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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Brain Pickings

The art of concentration and the effortless effort of creative work, embracing contradiction and how the sacredness of human attention shapes our reality, how astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell revolutionized our understanding of the universe and was robbed of the Nobel Prize, and moreEmail formatted oddly or truncated?
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The Power of Perception and Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977“What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”
How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of ThoreauAndré GideAnne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times. 
Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:
Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.
Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” â€” Kazin writes:
A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he mustbe; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…
“Under the Third Avenue El” by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)
The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:
The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!
Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:
Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?
But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.
Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:
It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is thisman, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…
Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:
The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.
This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside would as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.
That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must â€œpay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:
The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.
But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priority as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.
“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)
Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:
How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!
Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.
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How Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell Shaped Our Understanding of the Universe by Discovering Pulsars, Only to Be Excluded from the Nobel Prize

In July of 1967, the month of her twenty-fourth birthday, Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. July 15, 1943) discovered the first pulsar. This was landmark evidence that neutron stars — the collapsed core left behind by the final explosion of a dying star, first proposed a year after the discovery of the neutron in 1933 — were real. But the most significant implication of the discovery was that if neutron stars could result from stellar death, so could black holes, which even Einstein considered a neat but limited, purely mathematical, and possibly unprovable theoretical construct. 
Pulsars — enormous, rapidly spinning, extremely dense spheres of nuclear matter magnetized with a strength exceeding Earth’s magnetic fields by an order of millions, even thousands of trillions — thus shaped our present understanding of the universe. Bell Burnell discovered the first four.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 1960s
The groundbreaking paper announcing the discovery was published four months later, listing Bell Burnell’s name second and Antony Hewish, her thesis supervisor, first. 
On October 15, 1974, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish and his English colleague Martin Ryle for their work in radioastronomy. The Swedish Academy cited Hewish’s “decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” in the official announcement. 
Bell Burnell was excluded from the prize. 
In a 1977 speech, Bell Burnell insisted on not feeling slighted by the Nobel committee, citing the difficulty of resolving “demarcation disputes between supervisor and student” and the belief that “it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students.” But it is hard to read such sentiments without wondering whether there might be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the disenfranchised at work — after all, those systematically marginalized and discriminated against by any power structure have no choice but to rationalize injustice as a coping mechanism if they are to continue operating within that ecosystem without being broken by its biases. 
Cosmologist Janna Levin explores Bell Burnell’s pioneering contribution to science, its far-reaching implications, and the complexities surrounding the Nobel controversy in a portion of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), which remains among one of the very finest books I’ve ever read â€” an altogether spectacular chronicle of how the century-long quest to detect gravitational waves ushered in a new era of astronomy.
Levin writes:
There is nothing like plain observation to finally resolve a theoretical standoff. Jocelyn Bell Burnell found evidence of a neutron star. Added to the sheer intrinsic fascination of that discovery was the promise of even more, the promise of black holes. (An illustrious colleague is reported to have intercepted her at a meeting to declare, “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century.”)
With her characteristic subtlety and sensitivity to nuance, Levin shares in the skepticism about such wholesale acquittal of prejudice:
Hewish need not defend his credibility as a Nobel laureate. As the advisor he set his student to the task — even if the task was to look for quasars. Harder to comprehend is the omission of Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the list of recipients. I ask her if she thought her former advisor should have done something more, and she says with no resentment, “If you get a prize, it’s not your job to explain why you got the prize.” She also adds that the slight has worked out for her quite well. She continues to get seemingly every other prize, medal, honor, and accolade ever invented. Fair compensation she seems to imply. Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell: dame commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, many distinguished medals, dozens of honorary doctorates etc., etc., etc.
The specter of bias had haunted Bell Burnell since the dawn of her career. According to Ron Drever — the cantankerous Scottish genius comprising one third of the famed LIGO Troika, who served as young Jocelyn’s undergraduate advisor in Glasgow — she was denied employment at England’s foremost radio astronomy center in the mid-1960s on account of her gender. Levin follows the thread:
[Drever] relays, “They wouldn’t take her on, and the story was that it was because she was a woman. But that’s not official, you see. So she was very disappointed.” He adds, hoping the absurdity was obvious, “Her second best was to go to Cambridge. You see?” He considered this a very fortuitous and happy turn. He laughs. “So she went to Cambridge and discovered pulsars. You see?”
Later in her career, Jocelyn Bell Burnell moved into X-ray astronomy to work on the team that built the British-American Ariel 5 X-ray astronomy satellite. On October 10, 1974, early in the morning, Ariel launched successfully, and at noon she heard the announcement of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars. There were two aspects of the announcement that were of particular significance to her. For one, the Nobel committee had finally acknowledged astrophysics as a subfield worthy of the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the 1920s Edwin Hubble had campaigned for such a shift unsuccessfully. For another, she was not among the recipients.
To grasp the scope of this systemic predicament: Crowning the hierarchy of British academia are the so-called “full professors,” distinguished from the vast court of mere doctors. Even at the height of her career, Bell Burnell was one of only two women among the 150 such full professors in Britain. 
PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell) from Your Body is a Space That Sees, artist Lia Halloran’s cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy
And yet in the midst of this maelstrom of politics and esteemed extrinsic validation is the perennial heart of science itself, that utmost intrinsic reward of curiosity — the sublime exhilaration of discovery. Levin telescopes to that luminous moment, which changed Bell Burnell’s life and changed our basic understanding of the cosmos:
As a twenty-four-year-old graduate student at Cambridge, [Bell Burnell] and her advisor, Antony Hewish, were looking for quasars, bright radio sources that looked as small as stars. At the time that she was stringing radio antennae in the field, quasars were still called quasi-stellar radio objects and the sources were a mystery. The radio antennae worked well at finding quasars, poorly at resolving their sizes, and brilliantly at changing the course of astrophysics. Among the quasars detected were many glitches and peculiarities recorded on the reams of chart paper, quantified by the length of paper in feet. She examined hundreds (thousands?) of feet of paper meticulously. Most of the anomalies were attributable to human-made sources or some form of detector interference. But one funny signal persisted. She became convinced that the source was astronomical in origin. She said the realization that she had seen something truly important came gradually. As is often reported, the regularity of the signal earned the sources the internal nickname of LGM, for “little green men.” It turns out that there are even more precise clocks than those manufactured by the civilizations of little intelligent green men. And those would be pulsars.
When Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar in 1967, all she could deduce for certain was that there was a very regular series of pulses, a little over a second apart, and that they were coming from the sky. 
When the second one appeared in the data, “that was the sweet moment,” she says. That’s when the oddity began to take on the features of a discovery. “Once I’d seen one scruffy signal, I was open to seeing more.” She found the first four pulsars ever discovered by human beings. 
A year later a pulsar was discovered in the center of the Crab Nebula, a luminous remnant ejected during a supernova explosion. The Crab Nebula was seen from Earth and noted in historical records as an astronomical event in 1054 AD. The implication: Neutron stars are the collapsed core that remains after a dying star explodes. We now extrapolate that there are hundreds of millions of neutron stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of thousands of these are pulsars.
Composite X-ray and optical Hubble image of the Crab Nebula depicting synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space(which my pal Ben Folds set to song) is a terrific read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with the story of how Maria Mitchell paved the way for women in astronomy, trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science and the endless human quest to know the cosmos, and the untold story of the remarkable women who powered the early days of NASA.
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The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in lamenting the artist’s struggle at a time “when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.” We no longer have Baldwin to awaken us to the gravest perils of our own era — one in which the poetic spirit isn’t merely neglected but is being forced to surrender at gunpoint. To produce poets, in this largest Baldwinian sense of creative seers of human truth, seems to be among the most urgent tasks of our time. 
The mastery of that task is what the poet Jane Hirshfieldexamines in her 1997 essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library). 
Defining poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” she writes: â€œHere, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.” In the superb opening essay, titled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield examines the nature of this clarified, magnified deepening of being — concentration as consecration — by probing its six main components: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Although focused on the reading and writing of poetry, her insight ripples outward in widening circles (as Rilke might way) to encompass every kind of writing, all art, and even the art of living itself. 
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Hirshfield writes:
Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration. 
By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors or perception open; James Joyce called in epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be place into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, form the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.
Considering the unparalleled pleasures of practicingfamiliar to all who endeavor in the â€œabsorbing errand”of creative work, particularly to those who attain mastery, Hirshfield points to deliberate practice as an essential aspect of concentration — one that transcends mechanical skill and reaches into the psychological, even the spiritual:
Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.
Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness
With an eye to the obsessive daily routines and strange creative rituals of many writers, and to the state of intense focus in the creative act known as â€œflow,” Hirshfield explores the path to concentration:
Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.
This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we sill feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.
A century after Rilke extolled the soul-expanding power of difficulty and urged us to “arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult,” Hirshfield writes:
Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: “For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river — / Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”
Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for the reality-enlarging quality of contradiction, Hirshfield adds:
Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius “not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.” Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.
Hirshfield turns to the role of language in concentration and the role of concentration in language, in writing, in poetry itself:
Great sweeps of thought, emotion, and perception are compressed to forms the mind is able to hold — into images, sentences, and stories that serve as entrance tokens to large and often slippery realms of being… Words hold fast in the mind, seeded with the surplus of beauty and meaning that is concentration’s mark.
More than a century after William James asserted that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” in his seminal theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Hirshfield examines the dimensions of time and space in language through the focusing lens of the body:
Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.
But it also lives in the moment, in us. Emotion, intellect, and physiology are inseparably connected in the links of a poem’s sound. It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.
Well before scientists came to study how repetition beguiles the brain, Hirshfield considers the enchantment of rhythmic regularity. In a passage that calls to mind pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s notion of â€œeffective surprise” as the pillar of creativity, she describes the affective surprise at the heart of every great work of art:
A regular returning in one dimension can bring unexpected turns in another: hunting a rhyme, the mind falls on a wholly surprising idea. This balancing between expected and unforeseen, both in aesthetic and cognitive structures, is near the center of every work of art. Through the gate of concentration, defining yet open, both aspects enter.
Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
Hirshfield examines the role of rhetoric as a gatekeeper of concentration:
Before we can concentrate easily, we need to know where we stand. This is the work of rhetoric… Traditionally defined as the art of choosing the words that will best convey the speaker’s intent, rhetoric’s concern is the precise and beautiful movement of mind in language.
In a sentiment of exceeding timeliness today — one that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s masterwork on lying in politics and Aldous Huxley’s lamentation of our mistrust of sincerity â€” Hirshfield adds:
Americans distrust artful speech, believing that sincerity and deliberation cannot coexist… Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word art is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception. We don’t find the fragrance of night-scented flowering tobacco or the display of a peacock’s tail insincere — by such ruses this world conducts its erotic business. To acknowledge rhetoric’s presence in the beauty of poems, or any other form of speech, is only to agree to what already is.
In another thought cast at poetry but ablaze with truth about all art and about life itself, Hirshfield observes:
To be aware of a poem’s effects … requires only our alert responsiveness, our presence to each shift in the currents of language with an answering shift in our being… at a level closer to daydream. But daydream with an added intensity: while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration. The result, if the poet’s intensity of attention is sufficient, will be a poem that brims with its own knowledge, water trembling as if miraculously above the edge of a cup. Such a poem will be perfect in the root sense of the word: “thoroughly done.”
Daydreaming is indeed an apt analogy, for the making of poetry — as, again, the making of all art — radiates from a communion of the conscious and the unconscious, a more wakeful counterpart to that “something nameless” which Mark Strand elegized in his sublime ode to dreams. Hirshfield captures this beautifully:
Making a poem is neither a wholly conscious activity nor an act of unconscious transcription — it is a way for new thinking and feeling to come into existence, a way in which disparate modes of meaning and being may join. This is why the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm
This dreamlike aspect comes most fully alive in one of poetry’s great powers — phanopoeia, the making of images. Hirshfield writes of the poetic image:
The deepest of image’s meanings is its recognition of our continuity with the rest of existence: within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illuminate one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen. Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both.
But in bridging inner reality with the outer world, Hirshfield argues, this halfway house of transcendence brings home something even larger, even more monumental:
Poetry moves consciousness toward empathy.
Intelligence and receptivity are connected — human meaning is made by seeing what is… The outer world can be transformed by a subjectively infused vision; inner event placed into the language of the physical takes on an equally mysterious addition.
A powerful poetic image, Hirshfield suggests, both wrests truth out of reality and confers truth upon it:
In a good image, something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed. Without precisely this image, we feel, the world’s store of truth would be diminished; and conversely, when a writer brings into language a new image that is fully right, what is knowable of existence expands.
Thinking within the fields of image, the mind crosses also into the knowledge the unconscious holds — into the shape-shifting wisdom of dream. Poetic concentration allows us to bring the dream-mind’s compression, displacement, wit, depth, and surprise into our waking minds. It is within dreamlife we first learn to read rain as grief, or the may that a turtle’s walking may speak of containment and an awkward, impeccable fortitude.
But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes:
Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the manny levels of the self.
Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.
Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books
Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on how imaginative storytelling expands our repertoire of possibilities, Hirshfield adds:
Story, at its best, becomes a canvas to which the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions.
Narrative carries the knowledge of our alteration through the shifting currents of circumstance and time.
Narrative’s essential counterpart is voice — the waveform of the soul in writing. Hirshfield writes:
A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem.
Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.
In the essay’s closing passages, Hirshfield once again captures a central truth about poetry that sets free a larger truth about life itself — about the limits of attention, about the relationship between what is known and what is knowable, about the nature of transformation, about the perennial incompleteness of being. She writes:
No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story and passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one.
Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we being to find in poems a way of entering both language and being on their own terms. Poetry leads us into the self, but also away from it. Transparency is both capacious and focused. Free to turn inward and outward, free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read — in such a moment, anything can happen. The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind’s knowledge. The lit and shadowed placed within us can be warmed.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is a small but immensely largehearted book, replete with radiant wisdom on the creative act of composing a life, in poetry or in pulse. Complement it with Hirshfield’s beautiful ode to the leap day, then revisit Mary Oliver on what attention really means, Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit, and great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.
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