November 24, 2009KR BlogKR

Emotional Content: Even If They Are a Crowd of Sorrows

That much beloved ancient Persian poet Jalalu’l-din Rumi tells us:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

(You make it sound so easy, Rumi.)

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

(From “The Guest House” – translated by Coleman Barks)

But somehow it IS easier to invite them all in when they are expressed anonymously by people all over the world, of every age, gender, weather, and geographical location. If you haven’t seen it already, the fascinating and lovely wonder of We Feel Fine, the interactive website created by Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris, allows you to do just that. Ever since its 2005 launch, this website has been searching the great wide interweb for the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” — verifies that the sentence contains one of 5000 nameable emotions (color-coded) — collects the statement of feeling (along with other data such as date and time, location and weather, gender and age of speaker, and accompanying image on page, when possible — but no names) — and then makes some very beautiful, live graphs out of the whole mess.

(My favorites: the streaming “murmurs” statements of all feelings from all people of everywhere sampled from the last few hours, then observed through the larger “metrics” view and the “mobs” of uniqueness — until finally landing in the universal, satisfyingly jiggly graph of “mounds.”)

And soon there will be a book We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotions (due out December 1st, from Scribner) — a coffee-table look at the project with website excerpts, more beautiful graphs, and musings on the emotions gathered thus far. The book’s individual specimens, now so prettily pinned and arranged on the page, lack some of the website’s temporal vivacity and ecclectic surprise. But the book format does allow for some further investigations and welcome additions to the pantheon — consider: “I feel New York” (we just want to be rich/ and walk on girders in our silver hats) and “I feel San Francisco” (Bohemia died in the Twenties. There are no more little magazines).

And did I mention the beautiful graphs?


The collected statements of feeling on We Feel Fine are addictingly fun to read (and keep reading), and to have them gathered, color charted, and graphed in this way is certainly a creative act. But does it work to create a poem? With all tell and little show – the raw material of feelings – is it enough to simply accumulate variety for it to become a greater whole, a sum larger than its feeling parts? (Not that this project has to be a poem — but I am interested in that fine, often subjective line when an accrued list verges into a Something More.)

Maybe something more like this:

To you, vague aspirations; enthusiasms,
Thoughts after lunch; emotional impulses;
Feelings that follow the gratification
Of natural needs; flashes of genius; agitation
Of the digestive process, appeasement
Of good digestion; inexplicable joys;
Circulatory problems; memories of love;
Scent of benzoin in the morning tub; dreams of love;
My tremendous Castilian joking, my vast
Puritan sadness, my special tastes:
Chocolate, candies, so sweet they almost burn; iced drinks;
Drowsy cigars; you, sleepy cigarettes;
Joys of speed; sweetness of being seated; excellence
Of sleeping in total darkness;
Great poetry of banal things; news items; trips;
Gypsies; sleigh rides; rain on the sea;
Delirium of feverish night, alone with a few books;
Ups and downs of temperature and temperament;
Recurring moments from another life; memories, prophesies;
O splendors of the common life and the usual this and that,
To you this lost soul.

(Valery Perdida, “Alma Perdida,” translation by Bill Zavatsky and Ron Padgett)