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

Watch Patti Smith’s New Tribute to the Avant-Garde Poet Antonin Artaud

The force of Artaud, you couldn’t kill him! - Patti Smith

Found sound enthusiasts Soundwalk Collective join forces with the Godmother of Punk Patti Smith for "Ivry," the musical tribute to poet and theatermaker Antonin Artaud, above.

The track, featuring Smith’s hypnotic improvised narration, alternately spoken and sung over Tarahumara guitars, Chapareke snare drums, and Chihuahua bells from Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara, the region that provided the setting for Artaud’s autobiographical The Peyote Dance, has the soothing quality of lullabies from such popular children’s music Folk Revivalists as Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes.

We’d refrain from showing the kiddies this video, though, especially at bedtime.




It begins innocently enough with mirror images of the beautiful Artaud—as the Dean of Rouen in 1928’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and later in the private psychiatric clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine where he ended his days.

Things get much rougher in the final moments, as befits the founder of the Theater of Cruelty, an avant-garde performance movement that employed scenes of horrifying violence to shock the audience out of their presumed complacency.

Nothing quite so hairy as Artaud’s virtually unproduceable short play, Jet of Blood—or, for that matter, Game of Thrones—but we all remember what happened to Joan of Arc, right? (Not to mention the grisly fate of the many peasants whose names history fails to note...)

In-between is footage of indigenous Rarámuri (or Tarahumara) tribespeople enacting traditional rituals—the mirrors on their headdresses and the filmmakers’ use of reflective symmetry honoring their belief that the afterlife mirrors the mortal world.

"Ivry" is the penultimate track on a brand new Artaud-themed album, also titled The Peyote Dance, which delves into the impulse toward expanded vision that propelled the artist to Mexico in the 1930s.

Prior to bringing Smith into the studio, members of Soundwalk Collective revisited Artaud’s journey through that country (including a cave in which he once lived), amassing stones, sand, leaves, and handmade Rarámuri instruments to “awaken the landscape’s sleeping memories and uncover the space’s sonic grammar.”

This mission is definitely in keeping with Smith’s practice of making pilgrimages and collecting relics.

The Peyote Dance is the first entry in a triptych titled The Perfect Vision. Tune in later this year to travel to Ethiopia’s Abyssinian valley in consideration of another Smith favorite, poet Arthur Rimbaud, and the Indian Himalayas, in honor of spiritual Surrealist René Daumal, whose allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing ended in mid-sentence, when he died at 36 from the effects of tuberculosis (and, quite possibly, youthful experiments with such psychoactive chemicals as carbon tetrachloride.)

You can order Soundwalk Collective’s album, The Peyote Dance, which also features the work of actor Gael García Bernal, here.

via BoingBoing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

Philosophers have always distrusted language for its slipperiness, its overuse, its propensity to deceive. Yet many of those same critics have devised the most inventive terms to describe things no one had ever seen. The Philosopher’s Stone, the aether, miasmas—images that made the ineffable concrete, if still invisibly gaseous.

It's important for us to see the myriad ways our common language fails to capture the complexity of reality, ordinary and otherwise. Ask any poet, writer, or language teacher to tell you about it—most of the words we use are too abstract, too worn out, decayed, or rusty. Maybe it takes either a poet or a philosopher to not only notice the many problems with language, but to set about remedying them.




Such are the qualities of the mind behind The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project by graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig. The blog, YouTube channel, and soon-to-be book from Simon & Schuster has a simple premise: it identifies emotional states without names, and offers both a poetic term and a philosopher’s skill at precise definition. Whether these words actually enter the language almost seems beside the point, but so many of them seem badly needed, and perfectly crafted for their purpose.

Take one of the most popular of these, the invented word “Sonder,” which describes the sudden realization that everyone has a story, that “each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” This shock can seem to enlarge or diminish us, or both at the same time. Psychologists may have a term for it, but ordinary speech seemed lacking.

Sonder likely became as popular as it did on social media because the theme “we’re all living connected stories” already resonates with so much popular culture. Many of the Dictionary’s other terms trend far more unambiguously melancholy, if not neurotic—hence “obscure sorrows.” But they also range considerably in tone, from the relative lightness of Greek-ish neologism “Anecdoche”—"a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening”—to the majorly depressive “pâro”:

the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, “colder, colder, colder…”

Both the coinages and the definitions illuminate each other. Take "Énouement," defined as “the bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.” A psychology of aging in the form of an eloquent dictionary entry. Sometimes the relationship is less subtle, but still magical, as in the far from sorrowful “Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.”

Sometimes, it is not a word but a phrase that speaks most poignantly of emotions that we know exist but cannot capture without deadening clichés. “Moment of Tangency” speaks poignantly of a metaphysical philosophy in verse. Like Sonder, this phrase draws on an image of interconnectedness. But rather than taking a perspective from within—from solipsism to empathy—it takes the point of view of all possible realities.

Watch the video for "Vemödalen: The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done" up top. See several more short films from the project here, including “Silience: The Brilliant Artistry Hidden All Around You”—if, that is, we could only pay attention to it. Below, find 23 other entries describing emotions people feel, but can’t explain.

1. Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
2. Opia: The ambiguous intensity of Looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
3. Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
4 Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
5. Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.
6. Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
7. Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
8. Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
9. Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
10. Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.
11. Vemödalen: The frustration of photographic something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.
12. Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
13. Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
14. Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
15. Lachesism: The desire to be struck by disaster – to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire.
16. Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
17. Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
18. Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
19. Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
20. Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.
21. Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
22. Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
23. Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

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

Billy Collins Teaches Poetry in a New Online Course

In its latest release, Masterclass has launched a new course, "Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry," which they describe in the trailer above and the text below. You can sign up here. The cost is $90. Or pay $180 and get an annual pass to their entire catalogue of courses covering a wide range of subjects--everything from filmmaking (Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese), to acting (Helen Mirren) and creative writing (Margaret Atwood), to taking photographs (Annie Leibovitz) and writing plays (David Mamet). Each course is taught by an eminent figure in their field.

Known for his wit, humor, and profound insight, Billy is one of the best-selling and most beloved contemporary poets in the United States. He regularly sells out poetry readings, frequently charms listeners on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, and his work has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and periodicals around the world.

Called “America’s Favorite Poet” by the Wall Street Journal, Billy served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and is also a former New York State Poet Laureate. He’s been honored with the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry and a number of prestigious fellowships. He’s taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, and he’s also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York. Now he’s teaching his first-ever MasterClass.

In his MasterClass on Reading and Writing Poetry, Billy teaches you the building blocks of poems and their unique power to connect reader and writer. From subject and form to rhyme and meter, learn to appreciate the pleasures of a well-turned poem. Discover Billy’s philosophy on the craft of poetry and learn how he creates a poet’s persona, incorporates humor, and lets imagination lead the way. By breaking down his own approach to composing poetry and enjoying the work of others, Billy invites students to explore the gifts poetry has to offer.

In this online poetry class, you’ll learn about:
• Using humor as a serious strategy
• The fundamental elements of poetry
• Billy’s writing process
• Turning a poem
• Exploring subjects
• Rhyme and meter
• Sound pleasures
• Finding your voice
• Using form to engage readers
• The visual distinctions of poetry

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.




But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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

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