Language acquisition & its opposite

When my children were learning to talk, I developed a fascination with language  acquisition. The process of learning to communicate with other human beings in the lingua franca of the culture (speaking US English to adults) was taking place in front of me. I felt awed by the intelligence required to decipher language and delighted by the myriad ways the process and behavior unfolded. For about a year, I seriously considered enrolling in university to pursue a Master’s degree in some sort of language/linguistics-related discipline.

But I had two toddlers and lacked the energy, time, and money to devote to diligent scholarship of that sort. Instead, I took my usual autodidactic approach: reading and observing. One thing of vivid interest to me at the time was how differently my children each approached “learning to talk.” In retrospect, I recognize that their differences in personality and their differing cognitive strengths made significant impacts upon language acquisition, implementation, expression, and use.

ponchos~

 

At present, my interests in language revolve about the other end of the lifespan of human communication–the loss of language abilities as people age. The elderly Beloveds in my life are displaying markedly differing changes in how they experience, and express, cognitive gaps. Often the expression of such gaps appears in the way they speak.

This would be the opposite of language acquisition. Memory losses, or slower memory retrieval functions, are common to most adults over age 70; but those issues do not necessarily affect sentence structure, vocabulary, pronunciation, descriptive abilities, and emotive communication through language. Strokes, neurovascular constriction, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other physiological alterations, can exert marked effects on verbal and written communication, however. Hearing loss and diminished vision exacerbate these problems.

All too often, the human being seems “lost” beneath the symptoms or becomes isolated as a result of the immense challenges to human relationships we have taken for granted for decades of being relatively “non-impaired.”

The loss of language skills intrigues me as much as the acquisition; my readings in neuropsychology and neurobiology have taught me that there is so much yet to learn about the brain and how it processes–well, almost everything (but my special interest is communication).

And my experience with people who are aging, or in some cases–my hospice volunteer work–dying, demonstrates on a personal or anecdotal level how uniquely individual each one of us is. How we communicate, how we express ourselves, our neurological processes, our physiology, temperament, environment, genetic makeup…so gloriously complex, random, fascinating.

Maga

The late Edna Smith Michael in 1990. Her language skills stayed quite intact until her last hospitalization.

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Some recent reading–

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology (Paul Broks); Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body (Jo Marchant); The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker)

A post I put up awhile back contains my poem “Age as a Foreign Language.” Apropos here, I think.

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And no, I am not tempted to enroll in further formal study on this topic. But reading suggestions will be gratefully accepted!

 

Conditioning

In regards to my last post: I’ve conferred with some people who knew Jack Fisher, and I may have mis-remembered parts of the story. Although those who knew him agree it sounds like something he would do, no one else can place the painting that I recall. His daughter says it’s possible I saw a sketch or preliminary painting that Jack never completed. (She definitely recalls how much he abhorred the water tower!) If so, perhaps his talking about the possibilities of the composition made an impact on me, even if the work itself was a watercolor sketch that never made it to canvas. Entirely possible.

The point of my post remains the same, however–that “ugly” things can be understood in ways that may offer new perspectives on what we consider beautiful.

I guess what I am trying to get to qualifies as a kind of conditioning. That’s now a therapeutic approach to teaching people how to overcome, say, a phobia of airplanes or elevators. You put your toe in the water, so to speak, or learn about the thing that causes fear. And knowledge can overcome fear. Not always, but often.

Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.

famous photo construction workers

‘Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper’ Charles Ebbets, 1932

My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.

It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.

Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.

I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up…    [yikes!]

 

The poet’s “I”

So often, when reading a poem written using the first-person perspective, my initial reaction is to consider the poet as the narrator–even though I ought to know better!

When I revisit the poem, when I analyze or interpret it on a more abstract or intellectual level, my view may alter. Interpretation sometimes leads me to decide that the “I” in a first-person poem may be a persona, a stand-in for the poet, or a perspective not of the poet’s personal experience but imagined or constructed. The foregoing are reasons to read and interpret poems with care and not to conclude, automatically, that the poet is writing from or of her own experience.

This makes poets sound like rather slippery or manipulative characters, employing use of the personal pronoun to mislead readers into believing something that isn’t “strictly true” (whatever that means). If I am telling a story, surely it must be my story; and if it isn’t my story—shouldn’t I confess that to my open-minded, engaged, possibly gullible reader? If a poem falls into the category of lyrical, readers tend to believe that the writer and narrator are one and the same, despite a reminder in the glossary of terms that the narrator who “expresses personal feelings” may be “the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker.” In other words—not the poet’s own feelings, despite the apparent authenticity implied in the use of the first-person pronoun.

Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.

I have been asking myself why and how it happens that poets sometimes—often, perhaps—end up composing texts from other points of view, masquerading as their own. There seem to be a couple of reasons, one of which is simply that we practice writing by using our own much-loved poems as models. The lyric poem has a long history, and even autodidactic students of poetry eventually find that the biographies of some of their favorite writers do not correlate perfectly with the works themselves.

The lyric narrative has been around for less time, gradually supplanting the epic by drawing upon the ballad. And it’s here that readers often get confused about who is the “I” that tells the story, especially when emotional expressions of one kind or another enter the narrative.

I have more to say about this aspect of the poetic stance, the poet’s voice, and the lyrical narrative as lived or imagined experience. And about how that sort of thing evolves during the writing and revision process—with an example or two. But that is for another post. Meanwhile, I am mulling.

Image: Monterey Bay Spice Company

Mulling Spices

Slightly less difficult books

photo ann e. michaelI recently read Paul Bloom’s book Descartes’ Baby while simultaneously reading Daniel Dennett’s Content & Consciousness. Of these two, the latter falls a bit under the “difficult books” category, but it is not too hard to follow as philosophy goes. Dennett’s book is his first–the ideas that evolved as his PhD thesis–and in these arguments it is easy to see his trademark humor and his deep interest in the ways neurology and psychology have aspects useful to philosophy. Bloom’s book, a somewhat easier read, suggests that the mind-body problem evolved naturally from human development: young children are “essentialists” for whom dualism is innate; Descartes simply managed to write particularly well about the evolutionary project (with which, I should note, Bloom disagrees; as a cognitive psychologist, he maintains a more materialist stance).

It turns out that because I have read widely if shallowly in the areas of philosophy, cognitive psychology, evolution, art, aesthetics, and story-making, I find myself able to recognize the sources and allusions in texts such as these. Quine, Popper, Darwin, Pinker, and Wittgenstein; Schubert, Kant, Keats, Dostoevsky, Rilke…years of learning what to read next based on what I am currently reading have prepared me for potentially difficult books. [Next up, Gilbert Ryle and possibly Berkeley.] I don’t know why I feel so surprised and happy about this. It’s as though I finally realized I am a grownup!

And I am glad to discover I am not yet too old to learn new things, young enough to remember things I know, and intellectually flexible enough to apply the information to other topic areas. Synthesis! Building upon previously-laid foundations! Maslow’s theory of humanistic education! Bloom’s taxonomy! The autodidact at work in her solitary effort at a personal pedagogy.

If I ever really discover what consciousness is, I’ll let you know.

 

 

 

Autodidact as adult student: Goddard & me

In a previous post, I mentioned my peculiar undergraduate experiences at alternative institutes of higher education (The New School) and how being a book-loving autodidact influenced, perhaps even configured, my approach to education. My favored learning strategies led me to a non-traditional graduate school program, as well. Reflecting upon my higher education, I realize that every institution I attended chose alternatives to standard pedagogy–and I am grateful that such colleges exist. The world needs outliers.

A kind of heaven.

The New School’s pedagogy for the “Freshman Year Program” was seminar-based. That worked very well for me. Classes were small, discussion-centered, predicated on the reading of significant original texts–no textbooks. The professor was not a lecturer but a participant-coach and mentor.

The program was only a year long, however, so I had to transfer. There were a number of experimental college programs in the 1960s and 1970s; without the miracle of internet searching, however, they were not easy to locate. I did not find out about St. John’s College, Reed, or Evergreen, for example. I stumbled instead upon Thomas Jefferson College (now defunct) in Michigan.

I completed my undergraduate studies without ever seeing a syllabus. Yet I read more books than the majority of my standard-pedagogy-educated peers and discussed classic and contemporary texts, science and history and literature, in depth with my peers and with scholars. I wrote a lot and did hands-on projects, independent studies, experiments and interviews. TJC drew criticism for its ‘flakiness’ and ‘lack of oversight,’ (some of which, I can attest, was deserved); however, the former college president “described TJC as perhaps too far from the mainstream, but attracting excellent students, noting that ‘Thomas Jefferson College…was sending a larger percentage to graduate school than the College of Arts and Sciences.'” Yes, but in my case it took awhile to get there.

Much water under the proverbial bridge: suffice it to say that in 2000, I returned to college to pursue a masters degree…and I wanted to learn in the kind of environment that suited my style. There were other factors then, as well: two children, for example, and responsibilities I had not encountered as an undergrad. On the other hand, by 2000 I was an adult and more motivated and disciplined than I could ever have been at age 19.

I chose Goddard College for a number of reasons, foremost its small seminar-style instruction, its mix of workshops and instruction, its focus on readings, annotations, mentoring, and community-building among students and faculty–reaching outward into the world at large. The low-residency format only works if the student is independent and self-directed, which–as a returning, “adult” student–I certainly was. I appreciated the school’s more interdisciplinary approach to the creative writing program. We didn’t have to face off, pegging ourselves as poets or fiction writers. And creative non-fiction was taken seriously as a genre to develop voice, style, and depth…it could be studied and parsed. That endeavor of interdisciplinary arts education is true of a few institutions now but was rather new among MFA programs in the late 1990s.

Another college without core requirements, without syllabi, without standard formats. But, like New School and TJC, Goddard offers excellent professors dedicated to students’ intellectual enrichment and personal transformation, small-group discussions, and narrative evaluations. I knew how to balance life’s responsibilities when I enrolled, and I knew what kind of teaching I’d respond best to. How did I learn that? See above. Suits my philosophical, bookwormish, autodidactic approach to–well, practically everything!

Discourse: talking about poetry

This post is a response to Fox Chase Review‘s post which can be found here: Poetry in Decline?

“G” asked for responses to the need for a revolution in (USA) poetry, stemming from Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s comments. Her ideas were excerpted, so I may be missing some of her assertions or evidence. In one way, she echoes Dana Gioia’s famous “Can Poetry Matter?” essay and book (1992): that is, in terms of questioning the isolated, academic support of poetry, poetry study, MFAs, and university publishers as elitist and as dampening a wider audience for poetry. While Gioia tends to support the literary canon in general, he stresses in his early essay that poetry has its own specialized, “frenzied” little circle of literary lights but that the art itself no longer exerts much influence on life, culture, and thinking in the USA.

From Gioia’s introduction:

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Sahms-Guarnieri further suggests that isolated, academic styles of poetry are partially to blame for poetry’s “decline” among US readers and calls for a return to realism.

I’m not sure “realism” is the answer, because many infusions of style, energy, or revolution that have done poetry good as a whole have not exactly fallen into that category (was Lorca a realist? just as one example). I embrace the idea of the narrative-lyric mode, which may be considered a kind of realism; but I also love many, many other styles of poetry, some of which are “difficult” and not easily accessible to the general reader. The main means through which I learned the diverse structures and approaches to poetry is through reading on my own, autodidact that I am. Yet formal study and literary criticism increased and deepened my passion for this art. I teeter on the fringe of academia though I am a poet who writes outside of the classic academic framework.

I feel compelled to defend the teaching of poetry, though I admit the process is often done badly. Still, one of the things academia does best is to examine the work, and I feel readers who examine what they love more closely will benefit from doing so (rather than taking the “I know what I like” stance). Academics have, since the 1970s, begun seriously to read beyond “the canon,” and that is all to the good. Academia doesn’t produce the best art, however. Knowing how things work in theory does not equal expertise. I know how a bicycle works, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t build one from scratch.

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The poems that remain timeless are seldom elitist. The problem with the elite is that it eventually falls from grace. When that occurs, the allusions and puns and, often, the entire foundation of the piece get lost. This issue can be equally true of poems that are “realistic.” If the poem offers no recognizable aesthetic, purpose, or sensation, it ceases to be valuable to future readers. Many of today’s poems will suffer this fate–mine among them–and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get to judge which art is revolutionary, prescient, timeless; later generations make those judgments.

And that is one reason many writers resent academia and university presses: it seems as though these institutions are “at the top of the mountain” and trying to keep their situations exclusive; in other words, they are acting as cultural, literary judges. So they are…in their time. They cannot enshrine themselves for the future. Art doesn’t work that way.

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Contemporary Poetry Review claims it is there to resuscitate contemporary poetry, which implies poetry’s suffering a near-death experience. I do not think poetry is dying. I think it is changing, which it has always done, because art is responsive to and entangled with culture and therefore defies stasis.

Poetry, like most art, tends to exist on the cultural fringe, where it hangs out with curious, inventive people who bother to seek for it. Some of them look on the mountain top, and some of them look online, or in pubs that host open mics, or at independent bookstores, long may they thrive. With luck, and maybe some encouragement, those people might buy a book or two–including POD-published or self-published books (why not? –and while you’re at it, Water-Rites is still available!). This last point coincides somewhat with Larry Robins’ perspective in the Fox Chase Review piece.

If you really do know what you like, regardless of how you make that judgment, buy a copy of the book. And don’t get it second-hand from Amazon if you can help it–buy from the small press or the author or an indie book shop if you can find one in your area. Read it again and again, and figure out why you like it. Tell someone else. Discuss what you love.

That’s what keeps poetry alive.

water-rites_cover

Difficult criticism

I have a list of books to read, yet I am often reading something else. Something I have stumbled on in the library or on a friend’s site or bookshelf…

The most recent of these is Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self, a book of essays on lyricism in poetry that has a distinctly classicist bent. It’s an odd book, though, because there are tightly-controlled, scholarly critical essays in here and also memoir; the book closes with a journal witnessing her father’s dying. I’ve found the personal pieces thought-provoking and often lovely. I’ve found her criticism scholarly and difficult.

The fault is mostly mine: I have very limited background in classicism. No Latin, no ancient Greek, few readings of the classic writers even in translation. By the classic writers I mean such early Western poets as Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Theocritus, Ovid, Sappho, Euripides (but also Dante, Milton, etc.). These are foundational works, but they did not act as my foundation for poetry or poetics; I studied them later in my readings of poetry–and not in a scholarly way. Warren kindly offers translations for all of the original dead language passages she quotes, so she understands that her audience may be less familiar with the texts than she is. Nevertheless, I find this book quite difficult to read, since I am always stopping to look things up or re-read a paragraph and make certain I am following her exposition or argument.

It is challenging to me to read a discussion of, say, Mark Strand’s poetry that uses Horace’s odes or the poems of Alcaeus to demonstrate the thread of the pastoral that appears in Strand’s work. Yet by reading these essays, I learn about the alcaic lyric stanza and can pursue more on that topic if it interests me. I can go to Horace knowing a little more what to expect (as I only know his most famous/familiar georgics). I’m reminded of being in my 20s and reading Proust (yes, all the way through); I kept taking notes on what else to read…Racine, for example…as those allusions appeared in the novel. As a result, I got quite an education–if a rather eccentric, autodidactic one–in classic French literature and art and music. Then I read Hugo and Flaubert and Baudelaire. My life would be less rich if I hadn’t been moved to pursue those references beyond the text.

Similarly, I am likely to be reading more of the classical literature, and perhaps to understand it a bit better (as to how it relates to contemporary life and art) thanks to Rosanna Warren.

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading!