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!

 

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Back to metaphor

I recently read James Geary’s entertaining book I Is an Other–The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary takes his title from one of Rimbaud‘s letters, calling this phrase metaphor’s “principal equation”:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

I like this definition because it feels more complete than the typical definition of metaphor as a comparison without the use of the adverbial comparative (i.e., no “like” or “as”). Indeed, metaphor probably forms the basis of language itself; while that conclusion’s much debated in semiotics, linguistics, and other scholarly disciplines, common sense and common usage strongly suggest that even thought itself–in terms of how we think internally about the world–employs metaphor as an underpinning.

Maybe I believe so because I’m a poet. Geary, as it turns out, has written some poetry, though he’s best known for his books about words, word origins, wordplay, aphorisms, witticisms, and the like. (He’s also got a TED talk…everybody’s got a TED talk…)

As to poetry, and how metaphor behaves in the poem’s context, I like what Geary says here (although in this excerpt it’s not actually poetry he’s discussing, but rhetoric):

Readers actively retrieve a metaphor’s meaning, just as a punch line requires listeners to resolve a joke’s incongruities for themselves…though the speaker may make the metaphor, the hearer makes its meaning. Hearer and speaker are accomplices; the one unpacks what the other presents. In terms of creativity, producing a metaphor and penetrating one are almost the same act.

I think the above lines go far to explaining why I love to read poetry and also provide implications as to why poems can be so damned difficult to compose. The poet endeavors to create a context and container for an often-unknown audience who will nonetheless need to invest, one hopes willingly, in the process of reorganizing the surprising (metaphor) into the recognizable.

And what a fine task that is!

2011A-rainbow

Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.

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Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry books & the $

April has been designated National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets–the campaign was launched in 1996–and because I write poetry and love the art, and read poetry and know poets personally as well as through books, I try to keep the awareness of the month-long love-feast for the crafted word going in whatever small way I can. Hence, if a reader should happen to type the words “National Poetry Month” in the searchbar on this page, said reader would find tagged posts on the subject going back about eight years.

Some years I have endeavored to draft a poem a day for 30 days, some years I have been active giving and performing readings, some years in teaching; it varies on circumstance and energy. This year, I am celebrating by reading more than by writing.

When I buy poetry books, I try to purchase them–if possible–from the author or from the author’s original publisher rather than more cheaply (Amazon, used books, etc.) The author gets no royalties from books bought second-hand, and because few poets are rolling in cash from book sales–and while gaining an audience may be of value–even a small royalty check is a welcome thing, a confirmation of the work in the world.

Best-selling poetry is not necessarily the “best” poetry. Those of us who love the art can contribute in small ways by using the almighty dollar to support the writers we think need to be read.

Here are some poetry books I have bought, or borrowed from my library, in the past two weeks or so. I don’t usually go this crazy with poetry-bingeing; but as I’m not doing much else for Poetry Month this year, I figured I would contribute by doing what I love best: reading books!

Lesley Wheeler, Propagation; Louise Gluck, A Village Life; Grant Clauser, The Magician’s Handbook; Jan Clausen, Veiled Spill: A Sequence; Luisa A. Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having a Mid-life Crisis; Aaron Baker, Posthumous Noon; Ian Haight, Celadon; Erica Dawson, The Small Blades Hurt; Brian Turner, Here, Bullet; Margaret Gibson, The Broken Cup. There will be others!

And two notable non-poetry books I loved, Elena Georgiou’s The Immigrant’s Refrigerator, short stories; and Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (a subject close to my own heart–her approach to the book and her history with it ring close to my own experiences).

There will be others, if I have any spare time. I am also planning to read a book by philosopher Andy Clark and a biography of C. S. Lewis and to proofread my brother’s latest paper on Samuel George Morton. If only the weather were warm enough that I could read in the hammock!

hammock

image from www.meditationrelaxationclub.com

 

Blogs

The snow’s receded, and the crocuses open; yet another wintry storm looms. Nonetheless, the past three days have felt less like thaws and more like spring itself. Today, I’m listing some great blogs to browse, breeze through, or peruse…as I am at present falling a bit behind on the Blog Tour (among other things).

muscari

 

There may be a hiatus to follow…in the meantime, follow these!

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Good blogs on what it means to be a poet, in or out of academia, and to keep slugging away at the job:

Jeannine Hall Gailey, who has a new book about promoting & marketing one’s poetry (available from Two Sylvias Press): http://webbish6.com/

Diane Lockward: http://dianelockward.blogspot.com/

Lesley Wheeler: https://lesleywheeler.org/author/thecavethehive/

Grant Clauser: https://uniambic.com/

Donna Vorreyer: https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/author/djvorreyer/

Kelli Russell Agodon: http://ofkells.blogspot.com/

Dedicated poem-a-day or nearly a-poem-a-day bloggers who actually write good poems:

Lou Faber: https://anoldwriter.com/

Luisa Igloria, whose fine book The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having a Mid-life Crisis just came out from Beth Adams’ (15+ years of blogging! @ Cassandra Pages) Phoenicia Publishing: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/luisa/

And Dave Bonta, also 15 years blogging, who does a mighty job of crowdsourcing poetry and poets: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/dave/

Then these blogs, which often blend visual art with poetry, or poetry with visual art, such as:

Marilyn McCabe: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/

Art critic and artist Sigrun Omstreifer: https://omstreifer.com/

Artist Deborah Barlow: http://www.slowmuse.com/

And finally, a field biologist (specialty: entomology, bees in particular, but she photographs omnivorously) who loves poetry and posts the occasional poem amid her informative essays on birds, bugs, landscapes, hikes, travel, dogs, and all things lively and worth investigating: https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com

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That should keep readers busy for National Poetry Month and beyond!

 

Curation

Recently, I spent awhile browsing the Walter Kerr collection of books in the library of the college that employs me. Kerr and his wife Jean were writers in New York in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; he was best known as a theater critic and she as a playwright and essayist. His family donated his books to the school, and it occurred to me during my perusal that this section of the stacks seems more personal than the collection as a whole. Here are Kerr’s quirky book choices, his favored influences, his academic interests with a place among the trendier tomes on movies and Broadway.

A personal library acts as a unit, books that are kept together rather than disbursed upon the death (or before-death donation) of the book collector. It therefore parallels–and predates, of course–the social media concept of the curated self:

Through the ongoing process of organizing content and media elements which create personal profiles for specific audiences, social media users inadvertently curate versions of themselves. Social media turns users into curators as they create distinct incarnations that are separate, yet become the objectified digital presentation of one’s physical self. [definition from socialcurators at weebly]

“Curating” seems to be a trending concept these days, so I naturally checked the etymology:

derives from cure: c. 1300, “care, heed,” from Latin cura “care, concern, trouble,” with many figurative extensions, such as “study; administration; a mistress,” and also “means of healing, remedy,” from Old Latin coira, a noun of unknown origin. Meaning “medical care” is late 14c. (https://www.etymonline.com)

Among those “many figurative extensions” is the curator in the sense of library science or museum administration. Now we can add social media users to the extension metaphors.

Perhaps curating oneself is more natural than I initially thought. My library probably offers a means of knowing who I am, or at any rate what I choose to value given what I have learned in my past; what we leave behind–as in Mr. Kerr’s library collection–becomes who we may be to others.

If they study, if they speculate, if they care.

While I was at the library, I borrowed a few books (of course). I will write about Arthur Frank’s classic book The Wounded Storyteller soon, I hope, in conjunction with some poems I’ve been working on. I also borrowed poetry collections by Matthea Harvey, Rachel Hadas, and Larry Levis.

Am I curating my life?

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Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

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Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂