The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling


“Fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.”


The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. The trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered music “a laboratory for feeling and time.” Perhaps because we experience music with our whole selves, with sinew and spirit alike, it is impossible to consider it merely as a sound. Like light, it seems to be both particle and wave; a vessel, a form, a space for working out who we are and what we long for — an essential language for our inner storytelling, which is the narrative pillar of our identity. In consequence, the most powerful and enchanting storytelling, be it a fairy tale or a novel or a biography, has a certain symphonic quality that lends it its power and enchantment.

That is what Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) — one of the world’s most beloved storytellers — argued shortly after he revolutionized the literature of the imagination with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, in a beautiful essay titled “The Shape of Music,” originally published in a special 1964 children’s literature issue of the San Francisco Examiner and included a year later in Evelyn Rose Robinson’s excellent anthology Readings About Children’s Literature (public library).

Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak writes:

Vivify, quicken, and vitalize — of these three synonyms, quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life, the surging swing into action, that I consider an essential quality in pictures for children’s books. To quicken means, for the illustrator, the task first of deeply comprehending the nature of his text and then giving life to that comprehension in his own medium, the picture.

The conventional techniques of graphic animation are related to this intention only in that they provide an instrument with which the artist can begin his work. Sequential scenes that tell a story in pictures, as in the comic strip, are an example of one technique of animation. In terms of technique, it is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his forgotten first children’s book.

In a sentiment evocative of Italo Calvino’s insistence on the art of quickness as essential to the magic of storytelling, Sendak adds:

The word quicken has other, more subjective associations or me. It suggests something musical, something rhythmic and impulsive. It suggests a beat — a heart beat, a musical beat, the beginning of a dance. This association proclaims music as one source from which my own pictures take life. To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book.

In Sendak’s creative process, music — actual music, not merely the notion of musicality — becomes a kind of Rorschach test as ideas begin to take shape under its clarifying force:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction. I find something uncanny in the way a musical phrase, a sensuous vocal line, or a patch of Wagnerian color will clarify an entire approach or style for a new work. A favorite occupation of mine is sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk [demonic spirit from Jewish mythology], and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters and covers celebrating libraries and reading.

Sometimes, Sendak notes, these associative flights of musically propelled fancy become a kind of personal time machine, unlatching “childhood fantasies that are reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen.” Reflecting on “music’s peculiar power of releasing fantasy,” he recalls the centrality of music in his early memories — “the restless, ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making” that are a fixture of childhood’s make-believe — and wrests from it a universality:

All children seem to know what the mysterious, the-riding-fiercely-across-the-plains (accompanied by hearty, staccato thigh slaps), and the plaintive conventionally sound like; and I have no doubt that this kind of musical contribution is necessary to the enrichment of the going fantasy. The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood. It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words — beyond the words yet available to a child — and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.

Signed original drawing by Sendak from the front end paper of his extremely rare 1967 illustrated edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

This musical quality, Sendak observes, is not only the chief animating force of his own work but also what he looks for in the work of artists he admires — artists who “achieve the authentic liveliness that is the essence of the picture book, a movement that is never still,” which children recognize and savor as native to their own experience. He points to André François and Tomi Ungerer

The sympathy I feel between the visual and the musical accounts for my liking to think of myself as setting a text to pictures, much as a composer sets a poem to music, and I have found that telling a story by means of related, sequential pictures allows me to “compose” with assurance and freedom. I do not, however, equate the musical approach to sequential drawings.

Sendak elevates William Blake — whose classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience he would come to illustrate in a rare gem of a book three years later, and who would would go on to be his greatest lifelong influence — as the highest master of quickening by means of musicality. (Blake’s particular musicality calls to my mind Aldous Huxley’s notion of music as a conduit to “the blessedness lying at the heart of things.”)

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

With an eye to “Blake’s incomparable genius,” Sendak writes:

How beautifully his Songs of Innocence and of Experience could be set to music, and how beautifully Blake did set them. The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his mystical poetry. His ingenious and wonderfully ornamental interweavings of illustrations, lettering and color visually animate the spirit of the poetry and create a lyrical vision of otherworldliness. And it is all expressed with an economy only the masters achieved.

Reflecting on the most resonant expression of this musical analogy in his own work, Sendak points to his lovely collaborations with the poet Ruth Krauss — so enchanting partly due to Krauss’s particularly uncommon originality, and partly due to poetry’s general quickening quality — and writes:

Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme, and perhaps the last page from I’ll Be You and You Be Me is the simplest expression of my devotion to the matter of music.

Art by Maurice Sendak for I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss (1954)

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s lyrical reflection on the source of music’s supreme power, then revisit Sendak’s symphonic illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, and his wonderful conversation with Studs Terkel about creativity, storytelling, and the eternal child in each of us.

Photograph of Maurice Sendak by Sam Falk


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How to Disappear: The Art of Listening to Silence in a Noisy World


“Silence is the presence of time undisturbed.”


“There is… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1972 taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. But where does the modern soul go to pasture on awareness and commune with the cosmos in a civilization increasingly savaged by noise? Where do we find, and how do we protect, those places where, in the lovely words of the poet Wendell Berry, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives”?

Governed by the passionate belief that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has devoted his life to locating and conserving that gravely endangered species of sensorial experience and planetary poetics. Inspired by the writings of the visionary naturalist John Muir, who believed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Hempton has spent thirty-five years picking out Earth’s rarest nature sounds, equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing.

Gordon Hempton inside what he calls “Nature’s Largest Violin” — the giant log of a Sitka spruce, a species prized for crafting acoustic instruments due to its rich vibratory sensitivity. (Photograph courtesy of Gordon Hempton.)

Emanating from his collection of more than 100 recordings from silent places is the idea that “there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat” — a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and the quality of presence. What emerges is the embodied awareness that silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed.

Planted partway between conservation and celebration, Hempton’s lovely One Square Inch of Silence project offers a sanctuary of silence drawn from the Hoh rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington — “very possibly the quietest place in the United States” and certainly one of the most ecologically diverse.

Silence is the presence of time undisturbed. It can be felt in the chest. It nurtures our nature.

Hempton delves into the science and animating spirit of his work in this wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which is how I first encountered him years ago and have remained enchanted since:

Complement with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired picture-book about the art of listening to your inner voice amid the noise of modern life — then revisit Walt Whitman’s exquisite ode to listening to the song of existence.

HT Kottke


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Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Rare, Arresting Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories by the Irish Stained Glass and Book Artist Harry Clarke


“And the man trembled in the solitude…”


“I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations… I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her poignant poem “Possibilities.”

Old fine-lined illustrations and classic tales that outgrim the newspapers’ front pages, twisting the grisly into the sublime, come together in a rare 1933 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (public library), with illustrations by the Irish stained-glass and book artist Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931), whose visionary work influenced the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and French Symbolism movements.

“I would call aloud upon her name.” (Available as a print.)
“The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic,… upon the interior surface of a funnel.” (Available as a print.)
“I saw them fashion the syllables of my name.” (Available as a print.)

Nearly a decade after I first featured Clarke’s black-and-white illustrations from an earlier edition, I walked out of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair victorious with a rare surviving copy of the 1933 edition, featuring 33 plates. Peppering the striking black-and-white line drawings and several dramatic illustrated lithographs, printed on glazed paper and pasted onto the regularly printed book — the legacy of Arthur Rackham’s innovation, which had revolutionized the business and technology of book art a quarter century earlier with his epoch-making Alice in Wonderland edition.

“He shrieked once — once only.” (Available as a print.)
“In death we both learned the propensity of man to define the undefinable.” (Available as a print.)

Clarke’s haunting, terrifying, yet lyrical illustrations become the perfect visual counterpart to Poe’s haunting, terrifying, lyrical prose. Here is a succulent bit from a fable titled “Silence”:

And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded far in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called upon the hippopotami which dwelt upon the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I cursed the elements, and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest — and the rain beat on the head of the man — and the floods of the river came down — and the river was tormented into foam — and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds — and the trees crumbled before the wind — and the lightning flashed and the thunder fell — and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled within the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the saber craft.” (Available as a print.)
“They swarmed upon me in ever-accumulating heaps.” (Available as a print.)
“There flashed upward a glow and a glare.” (Available as a print.)
“But there was no voice throughout the vast, illimitable desert.” (Available as a print.)
“It was the most noisome quarter of London.” (Available as a print.)
“His rooms soon became notorious through the charms of the sprightly Grisette.” (Available as a print.)
“Say, rather, the rending of her coffin.” (Available as a print.)
“And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me.” (Available as a print.)
“An attachment which seems to attain new strength.” (Available as a print.)
“The colossal waters rear our heads above us like demons of the deep.” (Available as a print.)

Complement with Clarke’s arresting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, then revisit other visionary artists’ takes on literary classics: Arthur Rackham’s transcendent illustrations for The Tempest and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Margaret C. Cook’s sensual paintings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.


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Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss


“What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.”


Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Spreads from Little Tree — a Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life.

Complement Iyer’s exquisite Autumn Light with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on reconciling our yearning for permanence with a universe predicated on constant change, Marcus Aurelius on the key to living with presence while facing our mortality, and Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor love letter to seasonality, then revisit Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness.


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The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities


“…scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice…”


The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.

A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.

Bill T. Jones at the 2019 Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:

POEM TO MY CHILD, IF EVER YOU SHALL BE
by Ross Gay

       —after Steve Scafidi

The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,

you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm

swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,

though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.

And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat

and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —

but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle

that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.

Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer

of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,

tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,

little best of me.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.


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The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon


Celestial splendor bridging ancient tradition and modern science.


“I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her journal when she first learned to notice the different hues of the stars, almost transgressively delightful to a woman who had grown up in the Quaker tradition with its customary ban on color. To the suddenly awestruck Mitchell, the stars appeared like “a collection of precious stones” or colorful beads. How she would have relished the celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way Starry Night. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Glenbow.)

More than a century after Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker embroidered her stunning Solar System quilt to use as an astronomy teaching tool in an era when women had almost no access to formal education in science, and a generation after the great astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe, embroidered her supernova, Nazon began beading celestial objects after her partner showed her photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 — those now-iconic images that have inspired some of our greatest poets and enchanted the popular imagination like no other visual document of science.

Margaret Nazon: Saturn.

Against the black velvet of pure spacetime, Nazon’s intricate beadwork reaches across abstraction, across incomprehensible expanses, to make galaxies, nebulae, and constellations tangible; to render the wilderness of an impartial universe domesticated and personable. Galaxies millions of lightyears away, hundreds of lightyears wide, become intimate emissaries of spacetime on her 25×25-inch beaded canvases.

Tadpole Galaxy, 420 million lightyears from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Bright Lights, Green City. Top: NASA composite of data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Tarantula Nebula, 160,000 lightyears away from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Margaret Nazon: Tarantula Nebula, detail. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

A member of the small First Nation community of Gwich’in, Nazon grew up on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, steeped in a crafts tradition. She started beading at age 10. The early decorative flowers that began on moccasins and clothing eventually blossomed, half a century later, into the dazzling objects of deep space, rendered using a variety of beading techniques and bead sizes to create a beguiling three-dimensional tactility.

Margaret Nazon, beadwork detail.

Nazon begins beading before dawn and often works all day, taking only short breaks between sessions, beading to the sound of classical music and jazz — Billie Holiday is a favorite. Her largest work, a triptych of the Andromeda Galaxy, took her some 200 hours.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way spiral galaxy. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Robert Thrisk.)

Nazon marries integrity of representation with artistic interpretation, sometimes deliberately straying from the colors captured by the Hubble toward her favorite combination: blue and yellow, colors she associates with happiness and beauty.

Mask Galaxy. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

With no background in science and only a rudimentary understanding of the astronomy she embroiders, her work celebrates not the cerebral but the spiritual allure of the cosmos — the way it beckons to the most elemental part of us, the part that possessed Ptolemy to scribble in the margins of his notebook two millennia ago: “I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies… I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

Margaret Nazon: Old Star Gives Up Ghost. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

Complement with the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart, then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father worked as one of NASA’s first black engineers, and this Hubble classic composed by Adrienne Rich a generation earlier.


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Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote


“I am sitting here… feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired.”


Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

While I stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her exquisite admonition against the dangerous myth of the suffering artist, it has always seemed to me — both from a deep immersion in the personal histories of long-gone artists and from direct experience in contemporary creative communities — that artists are more porous to the world than other people and therefore more vulnerable to suffering. To be an artist is to be a human being who feels everything more deeply, the beautiful as well as the terrible, and builds of those feelings bowers where others can safely and sacredly process their own. Whitman intuited this when he observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” Tchaikovsky articulated it in his touching resolve to find beauty amid the wreckage of the soul. Nietzsche knew it when he traced the wild oscillations of depression and hope.

Among the artists who plummeted to such depths of darkness while buoying the spirit of their times was Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — the visionary playwright and civil rights activist, who revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility and from whom generations of artists and ordinary people alike, including other visionaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, drew courage and inspiration.

Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

For all her soaring intellect and trailblazing genius, Hansberry’s heart sank low with alarming regularity. In a diary entry from 1955, penned just as her star was beginning to rise and included in Imani Perry’s excellent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes her depression with that hollowing detachment so familiar to those who have been severed from themselves by this unforgiving malady:

It is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence.

To be sure, much of Hansberry’s depression was rooted in the dissonance of her being a gay woman (“what I apparently am”) in a heterosexual marriage that was a great creative and intellectual partnership but not her great love. Even so, depression is an illness in which we can never speak of causality — only of contributing factors, of which there are always many, both psychological and physiological, present in varying degrees and intricately intertwined. But beneath the particulars of any life, there beats a common heart of experience, which Hansberry channels with devastating candor. From the pit of another depression, she writes to her husband:

I am sitting here in this miserable little bungalow, in this miserable camp that I once loved so much, feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired. The week past that I spoke to you about was the height of all those things to the point where I didn’t care too much a couple of times whether or not I woke mornings.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In a redemptive passage, she turns to nature for the most reliable, perhaps the only, salve:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries darling, even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

Perhaps she was thinking of the poet Keats — another artist of towering genius, whose spirits often sank to unfathomable lows — who a century and a half earlier found kindred solace in his own experience of depression and the mightiest remedy for a heavy heart; or perhaps of Whitman, who pondered what remains when the world has lost its sheen and answered: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly inspiriting Looking for Lorraine with Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression, then revisit poet May Sarton’s cure for despair.


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Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture


“More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures.”


Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture

In his epoch-making 1632 book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Galileo made a subtle case for how reading gives us super-human powers. Printed books were a young medium then, still in many ways a luxury for the privileged. But as the cogs of culture continued to turn, revolutionizing ideologies and technologies, making books common as daylight, the written word never lost this power. 350 years later, Carl Sagan — another patron saint of cosmic truth — echoed Galileo in his insistence that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Hermann Hesse, too, knew this when he considered why we read and always will, no matter how technology may change, in his prescient 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book.”

Generations after Hesse and epochs after Galileo, amid a new wilderness of communication technologies and visual media, futurist, digital optimist, and Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly takes up the case in his contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: entrepreneurs, poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, philosophers, deep-sea divers.

Art by Andrea Tsurumi for Kevin Kelly’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Dear Young Hero,

Imagine you can choose your own superpower from one of these three: flying, invisibility, or being able to read. You’d be the only person in the world with that superpower. Which one do you choose? Flying is not so useful without other superpowers. Invisibility is okay for being naughty or for a little fun but not good for much else. But if you were the only person who could read… you’d be the most powerful person on Earth. You would be able to tap into all the wisdom of the smartest people who ever lived. Their knowledge would go from their heads through squiggles on paper right into your head. You would learn things from them that no ordinary mortal would ever have enough time to learn. You would be as smart as everybody in total. Not that you have to remember it all. With reading you just look it up.

Reading is a superpower that also gives you a type of teleportation; it moves you a million miles instantly. That feeling of being immersed in a different place, or even a different time period, can be so strong you may not want to leave.

When you have this superpower you can see the world from the viewpoint of someone else. This helps protect you from the mistakes and untruths of others as well as your own ignorance.

More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures: ideas, insights, logic, reason, mathematics, intelligence. These can’t be drawn, photographed, or pictured. They have to be conveyed in words, arranged in an orderly string, and can only be understood by those who have acquired the superpower of reading.

This superpower will always be with you; it will never leave you. But like all superpowers, it increases the more you use it. It works on paper and screens. As we invent new ways to read, its value and power will expand and deepen. At any time, reading beats any other superpower you can name.

Yours,
Kevin Kelly

For more letters from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives, poet and farmer Laura Brown-Lavoie on the power of storytelling, and Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding.

A selection of artwork from the book — a visual celebration of the written word — is available as prints, also benefiting the public library.


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What Miss Mitchell Saw: A Lovely Picture-Book About the 19th-Century Astronomer Who Blazed the Way for Women in STEM


An illustrated homage to a rare visionary who opened up portals of possibility for generations.


What Miss Mitchell Saw: A Lovely Picture-Book About the 19th-Century Astronomer Who Blazed the Way for Women in STEM

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) often told her Vassar students — the world’s first university class of professionally trained women astronomers — having herself become America’s first professional woman astronomer, thanks to her historic discovery of a new telescopic comet on October 1, 1847, after sixteen tenacious years of sweeping the sky night after night.

Mitchell (whose extraordinary life was the seed for what became Figuring and to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated) not only went on to blaze the way for women in STEM but used her prominence — she was arguably America’s first true scientific celebrity, welcomed in England, Italy, and Russia as a dignitary of the New World — to become one of the nineteenth century’s most ardent advocates for social reform, advancing women’s rights and abolition.

The epoch-making discovery that became the platform for Mitchell’s modeling of possibility and far-reaching influence is the kernel of the lovely picture-book What Miss Mitchell Saw (public library) by author Hayley Barrett and illustrator Diana Sudyka — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Barrett’s lyrical prose opens with a clever and tender solution to the common pronunciation confusion — Mitchell’s first name is spelled like my own but pronounced the presently atypical traditional Latin way:

On the first day of August, in a house tucked away on the fog-wrapped island of Nantucket, a baby girl was born.

Like all babies, this baby was given a name.
Her parents whispered it to her like a gentle breeze, ma…RYE…ah

Names become a central creative trope in the book — the dignifying, truth-affirming act of calling all realities by their true names. We see the young Maria learn to recognize the ships of this whaling community by name and come to know the local shopkeepers by name.

Finally, after her father apprentices her as his astronomical assistant, she learns the stars by name — a testament to bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s astute observation that “finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

Sudyka’s beautiful gouache-and-watercolor illustrations weave together hand-lettered words from the story with the three great animating forces of Mitchell’s early life: the enchantment of the cosmos, the whaling culture of Nantucket, and her family’s Quaker values. (In Figuring, writing about the factors that fomented Mitchell’s unexampled ascent above the common plane of possibility for women in her era, I point to the original use of the word genius in the term genius loci — Latin for “the spirit of a place” — and wonder whether, despite her incontrovertible natural gift for mathematics, she would have so soared had she not grown up in a secluded whaling community, where matriarchs ruled while men spent months and years on whaling trips, where Quakers lived by the then-countercultural ethos of equal education for boys and girls, where a barren landscape and long winter nights turned astronomy into cherished popular entertainment.)

The book ends with the motto emblazoned on the gold medal Mitchell received from the King of Denmark for her landmark discovery — “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars” — a sentiment that echoes the dying words of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, which Adrienne Rich incorporated into her exquisite tribute to Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

Complement the wondrous What Miss Mitchell Saw with the picture-book biographies of other inspiring cultural figures — Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Nellie Bly, Wangari Maathai — then revisit Mitchell’s abiding wisdom on friendship, social change, science, spirituality, and our search for truth, and the art of knowing what to do with your life.


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Shelley on Poetry and the Art of Seeing


“Poetry… reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”


Shelley on Poetry and the Art of Seeing

“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote in contemplating the crucial difference between knowing and seeing. To apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions, to truly see rather than pre-know, takes a special receptivity, a special channel of perception that bypasses our ordinary, habit-blunted ways. Poetry provides one such opening, perhaps the supreme one — a subtle portal of receptivity that allows us to take in the universe anew. Poetry unlatches the backdoor of the psyche to rewire the optic nerve of our perception, giving us new eyes with which to regard the world, inner and outer, personal, political, and cosmic. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she observed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside”; John F. Kennedy knew this when he proclaimed that “when power corrupt, poetry cleanses”; Adrienne Rich knew this when she wrote that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; I too intuited it in turning to poetry to celebrate the science and splendor of the natural world, and to protest their political assault, with The Universe in Verse.

But no one has articulated that singular power of poetry more beautifully than Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822) in a piece titled A Defence of Poetry, originally composed just before his untimely death and later included in his Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (public library | public domain) — the posthumous collection his equally visionary widow, Mary Shelley, edited and published in 1840.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint

Shelley writes:

All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.

Complement with This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — a lovely French picture-book about how poetry works its magic — and Elizabeth Alexander, one of the great poets of our own time, on what poetry does for the human spirit, then revisit Shelley’s prescient case for animal rights and the spiritual value of vegetarianism and savor some highlights from The Universe in Verse.


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