Hunger for words, words for hunger

When I was very young, our church became involved in the War on Poverty outlined by the Johnson administration (1964). My father attended events and marches to raise awareness about the fact that many people in this wealthy nation, the USA, were struggling–even starving. It seemed, probably idealistically, that a country as prosperous as the US was in ’64 would find a way to insure that all its citizens could have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. (This was Johnson’s “Great Society”)

A memory:

My sister, my mother, and I are seated at the table in our little apartment kitchen in Yonkers, NY. My father is away on pastoral business, but the previous evening, he’d told us that we were going to fast the next day in solidarity with poor people who never had enough food to eat. The reason for fasting was to let us feel how they must feel.

My little sister thought that was unfair. She was, in her defense, only four years old.

Of course it was unfair. That was the point. Why should some people have plenty of food while others went hungry? That is unfair. (This logic she understood, though I don’t think either of us made more of the connection at that time.)

“You kids won’t fast the whole day,” my folks said–just suppertime.

Now it is suppertime. We are at the table, and the table is bare. We each have a glass of water, not milk. And we are hungry. Our mother has fasted the whole day. Isn’t she hungry? Yes, she says. She’s hungry. It isn’t a good feeling, and we whine awhile, hungry and in addition, bored.

“Okay,” she says, “you can each have a piece of bread. One piece.”

It is something, but it doesn’t fill the stomach.

bread

bread

Another memory:

I’m in my thirties, with young children of my own now, and talking with my mother about her past–a past she has kept from us, and from herself, and is slowly learning to accept. A past that included growing up during the Depression with five siblings. How her father refused, out of pride, any kind of government relief. How hard her mother worked to keep the family from going hungry.

I think, then, that my mother knows what it means to be hungry.

~~

Many decades later, the term for hunger has become, in legislature and grant proposals, “food insecurity.” The jargon, the euphemism, distances us from the facts. People without enough good nutritious food are not insecure. They hunger.

I don’t want words to operate that way, moving the reader away from understanding. I want words to bring us close, to open up the mundane and horrible real and the fervently imagined possible. Language that sears and mends, the interpretation of which also can sear and mend, words that do not act as misprision but as multi-faceted revelation. Those are the words for which I am hungry.

Something that fills the stomach: embodied, flavorful, wonderful words. That’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much, that hunger for the non-distancing. The relationship that brings us truth. The truth that is often unspeakable.

Poems can take us there:

One Kind of Hunger

The Seneca carry stories in satchels.
They are made of  pounded corn and a grandmother’s throat.

The right boy will approach the dampness of a forest with a sling, a modest twining

wreath for the bodies of  birds. A liquid eye.

When ruffed from leaves, the breath of  flight is dissolute.
What else, the moment of  weightlessness before a great plunge?
In a lost place, a stone will find the boy.
Give me your birds, she will say, and I will tell you a story.
A stone, too, admits hunger.
The boy is willing. Loses all his beaks.
What necklace will his grandmother make now.
The sun has given the stone a mouth. With it, she sings of what has been lost.
She sings and sings and sings.
The boy listens, forgets, remembers. Becomes distracted.
The necklace will be heavy, impossible to wear.
~

Lehua M. Taitano

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Backstory, continued

What brought the idea of backstory to mind was a poem of mine that recently appeared in Peacock Journal’s  print anthology. The poem appeared last year in the journal’s online site. (See: “Imagined Painting of Mary Magdalene Bathing.”)

A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”

This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.

“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.

As my good friend knows, I have been intrigued since adolescence by the art and iconography, the symbolism and the stories of the saints, despite my Protestant upbringing. I love art, aesthetics, and the divinely natural (empirical, phenomenal) World and feel an ambiguous but compelling relationship with myth, religion, history and a culture I cannot escape. And I have imagination.

I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.

I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.

~

There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to Amazon.com and purchase the anthology at the link above.

Thank you, friends in literature and imagination.

 

 

 

Poetry & backstory

My primary interests on this site are consciousness, nature, philosophy, the arts, and poetry in particular. Recently, poetry has been taking a backseat to other concerns; but poetry has a way of constantly asserting itself into my consciousness–of whatever that may consist (see previous posts for wrestling with that concept).

I have been reading poetry but not writing about it much and not composing at a productive clip, though I am not feeling “writer’s block.” I have, instead, allowed other events in my life to take over space formerly reserved for writing poems. This is neither bad nor good–it is just the state of affairs at present. Recently, a discussion with a friend brought up an aspect of poetry-writing that I have not spent much time thinking about; and the reason I haven’t is probably because I was warned away from the practice long ago when I first began to write verse.

The practice is “explaining the poem.” Of course, in theory the poem should do its own explaining, and if it requires too much prose telling, then it ought to be fiction or memoir or history or something other than a poem. That’s what my mentors and teachers imparted to me about poetry (all hail received wisdom!), and I do not disagree with this tenet–but having taught classes that introduce people to poetry, let me add a few cautions and qualifiers.

See, there’s explaining, and there’s explaining. One version of explaining the poem is to tell what inspired you, how you started to write it, what you were aiming for in terms of purpose, what you intended to “do” in the poem, and what each of the references means as relates to your life, the nation, culture, religion, or a love affair. If that is what the poet does before reading the poem aloud or presenting it upon the page, then the poet is doing all of the poem’s work for it. Too much information.

If the audience does not understand or appreciate the poem without this sort of explanation, then you have either a failed poem or a failed audience.

Then there are forms of interpretation and analysis by critics, reviewers, or fans; these texts or discussions can be immensely interesting and fruitful but do not involve the poet him or herself, so they do not really qualify as “explanations.” This process is what we try to teach students to do in university literary analysis coursework. Sometimes we encounter lackluster or lazy audiences in the classroom: people who want the professor or the textbook to do all the work of understanding poems for them. Poems are complex, like polymer molecules or neurological wiring. Not easy to explain.

But there are explanations of a kind that can be valuable, even if they are fabishop lowell ltrsr from necessary when one encounters a really terrific poem. There are reasons to learn the backstory of a poem, if such a thing exists for that particular poem (not all poems have one). Anyway, it may be worth asking the poet about it, if she is still living and can answer or if the answer may be deduced from archival materials. We have learned the backstories of a few Elizabeth Bishop poems, just taking one well-known poet as an example (see Words in Air); the stories–in this case, letters–do not necessarily help readers interpret a poem or even understand it any better, but the stories remind us that the poem was initially embodied in the brain of another human being who was undergoing and observing experiences–or leaping into realms of imagination.

More about why that’s a good thing, and more about the embodiment of the human brain, in later posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not enough

The fall semester is about to begin, a very busy time for me and my colleagues. I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone, yet I have some deep and worrying concerns that distract me from the evaluations, curriculum preparation, scheduling, and staff meetings. Among the 40+ students who attended our university’s summer “bridge” program for college transitions, at least six openly expressed fears about being accepted and wondered how to deal with prejudice on and off campus. I am pretty sure they spoke for others who kept such fears to themselves.

We do not have answers for them. We can only say: Be yourselves, and be that well; say what matters, and say it forcefully but non-violently; and tell us if you feel afraid or need support–we promise we will stand with you.

That promise I take as seriously as any promise I make to my family members or best-beloveds–even though my students are “strangers” to me. I will intervene if I notice that they are threatened in any way. I’m a writer; I know that words, too, can cause harm.

And maybe that promise is not enough.

And maybe marching is not enough (read about marching here and here).

I am by nature a quiet person. But being quiet is not enough.

hate has no home

It is not enough. It is, however, a start.

Truth as relationship

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What is truth? Is there an absolute truth? Is truth relative? Can it be relative and simultaneously absolute? I have not been much of a sojourner on the path to truth, because other things interest me more; however, in 2017, what constitutes truth has become a topic of contemporary discussion–in the most superficial ways imaginable.

And as I have been reading about Josiah Royce in Harry Cotton’s text, the definition of truth and the concept of The Absolute (the philosophy of which Royce and his dear friend William James often argued over) raise their abstract heads and ask for understanding.

Royce insists that truth is not something that happens. It’s not a verb, though people often employ the concept of truth when referring to occurrences: It happened just this way, so I know it is true. That’s a scientist’s empirical truth, or a pragmatist’s truth, someone who believes in his or her own experiences–a truth-in-action. It is also by nature individual in essence.

Just so, says Royce, but what happens to that truth-in-action once the action has stopped, the occurrence is over? Is the event still true? It is now past, and therefore has passed into the realm of memory or idea. Any number of other probabilities could have occurred in experience but did not, and it would be impossible to disprove all of those possibilities in order to prove something that happened as “true.” Cotton sums the thinking up (and you’d have to read Royce’s work on this idea to get the better picture) as “Indeed, no series of events can determine the truth of an idea.” Rather than being an event, Truth, says Royce,

…is a relation whereby various possible or real objects, events, ideas, counsels, and deeds are joined, in ideal at least, into one significant whole. This whole is no one event, or mere set of distinct events. It is a connected life process.    [my italics]

I cannot say I am wholly convinced by Royce’s philosophy in general; but I do like the concept of truth as “a connected life process,” which–to my own mind and given my predilections  about life and consciousness and truth–rings true.

 

Writing assignment

I’m beginning to gear up for the fall semester. As usual, I spend a couple of weeks revising last year’s curriculum, on which I have noted what worked/what didn’t work, what needs to be reinforced, what has changed in the incoming skill sets of students born in [yikes!] 1999, what’s changed in the fields of documentation and information retrieval and research during the past year [lots!].

In the process, I entertained the idea of a writing assignment for the people in our U.S. legislative bodies. The more I thought about it, the more fun I had with it. Then, I changed it from a joke assignment–because really, our nation’s government is a serious thing; too many jokes and parodies end up contributing to the problem.USConstitution

Honestly, I think this would be a valuable experience for our representatives and something few of them have done since their college years. I, for one, would like to read the essays my representatives would write.

I’m also thinking that this would be a good project for my student writers–to have each of them compose a writing assignment for legislators–or for the audience of their choice. It feels a little empowering to say, “Here are your requirements; write something for me to read.”

So here it is.

~

Assignment for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, to be completed during recess and returned for evaluation at the conclusion thereof.

The text: Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Preparation: Read Goodwin’s book carefully, taking notes as you read. Especially, annotate sections of the text that feel particularly relevant to you or to contemporary issues in government. Also note themes, such as loyalty (to whom or to what?), relationships (personal and political), conflicting interests (there’s a war going on, but also more than that), compromises, responsibility (to constituents, to party, to nation, to family, to self) and status in its many forms.

The assignment prompt: Write a reflective response argument to Goodwin’s text, demonstrating that you understand her book’s purpose and showing how you might implement something among Lincoln’s strategies to change the paradigms currently operating in the legislative branch of government; offer evidence of why this strategy would be effective and what steps could be taken to create a political environment more receptive to a cohesive government even given considerable disagreement among parties. Close with a paragraph reflecting on your own political challenges and how these parallel or differ from the conflicts in Lincoln’s 38th Congress and in his cabinet.

Secondary sources may be used but are limited to: The Constitution of the United States; The Declaration of Independence; and Supreme Court justice opinions, historical or contemporary. No other source material permitted.

Page count: between 10 and 15 pages, exclusive of works cited or footnotes.

 

Evaluation: Each essay will be number-coded and read blind by another member of the legislature (House by other House representatives, Senate by other Senators). Each reader will write a two-paragraph response to the essay and give it a grade of 1-5 (5 being the best) based upon argument, evidence, clarity of writing and of ideas, proof that the writer understood the text material, and ability to stay on the essay prompt. Ideological off-topic “responses” and plagiarism receive a grade of 0.

Essays that demonstrate exemplary thinking and reflect an ability to apply skills learned from the readings, those that receive a grade of 5, will be circulated to members of both houses of government and to the presidential cabinet, of whomever that may consist at any given time. At this time, the authors’ names will be revealed.

After the evaluations have been completed, all essays will be filed online as .pdfs for constituents–and all citizens–to download and examine.

Living U.S. Presidents, past and current, and presidential cabinet members, should consider participating in this essay-writing project and making their work public to ensure a level of open, diplomatic discourse in the public arena.

~

Well, I can dream. Can’t I?