Maria Popova: A Dear Mentor I’ve Never Met

Maria Popova is a thought-hero of mine. She’s not an idol—rather, at my best thinking self I try to be her apprentice. No, we’ve never met. And yet, as is manifest in her writing on years of written correspondence between women who admire each other intimately, we can seem to ourselves to know a soul through its verbal emanations.

Popova is a rigorous curator of poetic-scientific feeling. Her teenaged (13 years of consistency!) weekly newsletter is timeless—she puts the date only in the URL, in case you need it for citation—not in a way that endorses the shill of universal humanity, but because its story-threads accrete into a solid world. Her implicit theory of knowing prizes personal experience while including our full intellectual, vicarious, imagined worlds therein, avoiding the smallness of the preciousness and pathos that she does not devalue. She values grand narratives and builds them bottom-up, dialectically and dialogically insisting that the cosmos, and ours, are a rich tapestry of glittering details and a sweeping structure that is true and beautiful scribed in ideal forms. If I may, she’s a Platonist imagist and an Aristotelian observer, availing herself of the logical tools of both.

Her worldviews, through my kaleidoscope, give me confidence that our brilliant hearts can perceive the gestalt, a solid whole with these threads as atoms. Our consciousness can expand to simultaneously comprehend the old woman and the young one in that classic demonstration of shifted perception: we are not limited to watching the shifting tensions in pretty partner dances between micro and macro.

Popova’s poetics of bodies and evidence do have arguments, contra Jorie Graham’s idea that “great poems have so few arguments in them.” But she agrees with Graham in not “want[ing] to make the reader ‘agree’.” Her magnum opus (thus far), Figuring, is a smart book and a full one, loving both structure and flow, vivid and associational while taking real things as its raw material—if we understand feelings, mysteries and phenomena all as reality. Above all it holds all these poles as glimpses of a whole, fading and emerging by tricks of the light, in a decidedly expansive and expanding geometry.

The author’s voice is rarely present in first person in either Popova’s newsletters or Figuring, but only she could have written her work. And so she provides us a model of clear observation by the light of the heart and me with the courage to speak words like “heart” without a reflexive academic flinch. As a curator she is no mere compiler, but gets idea-full figures to play with each other through what feels like a light touch of intuition but I know to be thorough investigation. She runs towards intensity and in that process guides me to a practice of doing so, despite my fears, despite the defense of “rigor!” that we academics so often throw up against the intrusion of abiding care.

BrainPickings is an email newsletter you will actually open every week. Figuring is a bigger and differently rich attention commitment. I’m going to be a terrible curator here and point you to the whole damn archive to find what resonates, with votes in for mentions of Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Johannes Kepler, Emily Dickinson, and the wisdom of trees. Each article ends with a “complement with” section that is Popova curating herself: trust her to guide you, as I do.

On Poetry

Take me back to poet land: on Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex”

I moved this week and brought only two boxes of books with me! For a word-hoard-er, that‘s an accomplishment. Especially when around half the books were ones I really do reference and need with me as I study for my oral exams.

The other box was almost exclusively volumes of English-language poetry, my native language (English, that is—if only poetry!) These are the bodies of work that I need to incorporate into my inklings on paper’s back: it’s only poetry I rarely read in ebook form.

There’s no fetishism of the smell of the paper or the crack of the page-turn there. It’s simply a different form of reading than I mostly do now: for feeling in over figuring out the language. 

That I haven’t dived into any of the books in that second box in months, mostly years, shows not disenchantment with poetry, but a separation from the plain enchantment I felt when I first met these poets’ pages, that drove me to require their volume in my space. I can prove it (I say): they have survived a dozen purges of those shelves over seven years. Nor is their presence a plan or sign of aspiration: like friends you only talk to once a year but have not picked up the designation “former,” these poets are familiar, familiars, whose work I do not devour partly because I trust it will be there for the long haul, even at the end. There is a longing there of a rare sort for me: a stable and sustained one. There is a bond with even the yet-unread poems that only I can sever—a consolation, in years strewn with sudden loss and grief.

This week I mulled over. Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex” (read it in full here). I commend the whole volume it is contained in, Sleeping with the dictionary, into the hands of any lovers of sounds and play—and this one exemplifies the collection. 

We talk in any “Intro to the History of English” about short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words (though I would replace that term now with Early English) versus the bourgeois signifiers of too-aristocratic Latin (and French and Greek). In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen enjambs them seamlessly, without ostentation. The contrasting sounds of these two word-sources map onto characters: the “I” has a plain brain before the crush’s eponymous fancy cortex. No hitting us over the head with a gulf of difference: a one- versus two-syllable couplet. Sound, while shimmering, is only sequel to sense, which does not yield to aural ecstasy: the brain anatomy, the evolutionary processes, the optical are all straight science, or at least the tangle of language is woven—a little wildly, but not confused. Or at least with the concepts set straighter than lots of science journalism, and more generous, joyful, inviting, exhibitionist.

The I’s hypothetical as ifs are wink-wink suggestions of truth, not the truly tortuous counterfactuals of Latin syntax. They drive us forward, don’t hang us up. And the mapping I asserted, of simple language to modest status, is not fixed: sometimes tizzy-like conglomerations of phrases are the speaker’s, whose inquisitive iris of [her] galaxy-orbiting telescope doesn’t penetrate as far or keenly as the beloved’s vision. These two characters are definitely on the word-dance floor, juxtapositioning in a tumble of identities.

The poem’s cool-down is both cosmic (featuring a divergent universification and a microcosm) and possibly intimate: maybe the speaker’s crush will “fancy the microcosm of [her] prosaic mind.” It’s all in the cards, especially when this supposedly prosaic poet can coin verses that universify.