy, few have made it seem so playful or irreverent as Cummings, or have delighted so many people of so many ages and walks of life—so few of whom may suspect the conceptual heft and rigor that went into his work.

To read Cummings' poetry yourself, pick up a copy of his complete poems.

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

Discover Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Collection of Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

So many writers have been gardeners and have written about gardens that it might be easier to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowded company, Emily Dickinson stands out. She not only attended the fragile beauty of flowers with an artist’s eye—before she’d written any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to anyone with the leisure, curiosity, and creativity to undertake it.

“In an era when the scientific establishment barred and bolted its gates to women,” Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova writes, “botany allowed Victorian women to enter science through the permissible backdoor of art.”




In Dickinson’s case, this involved the pressing of plants and flowers in an herbarium, preserving their beauty, and in some measure, their color for over 150 years. The Harvard Gazette describes this very fragile book, made available in 2006 in a full-color digital facsimile on the Harvard Library site:

Assembled in a patterned green album bought from the Springfield stationer G. & C. Merriam, the herbarium contains 424 specimens arranged on 66 leaves and delicately attached with small strips of paper. The specimens are either native plants, plants naturalized to Western Massachusetts, where Dickinson lived, or houseplants. Every page is accompanied by a transcription of Dickinson’s neat handwritten labels, which identifies each plant by its scientific name.

The book is thought to have been finished by the time she was 14 years old. Long part of Harvard’s Houghton Library collection, it has also long been treated as too fragile for anyone to view. The only access has come in the form of grainy, black and white photographs. For the past few years, however, scholars and lovers of Dickinson’s work have been able to see the herbarium in these stunning reproductions.

The pages are so formally composed they look like paintings from a distance. Though mostly unknown as a poet in her life, Dickinson was locally renowned in Amherst as a gardener and “expert plant identifier,” notes Sara C. Ditsworth. The herbarium may or may not offer a window of insight into Dickinson’s literary mind. Houghton Library curator Leslie A. Morris, who wrote the forward to the facsimile edition, seems skeptical. “I think that you could read a lot into the herbarium if you wanted to,” she says, “but you have no way of knowing.”

And yet we do. It may be impossible to separate Dickinson the gardener and botanist from Dickinson the poet and writer. As Ditsworth points out, “according to Judith Farr, author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, one-third of Dickinson’s poems and half of her letters mention flowers. She refers to plants almost 600 times,” including 350 references to flowers. Both her herbarium and her poetry can be situated within the 19th century “language of flowers,” a sentimental genre that Dickinson made her own, with her elliptical entwining of passion and secrecy.

The first two specimens in Dickinson’s herbarium are the jasmine and the privet: “You have jasmine for poetry and passion” in the language of flowers, Morris points out, “and privet,” a hedge plant, “for privacy.” There is no need to see this arrangement as a prediction of the future from the teenage botanist Dickinson. Did she plan from adolescence to become a recluse poet in later life? Perhaps not. But we can certainly “read into” the language of her herbarium some of the same great themes that recur over and over in her work, carried across by images of plants and flowers. See Dickinson’s complete herbarium at Harvard Library’s digital collections here, or purchase a (very expensive) facsimile edition of the book here.

via BrainPickings

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

An Introduction to Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda: Romantic, Radical & Revolutionary

Does politics belong in art? The question arouses heated debate about creative freedom and moral responsibility. Assumptions include the idea that politics cheapens film, music, or literature, or that political art should abandon traditional ideas about beauty and technique. As engaging as such discussions might be in the abstract, they mean little to nothing if they don't account for artists who show us that choosing between politics and art can be as much a false dilemma as choosing between art and love.

In the work of writers as varied as William Blake, Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin, and James Joyce, for example, themes of protest, power, privilege, and poverty are inseparable from the sublimely erotic—all of them essential aspects of human experience, and hence, of literature. Foremost among such political artists stands Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who—as the TED-Ed video above from Ilan Stavans informs us—was a romantic stylist, and also a fearless political activist and revolutionary.




Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and, among his many other literary accomplishments, he “rescued 2,000 refugees, spent three years in political exile, and ran for president of Chile.” Neruda used “straightforward language and everyday experience to create lasting impact." He began his career writing odes and love poems filled with candid sexuality and sensuous description that resonated with readers around the world.

Neruda’s international fame led to a series of diplomatic posts, and he eventually landed in Spain, where he served as consul in the mid-1930s during the Spanish Civil War. He became a committed communist, and helped relocate hundreds of fleeing Spaniards to Chile. Neruda came to believe that “the work of art” is “inseparable from historical and political context,” writes author Salvatore Bizzarro, and he “felt that the belief that one could write solely for eternity was romantic posturing.”

Yet his lifelong devotion to “revolutionary ideals,” as Stavans says, did not undermine his devotion to poetry, nor did it blinker his writing with what we might call political correctness. Instead, Neruda became more expansive, taking on such subjects as the “entire history of Latin America” in his 1950 epic Canto General.

Neruda died of cancer just weeks after fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power from elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. Today, he remains a beloved figure for activists, his lines “recited at protests and marches worldwide.” And he remains a literary giant, respected, admired, and adored worldwide for work in which he engaged the struggles of the people with the same passionate intensity and imaginative breadth he brought to personal poems of love, loss, and desire.

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

A 9th Century Manuscript Teaches Astronomy by Making Sublime Pictures Out of Words

Concrete or visual poetry does not get much respect these days. Tersely defined at the Poetry Foundation as “verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning" arranged to create “a visual image of the topic,” the form looks like a clever but frivolous novelty in our very serious times. It has seemed so in times past as well.

When Guillaume Apollinaire published his 1918 Calligrammes, his major collection of poems after he fought on the front lines of the first world war, he included several visual poems. Critics like Louis Aragon, “at his most hard-nosed,” notes Stephen Romer at The Guardian, “criticized it sharply for its aestheticism and frivolity.”




Apollinaire also wrote of war as a dazzling spectacle, a tendency that “raised the hackles of critics.” One can see there is moral merit to the objection, even if it misreads Apollinaire. But why should visual poetry not credibly illustrate phenomena we find sublime, just as well as it illustrates potted Christmas trees?

Indeed, the form has always done so, argues prolific visual poet Karl Kempton, until it took a “dystopian” turn after World War I. In his vast history of visual poetry, Kempton reaches back into ancient Buddhist, Sufi, European, and Indigenous cultural history. Forms of visual poetry, he writes, “are associated with ongoing traditions and numerous unfolding pathways traceable to humankind’s earliest surviving communication marks.”

Not as ancient as the examples into which Kempton first dives, the pages here from a manuscript called the Aratea nonetheless show us a use of the form that dates back over 1000 years, and incorporates “nearly 2000 years of cultural history,” writes the Public Domain Review. “Making use of two Roman texts on astronomy written in the 1st century BC, the manuscript was created in Northern France in about 1820.”

The text that has been arranged into images wasn’t originally poetry, though one might argue that arranging it thus makes us read it that way. Instead, the words are taken from Hyginus’ Astronomica, a “star atlas and book of stories” of somewhat uncertain origin. The poems in lined verse below each image are by 3rd century BC Greek poet Aratus (hence the title), “translated into Latin by young Cicero.”

If this feels like hefty material for a literary production that might seem more whimsical than awe-inspiring, we must consider that the manuscript’s first—and necessarily few—readers would have seen it differently. The text is a visual mnemonic device, the red dots showing the positions of the stars in the constellations: an aesthetic pedagogy that threads together visual perception, memory, imagination, and cognition.

“The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page,” the Public Domain Review writes, “and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words nor the images would make full sense without the other to complete the scene.” We are encouraged to read the stars through art and literature and to read poetry with an illustrated mythological star chart in hand.

The Aratea is a fascinating manuscript not only for its visually poetic illuminations, but also for its significance across several spans of time. Its physical existence is necessarily tied to the British Library where it resides. One of the institution’s first artifacts, it was “sold to the nation in 1752 under the same Act of Parliament which created the British Museum.”

“Part of a larger miscellany of scientific works,” including several notes and commentaries on natural philosophy, as the British Library describes it, the medieval text uses classical sources to contemplate the heavens in a form that is not only pre-Christian and pre-Roman, but perhaps, as Kempton argues, dates to the origins of writing itself.

via The Public Domain Review

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

Joy Harjo, Newly-Appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Reads Her Poems, “Remember,” “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” “An American Sunrise” and More

In Carolyn Forché’s stunning new memoir, What You Have Heard is True, the poet and activist makes a sad observation about poetry in America. When it is “mentioned in the American press, if it is mentioned, the story begins with ‘Poetry doesn’t matter,’ or ‘No one reads poetry.’ No matter what is said. It doesn’t matter.”

But of course, Forché believed poetry mattered a great deal—that we need it in the struggle “against forgetting,” a phrase she took from Milan Kundera for the title of an anthology of the “poetry of witness.” Poets resist injustice and inhumanity, she says “by virtue of recuperating from the human soul its natural prayer and consciousness.”




Such a poet is Joy Harjo, newly appointed Poet Laureate in the United States, the first Native American woman to hold the post. Harjo asks us to remember—to remember especially that the grand sweep of history cannot sever us from the natural world of which we are an inextricable part, and which is itself the source of “the dance language is.”

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have 
      their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to 
      them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.

The stargazing, tree-hugging exhortations in “Remember” are radical statements in every sense of the word. Maybe poetry doesn’t matter much to most Americans. We cannot, as William Carlos Williams wrote, “get the news from poems,” and our hunger for fresh news is never sated. But maybe what we find in poetry is far better suited to saving our lives, offering a release, for example, from fear, as Harjo speak/sings in her charismatic performance from HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2002.

Harjo remembers the horrors her ancestors endured, and tells the fear that followed through the centuries, “I release you. You were my beloved and hated twin. But now I don’t know you as myself.” A member of the Muskoke/Creek Nation, Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1978. She went on to publish several books of poetry and nonfiction and win multiple prestigious awards while also performing poetry across the country and playing saxophone with her band Poetic Justice.

Her soulful delivery conveys a fundamentally American experience of the struggle against erasure, a struggle against power that is waged, as Kundera wrote, with the weapon of remembering. Echoing Langston Hughes, Harjo weaves the story of her community back into the country's past and its present—a story that includes within it demands for justice that will not be forgotten. Poetry should matter far more to us than it does. But those who hear the country’s newest Laureate may find she is exactly the fearless voice we need to remind us of our unavoidable connections to the past, the earth, and our responsibilities to each other.

Harjo stopped by the Academy of American Poets this month in celebration of her appointment. Just above, see her read “An American Sunrise.” “We are still America,” she says, “We / know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die / soon.”

These reading will be added to the Poetry section of our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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

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