Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.

~

So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!

~

I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀

~

Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain

 

 

 

 

 

Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.

 

Interpretation & finesse

A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because I didn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!

It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.

That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!

~

Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.

That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.

Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.

Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).

I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.

 

 

 

Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

~
Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience

Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

~

I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

Roadkill

As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.

~groundhog-day-groundhog

BURIALS

1.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

2.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?

~

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

 

Ink art

Last weekend, I went to New York with friends to see the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art, all of which is contemporary (the oldest artist represented was born in 1953), has been installed in the museum’s extensive Asian galleries alongside ceramic, sculptural, religious, and paper works going back centuries.

The rationale behind this juxtaposition, says the museum’s site, is to point up “how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Although all of the artists have transformed their sources through new modes of expression, visitors will recognize thematic, aesthetic, or technical attributes in their creations that have meaningful links to China’s artistic past.” That certainly proved true for me; and I cannot decide which was more intriguing, the similarities or the differences.

The young artists in Ink Art employ age-old cultural tropes: the triptych, the scroll, woodblock printing, calligraphy, moody landscapes, ideograms, ink, and repetition. The resonance with Chinese heritage is palpably authentic and is often employed in the service of criticism, mostly criticism aimed at the destruction of cultural icons and of the environment (some of the represented artists are exiles). Mounting the exhibition in the Asian galleries meant that the visitor confronts the historical and the contemporary simultaneously.

In Yang Yongliang’s “View of Tide,” the artist uses digital photography collaging to replicate the mood of an ancient Chinese landscape scroll which, on closer inspection, reveals that the austere and mystical imagery of sea and mountains has been composed of smokestacks, highways, powerlines, and the like. I found this work powerful as commentary and shocking in the best possible way.

Being a word person as well as a visual art appreciator, I was especially drawn to the section of the exhibit called “The Written Word.” The highlight of this section is Xu Bing’s installation “Book from the Sky”. My friends and I–avid readers all–entered this room and felt shivers of recognition and joy at the concept of a room-sized, descending, ascending, wall-to-wall book. (I urge my readers to click on the link for a peek.) The information plaque notes “while the work is inspired by the form and typography of traditional Chinese woodblock publications, faithfully replicating every stylistic detail of traditional Chinese printing, not a single one of its roughly 1,200 characters—each printed with type hand-carved by the artist—is intelligible. Each of these imaginary characters conveys the appearance of legibility but remains defiantly undecipherable.” The paradox and the beauty of the concept are amazing; in addition, I find it oddly thrilling to think of the imagination and the craft and simple hard work Xu Bing put into creating meaningless calligraphic pictograms, cutting them into woodblocks, and repetitively setting up the careful lines in rows on long scrolls.

What emerges when the scrolls are installed on ceiling, walls, and floor manages to be indecipherable but not meaningless. There is in fact much opportunity for meaning in “Book from the Sky,” and for discussion and interpretation and playfulness.

One example: after reading about “Book from the Sky” and taking in the environment for awhile, my friend Mark commented, “Imagine if you were a beginner learning Chinese script, and you encountered this room. You might just spend hours in here trying to figure out whether you could read any of it…I mean, if  you hadn’t read that it was indecipherable. Or even if you had that knowledge, maybe you’d spend a long time here thinking that at least something in all this text meant something you could translate. Wouldn’t that be awfully frustrating?”

Or maybe that’s the point?

Carved type for “Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing

~~

Conceptual metaphor. Art. Thinking. Decipherability; communication. These are large ideas, and crucial ones in the scope of human community. Without art–how can we encounter such metaphors? How would we share them?

Living metaphor

“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand.”

~ Thoreau

ann e. michael photo

Socked in by far too many snowstorms,* I’m running out of reading material (haven’t been able to get to the library!). I did get a gift book from a friend and a book in the mail recently, however; blessed relief! As often happens when reading quite different books at the same time, I notice ways they overlap or complement one another.

The gift from a friend is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, a poetic companion to his 1990 book on mindfulness as healing, Full Catastrophe Living. Kabat-Zinn uses Thoreau’s “bloom of the present moment” as a section head and metaphor for mindfulness practice, and it serves exceedingly well in that capacity. This is not a text to read in one sitting or to move through rapidly–or even chronologically. It offers space for the mind, space for reflection and, indeed, for the kind of ’emptiness’ that waits patiently, observing the present moment. Not the ghastly, desperate emptiness of numbness or depression, but the Zen vessel of the now.

Vessel. Space. Bloom. Each of these metaphorical, analogous, a way of indicating connections between or likenesses to or relationships with. The richness of language and the incredible stickiness of its concepts form the basis of Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal 1980 examination of how human beings use language–specifically metaphor–in the book Metaphors We Live By. A significant section of the first 4 chapters appears here, if you want a taste of how the authors set out their investigation; but I recommend the entire book, the 2003 edition of which contains an insightful afterward by the authors that incorporates some material on neurology and other things not available to them in the 1970s.

~

* From the Express-Times of Easton: “The Lehigh Valley has gotten 66.7 inches of snow so far this season. Meteorologists agree this storm might not push the snowfall totals to break the seasonal record of 75.2 inches from 1993-94, but there’s still a chance to top the total this winter in the first couple weeks of March, they said.”

Gleaning

Glean.

I love this word and its related agricultural cohort, winnow.

Driving to work this morning, I ended up behind a gleaner moving from one soybean field to another situated slightly south on the same road. The link below, thanks to Flickr, takes you to a nice photo of a soybean gleaner at work.

Photo of a gleaner.

Glean: to gather grain or other produce left by reapers. Or, to gather information or material bit by bit.

Winnow: to remove (as chaff) by a current of air. Or, to get rid of, remove (as of something unwanted); to sift or separate. [Merriam-Webster].

Wonderful words for writers, useful as metaphorical or concrete actions, these terms have etymological roots going back to that ancient and particularly human business–agriculture. Lately, I’ve been working on revising some poems, and winnowing is part of that process.

I’ve also been helping my parents to “downsize” as they move from the house they’ve lived in for years into a much smaller apartment. Significant winnowing was involved in several aspects of the word: we got rid of, we sifted through, and we separated. We did a bit more vacuuming than allowing currents of air to sweep away the dust that lingered in the closets, however.

But we also gleaned. Or, shall I speak for myself here--I gleaned. Sorting through books and photo albums and drawers full of things we feel we should save for some reason offers a means of gathering information bit by bit. What for my parents was likely a review of life was, occasionally, revelatory for my siblings and me.

(Etymological aside: review and revelatory have different sources, the latter being much older).

My father’s sermon file and his school ribbons for elocution or winning debates and the books he just couldn’t bear to part with vs. the books he reluctantly let go–these are gleanings.

My mother’s elementary school report cards, her childhood drawings of Japanese ladies with parasols (I never knew she used to draw), faded photos of the high school trip to Washington D.C., the prom invitation, the letters we wrote from college–also gleanings.

From these gleanings I have reaped more than I expected.

So we reap and then we glean and then we winnow and, from that winnowing, we glean again and reap again. Sounds like what I do in my garden annually. Sounds like what the farmer does every year, too, though these days the reaping and gleaning, and much of the winnowing, are done in one go with a very large piece of farm equipment…such as the one which slowed me on my commute to work this morning and which led to this digression.

Close of Day

(I cropped this photo, but it is otherwise straight from the camera–a little Canon OneShot that’s about 8 years old.)

I found myself thinking about the phrase “the close of day.” Te lucis ante terminum, goes a 7th-C. Latin hymn; but I am more inclined to recall Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” which says:

“When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me which follow’d…”

No, what brought happiness to our much-plaudited bard was not abstract fame and accolade (claims he) but another day, a day “when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn…”

…a day of anticipation for the visit of his dear friend and lover. A day of happy anticipation, followed by a night of joy. The close of the day closes this sweet and loving poem (written to a man, who “lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,/In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams”).

The Latin hymn invokes Jesus to watch over us as the day closes, and (to me) connotes death as a closing that may occur in the night, just as the bugle call “Taps” has come to signify a death as well as a close of the day’s activities. A childhood bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

That prayer frightened me a little when I was a child. Like so many people, I feared the night. Yet “close of the day” in Whitman’s poem is a gentle, loving, anticipatory thing, something we need not fear. When I see a sunset like the one above, my sense is more of awe than fear. The day is shutting down, perhaps, but there is no foreboding in the vivid sky, and the moon may be rising or setting and the stars begin to glimmer. Fear is something we name, something we develop in ourselves.

Perhaps we can also develop, in ourselves, a loving anticipation. For the close of day, in particular.