Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

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After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

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Process

William Stafford:

A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way…A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

Writing is a process that elicits consciousness in the individual writer, often as the writing unfolds. Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

imagestafford

Perhaps oddly–perhaps not–Stafford’s definition that what a writer is comes down to what a writer does bears a certain resemblance to Gerald Edelman‘s “neural Darwinism” theory (ca. 1989 in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, a more reader-friendly version of models developed in his neural topology trilogy*). Edelman basically says consciousness isn’t a “thing in itself” so much as it is a process that the embodied brain does. The brain’s processing capabilities are individual and endlessly myriad and they operate, claims Edelman, through the re-entry of information in intricately complicated links and physiological systems.  Thus, through evolution’s incremental layering of human beings’ brains, what we call higher-order consciousness makes its appearance.

And then on to gesture, semantics, lexicon, syntax, language, culture, &c.

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Gerald Edelman:

What is daunting about consciousness is that it does not seem to be a matter of behavior. It just is–winking on with the light, multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours. It is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is for ourselves but can only judge its existence in others by inference.

…Once a self is developed through social and linguistic interactions on a base of primary consciousness, a world develops that requires naming and intending. This world reflects inner events that are recalled, and imagined events, as well as outside events that are perceptually experienced. Tragedy becomes possible–the loss of the self by death or mental disorder, the remembrance of unassuageable pain. By the same token, a high drama of creation and endless imagination emerges…The wish to go beyond these limits [of embodiment] creates contradiction, fantasy, and a mystique that makes the study of the mind especially challenging; for after a certain point, in its individual creations at least, the mind lies beyond scientific reach…the reason for the limit is straightforward: The forms of embodiment that lead to consciousness are unique in each individual, unique to his or her body and individual history. [italics mine]

To me, this passage–in a book about neural mapping and brain physiology–feels “poetic.” But what do I mean when I say the concept of embodied consciousness, and consciousness as a series of intricate, synthesized processes, coincides with being a writer? Or in my case specifically, a poet?

It has something to do with taking in the world–through the senses, which is all my body’s really got–and synthesizing all those years of experiences, memories, books I’ve read, poems and plays I’ve loved, people I’ve known, relationships with the environment and with human beings and with other creatures, the whole of my personal cosmos. Referents and reentrants. Relationships actual and imagined. “The remembrance of unassuageable pain.” The process of loafing through the world.

Writing, where much of my so-called consciousness dwells. Not in the outcome, the resulting poems or essays, but in the doing.

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More about writing-related processes and politics here: Poet Bloggers


* Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection; Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology; The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness.

Berrying

Each year, dill starts going to seed as the beans plump out almost overnight. It’s time to make dilly beans, if you can stand to work in the kitchen, canning–as my grandmothers always did, without the assistance of air conditioning.

No, thanks. I prefer beans fresh. I rise as early as I can and harvest them before the sun gets too high. This morning, I remembered to look for blackberries, too.

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Turns out this is a good year for blackberries. The canes are loaded with fruit and weighted with vining wild grapes and honeysuckle. The latter bloomed rather late this year and are still putting forth fragrant flowers. The marvelous scent made berry-picking quite soothing.

Soon, the catbirds and orioles and everyone else will be harvesting these berries. Despite their thorns (which didn’t deter me, either).

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It has been far too hot to work in the garden, however; so I have been writing, and submitting work to literary journals, and even painting a little–something I have not done in years. Finding ways to be both creative and relaxed. Much needed.

Linkage

Thanks to a student who pointed out how many of the links to the right (on this blog page) were inoperable, I have finally updated them. Well, most of them; I have limited time for tweaking around on my WordPress settings page.

Links appeal to me because they mean connection. The interconnectedness of the web parallels the many relationships among human beings, societies, and environmental entities from forest to desert, as well as infrastructural connections from town to city and across waters and the physiological connections that make life in a carbon-based embodiment possible. And neuro-connections that maintain our pulses and our consciousness–without such linkages, what would we be?

linkage-5 University of Utah

see link in para. 3

Our genetic linkage influences what we look like, what forms of illness or robustness our bodies possess, and the likelihood of carrying those traits to our offspring.

When we link ideas or concepts or theories, the resulting concatenation can be innovative, revelatory, novel–even if the result is a failure, there’s much to learn from trying to solve the puzzles we encounter when putting together unlike things.

Writing a poem, for example, involves such a combinatory effort. Combinatory logic is a mathematical concept but an intriguing metaphor for what poets do when we mash together observations with ideas and emotions and whatever values each writer operates under.

Linkage permits us to steer things, too, and to integrate systems elegantly:

baesystems-parallelhybridrives_OEMoff highway

[thanks to OEM Off-Highway]

So, please check out the links to my work and to the interesting sites on the right of the page on this post. And likewise, links below (yes, I am still taking part in reading blogs on the Blog Tour!)

On capital letters in poems and making craft choices in poetry, an interesting blog post by Marly Youmans.

And Leslie Wheeler on whether a poem can be a monument.

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May you remain always connected, one way or another.

Whelmed

The other day, I mentioned to a friend that I anticipate a busy May, what with sundry beloveds graduating and having birthdays, and visitors from far places, and the end of the academic year at my place of employ, and prime planting-out-the-vegetable-garden season upon me…

She said perhaps I am overwhelmed.

All of the above events are wonderful things. And I have considerable help in accomplishing them, so there are no great burdens on my shoulders. Overwhelmed sounds, well, overstated. That got me thinking about the words overwhelmed and its opposite, underwhelmed–is there a “whelmed,” just on its own?

Turns out there is (archaic, notes Merriam-Webster):

WHELM transitive verb
1. to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something; cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling
intransitive verb to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

And its source is Middle English (thank you, Online Etymology Dictionary):

early 14c., Middle English whelmen “to turn upside down”… Figurative sense of overwhelm as “to bring to ruin” is attested from 1520s.

Maybe I am whelmed, then, as per definition 2 above; the feeling I have doesn’t jive with the connotation of “to bring ruin.”

At any rate, I herewith offer some diversions by writers of other blogs and sites instead of my own work–with the exception of the first link on “Say It Today.” Read and explore and allow what’s delightful to wash over you without disastrous effect.  🙂

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From Haverfordwest Library, accessed through Casgliad y Werin Cymru

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Brothers & Storytellers, a brief essay of gratitude at Say It Today

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Lesley Wheeler’s delightful, on-the-spur-of-the-moment, Day 29 of National Poetry Month poem should amuse those who write poetry and those who meditate and…well, just fun.

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Donna Vorreyer on writing “a whole lotta poems.

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Kelli Russell Agodon on writing a poem a day (and forgetting about quality).

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Finally, Theodora Goss on love, home, and work–priorities that feel pretty “right” to me.

Friendships

April: a busy time. During my busy times at work or on the home front, I often spend less time with my friends.

The best thing about that is: my friends understand. They will still be there when I crawl out from under whatever has me crushed for time, whether it’s illness, job stress, time-consuming family-related challenges, home maintenance, garden or lawn work, travel, or depression.

[insert here, me, waving to my friends!]

Social media is no substitute, although I confess to using it to keep connections with those I care about. Social media, for example, has been significant in helping me to stay in touch with poetry colleagues; but much as I admire and learn from other writers, they play different roles in my life than friends do. Also, even from the beginning of my Facebook use, I knew the platform essentially was a “me and those like me” social bubble.

The specter of “us vs. them” has raised its snarling head on social media sites ever since the early days of chat rooms. There’s a reason for that, and Natalie Angier of The New York Times reports on some recent findings in this article:

 

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Meanwhile, on the “unalloyed good” side of friendship–The real friend listens, gets busy herself, drops a line now and then if I’ve been absent for awhile, and drops everything if I find myself in difficulties and ask for help.

She or he also shares my brainwaves, apparently–and not just metaphorically! The studies Angier writes about in the article below offer some really intriguing possibilities about human beings as social animals and how our brains work. PubMed.gov lists a large number of research articles that examine the topic of health, neuroscience, and sociability; the interconnectedness strikes me as relevant and fascinating.

 

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Boy, do I love neuroscience! This work synthesizes physical actuality with metaphorical possibilities in ways that inspire me.

Probably, there will be poems. Meanwhile, if you want to watch some brain functions in action, some cool animations: http://www.neuroplastix.com/styled-99/therapeuticanimations.html

 

Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

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Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

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Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

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And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

newt-eft2

Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

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[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].