Face to face

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The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

~~

Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

~

How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

~~

I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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Generation Anxious

In the shorthand of age demographics, I am marginally a Baby Boomer. I think there were earlier tag-names (Jazz Baby, for example) but the Boomer generation began a spate of efforts to define millions of people randomly born within a few years of one another by some generational attribute that caught on with media. I am not sure that I fit the conventional Boomer stereotype, but naturally at least some of the generalizations of that era apply to me. That’s why people use stereotypes. It is an easy way to categorize (thanks, Aristotle).

Of course, each so-determined generation feels certain that the antecedent generations are out of touch and misconstrue the attributes and the attitudes of those younger than they–and they are justified in this conclusion.

Often, though, we understand young people’s circumstances better than they realize because yes times have changed, but people haven’t. Not that much.

~

I do not have any idea for how long the media and demographers will go on calling young people Millennials; but the young adults I meet seem to more anxiety-ridden than millennial, whatever that means (actual millennials are only 16 years old now). They have grown up with parents who worried about keeping them safe in a society obsessed with security after 9/11. My guess is that in the USA, society’s insecurity entered young lives insidiously through toys, media, the internet, parental conversations, games and gaming, you name it. Parents’ main goal–any tribe or nation’s goal–basic to survival instincts, is to keep the offspring safe. That has felt challenging in the last 20 years or so.

I am not blaming parents. I am not blaming young adults.

~

I do observe a tendency away from risk-taking among many young adults and an accompanying fear of the future; among the risk-taking proportion of young adults, I notice that they engage in risks often because they feel there is no future for them.

Far too many of them believe dystopia awaits: climate warming, floods, polluted waters, chaotic capitalist oligarchies as government, spying and infiltration, loss of the ozone layer, terrorists everywhere. They don’t want to believe this is their future, but they are afraid.

And the Baby Boomers, who (according to the legend) were going to march forth and change the world for the better, failed the generations that followed. That’s the current story. (The story will change and develop over the coming years with the evidence of hindsight.)

I get it. I understand the fear and I know how fear dampens motivation and fosters, instead, a muttering resentment under the surface and a pervasive feeling of stress and anxiety. Few of my children’s friends are “secure” in their careers, jobs, housing, health, or finances between the ages of 22 and 30. Most of them have education debt and few have savings.

That’s scary for them. And here’s the thing: when I was their age, I was in the same boat but felt less frightened about my situation. I did not have the feeling that the world was dangerous and things might not work out. I was probably wrong about that…

Maybe ignorance is bliss?

~

My parents’ cohort was dubbed “The Silent Generation.” That implies they accomplished nothing, sat back and served roast beef on Sundays while McCarthy and cronies raked through American society looking for communists.

Maya Angelou, Neil Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Harvey Milk, Stephen Sondheim, and Martin Luther King Jr are among the “Silent Generation.”

So here’s the thing: Nomenclature is not destiny.

~

Anxiety requires learning coping skills, whatever works for the individual; the ability to puzzle things out using critical thinking; a sense of independence; development of self confidence and courage. Those are things we attain with maturity and experience as our guides. Millennials–or whatever you call yourselves–you are getting there. It feels slow. It feels scary.

Your elders may forget to tell you about that part, or perhaps wanted somehow to spare you from the realities. Please forgive us.

To millennials, the anxious generation: You got this. You are more educated than any previous generation, more concerned, possibly more compassionate. You know how to tackle complicated problems–you are merely afraid you will make mistakes. Go ahead and make mistakes.

 

 

 

 

Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.

~

So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!

~

I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀

~

Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain

 

 

 

 

 

Words others have written

I’m still feeling a bit alexithymic. The epilogue of Canetti’s Crowds and Power seems so prescient to me,* though that may be because of the cognitive state I am in…trying to decide whether or not to dissociate myself somehow from society at a time when that approach seems appealing but irresponsible. Thoughts about consciousness, what it is, and whether it matters. Thoughts about the value (and what do we mean by value?) of poetry and the arts.

~

My sister’s family, and my husband, were in New York City during the 2003 blackout; my husband was at home on September 11, 2001, but my sister and her family–who are long-time Manhattan residents–went through that experience. Some thoughts from Rebecca Solnit (see link below for a lengthier essay from which these words were excerpted).825px-eso_-_the_milky_way_panorama_by

Rebecca Solnit:

On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them, but the constellations of solidarity, altruism and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-how-to-survive-a-disaster/#

~night

*I may get to this in a future post.

The business of judgment

“Let us start with…the pleasure of pronouncing an unfavourable verdict. ‘A bad book,’ someone says….and he appears to be saying something objective. His face, however, betrays his enjoyment of his words…We constantly catch friends, strangers, or ourselves at this business of judgement, and the pleasure of an unfavourable verdict is always unmistakable.

“It is a cruel pleasure…there is no mercy in it and no caution and it accords best with its real nature when it is reached without reflection. The passion it conceals is betrayed by its speed. It is quick, unconditional judgements which excite the pleasure visible in the face of their author.

Gavel Clipart 31006.jpg“…It consists in relegating something to an inferior group while presupposing a higher group to which we ourselves belong. We exalt ourselves by abasing others. The existence of two opposing kinds, different in value, is assumed to be natural and inevitable. Whatever the good is, it is there to be contrasted with the bad. We ourselves decide what belongs to each.

“For it is only in appearance that a judge stands between the two camps, on the borderline between good from evil…he invariably reckons himself among the good…the things he judges are quite definite and factual; his vast knowledge of good and bad derives from long practical experience. But judgement is also usurped by those who are not judges, whom no-one has appointed, and no-one in his senses would appoint to such an office. No special knowledge is thought necessary…

“At the root of this process lies the urge to form hostile packs, which, in the end, leads inevitably to actual war packs…It depends entirely upon circumstances whether one or the other of these groups engenders enough inner heat to become a pack and attack the opposing group…”

From Elias Canetti Crowds and Power (1960 Masse & Macht; 1962 English tr. Carol Stewart)

Writers. Groups.

Untitled-writerCreative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.

First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?

Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?

And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.

The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?

The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?

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Redbud leaf in fall

I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.

Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.

Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.

During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.

And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.

Just a suggestion.  😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.