What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Reading as Intoxicant, Part I: Neurochemical Qualities of the Modern Manic Page Peeler

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

Richard Wright once wrote that reading is like a drug. Countless other authors have written some variation of that same assertion. If you’ve ever found yourself crushed in a corner weeping like a crazy person because the end of your latest literary fixation was fast coming to a close, or buying more books than you could ever read in a lifetime, or huffing the exquisite scent of a freshly bound book like that accidental splash of gasoline upon your sneaker, then maybe you’ll agree. And so would science.

ADDICTIVE QUALITIES

Like some illicit depressants, a book can be a most calming boon. The act of reading for just six minutes is enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68% or aid your nocturnal rituals. Like the most haughty of hallucinogens, vivid reading can also stimulate all kinds of interesting brain function, eliciting hypervisceral and tactile responses:

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. (Source)

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Writing the Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, & Lidia Yuknavitch

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The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.

At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading

Tyrants big and little

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How would an onlooker have described the scene at the 2nd hole of the golf course I played on during the summer after high school? The tee overlooked the pin far below, nearly a vertical drop, and way in the left-hand distance were mountains that looked serrated down the middle. It all seemed to converge at once: my future looming large, big mountains, plate tectonics, the years and years, the 9 iron or the pitching wedge?, my own small and un-forever life. My friends were rummaging in their bags as I tried to keep my heartbeat quiet. Those mountains could’ve killed me. This is how the 2nd hole felt to me.

This was Joan Didion’s reason for keeping a notebook, to record “how it felt to me.” The mountains that could have taken the onlooker’s breath away to me were dark and devoid of majesty. This is differential construal: how we judge life’s circumstances differently. That afternoon I was at the losing end of it.Continue Reading

Letter to Our Daughters: Do Not Be Good

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Dear Girls,

I’ve come to believe that an author’s material arrives in the form of obsession, a need for the close and uncomfortable scrutiny of an idea. Last year I finished writing a book about women who weren’t traditionally “good.” I dedicated it to you. You might wonder why.

I’ve spent far too much energy in my life being “good.” Seeking approval and validation outside of my own gut, criticizing myself for failing an image. If you pursue the prescribed perfection of womanhood, you’ll find it can be a demeaning, exhausting endeavor.

You’re four and six as I’m writing this note, so it’s best if I don’t burden you with the nuances of “goodness” until we’re past the basics of discipline, e.g. it’s rarely okay to beat a friend with a pool noodle, ride the goats without shoes, write your sister’s name on the wall in crayon, steal sparkly nail polish from the grocery store, or tell an adult they have “weird teeth.”

These days it’s convenient for me to be in charge and almighty, but eventually you’re going to figure out that my authority is not absolute. I do not define what it means for you to be “good” in this world.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Role of Writers in a STEM Obsessed Society

The Doctor, Leon SallesThe recent appointment of Dr. Suzanne Koven to the first-ever writer-in-residence program at Massachusetts General Hospital has me asking: is the U.S. as a nation starting to re-value creativity after years of putting math and science first?

An associate professor of medicine at Harvard and renowned writer, Koven, in addition to her MD, holds an MFA in nonfiction; her essays appear regularly in prominent blogs and publications. She often writes about the importance of using literature in medicine to reconnect to a sense of shared humanity with patients.

The news of the appointment of a writer-in-residence—who is herself a doctor— in a hospital as prominent as MGH may strike some as surprising, especially given the ways the arts seem to be losing their foothold in many secondary- and university-level programs, with initiatives like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math based curriculums), Race to the Top, and the Common Core placing emphasis on testable skills, such as those fundamental in math and science.

And yet, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Consider Apollo: god of many things, he was most notably responsible for medicine and poetry—it historically hasn’t been at all strange to be skilled in both.Continue Reading

Inclusivity & Authorship: Second-Person Pronouns

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Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.

Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:

Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.

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Sincerely Yours

oscar wilde is sincere

Because I’d just read “The Bridge,” which I only half-understood, rendering it sacrosanct to my wide-eyed freshman mind, I’d taken Hart Crane at his word when he wrote in an essay that “Sincerity is essential to all real poetry.” Rilke said it earlier in his own letter-turned-rule-book for all young poets: “Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity.” Rilke had written the Duino Elegies, which perhaps can only ever be half-understood, having come to him as “a nameless storm, a hurricane, in [his] mind,” during which “everything in the way of fibre and web in [him] split,—eating was not to be thought of, God knows who fed [him].” This he wrote in a letter to Princess Marie of Germany, which made me even more quivery. How could I ever be a writer if starvation was a prerequisite to good art? I wondered with a mouth full of sourdough pretzels. But Rilke wrote it, and anything written by Rilke was heaven-sent and inalienable.

So when it came time to teach classes of my own, I preached sincerity. I told my students that only sincere writing was worth reading. If Crane and Rilke believed it, then it must hold all the world’s water. “Be free of deceit. Be sincere to yourself,” I told a classroom of undergraduates sitting shoulder to shoulder, a population whose greatest fear on earth is looking vulnerable and foolish in front of each other. My words must have had the same concrete efficacy as yelling to a weepy Little Leaguer on the mound, into cupped hands, to just “Relax!”Continue Reading

Depressing Graphs for Writers

Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?

We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!

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Guns and Poems: Why is it (almost) impossible to write a great poem about guns?

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Poetry has a history of violence.

It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.

Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.

So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.

Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading