The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Poetry as Prayer: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Reclaiming the Divine

Poetry as Prayer: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Reclaiming the Divine

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” Simone Weil wrote in her exquisite reckoning with attention and grace. Because poetry is the art of attention, anchored in a total receptivity that judges nothing and rejects nothing, every poem is a kind of prayer, kneeling before the wild wonder of the world with faith and love.

The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) articulates this dialogue between the poetic and the divine in Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — the wonderful essay collection that gave us Tsvetaeva on the paradoxical psychology of our resistance to ideas.

Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva

Living in a political atmosphere that banished the divine from human life — the same state-mandated atheism I too grew up with in communist Bulgaria — Tsvetaeva writes with an eye to the prayerful poems of her beloved Rilke:

What can we say about God? Nothing. What can we say to God? Everything. Poems to God are prayer. And if there are no prayers nowadays (except Rilke’s… I know of none), it is not because we don’t have anything to say to God, nor because we have no one to say this anything to — there is something and there is someone — but because we haven’t the conscience to praise and pray God in the same language we’ve used for centuries to praise and pray absolutely everything. In our age, to have the courage for direct speech to God (for prayer) we must either not know what poems are, or forget.

A century later, in the atmosphere of Western consumer capitalism with its cult of the self, it is even more countercultural to speak about the soul — perhaps the last human holdout against commodification, too private and furtive to be turned into a marketable data point. And yet if art is what we make to save ourselves, to cotton the shock of living, then the soul is the only studio we have.

Altarpiece by Hilma af Klint, 1907. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Tsvetaeva, who considered art a physical manifestation of the spiritual and a spiritual manifestation of the physical, knew this and articulated it beautifully:

Poetry — which I never take my eyes off when I say “art,” the whole event of poetry, from the poet’s visitation to the reader’s reception — takes place entirely within the soul.

Complement with Wendell Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, Lucille Clifton on how to be a living poem, and this soulful read on how poetry saves lives, then revisit Richard Jefferies on nature as a prayer for presence.

BP

The Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Love and the Meaning of Respect

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote as he charted the art of interbeing. Few things wound more deeply and syphon love more swiftly than the feeling of not being fully seen, of being exiled from your own totality by a simulacrum of love that showers adoration upon fragments deemed desirable, to the exclusion or grudging toleration of the rest of you. Any relationship worthy of the word “love” unfolds between two wholenesses and is resinous with respect — respect for the entirety of the person and everything that makes them themselves.

The humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) takes up the question of what respect really means and what it looks like in his 1947 book Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics.

Erich Fromm

Fromm writes:

Care and responsibility are constituent elements of love, but without respect for and knowledge of the beloved person, love deteriorates into domination and possessiveness… To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by the knowledge of the person’s individuality.

But mutual knowledge — “the mask slipped from the face,” in Tom Stoppard’s lovely phrase — takes time, takes constancy, takes a passionate curiosity undimmed by the fading of novelty. Respect, then, is a durational practice rooted in the commitment to know one another more deeply and accept more fully what is discovered in the depths.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

A decade later, Fromm deepened the inquiry into the nature of respect in his timelessly rewarding book The Art of Loving:

Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at), the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.

Complement with Adrienne Rich on what makes an honorable human relationship, then revisit Fromm on the six rules of listening, spontaneity and our search for meaning, and what self-love really means.

BP

Let the Last Thing Be Song

A person is a note in the mouth of probability hungry for song, reverberating with echoes of the impossible. To exist at all is as close as this universe of austere laws and inert matter gets to a miracle. At its most miraculous, life has a musical quality, harmonious and symphonic with meaning.

And Pipe the Little Songs that Are Inside of Bubbles by Dugald Stewart Walker, 1920. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet this musicality is more than a metaphor — it is part of our material nature, our creaturely inheritance. “Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” wrote the poet Ronald Johnson. Music thrusts our neurobiology into transcendence. The poetic physicist Alan Lightman saw it as a language for the exhilaration of being alive. But it is also the language of mortality. “The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body,” Richard Powers wrote.

Poet, French horn player, and choral singer Hannah Fries (who is also the visionary editor behind the Universe in Verse book) celebrates this enlivening relationship between music, meaning, and mortality in her stunning poem “Let the Last Thing Be Song,” inspired by Radiolab’s episode Memory and Forgetting and read here by Hannah herself to the sound of her young son improvising on the piano:

LET THE LAST THING BE SONG
by Hannah Fries

i.

Memory is safest in someone with amnesia.
Behind locked doors
glow the unmarred pieces—
musical notes humming
in a jumble, only
waiting to be
arranged.

ii.

What is left in one
who does not remember?
Love and music.

Not a name but the fullness.
Not the sequence of events
but order of rhythm and pitch,

a piece of time in which to exist.

iii.

A tone traveling through space has no referent,
and yet we infer, and yet it
finds its way between our cells
and shakes us.

Aren’t we all still quivering
like tuning forks
with the shock of being,
the shock of being seen?

iv.

When I die, I want to be sung across the threshold.
Don’t you? Doesn’t the universe,
with its loosening warp
and weft, still
unspool its symphony?

Sing to me — please —
and I will sing for you as all unravels,
as time continues past the final beat
of the stutter inside your chest.

Harmonize, at the edge of that horizon,
with the black hole’s
fathomless B-flat.

Couple with Marie Howe’s breathtaking “Hymn,” then revisit Nick Cave on music and transcendence in the age of AI and his reading of “But We Had Music.”

BP

What Birds Dream About: The Evolution of REM and How We Practice the Possible in Our Sleep

This essay originally appeared in The New York Times

I once dreamed a kiss that hadn’t yet happened. I dreamed the angle at which our heads tilted, the fit of my fingers behind her ear, the exact pressure exerted on the lips by this transfer of trust and tenderness.

Freud, who catalyzed the study of dreams with his foundational 1899 treatise, would have discounted this as a mere chimera of the wishful unconscious. But what we have since discovered about the mind — particularly about the dream-rich sleep state of rapid-eye movement, or REM, unknown in Freud’s day — suggests another possibility for the adaptive function of these parallel lives in the night.

Yellow-crowned night heron by John James Audubon, 1840. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Audubon Society.)

One cold morning not long after the kiss dream, I watched a young night heron sleep on a naked branch over the pond in Brooklyn Bridge Park, head folded into chest, and found myself wondering whether birds dream.

The recognition that nonhuman animals dream dates at least as far back as the days of Aristotle, who watched a sleeping dog bark and deemed it unambiguous evidence of mental life. But by the time Descartes catalyzed the Enlightenment in the 17th century, he had reduced other animals to mere automatons, tainting centuries of science with the assumption that anything unlike us is inherently inferior.

In the 19th century, when the German naturalist Ludwig Edinger performed the first anatomical studies of the bird brain and discovered the absence of a neocortex — the more evolutionarily nascent outer layer of the brain, responsible for complex cognition and creative problem-solving — he dismissed birds as little more than Cartesian puppets of reflex. This view was reinforced in the 20th century by the deviation, led by B.F. Skinner and his pigeons, into behaviorism — a school of thought that considered behavior a Rube Goldberg machine of stimulus and response governed by reflex, disregarding interior mental states and emotional response.

Archaeopteryx specimen, Natural History Museum, Berlin. (Photograph: H. Raab)

In 1861, just two years after Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, a fossil was discovered in Germany with the tail and jaws of a reptile and the wings and wishbone of a bird, sparking the revelation that birds had evolved from dinosaurs. We have since learned that, although birds and humans haven’t shared a common ancestor in more than 300 million years, a bird’s brain is much more similar to ours than to a reptile’s. The neuron density of its forebrain — the region engaged with planning, sensory processing, and emotional responses, and on which REM sleep is largely dependent — is comparable to that of primates. At the cellular level, a songbird’s brain has a structure, the dorsal ventricular ridge, similar to the mammalian neocortex in function if not shape. (In pigeons and barn owls, the DVR is structured like the human neocortex, with both horizontal and vertical neural circuitry.)

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells

Still, avian brains are also profoundly other, capable of feats unimaginable to us, especially during sleep: Many birds sleep with one eye open, even during flight. Migrating species that traverse immense distances at night, like the bar-tailed godwit, which covers the 7,000 miles between Alaska and New Zealand in eight days of continuous flight, engage in unihemispheric sleep, blurring the line between our standard categories of sleep and wakefulness.

But while sleep is an outwardly observable physical behavior, dreaming is an invisible interior experience as mysterious as love — a mystery to which science has brought brain imaging technology to illuminate the inner landscape of the sleeping bird’s mind.

The first electroencephalogram of electrical activity in the human brain was recorded in 1924, but EEG was not applied to the study of avian sleep until the 21st century, aided by the even more nascent functional magnetic resonance imaging, developed in the 1990s. The two technologies complement each other. In recording the electrical activity of large populations of neurons near the cortical surface, EEG tracks what neurons do more directly. But fMRI. can pinpoint the location of brain activity more precisely through oxygen levels in the blood. Scientists have used these technologies together to study the firing patterns of cells during REM sleep in an effort to deduce the content of dreams.

Zebra finch by F. W. Frohawk, 1899. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Audubon Society)

A study of zebra finches — songbirds whose repertoire is learned, not hard-wired — mapped particular notes of melodies sung in the daytime to neurons firing in the forebrain. Then, during REM, the neurons fired in a similar order: The birds appeared to be rehearsing the songs in their dreams.

An fMRI study of pigeons found that brain regions tasked with visual processing and spatial navigation were active during REM, as were regions responsible for wing action, even though the birds were stilled with sleep: They appeared to be dreaming of flying. The amygdala — a cluster of nuclei responsible for emotional regulation — was also active during REM, hinting at dreams laced with feeling. My night heron was probably dreaming, too — the folded neck is a classic marker of atonia, the loss of muscle tone characteristic of the REM state.

But the most haunting intimation of the research on avian sleep is that without the dreams of birds, we too might be dreamless. No heron, no kiss.

The passenger pigeon by John James Audubon, 1842. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Audubon Society.)

There are two primary groups of living birds: the flightless Palaeognathae, including the ostrich and the kiwi, which have retained certain ancestral reptilian traits, and Neognathae, comprising all other birds. EEG studies of sleeping ostriches have found REM-like activity in the brainstem — a more ancient part of the brain — while in modern birds, as in mammals, this REM-like activity takes place primarily in the more recently developed forebrain.

Several studies of sleeping monotremes — egg-laying mammals like the platypus and the echidna, the evolutionary link between us and birds — also reveal REM-like activity in the brainstem, suggesting that this was the ancestral crucible of REM before it slowly migrated toward the forebrain.

If so, the bird brain might be where evolution designed dreams — that secret chamber adjacent to our waking consciousness where we continue to work on the problems that occupy our days. Dmitri Mendeleev, after puzzling long and hard over the arrangement of atomic weights in his waking state, arrived at his periodic table in a dream. “All the elements fell into place as required,” he recounted in his diary. “Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.” Cosmologist Stephon Alexander dreamed his way to a groundbreaking insight about the role of symmetry in cosmic inflation that earned him a national award from the American Physics Society. For Einstein, the central revelation of relativity took shape in a dream of cows simultaneously jumping up and moving in wavelike motion.

Art by Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s niece — for the philosophical 1922 children’s book David the Dreamer

As with the mind, so with the body. Studies have shown that people learning new motor tasks “practice” them in sleep, then perform better while awake. This line of research has also shown how mental visualization helps athletes improve performance. Renata Adler touches on this in her novel Speedboat: “That was a dream,” she writes, “but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep. Speech, tennis, music, skiing, manners, love — you try them waking and perhaps balk at the jump, and then you’re over. You’ve caught the rhythm of them once and for all, in your sleep at night.”

It may be that in REM, this gloaming between waking consciousness and the unconscious, we practice the possible into the real. It may be that the kiss in my dream was not nocturnal fantasy but, like the heron’s dreams of flying, the practice of possibility. It may be that we evolved to dream ourselves into reality — a laboratory of consciousness that began in the bird brain.

BP

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the Bookshop.org and Amazon.com affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)