Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

It’s quite profound, isn’t it? - Helen Fagin, aged 100

Every time I open my laptop to discover a friend posting a vintage photo of their parent as a beaming bride or saucy sailor boy in lush black and white or gold-tinged Kodachrome, I know the deal.

Another elder has left the building.

With luck, I’ll have at least two or three decades before my kids start sniffing around in my shoe boxes of old snapshots.

In the meantime, I’ll wonder how much of the emotion that’s packed into those memorial postings gets expressed to the subject in the days leading up to their final exit.

Seems like most of us pussyfoot around the obvious until it’s too late.

There are, of course, medical situations that force us to acknowledge in a loved one's presence the abyss in their immediate future, but otherwise, Western tradition has positioned us to shy away from those sorts of discussions.

Perhaps our loved ones prefer it that way.

Perhaps we do too.

It’s clear that author Neil Gaiman enjoys a special relationship with his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor and professor of literature.

He has shared memories of her with those attending his public appearances and in honor of World Refugee Day.

His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, included a verse about Helen’s 98th birthday in her song "A Mother’s Confession," below, fleshing out the lyrics with footnotes on her blog.

In celebration of Helen’s centenary, Palmer asked Brain Picking’s Maria Popova to recommend a poem that Gaiman could read aloud during another in-person birthday visit.

Popova settled on "How It Seems To Me," a late-in-life poem by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, a close friend of Gaiman’s who died in January of 2018, 12 years shy of her own centenary:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME

In the vast abyss before time, self

is not, and soul commingles

with mist, and rock, and light. In time,

soul brings the misty self to be.

Then slow time hardens self to stone

while ever lightening the soul,

till soul can loose its hold of self

and both are free and can return

to vastness and dissolve in light,

the long light after time.

It’s a hell of a hundredth birthday gift, though far from a one-size-fits all proposition.

Perhaps when you are a nonagenarian, you’d rather the young people err on the side of tradition with a comfy new robe.

There are octogenarian birthday boys and girls who’d pick an African violet over the misty self, tricky to keep alive though they may be.

As filmed by Palmer, Helen seemed to receive the gift in the spirit it was intended. Life equipped her for it.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Mary Oliver (RIP) Read Five of Her Poems: “The Summer Day,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Many Miles” and “Night and the River”

Poets get to have strong opinions about what poetry should be and do, especially poets as well-loved as Mary Oliver, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she told NPR in an interview, “It mustn’t be fancy…. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” Oliver’s Zen approach to her art cut right to the heart of things and honored natural, unpretentious expression. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in “The Summer Day,” “I do know how to pay attention.”

For Oliver that meant giving careful heed to the natural world, shearing away abstraction and obfuscation. She grew up in Ohio, and during a painful childhood walked through the woods for solace, where she began writing her first poems.

She became an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as Maxine Kumin wrote, and at the same time, to the spiritual. She has been compared to Emerson and wrote “about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and worst of all, God,” Ruth Franklin remarks with irony in a New Yorker review of the poet’s last, 2017 book, Devotions. But, like Emerson, Oliver was not a writer of any orthodoxy or creed.

Oliver’s approach to the spiritual is always rooted firmly in the natural. Spirit, she writes, “needs the body’s world… to be more than pure light / that burns / where no one is.” She was beloved by millions, by teachers, writers, and celebrities. (She was once interviewed by Maria Shriver in an issue of magazine; Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan). Oliver was long the country’s best-selling poet, as Dwight Garner blithely writes at The New York Times. But “she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics,” Franklin points out. This despite the fact that she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth book, American Primitiveand a National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems.

The word “earnest” comes up often as faint praise in reviews of Oliver’s poetry (Garner tidily sums up her work as “earnest poems about nature”). The implication is that her poems are slight, simple, unrefined. This perhaps inevitably happens to accessible poets who become famous in life, but it is also a serious misreading. Oliver's work is full of paradoxes, ambiguities, and the hard wisdom of a mature moral vision. She is “among the few American poets,” critic Alicia Ostriker writes, “who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” In her work, she faces suffering with “cold, sharp eyes,” confronting “steadily,” Ostriker goes on, “what she cannot change.”

Her poems have included “historical and personal suffering,” but more often she engages the life and death going on all around us, which we rarely take notice of at all. She peers into the darkness of hermit crab shells, she feeds a grasshopper sugar from the palm of her hand, watching the creature’s “jaws back and forth instead of up and down.” Oliver often wrote about the constant reminders of death in life in poems like “Death at a Great Distance” and “When Death Comes.” She wrote just as often about how astonishing it is to be alive when we make deep connections with the natural world.

“When it’s over,” Oliver writes in "When Death Comes," ” I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” The cost of not paying attention, she suggests, is to be a tourist in one’s own life and to never be at home. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world." In the videos here, see and hear Oliver read “The Summer Day,” “Wild Geese,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Night and the River” (above) and "Many Miles."

Oliver was an artist, says Franklin, “interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” and in her work she will continue to inspire her readers to do the same. These readings will be added to our collection, 900 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

Why Is English So Hard to Learn?: The Ingenious Poem, “The Chaos,” Documents 800 Irregularities in English Spelling and Pronunciation

In 1920, Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité, also known as Charivarius, published a textbook called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. In the appendix, he included a poem titled “The Chaos,” a virtuoso, tongue-twisting demonstration of somewhere around 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. No one now remembers the textbook, and the poem might have disappeared too were it not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of it through “France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.”

The poem's history, as told in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it traveled around Europe, in pieces, confounding and bedeviling aspiring English speakers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sounded the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stanzas may be the most clever and comprehensive “concordance of cacographic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by linguists and historians of English, it has, since its 1994 republication, become something of a cult hit for enthusiasts of language everywhere.

You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindybeige, and see a transcription into IPA, the international phonetic alphabet. Though it's popularly represented as a kind of sorting mechanism for “the English-Speaking Elite,” that’s hardly accurate. English once sounded like this and this, then like this, and now sounds completely different according to hundreds of regional dialects and accents around the world. The society gestures toward this in their introduction, writing, “the selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s readers.”

“How many will know what a ‘studding-sail’ is, or that its nautical pronunciation is ‘stunsail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems reasonable to wonder how many people ever did. In any case, English, Lindybeige writes, “is a rapidly-changing language,” and one that has not made much phonetic sense for several centuries. This is exactly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both English language learners and native speakers. Try your hand at reading every word in “The Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.

via Mental Floss/The Poke

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

How Emily Dickinson Writes A Poem: A Short Video Introduction

It became fashionable during the European Renaissance for poets to write what is called an ars poetica, a “meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem.” The form follows Horace’s 19th century, B.C.E. Ars Poetica, in which the Roman writer recommends that poetry should both “instruct and delight.”

Theories of poetry varied from one generation to the next, but the ars poetica persisted throughout modern literary history and into the modernism of Archibald Macleish, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, all of whom issued magisterial dicta about poetry that has stuck to it ever since.

“A poem should be motionless in time / As the moon climbs,” writes Macleish in his “Ars Poetica,” famously concluding, “A poem should not mean / But be.” In Moore’s “Poetry,” which she revised throughout her life, finally whittling it down to just three lines, she writes of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

Such cryptic images and elliptical aphorisms enact ambiguity as they prescribe it, but they make perfectly clear they are making critical judgments about the art of poetry. Then we have Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1263), a poem that serves as her ars poetica, argues Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, in his video essay above, but purports on its surface to be about truth, capital "T."

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Rarely is Dickinson so “direct,” says Puschak. “Known for ambiguity, odd manipulations in meter and rhyme” and “images that seem mysterious and sometimes out of place,” she wrote “poetry brimming with slant truth, poetry that’s seemingly laid out here, in perfect meter and matching rhymes.” The poem’s message is restated four times, from the thesis in the first line to the simile of the final four. “The meaning could not be more clear,” says Puschak.

But no, of course it's not. A poem is not a manual or manifesto. Like those poems more explicitly about poetry, this one enacts the ambiguity it prescribes. Are we, for example, to “tell all the truth” as in “the whole truth?” or as in “tell everyone the truth”? Does “success” lie "in circuit" like a patient lies on a table? Or does it tell lies, like, well… like poetry? Does the word “circuit” refer to an uncertain, circuitous path? Or, as one critic has suggested, to “circumference” (a term Dickinson used to refer to one’s lifespan or proper sphere)?

The next couplet, whose reference to “infirm Delight” may or may not take Horace to task, pushes us further out to sea when we begin to read it carefully. What is this truth that can be told, slanted, but also comes as a “surprise,” like lightning—terrible, sudden, and blinding? Is this a poem about “Truth” or about poetry?

In the final, heavily truncated, version of “Poetry,” Marianne Moore concedes, grumpily, that “one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” As Dickinson’s poem demonstrates, trying to find a “place” in poetry for any stable meaning may be impossible. Still she insists that truth should “dazzle gradually,” an oxymoronic phrase, says Puschak, but it's as evocative, if more abstract, as real toads in made-up gardens—both are paradoxical means of describing what poetry does.

Dickinson realized that her poem “had to be the philosophy... that feeling of the text being destabilized from within, oscillating from meaning to the negation of that meaning.” Truth is inexpressible, perhaps inaccessible, and maybe even fatal. Yet it may strike us, nonetheless, in the dazzling ambiguities of poetry.

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

Celebrate Emily Dickinson’s 188th Birthday with Her Own Cake Recipes: Coconut Cake, Gingerbread, Doughnuts & More

Happy Emily Dickinson Day!

What are you doing to celebrate the poet’s 188th birthday?

The Emily Dickinson Museum took advantage of the weekend to celebrate the occasion a couple of days early with Victorian crafts, readings, festive piano music, a display exploring the Dickinson family's gift-giving tradition, and slices of coconut cake, baked from the birthday girl’s own recipe.

Given the Belle’s penchant for home-baked goodies, we’re dispensing with the more high-minded endeavors to concentrate on the sweet side of this literary holiday.

LitHub reports that

...whenever Dickinson saw children playing in her family gardens, “she headed for the pantry, filled a basket with cookies or slices of cake—often gingerbread—carried it upstairs to a window in the rear of the house (so their mothers wouldn’t see), and attached the basket to a rope to slowly lower it to the “storm-tossed, starving pirates” or the “lost, roaming circus performers” eagerly waiting below.

Truly, we owe it to her to return the favor.

Shall we start with some Emily Dickinson doughnuts?

Like many experienced home cooks of the period, Dickinson’s instructions are a bit vague. She seems to have gotten the recipe from an acquaintance named Kate, jotting down measurements and ingredients, after which, she knew what to do.

If you’ve never worked with yeast before, you might want to proceed straight to her Black Cake recipe…

Or not. You may have 5 pounds of raisins on hand, but this is no spur-of-the-moment recipe.

As librarians Heather Cole, Emilie Hardman, and Emily Walhout demonstrate below, this whopper needs to spend 3 weeks wrapped in a brandy-soaked cheesecloth after it comes out of the oven.

Onward then to Miss Dickinson’s gingerbread.

As if those with December birthdays aren’t overshadowed enough by the tyranny of Christmas! Must their special day’s cake flavor be dictated by that big gorilla too? (For those who say yes, Rosa Lillo of Pemberley Cup and Cakes breaks the recipe down 21st-century style, adding a simple icing sugar glaze and an embossed floral pattern.)

Perhaps that famous coconut cake really is the best choice for observing Emily Dickinson Day.

See if you can detect a note of inspiration in that buttery flavor. As was her habit, Dickinson flipped the scrap of paper on which she’d listed the ingredients, and pencilled in the beginnings of a poem:

The Things that never can come back, are several —

Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —

Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —

And still abide —

We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,

Their Routes are fair —

But think enlarged of all that they will tell us

Returning here —

"Here!" There are typic "Heres" —

Foretold Locations —

The Spirit does not stand —

Himself — at whatsoever Fathom

His Native Land —

Those whose Emily Dickinson Day gift giving list includes a poetry lover / amateur cook may wish to stuff their stockings with a copy of the 1976 book Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook with Selected Recipes.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and tonight, as the host of the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Dylan Thomas Recite His Classic Poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

When Dylan Thomas was a little boy his father would read Shakespeare to him at bedtime. The boy loved the sound of the words, even if he was too young to understand the meaning. His father, David John Thomas, taught English at a grammar school in southern Wales but wanted to be a poet. He was bitterly disappointed with his station in life.

Many years later when the father lay on his deathbed, Dylan Thomas wrote a poem that captures the profound sense of empathy he felt for the dying old man. The poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night," was written in 1951, only two years before the poet's own untimely death at the age of 39. Despite the impossibility of escaping death, the anguished son implores his father to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

The poem is a beautiful example of the villanelle form, which features two rhymes and two alternating refrains in verse arranged into five tercets, or three-lined stanzas, and a concluding quatrain in which the two refrains are brought together as a couplet at the very end. You can hear Thomas's famous 1952 recital of the poem above. To see the poem's structure and read along as you listen, click here to open the text in a new window.

And to hear more of Thomas reciting his own works (and more), please visit our prior post 8 Glorious Hours of Dylan Thomas Reading Poetry–His Own & Others’.

All poems have been added to our collection of Free Audio Books.

Note: an earlier version of this post originally appeared on our site in August 2012.

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Hear Langston Hughes Read His Poetry Over Original Compositions by Charles Mingus & Leonard Feather: A Classic Collaboration from 1958

Have you looked up Charles Mingus lately? You should. Mingus, who died in 1979, has a “lost” album coming out—live recordings made in ‘73, aired on the radio once, then disappeared into obscurity until now. Seems there’s always something new to learn about our favorite jazz musicians—and our favorite jazz poets. Newly-discovered poems from Langston Hughes, for example, appeared a few years back, written in “depths of the crisis” of the Great Depression.

These poems are dark and bitter, “some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American,” writes Hughes scholar Arnold Rampersad. They are not the celebratory Hughes we read in school. While angry conservatives and McCarthyism may have forced this side of him into hiding, in Hughes’ view, poetry, like jazz, had room for everything, whether it be love or rage.

“Jazz is a great big sea,” he wrote in his 1956 essay “Jazz as Communication.” The music “washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” His task, in poems like “The Weary Blues” had been to put “jazz into words,” with all of its wild mood swings, lovers' quarrels, rapid-fire conversations, and heated arguments.

Throughout his career, Mingus had been moving in the other direction, taking storms of ideas—angry, melancholy, joyful, etc.—and turning them into sounds. But his music, always “supremely vocal,” notes The Nation’s Adam Shatz, spoke in one way or another. Mingus “collaborated with poets in East Village Coffeehouses” and won his only Grammy for a piece of writing, the liner notes for his 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music.

For Mingus, critic Whitney Balliett remarked, jazz “was another way of talking.” For another composer, pianist and journalist Leonard Feather, language and music played equal roles. Feather, notes Jason Ankeny, was known both as “the acknowledged dean of American jazz critics” and author of “perennial” standards “Evil Gal Blues,” “Blowtop Blues,” and “How Blue Can You Get?”

Two years after Hughes read “Jazz as Communication” at the Newport Jazz Festival, he collaborated with Feather’s All-Star Sextet and Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet on an album first released as The Weary Blues. It has recently been re-released by Fingertips as Harlem in Vogue—22 tracks of Hughes reading poems like “The Weary Blues,” “Blues at Dawn,” and “Same in Blues/Comment on Curb” (top) over original compositions by Feather and Mingus, with six additional tracks of Hughes reading solo and two original songs by Bob Dorough with the Bob Dorough Quintet. (Mingus plays bass on tracks 11-18.)

You can stream the album in full above (and buy it here). Here, listen to the Poetry Foundation’s Curtis Fox, jazz musician Charley Gerard, and poet Holly Bass discuss the record and Hughes’ relationship to jazz and blues. Hughes’ poems, notes Gerard, are “structured just like blues,” their meters, rhymes, and rhythms always invoking the sounds of Harlem’s musical scene. In these recordings, Feather and Mingus transpose Hughes’ language into music, just as he had turned jazz into words.

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

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