Poetry & paradox

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“Language is a profoundly mysterious technology, so constitutive of the human mind that we can only get glimpses, from inside the fishbowl of consciousness, of how it works.”
sea inside Charnine

 The Sea Inside. Charnine.com features information on surrealist artist Charnine and Surrealism – copyright © 1994 – 2011 Samy Charnine – All rights reserved

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How do we get from language to poetry? However we do that, consciously or not, it must be as fluid and natural as it is damned difficult! I sometimes wonder whether paradox may be the basis of art. At least, if there exists a “something” that inspires me to compose a poem, paradox–and the way it requires effort to explore contradictions and ambiguities–could stand in as my motivating flame.
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Paradox, randomness, juxtapositions and contradictions evoke imagery, dream, the realms beyond the rational consciousness we humans claim to possess. Poet and fellow poetry blogger Susan Rich recently posted about the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, an artist whose name and art I had never before encountered; and I felt an urgent pull to introduce her work to my friend David Dunn–he loved surrealism and appreciated it more than I ever have, and such paintings (particularly early de Chirico) exerted a large influence on his poems.

David, however, died in 1999. I share my memory of him here, by writing it on a blog, the same as I share the names of Varo and de Chirico and of the many poets and philosophers I have mentioned during my years of posting to this forum. It’s a form of immortality, if only a temporary immortality (another paradox…)
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Here is Menand again, who wrote poetry in his youth but moved into journalism and critical reviews in prose later on: “… I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order.” Painful pleasure. That mysterious technology, language, rises to the occasion of inherent contradiction.

 

“And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”
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Do you know what you have to say before you write a poem? Or does what you have to say appear in the process of writing? Or after the poem seems complete? Or once someone else has read it and decided what it is you had to say?
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Jargon & rhetoric

This is a kind of continuation of my last post, in which I alluded to euphemism and jargon and the weightiness of words. Herein, I take the unpopular stance and argue that the Centers for Disease Control‘s suggestion that proposals avoid certain words is not entirely about censorship but about rhetoric and persuasion and in this case–given the makeup of the current Congress–was actually appropriate. This is a situation in which jargon–wording–makes all the difference in the persuasiveness of an argument.

The CDC needs to send its annual proposals for research, for agency budgeting, and more to Congress; and each set of documents requires Congressional Justification. If the Congress does not agree to certain proposals, those which have justification withheld will not be funded. (It is possible that many citizens, myself included, are not fully informed as to how these government-funded agencies operate.) Therefore, the possibly-skeptical audience must be convinced of the value of these proposals.

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f this were an essay for my students, I would prompt them to think about the audience for their arguments. A writer can employ jargon effectively to help persuade a skeptical audience. Use the terms of the discipline, I tell them. That usage may seem superficial, but it actually works to prove to the audience that you know what they are seeking; you are a member of that community, you know the lingo, you’re on that side and your research will advance that cause.

It may be that your research is something well beyond the audience’s understanding, but you know how to sound like one of them; so, chances are, they’ll get on board with whatever you are conducting.

Even if they have no idea, really, what it is you’re proposing. Even if what you are proposing in fact runs counter to the audience’s ideology, effective proposal writing can hide the fact.

The CDC, from what I have been reading, has not banned those seven words nor the research or public policies concerning them; instead, the agency is cautioning its researchers and policy proposal writers to avoid language that would ring the wrong bells in the ears of this particular Congress’s majority ideology. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a person who guides others in writing arguments based upon research, I encourage it.

Gotta know your audience, or your proposal will fail no matter how excellent its logic, science, and methodology may be. I hope the resourceful writers at the CDC will find ways to convince our Congress to keep the agency and its research funded. A future Congress may be less sensitive to evidence-based information. In the meantime, use the jargon in proposals–whatever works! But use the best words, and the most clear and accurate words, in other forms of discourse.

#7words

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Writing self

Among the students I have tutored over the years was a young woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Writing was difficult for her on several levels. Reading on the screen or page tired her eyes and made it hard to focus; while using voice-activated software helped for that part of the writing issue, it did not resolve her larger cognitive loss: she found she could no longer tell a story. The ability to tie together research, concepts, and chronological moments to compose a logical narrative evaded her.

As we worked together, I learned how writing can restore the self. She began to reflect, through writing, on her process and her memories and to tether things together on the page so that they “made sense” to me–her sounding board. When something made sense to me, she would re-read it and decide if it reflected what it was she had been trying to say. Gradually, she felt more restored to herself, a slightly altered-by-trauma self, but a cohesive self who could tell a story again.

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When I tutor students who are multilingual, particularly if they are fairly new immigrants here, I find that writing plays a similar role in reflecting or re-creating a self. These students learn to work and write using American English as their mode of persuasive communication, and in the process they develop as people who live in the United States and who consciously employ those terms, phrases, writing techniques, and concepts. They are much more conscious than “native” speakers about the fact that they are using Americanisms and writing in an American style; what they end up with is a self that they can deploy when necessary in American society.

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Brain diseases, strokes, and dementia dismantle the story-telling ability. Whether we use the metaphor of braiding, warp & weft, or nuts & bolts, we mean that story has structure–and in dementia, structure comes undone. With that structural demise all too often comes the unraveling of the self. Each gap weakens the links that give us our own story-made self and leaves the human bereft of that consciousness we rely upon for being. The person whose brain has stopped constructing self stories is no less human, physically; but the self–that sentient, much-valued ego–disappears.

When I am with a hospice patient whose mind has stopped composing narratives, I see that the narrative of pain and envy and sorrow seems to depart. Is there a story that contains only peace? Could that even be a human story?

I don’t know what to make of all of this.

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Sometimes, I wish I had the peace and confidence of a house cat.

Face to face

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The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

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Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

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How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

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I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry

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I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.

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Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]

 

 

 

 

 

Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

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Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.

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“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)

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Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?

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Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)

Creativity

It bothers me when people tell me they are not creative. Creativity, inborn in human beings, comes in so many forms. Just because a person does not identify as a recognizably creative person–artist, decorator, writer, teacher, etc.–that doesn’t mean he or she lacks creativity. We cannot solve problems without engaging our creativity, and most of us solve hundreds of small problems daily. We just tend not to consider those talents as “creative.”

One of my colleagues is a consummate problem-solver. Yet she constantly derides her work: “A monkey could do my job,” she claims. It would have to be one heck of a creative monkey! For years, I’ve been constantly amazed at her creative solutions to problems that students present to her…everything from advising to financial aid to family issues to roommate problems and issues that are once-in-a-career type peculiarities. She always says, “I’ll see what I can do;” 90% of the time, she finds a workable solution.

Another thing that intrigues me about her is the way she uses language. She reminds me of my grandmothers: sensible, smart women born and raised in one region and wedded to certain habits but possessing considerable grit and spunk and … creativity. Including marvelous slips of the tongue or twists on clichés. One of her most charming accidental neologisms is that instead of saying memento, she says “momento.” Educated well–with a Masters degree–she probably spells the word correctly when she writes. But I love hearing her say “momento,” because that’s one way of thinking about the word: a reminder of a moment. So apt! While the etymology of the word derives from the Latin (imperative of meminisse, to remember), the idea of recalling a moment through some sort of small souvenir strikes me as perfect.

Another creative use of language occurs when we are talking rapidly and the standard word or metaphor doesn’t come quickly to mind, so our brains substitute something else. My colleague’s creativity shows up at such times. I tend to stumble and say, “uh…um…” when that happens to me; but her mind comes up with alternatives (which occasionally make me laugh, but which always make me delighted). A recent example: during a freshman student program, there was an unexpected downpour which arrived just as the 18-year-olds were walking from breakfast in the cafeteria to a classroom building some distance away. Of course, none of them had umbrellas or rain jackets.

“Those poor kids!” said my friend. “They were all huddled in their soaked hoodies like wet mice. Like…like little wet mice, trying to get dry!”

I’d have resorted to the common phrase “drowned rats,” but little wet mice wearing soaked hoodies seems so much more vivid and elicits more sympathy. It’s also more creative–don’t  you agree?

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“About as sharp as a sack of wet mice.” Foghorn Leghorn probably knew my grandparents….