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.

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Obstructions

Things that get in the way, viz., from Online Etymology Dictionary:

1530s, from Latin obstructionem (nominative obstructio) “an obstruction, barrier, a building up,” noun of action from past participle stem of obstruere “build up, block, block up, build against, stop, bar, hinder,” from ob “in front of, in the way of” (see ob-) + struere “to pile, build” (from PIE *streu-, extended form of root *stere- “to spread”).

I’ve been in an odd sort of writing funk–not a writer’s block in the classic sense, because I am writing–both prose and poetry. Drafting, anyway. I feel the obstruction in a different area of the writing life, about which I’ve written in the past: publishing, submitting work, creating the manuscript…getting the work into the world. All writers face these issues if they want their work to find its readers.

My current obstacle is … motivational? existential? self-inflicted? I have not decided yet, but it feels real enough. I want to put together another manuscript and have, I think, enough completed, “good” poems to make a manuscript; many of them have already appeared in literary journals. What stops me from corralling the poems together and composing my next book?

I know what it is.

My not-yet-second book stops me.

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Sir John Tenniel, of course.

After about 7 years of endeavoring to get The Red Queen Hypothesis into print, no takers. Perhaps I have not sent it to enough publishers or contests, but I have done what I can given time and budget constraints. Perhaps, though I have had four excellent critical readers consult with me on it, the book still needs work; maybe the poems just are not strong enough (though the majority of them have previously been published in journals).

Maybe the book is simply too quirky to find a comfortable publishing house; I admit that I knew that before I even began submitting the manuscript around. The poems are semi-formal (yes, like a prom!). They range in form, and many of the poems use nonce forms, invented forms, slightly-damaged versions of formal poetry, and also free verse. Rhyme, off-rhyme. Rhythm, meter, off-meter, sprung rhythm. But a mix of these.

Outliers are often difficult to place, particularly when the imagery of the poems tends toward the natural environment, and the subject of the poems tends toward the speculative, and yet nothing about the poems is particularly edgy or youthful or ground-breaking.

This book represents me, the person (not just as poet) perhaps too well. I do understand why it’s been difficult to place.

As to how RQH acts as obstacle in my writing life? Um. I guess I have to say I am finding it hard to move to the NEXT manuscript when THIS one still hangs out in my psyche and on my hard drive, unpublished. I know that should not impede me; I have many colleagues who work on multiple books simultaneously, sometimes even books in different genres. How they do that remains a mystery to me, however; I guess I do not share that operating system–though I dearly wish I could learn it.

Etymology tells me I am building up a hindrance. There are other things building up can do, though. I need to build up a way over…and then “to spread” the words, perhaps in some other way. Maybe even self-publish. Or put aside the foundation I have built and use what I learned in that process on the next composition.

What is an obstruction but a challenge to surmount?

Cosmogenic questioning & play

“We may note in passing that the cosmogenic question as to how the world came about is one of the prime pre-occupations of the human mind…a large part of the questions put by a six-year-old are actually of a cosmogenic nature, as for instance: What makes water run? Where does the wind come from? What is dead?” (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 107)

We have, for many such questions, science-as-answer; but scientific answers do not always satisfy the ontological inquiry of the child. I recall hearing adult answers to my own questions–similar to these–and feeling that I was now supposed to consider the matter closed, the problem solved.

But it wasn’t. Not to my mind. I just was not able to express my dissatisfaction in a way that grownups would understand, and perhaps they would have been unable to respond to me at any rate. It was so frustrating, the problem of communicating perspective.

Rather like a riddle.

Which is what Huizinga gets to in this book: riddles, games, play, and how these activities grow into and perhaps structure (or underpin) culture. If humans are the story-telling animal, it’s also possible we are the questioning animal, that play turns into contest through the practice of making riddles.

Creating our own problems, as it were. “Just throwing that out there,” as a friend of mind says when playing Devils’ advocate. (Note in that common phrase: “playing…”) (See the etymology, literally “thing put forward,” below!)

We question origins, and we pose problematic questions–and we do these things as soon as we can speak!

πρόβλημα

Online Etymology Dictionary says: late 14c., “a difficult question proposed for solution,” from Old French problème (14c.) and directly from Latin problema, from Greek problema “a task, that which is proposed, a question;” also “anything projecting, headland, promontory; fence, barrier;” also “a problem in geometry,” literally “thing put forward,” from proballein “propose,” from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + ballein “to throw” (from PIE root *gwele- “to throw, reach”)…Meaning “a difficulty” is mid-15c. Mathematical sense is from 1560s in English.

Philosophy, Huizinga posits–and religion–developed out of this human need to structure language into language games, to pose problems, thus creating space for wordplay and riddle or secret-knowledge contests. *

Poetry soon grabbed onto wordplay because poetry has a way of taking on all of culture, incorporating and resisting social norms and practices, reflecting society back to itself, asking cosmogenic and problematic questions. Indeed, do a brief scan of anthropology or history and it’s easy to find cultures in which poetry features in the games of noblemen and warriors and gods. (See Huizinga’s book, which enumerates many).

Also, wordplay, puns, connotations and allusions are fun.

This weekend, I want to get back to playing with words.words-from-letters-magnetic-poetry-kit-geek-words-letters-for-refrigerators-words-with-letters-maker

 

 

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* ie, Descartes, boy, did he have problems! Both mathematical and mind-body problems, though he was better at the former. (Sorry for the silliness).

 

 

 

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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Prunes & store tea

I just returned from an extended family gathering where a conversation or two arose concerning specific, regional, well-known-to-the-family phrases and sayings perhaps invented by some ancestor. These idioms are outdated; the young people often find them hilarious, quaint, or mystifying.

“What does that even mean?” became a common refrain.

I have heard these terms and phrases since I was a very young child, and they usually don’t seem strange to my ears. But a cousin reminded me of the phrase “full of prunes and store tea,” and while I know it means that the person full of said comestibles is lively, wound up, and possibly talking nonsense (in the region where I now reside, the term might be ruchy), I had never really thought about its origin.

Ruchy is a combination of Polish and Pennsylvania German derived from the word ruch (meaning movement or motion). So that new-world regional neologism makes sense. But prunes and store tea?

I did a little hunting around on various etymology and idiom websites (yes, this is part of my job!) and found that being full of beans and being full of prunes are somewhat but not entirely synonymous, depending upon region. Both can mean being wiggly and mobile, and both can mean acting silly. The layperson’s theory is that beans and prunes cause intestinal gas, hence fidgeting about or, alternately, being full of hot air. *

Store tea. Okay, tea purchased at a store? I suppose there was, in the days when the US was thinly populated in many areas, a reason to differentiate that which was made at home from that which was purchased at a store. I remember my great-grandmother saying that someone well-off she knew in her childhood had a house with “boughten rugs” rather than rag, home-woven, or rush rugs.

As for the odd combination of prunes and tea…eventually I found success by changing the and to in.

Prunes can be stewed in tea! This delicacy goes back centuries and is–no surprise here–probably British in origin. If you are curious, here’s one of several recipe sites you can check out for methods of stewing prunes in tea: melecotte. The author provides links to other tea & prune confections.

So it turns out that, all along, the idiom is “You’re full of prunes in store tea!” Though I doubt that will change the way we say it–in the rare times we blurt out an old-fashioned regional phrase at a ruchy child or a bullshitting teenager.

StewedPrunes2

Thanks to Melecotte

* See comment below…

Surely compelled

Ann Lauterbach from her book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetic Experience

We make music, painting, sculpture, films, novels in order to mediate our mortal visiting rights: a specifically human wish to intercede, to punctuate the ongoingness of time and the seemingly random distributions of nature. This punctuation is called history or, more precisely, culture, or, more precisely still, history of culture…

The phrase “to mediate our mortal visiting rights” feels particularly resonant these days, as some of my elderly best-beloveds appear to be navigating that region–mediating it–at present; [to mediate: “divide in two equal parts,” probably a back-formation from mediation or mediator, or else from Latin mediatus, past participle of mediare “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle”).  –thank you Online Etymology Dictionary]. The two halves, between one world of what we call the living and another which is the end of life, there is really more of a continuum, however. The “gray area” can be quite enriching and lively. Or not. These are ways we create, or punctuate, our personal histories: the year grandmother broke her hip, the year Susan entered school, the year the Twin Towers were destroyed. These, among other “random distributions of nature.”

I think it is true that the arts help us with the wish to intercede somehow, and also–a different sort of wish, it seems to me–the wish to mediate. Lauterbach seems to conflate these wishes. I see her point, but I am not sure I agree wholly.

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Intercession. Isn’t that also a form of prayer?

[“intercessory prayer, a pleading on behalf of oneself or another,” from Latin intercessionem (nominative intercessio) “a going between, coming between, mediation,” noun of action from past participle stem of intercedere “intervene, come between, be between” (in Medieval Latin “to interpose on someone’s behalf;”]

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…the way words make sentences and sentences paragraphs is also a kind of constellating, where imagined structures are drawn from an apparently infinite fund: words, stars….these acts of narrative and imagistic invention were surely compelled by the inexhaustible human desire to transfigure the incomprehensible into intelligible form.

Lovely–and here, I agree completely: “surely compelled.”

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Writing for me is associative, meditative, and digressive.  ~ Ann Lauterbach

images                                        pompeiian woman-writer

 

Thanks to art critic and blogger Sigrun of sub rosa for alerting me to the existence of this book.

Questioning

Next week, on May 5th, I’ll be the featured poet for the River Poets of Bloomsburg, PA (info here and here). Bloomsburg is situated along the Susquehanna River, and the region will be beautiful in early May.

Linda Dietrichson, the MC for this event, has posed a theme for the poet (me) to consider when choosing poems to read and to follow up in a Q&A with the audience. The theme is “Questioning.” At first, I read the word as questing–the mythic journey toward some remotely-attainable goal. But question’s etymology offers a varying perspective:

japanese maple

Quest (n): early 14c., “a search for something.”

This searching comes to Westerners mostly via chivalry’s poems and Arthurian legends, derived from “Old French queste ‘search, quest, chase, hunt, pursuit; inquest, inquiry’ (12c., Modern French quête), properly ‘the act of seeking,’ and directly from Medieval Latin questa ‘search, inquiry,'” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Question, the noun, derives from “Latin quaestionem (nominative quaestio) ‘a seeking, a questioning, inquiry, examining, judicial investigation,’… early 13c., ‘philosophical or theological problem'” with even a suggestion of interrogation (or torture!).*

These definitions overlap in some areas; but the word-basis does differ in the Latin. The act of seeking tends to connote search for an object–a physical search for a physical something–whereas inquiry and examination (yes, even torture) suggest that the “question” has a rhetorical object: the abstract or metaphysical aim (never an answer!) that’s more contentious and usually more ambiguous.

Questioning offers interrogation toward the unknowable, and that is poetry’s territory.

So this is where I begin next Thursday evening’s reading: with the unknowable. Who knows where we’ll go from there?

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*(see the site Online Etymology Dictionary for further brief origins–or any OED).