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

 

 

~ ~ ~

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

 

 

 

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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?

~~

~~

 

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.

~~~

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;”]

~~~

…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.”

~~~

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?

~~

 

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

Jargon

Having just spent some time in Scotland, encountering Scots accents and language, and having read Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings while on my trip, and having visited castles and a distillery (even though malt whisky is not something I drink), I find myself thinking again about words. In particular, specialized words–those used by the ancient crafts such as beer-making, by vintners and distillers, weavers, farmers, and builders of defenses, ships, and of cathedrals, architectural terms and words specific to a trade: jargon.

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Barley. Glengoyne Distillery, not far from Glasgow.

Jargon, the word itself, comes from the French. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary:

jargon (n.) Look up jargon at Dictionary.commid-14c., “unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” from Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds), also “language, speech,” especially “idle talk; thieves’ Latin” (12c.). Ultimately of echoic origin (compare Latin garrire “to chatter”).

From 1640s as “mixed speech, pigin;” 1650s as “phraseology peculiar to a sect or profession,” hence “mode of speech full of unfamiliar terms.” Middle English also had it as a verb, jargounen “to chatter” (late 14c.), from French.

One of the things I like best about taking tours of and reading books about distilleries or castles and the like is the chance to savor those unusual and often strangely lovely-sounding special terms. The lyne arm. The tun. The potstill, the draff, the spirit safe. Wort and wormtub.

And there’s the donjon, the voussoir, the queen-post, the feretory…in addition to all those buttresses and gargoyles and portcullises. Not to mention the terms, many of them archaic, associated with the making of tapestries and the cooking of meals and the husbandry of sheep or falcons or cattle.

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Or the laying of stones for roads or masonry walls, for the engineering of moats and the design of crenellated defenses. So many words, and only highly specialized historians know them today; whereas once, the mostly illiterate men and women who did the work used the language of their trades.

It’s still true today–perhaps more than ever–that jargon is used among the people in a given industry, computer tech or realty or politics. I suppose those words will as surely fall out of use, or evolve in their meanings, and perhaps more rapidly than the jargon of yore.

Obscure terms, highly specialized in their function as means of communication. Sometimes, quite beautiful to know.

 

 

Epiphany

This week includes the date of the Epiphany, January 6th, the close of the Christmas celebration. Christian tradition confers religious importance to the day because it commemorates the visitation of the magi, the “Wise Men” or “Three Kings,” to the infant Jesus; more metaphorically, the Epiphany hallows “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12),” as Google’s dictionary puts it.

12-01-05MagiFraAngelicoGoogle’s dictionary offers a little graph at the close of its definition, if the reader scrolls down far enough. The use of the word epiphany has risen considerably from the 1800s; I suspect the reason for that is that the term has migrated toward its other meaning as a revelation, particularly a creative revelation: “a moment of insight.”

Epiphany is a word encountered when reading about artists, inventors, philosophers, writers. It has become something to treasure–the AHA! moment, the reveal, the serendipitous appearance of a solution or concept–which is a meaning closely derived from its etymology: epiphainein, ancient Greek for “reveal.” The challenge for the artist or writer is to make manifest that revelation, if one is lucky enough to encounter it. The true epiphany must be acted upon, or lost.

~

And, of course, the other challenge is to continue to write day by day by day, when revelations seem few and far between or totally unforthcoming. That is a different order of activity, one which I’m currently engaged in, without epiphanies to help me along.