Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

Court Green, the rur­al Devon prop­er­ty Sylvia Plath called home for six­teen months toward the end of her life is a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age for Plathophiles, seek­ing to wor­ship at the well­spring of some of her best known poems — The Bee Meet­ing, Dad­dy, Lady Lazarus, and many oth­er works posthu­mous­ly pub­lished in 1965’s Ariel.

(Her ex-hus­band Ted Hugh­es wrote his col­lec­tion, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by sui­cide. Some­thing tells us his wid­ow, Car­ol, a staunch defend­er of her husband’s lega­cy, doesn’t exact­ly roll out the wel­come mat when she sees star­ry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromp­ing around the perime­ter of the prop­er­ty where she still lives…)

Plath schol­ar Dor­ka Tamás made the trip to St. Peter’s, the North Taw­ton church abut­ting Court Green. Plath took plea­sure in describ­ing its grounds in let­ters to friends and fam­i­ly, and immoratl­ized its mas­sive yew in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

I looked around the Vic­to­ri­an grave­stones, slow­ly pass­ing the souls of the dead. The beau­ti­ful green trees could not con­trast more with the Neo-goth­ic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was search­ing for the win­dow of Court Green, Plath’s office win­dow, from which she could have an expan­sive view of the yew…North Taw­ton has been an ambigu­ous place for both Plath and Plathi­ans. In the year she spent in the iso­lat­ed vil­lage, she pro­duced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she expe­ri­enced extreme iso­la­tion after Hugh­es left her. Nev­er­the­less, the coun­try life pro­vid­ed plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties for Plath to explore her cre­ative, aes­thet­ic, and domes­tic inde­pen­dence, such as horse rid­ing in the field of Devon, exper­i­ment­ing with bee­keep­ing, paint­ing her children’s nurs­ery elbow chair, and mak­ing apple pie from the apples of her gar­den. The poet­ry and fic­tion Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and win­ter 1962 are embed­ded in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in Devon and com­mu­ni­ty, places, and non-human life of North Taw­ton. 

Poet David Trinidad, an avid col­lec­tor of Plath-relat­ed mem­o­ra­bil­ia, whose sou­venirs include a vial of dust from the stu­dio she occu­pied dur­ing a res­i­den­cy at Yad­do and a fac­sim­i­le of a blue pat­terned Lib­er­ty of Lon­don scarf she gave her moth­er dur­ing a 1962 vis­it to Court Green, prizes his cut­tings from St. Peter’s yew:

Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on Octo­ber 22, 1961, less than two months after mov­ing to Court Green. Every­thing in the poem is true: her prop­er­ty was sep­a­rat­ed from an adja­cent church by a row of head­stones; on Sun­day eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church grave­yard. …She doesn’t men­tion the yew tree specif­i­cal­ly in any of her let­ters; she saved that for the poem.

God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith, whose sou­venirs run more toward Polaroids, wrote of vis­it­ing Plath’s grave in her mem­oir, M Train, and iden­ti­fies the poet as some­one who makes her want to write.

Her per­for­mance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straight­for­ward than Plathi­an, allow­ing the dark­ness of the work–which The Mar­gin­a­lian’s Maria Popo­va calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant por­traits of depres­sion in the his­to­ry of literature”–to speak for itself.

As Popo­va notes, the poem was writ­ten dur­ing a dif­fi­cult peri­od, in an attempt to ful­fill a writ­ing exer­cise sug­gest­ed by Hugh­es, “to sim­ply describe what she saw in the Goth­ic church­yard out­side her win­dow.”

Who would dare fault Plath for obey­ing the impulse to edi­to­ri­al­ize a bit?

The New York­er had accept­ed but not yet pub­lished “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on Feb­ru­ary 11, 1963. It was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in a two-page spread along with five oth­er poems six months lat­er. You can read it online here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in a 1962 Record­ing

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

How John Keats Writes a Poem: A Line-by-Line Breakdown of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The Greek term ekphra­sis sounds rather exot­ic if you sel­dom come across it, but it refers to an act in which we’ve all engaged at one time or anoth­er: that is, describ­ing a work of art. The best ekphras­es make that descrip­tion as vivid as pos­si­ble, to the point where it becomes a work of art in itself. The Eng­lish lan­guage offers no bet­ter-known exam­ple of ekphras­tic poet­ry than John Keats’ “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn,” from 1819, which pulls off the neat trick of tak­ing both its sub­ject and its genre from the same ancient cul­ture — among oth­er virtues, of course, sev­er­al of which are explained by Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video above, “How John Keats Writes a Poem.”

Puschak calls “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” “arguably the best poem from arguably the best roman­tic poet,” then launch­es into a line-by-line exe­ge­sis, iden­ti­fy­ing the tech­niques Keats employs in its con­struc­tion. “The speak­er craves the ide­al, ever­last­ing love depict­ed on and sym­bol­ized by the urn,” he says. “But the way he express­es him­self — well, it’s almost embar­rass­ing, even hys­ter­i­cal, fever­ish.”

Keats uses com­pul­sive-sound­ing rep­e­ti­tion of words like hap­py and for­ev­er to “com­mu­ni­cate some­thing about the speak­er that runs counter to his words. It reminds me of those times when you hear some­one insist on how hap­py they are, but you know they’re just try­ing to will that fact into exis­tence by speak­ing it.”

In the course of the poem, “the speak­er begins to doubt his own crav­ings for the per­ma­nence of art. Is it real­ly as per­fect as he imag­ines?” Through­out, “he’s looked to the urn, to art, to assuage his despair about life,” a task to which it final­ly proves not quite equal. “In life, things change and fade, but they’re real. In art, things may be eter­nal, but they’re life­less.” The famous final lines of “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” arrive at the con­clu­sion that “beau­ty is truth, truth beau­ty,” and how lit­er­al an inter­pre­ta­tion to grant it remains a mat­ter of debate. It may not real­ly be all we know on Earth, nor even all we need to know, but the fact that we’re still argu­ing about it two cen­turies lat­er speaks to the pow­er of art — as well as art about art.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” and Oth­er Great Works by Shake­speare, Dante & Coleridge

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Reads Shakespeare’s Oth­el­lo and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” (1940)

Learn to Write Through a Video Game Inspired by the Roman­tic Poets: Shel­ley, Byron, Keats

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Watch Iggy Pop Perform Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Stooges, only Iggy Pop still lives. He has by now sur­vived a great many oth­er cul­tur­al fig­ures who came up from the under­ground and into promi­nence through rock music in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties. And not only is he still alive, he’s still putting out albums: his most recent, Every Los­er, came out just this past Jan­u­ary. It fol­lowed Free, from 2019, which includes his read­ing of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” — an idea, Aman­da Petru­sich notes in a con­tem­po­rary New York­er pro­file, that came “after an adver­tis­ing agency asked him to read the poem for a com­mer­cial voice-over.”

“At first, I resist­ed,” Pop says to Petru­sich. “I’m not in junior high.” Indeed, as a vehi­cle for the expres­sion of one’s own world­view, “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” feels about one rung up from “The Road Not Tak­en.”

Petru­sich acknowl­edges that “the poem has grown increas­ing­ly mean­ing­less over time, hav­ing been repeat­ed and adapt­ed to so many inane cir­cum­stances. Yet if you can shake off its famil­iar­i­ty the cen­tral idea — that a per­son should live vig­or­ous­ly, unapolo­get­i­cal­ly — remains ger­mane.” Pop’s dis­tinc­tive Mid­west­ern voice, made hag­gard but res­o­nant by decade after decade of punk-rock rig­ors, also imbues it with an unex­pect­ed vital­i­ty.

It may sur­prise those who know Pop main­ly through his brazen onstage antics of half a cen­tu­ry ago that it would occur to him to read a poem at all. In fact, he’s a man of many and var­ied lit­er­ary inter­ests, hav­ing also per­formed the work of Walt Whit­man and Edgar Allan Poe, writ­ten about Edward Gib­bon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and made a film with Michel Houelle­becq (whose nov­els inspired Pop’s 2009 album Prélim­i­naires). All of this while he has kept on show­ing us, both on records and in live per­for­mances, how prop­er­ly to rage, rage — against the dying of the light, and much else besides.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” Per­formed by John Cale (and Pro­duced by Bri­an Eno)

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Sir Antho­ny Hop­kins Reads Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night”

Iggy Pop Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ry “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Dylan Thomas Sketch­es a Car­i­ca­ture of a Drunk­en Dylan Thomas

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

What People Named Their Cats in the Middle Ages: Gyb, Mite, Méone, Pangur Bán & More

“The Nam­ing of Cats is a dif­fi­cult mat­ter,” declares the open­ing poem in Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats by T. S. Eliot. But the pos­si­bil­i­ties are many and var­ied: “Peter, Augus­tus, Alon­zo or James”; “Pla­to, Adme­tus, Elec­tra, Deme­ter”; “Munkus­trap, Quaxo, or Cori­co­pat.” Things must have been  less com­pli­cat­ed in the Mid­dle Ages, when you could just call a cat Gyb and be done with it. “The short­ened form of the male name Gilbert, Gyb” explains Kath­leen Walk­er-Meik­le in Medieval Cats, dates as “a pop­u­lar name for indi­vid­ual pet cats” at least back to the late four­teenth cen­tu­ry.

In a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form, the name even appears in Shake­speare, when Fal­staff describes him­self as “as melan­choly as a gib cat.” Gyb’s equiv­a­lent across the Chanel was Tibers or Tib­ert; the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry French poet Joachim du Bel­lay kept a “beloved gray cat” named Belaud.

Legal texts reveal that the Irish went in for “cat names that refer to the ani­mal’s phys­i­cal appear­ance,” like Méone (“lit­tle meow”), Cruib­ne (“lit­tle paws”), and Bréone (“lit­tle flame”). Walk­er-Meik­le also high­lights Pan­gur Bán, a cat “immor­tal­ized in a ninth-cen­tu­ry poem by an Irish monk.” This hymn to the par­al­lel skills of human and feline begins, in Sea­mus Heaney’s Eng­lish trans­la­tion, as fol­lows:

Pan­gur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine to free the mean­ing pent.

Fre­quent Open Cul­ture read­ers may be remind­ed of the twelfth-cen­tu­ry Chi­nese poet who wrote of being domes­ti­cat­ed by his own cats, vers­es we fea­tured here a few years ago. More recent­ly, we put up a list of 1,065 Medieval dog names, which run the gamut from Gar­lik, Nose­wise, and Hosewife to Horny­ball, Argu­ment, and Filthe. You’ll notice that the names giv­en to dogs in the Mid­dle Ages seem to have been more amus­ing, if less dig­ni­fied, than the ones giv­en to cats. Per­haps this reflects the strong, clear­ly cen­turies-and-cen­turies-old dif­fer­ences between the natures of the ani­mals them­selves, each with its own strengths and weak­ness­es. But what­ev­er our pref­er­ences in that area, who among us could­n’t do with a Pan­gur Bán of our own?


Relat­ed con­tent:

A List of 1,065 Medieval Dog Names: Nose­wise, Gar­lik, Have­g­ood­day & More

Cats in Medieval Man­u­scripts & Paint­ings

Cats in Japan­ese Wood­block Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Ani­mals Came to Star in Its Pop­u­lar Art

T. S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats & Oth­er Clas­sic Poems (75 Min­utes, 1955)

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Otherworldly Art of William Blake: An Introduction to the Visionary Poet and Painter

Giv­en his achieve­ments in the realms of both poet­ry and paint­ing, to say noth­ing of his com­pul­sions to reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal inquiry, it’s tempt­ing to call William Blake a “Renais­sance man.” But he lived in the Eng­land of the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to the near mid-nine­teenth, mak­ing him a Roman­tic Age man — and in fact, accord­ing to the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal view, one of that era’s defin­ing fig­ures. “Today he is rec­og­nized as the most spir­i­tu­al of artists,” say the nar­ra­tor of the video intro­duc­tion above, “and an impor­tant poet in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture.” And whether real­ized on can­vas or in verse, his visions have retained their pow­er over the cen­turies.

That pow­er, how­ev­er, went prac­ti­cal­ly unac­knowl­edged in Blake’s life­time. Most who knew him regard­ed him as some­thing between an eccen­tric and a mad­man, a per­cep­tion his grand­ly mys­ti­cal ideas and vig­or­ous rejec­tion of both insti­tu­tions and con­ven­tions did lit­tle to dis­pel.

Blake did­n’t believe that the world is as we see it. Rather, he sought to access much stranger under­ly­ing truths using his for­mi­da­ble imag­i­na­tion, exer­cised both in his art and in his dreams. Cul­ti­vat­ing this capac­i­ty allows us to “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heav­en in a Wild Flower / Hold Infin­i­ty in the palm of your hand / And Eter­ni­ty in an hour.”

Those words come from one of Blake’s “Auguries of Inno­cence.” Despite being one of his best-known poems, it mere­ly hints at the depth and breadth of his world­view — indeed, his view of all exis­tence. His entire cor­pus, writ­ten, paint­ed, and print­ed, con­sti­tutes a kind of atlas of this rich­ly imag­ined ter­ri­to­ry to which “The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake” pro­vides an overview. Though very much a prod­uct of the time and place in which he lived, Blake clear­ly drew less inspi­ra­tion from the world around him than from the world inside him. Real­i­ty, for him, was to be cul­ti­vat­ed — and rich­ly — with­in his own being. Still today, the chimeri­cal con­vic­tion of his work dares us to cul­ti­vate the real­i­ty with­in our­selves.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fan­tas­ti­cal “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books”: The Images Are Sub­lime, and in High Res­o­lu­tion

William Blake’s Paint­ings Come to Life in Two Ani­ma­tions

William Blake’s Mas­ter­piece Illus­tra­tions of the Book of Job (1793–1827)

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

William Blake Illus­trates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture, Orig­i­nal Sto­ries from Real Life (1791)

William Blake: The Remark­able Print­ing Process of the Eng­lish Poet, Artist & Vision­ary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Maya Angelou Becomes the First Black Woman Featured on a U.S. Quarter

The US Mint announced that it has “begun ship­ping the first coins in the Amer­i­can Women Quar­ters (AWQ) Pro­gram.” And it all starts with the out­stretched arms of poet Maya Angelou grac­ing the reverse of the quar­ter. The Mint writes:

A writer, poet, per­former, social activist, and teacher, Angelou rose to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence as an author after the pub­li­ca­tion of her ground­break­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s pub­lished works of verse, non-fic­tion, and fic­tion include more than 30 best­selling titles. Her remark­able career encom­pass­es dance, the­ater, jour­nal­ism, and social activism. The recip­i­ent of more than 30 hon­orary degrees, Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morn­ing” at the 1992 inau­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton.  Angelou’s read­ing marked the first time an African Amer­i­can woman wrote and pre­sent­ed a poem at a Pres­i­den­tial inau­gu­ra­tion. In 2010, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma award­ed Angelou the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, and she was the 2013 recip­i­ent of the Lit­er­ar­i­an Award, an hon­orary Nation­al Book Award for con­tri­bu­tions to the lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty.

Accord­ing to NPR, oth­er hon­orees in the series will include “astro­naut Sal­ly Ride; actress Anna May Wong; suf­frag­ist and politi­cian Nina Otero-War­ren; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female prin­ci­pal chief of the Chero­kee Nation. The coins fea­tur­ing the oth­er hon­orees will be shipped out this year through 2025.”

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Stamp Get­ting Released by the US Postal Ser­vice

Flan­nery O’Connor to Grace New U.S. Postage Stamp

New Stamp Col­lec­tion Cel­e­brates Six Nov­els by Jane Austen

Watch Laurie Anderson’s Hypnotic Harvard Lecture Series on Poetry, Meditation, Death, New York & More

These days the term mul­ti­me­dia sounds thor­ough­ly passé, like the apoth­e­o­sis of the 1990s tech­no-cul­tur­al buzz­word. But per­haps it also refers to a dimen­sion of art first opened in that era, of a kind in which trend-chasers dab­bled but whose poten­tial they rarely both­ered to prop­er­ly explore. But hav­ing estab­lished her­self as a for­mal­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly dar­ing artist long before the 1990s, Lau­rie Ander­son was ide­al­ly placed to inhab­it the mul­ti­me­dia era. In a way, she’s con­tin­ued to inhab­it it ever since, con­tin­u­al­ly press­ing new audio­vi­su­al plat­forms into the ser­vice of her sig­na­ture qual­i­ties of expres­sion: con­tem­pla­tive, artic­u­late, high­ly digres­sive, and final­ly hyp­not­ic.

Ander­son­’s com­mit­ment to this enter­prise has brought her no few hon­ors. Biogra­phies often men­tion her time as NASA’s first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-res­i­dence; more recent­ly, she was named Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s 2021 Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry. This posi­tion entails the deliv­ery of the Charles Eliot Nor­ton Lec­ture, a series meant to deal with poet­ry “in the broad­est sense,” encom­pass­ing “all poet­ic expres­sion in lan­guage, music, or the fine arts.”

Nor­ton lec­tur­ers pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture include Leonard Bern­stein, Her­bie Han­cock, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I am pret­ty sure that the Nor­ton com­mit­tee at Har­vard made an enor­mous mis­take when they asked me to do this lec­ture series,” Ander­son told the Har­vard Gazette, “and it was real­ly my own sense of the absurd that made me want to say yes.”

Few could seri­ous­ly have doubt­ed Ander­son­’s abil­i­ty to rise to the occa­sion. She did, how­ev­er, face a unique chal­lenge in the his­to­ry of the Nor­ton Lec­tures: deliv­er­ing them on Zoom, that now-ubiq­ui­tous video-con­fer­enc­ing appli­ca­tion of the COVID-19 era. Despite belong­ing to a gen­er­a­tion not all of whose mem­bers demon­strate great pro­fi­cien­cy with such tech­nolo­gies, Ander­son her­self appears to have tak­en to Zoom like the prover­bial duck to water. Such, at least, is the impres­sion giv­en by “Spend­ing the War With­out You: Vir­tu­al Back­grounds,” her six-part Nor­ton Lec­ture series now avail­able to watch on Youtube. Its sub­ti­tle hints at one fea­ture of Zoom of which she makes rich use — but hard­ly the only fea­ture.

Through­out “Spend­ing the War With­out You,” Ander­son also super­im­pos­es a vari­ety of vir­tu­al faces over her own: Sig­mund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Loni Ander­son, and even her musi­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Bri­an Eno. This sort of thing would­n’t have been pos­si­ble even in the long­time fan­ta­sy she cites as an inspi­ra­tion for these lec­tures: host­ing a radio show at 4:00 a.m., “a time when real­i­ty and dreams just sort of merge and it’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence between them.” That’s just the right head­space in which to lis­ten to Ander­son make her ele­gant­ly spaced-out way through such top­ics as her life in New York, tai chi and med­i­ta­tion, lan­guage as a virus, the death of John Lennon, the cul­ture of the inter­net, Cather­ine the Great, the com­bi­na­tion of sound and image, The Wind in the Wil­lows, non-fun­gi­ble tokens, and Amer­i­can cheese. Tak­ing advan­tage of her dig­i­tal medi­um, she also plays the vio­lin, explores vir­tu­al realms, and dances along­side her younger self.

The col­li­sion of all these ele­ments feels not unlike Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s tele­vi­sion broad­cast of New Year’s Day 1984. Ander­son also took part in that project, shar­ing with Paik an artis­tic will­ing­ness to embrace new media. “I’ve almost always been a wire­head,” she says in these lec­tures 38 years lat­er. “But it’s become a night­mare in some ways, with peo­ple attached now to their devices, with a death grip on their phones. At the same time, it’s the same machine that cre­at­ed celebri­ty cul­ture.” Look­ing back on a “humil­i­at­ing” clip of her­self and Peter Gabriel per­form­ing on Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, she recalls her state of mind dur­ing the com­mer­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal onrush of the 1980s: “Every­thing was mov­ing fast, and I just was­n’t think­ing. That’s my excuse, any­way.” See the full lec­ture series here, or up top. The lec­tures will be added to our col­lec­tion: 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Lau­rie Ander­son Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bar­do

Lau­rie Ander­son Intro­duces Her Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Instal­la­tion That Lets You Fly Mag­i­cal­ly Through Sto­ries

Lou Reed and Lau­rie Anderson’s Three Rules for Liv­ing Well: A Short and Suc­cinct Life Phi­los­o­phy

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Her­bie Han­cock Presents the Pres­ti­gious Nor­ton Lec­tures at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty: Watch Online

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

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.

Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accept­ed a role as a cho­rus mem­ber in an inter­na­tion­al tour­ing pro­duc­tion of the opera, Por­gy and Bess:

I want­ed to trav­el, to try to speak oth­er lan­guages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most impor­tant, I want­ed to be with a large, friend­ly group of Black peo­ple who sang so glo­ri­ous­ly and lived with such pas­sion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Bald­win, who she remem­bered as “small and hot (with) the move­ments of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poet­ry and the arts, a deep curios­i­ty about life, and a pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to Black rights and cul­ture. They forged a con­nec­tion that would last the rest of their lives.

In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Bald­win did what he could to lift her spir­its, includ­ing escort­ing her to a din­ner par­ty where she cap­ti­vat­ed the oth­er guests with her anec­do­tal sto­ry­telling, paving a path to her cel­e­brat­ed first mem­oir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been writ­ten, how­ev­er, with­out some dis­creet behind-the-scenes med­dling by Bald­win.

Angelou con­sid­ered her­self a poet and a play­wright, and resist­ed repeat­ed attempts by fel­low din­ner par­ty guest, Ran­dom House edi­tor Robert Loomis, to secure her auto­bi­og­ra­phy.

As Angelou lat­er dis­cov­ered, Bald­win coun­seled Loomis that a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy would pro­duce the desired result. His dear friend might not con­ceive of her­self as a mem­oirist, but would almost assured­ly respond to reverse psy­chol­o­gy, for instance, a state­ment that no auto­bi­og­ra­phy could com­pete as lit­er­a­ture.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Bald­win, my broth­er friend, and Jim­my told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do some­thing, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This tes­ti­mo­ny from a Black sis­ter marks the begin­ning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Bald­win enthused upon its pub­li­ca­tion.

They became sib­lings of affin­i­ty. Wit­ness their easy rap­port on the 1975 episode of Assign­ment Amer­i­ca, above.

Every episode cen­tered on some­one who had made an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the ideas and issues of Amer­i­ca, and Angelou, who alter­nat­ed host­ing duties with psy­cho-his­to­ri­an Doris Kearns Good­win, colum­nist George Will, and oral his­to­ri­an Studs Terkel, land­ed an extreme­ly wor­thy sub­ject in Bald­win.

Their friend­ship made good on the promise of her hopes for that Euro­pean tour of Por­gy and Bess.

Their can­did dis­cus­sion cov­ers a lot of over­lap­ping ground: love, death, race, aging, sex­u­al iden­ti­ty, suc­cess, writ­ing, and the close­ness of Baldwin’s fam­i­ly — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the gen­er­a­tions who came after, who became acquaint­ed with Angelou, the com­mand­ing, supreme­ly dig­ni­fied elder stateswoman, com­mand­ing more author­i­ty and respect than any offi­cial Poet Lau­re­ate, may be sur­prised to see her MO as inter­view­er, gig­gling and teas­ing, func­tion­ing as the cho­rus in a room where code switch­ing is most def­i­nite­ly not a thing:

Bald­win: I think…the only way to live is know­ing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll nev­er be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Bald­win: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Bald­win: And nobody knows any­thing about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She pos­es great ques­tions, and lis­tens with­out inter­rupt­ing to her friend’s thought­ful­ly com­posed answers, for instance, his descrip­tion of his family’s response to his deci­sion to base him­self in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweet­heart, you have to under­stand, um, you have to under­stand what hap­pens to my moth­er’s tele­phone when I’m in town. Peo­ple will call up and say what they will do to me. It does­n’t make me shut up. You, you also got­ta remem­ber that I’ve been writ­ing, after all, between assas­si­na­tions. If you were my moth­er or my broth­er, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The famil­iar con­nec­tion between inter­view­er and sub­ject, both tow­er­ing fig­ures of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, brings a tru­ly rare dimen­sion, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s old­er broth­ers would reserve a part of the pro­ceeds from sell­ing coal in the win­ter and ice in the sum­mer to send to Bald­win:

In France! I mean to think of a Black Amer­i­can fam­i­ly in Harlem, who had no pre­ten­sions to great lit­er­a­ture… and to have the old­est boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pen­nies and nick­els and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Bald­win: That’s what peo­ple, that’s what peo­ple don’t real­ly know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are Amer­i­ca. It is true. 

Bald­win: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Bald­win: I know it. 

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morn­ing”

Watch a Nev­er-Aired TV Pro­file of James Bald­win (1979)

James Bald­win Talks About Racism in Amer­i­ca & Civ­il Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.