Hyacinths & biscuits

Synthesis results in innovation, imagination, surprise.

Carl Sandburg, in Good Morning, America (1928): among 37 other “definitions” of poetry, Sandburg wrote that poetry is “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

Well, maybe not. Then again, my recent reading has resulted in synthesis in my own gray matter, and it is not difficult to see where the reflection leads.

Lakoff & Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh; Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which describes how 16th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things and what resulted to change Western thought; a re-reading of said poem (available in prose or verse translations); some verses by Li Po; and Mary Oliver’s 2009 collection Evidence.

Add to this thought processing a beautiful spring day spent out of doors, gardening and visiting with friends.

What results? I don’t know, really. But it feels a bit like joy in the moment.

hyacinth burpee

Image thanks to Burpee gardens

Support for poetry

It is April, and April is National Poetry Month, among many other things that April is.

2017npm-poster_0People have told me that poetry has helped them through times of fear and times of grief. That’s a familiar response when, on rare occasion, I happen to tell someone I am a poet. The thing is–I am not sure poems do that for me. Maybe writing poems helps, but reading them sometimes hurts even more.

Not that hurt is such a bad thing when one is grieving; there is the comforting recognition that sorrow is a shared experience, that others have been through and survived pain and sadness, that there is a community of Others who feel compassion and who can express it well and honestly. Too, there are poets I find myself reading when I just need to hear a familiar voice in my head. That familiarity in itself offers a kind of comfort to this reader.

This week, I am turning to familiar poetry voices although I am reading collections I have not read before. Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry. “Old friends” of mine.

I am not contributing to National Poetry Month much this year: I am giving no readings and attending only a few. My contribution this year is to book-buying: I have made several purchases of books by poets I do not know well or who are completely new to me.

Book-purchasing from small independent presses and through the poets themselves–not through Amazon, not second-hand–supports poets and poetry publishers. Another way to support poets is to borrow poetry books from your public library, so that the books are noted as “circulating” and thus are less likely to be culled when the library updates its collection.

Love can be expressed and shared in many forms. I ❤ poetry!

Poetry Month & Simic’s prose

I have read and enjoyed a great deal of Charles Simic‘s poetry over the years. How did I miss his prose?

I just picked up The Life of Images (2015) and find myself delighted indeed. This book makes a wonderful read for National Poetry Month, despite its subtitle “Selected Prose,” because so many of the pieces in this collection are about poetry or act as prose poems–a form Simic is well-known for.

Every other paragraph or so I find myself wanting to write down a glorious sentence, or a quote I should share with my poetry students, or a concise description that fits perfectly, such as Simic’s observation about Buster Keaton‘s persona in his silent movies: “Bedeviled by endless obstacles, Buster is your average slow-thinking fellow, seeking a hidden logic in an illogical world.”

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Being of a philosophical bent myself, I was thrilled to read and then re-read “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” with its foundation of Heidegger and Simic’s sly and humorous references to Hegel, Schroedinger, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman and others. That essay is really a series of prose poems that resemble philosophical puzzles and paradoxes.

His essays here often focus on visual art, as well. Movies, paintings, photographs. The image as metaphor.

“The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors, even Language, who is their Lord and master.” Ah, yes. One of many paradoxes surrounding the practice and theory of poetry:

“Everything would be simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot…It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants me to go.”

“Metaphor is a part of the not-knowing aspect of art, and yet I’m firmly convinced that it is the supreme way of searching for truth.”

~

The usual progression of spring unfurls and blossoms around me, a bounty of images, thank goodness, and Simic has me mulling over my metaphors again.

 

 

 

 

Complications

National Poetry Month has rolled around again, and sophomores enrolled in the Poetry classes are trying to interpret poems. Somewhere along the line, people in the USA acquired the notion that teachers ought to make things simple to understand so that students can learn the material. What about diving into the material in order to learn about it? Asking it questions? Having a heart-to-heart conversation with it? Those are alternate approaches to reaching an understanding.

Truly, one aspect of teaching that frustrates me is that the majority of human beings want everything to be simple. “Simple” has become a click-bait word, an advertising slogan. Even the American embrace of mindfulness largely bases its premise on the idea that mindfulness is simplicity itself, when anyone who has seriously attempted meditation and mindful living can attest that the theory sounds simple enough but the practice is more complex than it seems.

Now, I have nothing against simplicity–I yearn for simpler ways of living in the world, myself. Nevertheless, a person does not reach her fifties without a clear recognition of how complicated life is; and no one can deny complexity has considerable value. We would not be human beings, capable of speech and abstract thought and deep love and senses of humor, if it were not for the incredibly intricate operations of neurons and synapses, nerves and hormones, rods and cones, DNA and all the rest that somehow connects us inside our physical corpus.

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blood vessels=fractals=complicated

All of these contribute to our conflicting emotional states, to our individual and, because we are group-dwelling creatures, our communal (cultural) psychologies, morphing into social structures of vast networks and multiple influences. Nothing about any of this is simple.

In an effort to assure my students that they can, indeed, become better writers, I endeavor to simplify the writing process as to structure and foundational principles as much as I can. I refuse, however, to suggest that written expression can be simple–because human expression is not simple. We desire and feel and experience in ways that are complicated, layered, multifaceted–hence not easy to put into spoken words, let alone written ones. Writing is work that requires complicated approaches to thinking and reflecting. That doesn’t necessarily make writing hard, but it does not make it simple.

Writing requires inquisitiveness, which seems to come easily to little children but which doesn’t mean inquiry is simple. One of the things my students struggle with most is asking questions. When I say, “Ask some questions about this text,” they look at me as though I have three heads. Students assigned philosophy papers feel gobsmacked by Socrates–he seems so surface-value simple, but he never answers any questions! And now their professor requires them to ask further questions, rather than asking them for the right answer to a simple question.

Oh, my darlings, if there were truly simple answers we would not have developed art or dance or music or poetry.

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cloud formations (Von Karman vortices) seen from space*

In other words, if everything were simple, we could say what we need to say and all other people would understand everything they needed to know about us without nuance or subtext or background or socio-cultural context, or whether we are secretly embarrassed by our slight lisp, or grouchy because we had a spat with our spouse the previous night. That sounds pleasant and easy, but that’s not how things evolved among human beings.

I would tell my students I’m sorry about all this, but I’m not. Complexity: I revel in it.

 

*from http://www.jessicacrabtree.com/journal1/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

 

Written by a human

Here’s a controversy for National Poetry Month–there are an amazing number of controversies surrounding poetry–which takes up the idea of whether a “machine” can write poetry. A good introduction is this CCR interview with Oscar Schwartz, who developed Botpoet as an experiment that is not so much about artificial intelligence as it is about what humans consider to be poetry. And perhaps about what language really is. If you follow the link to the site, you can participate in his research by playing “Bot or Not,” a game in which the player reads a series of poetic lines and then chooses between written by a human or not written by a human.

If you’ve read a great deal of classic and contemporary poetry, you may recognize some of the poems (I did); I suppose that is a way to cheat the system, since I have insider information. Nevertheless, I was wrong embarrassingly often. What, exactly, was I looking for in those words?

I think Schwartz is correct in his assessment of the more general population (though literary types may disagree with general assessments) when he says:

People generally seem to associate rhyming, “Romantic” poetry as being human. And they consider highly abstract, non-traditional poems to be of human provenance. Investigating as to why this might be the case is the project of my PhD.

He points out that written language is arbitrary and abstract, “an artificial medium” to begin with, and may have less to do with being human than we might like to think. Maybe the qualities that make a poem a poem are qualities that reside in the reader/interpreter rather than in the poet, another individual’s aesthetics or sense of what seems “creative.” That might be an unsettling thought for many writers, though it rather appeals to me.

Schwartz continues,

“So the results of Bot or Not, rather than telling us what human really is, is actually telling us that the category of the ‘human’ is an ideological, political space…The Bot or Not project works not because it tells us about computer software, but because it reveals things about what we assume to be human. It destabilizes the category of the human.”

As it turns out, the study of consciousness also tends that way–destabilizing our long-held category of what-a-human-is or what, if anything, differentiates us from other animals. Some interpreters of Zen philosophy suggest that Zen consists in finding balance within the inherent instability of the corporeal world. Or, perhaps, acceptance that humanness may be something we cannot categorize; the challenge then is to learn to flourish in a state of destabilization.

Let me sing the body electric…and the mind (possibly) electronic.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Online reading, online learning

I blog, therefore I am part of the digi-technological consciousness.

Here’s a situation Descartes might have had fun imagining…have we invented our own “evil genius” in Boolean or algorithmic forms? I won’t venture there, as I am not tech-savvy or social-media savvy enough to philosophize around tech aspects of modern culture; though, yes, I do use portal systems when I teach; I do use (limited) forms of social media for communication and to publicize my work; I do take part in the networks community online; my poems and essays appear in online journals; I read blogs and online journals although in general I prefer paper, especially for book-length works.

It isn’t as if I don’t consider the intellectual challenges these communication platforms offer. It would be silly to ignore them. They are not going to go away any time soon. One question is, however, to what extent should I employ or embrace them?

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Recently, I’ve had a poem published in Carbon Culture Review, an online and print journal that states, as part of its mission, that the publication “advocates a creative, thoughtful and visually appealing dialogue about our complex relationship to technology. We strive to promote the work of those who employ technology and utilize technological designs and terms in art and literature.” The Intersection of Technology + Literature + Art, says the masthead; interdisciplinary in scope–that’s something I find fascinating, so I’m happy to report a rather atypical poem of mine has found a place in the new issue (“21st Century Research”).

I read Chronicle of Higher Education online and have linked to several of its essays in past posts. Lately, I find much of interest in Hybrid Pedagogy, a fairly new digital source about technology, teaching, radical re-thinking of the educational framework, and exploring the possibility of intentional, compassionate connections between teachers and students–even in the digital world. Here’s a recent essay that appeals to me: “Teaching as Wayfinding.” I am still wrestling with the challenges of how to create a genuinely interactive and personal learning space in the classroom, let alone via distance education. There is so much to learn, and welcoming interdisciplinary synthesis into the discourse of the humanities offers intriguing potential.

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Speaking of the interdisciplinary: I am pleased to report that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia chose one of my poems, “How the Body Works” as an honorable mention in its Poetry Month contest celebrating medical/health themes in poetry. [You can also check my Events page for information and tickets.]

The College, a professional medical organization founded in 1787 (same age as the U.S. Constitution), is also the site of the Mütter Museum, which has a terrific slogan: “Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” The College boasts a library of historic significance.

It’s a great venue for a reading, and if you are in the area, please join us. My brother says the food is really good, too–the ticket price includes a dinner. How festive is that!?

Poetry, awe

Welcome, National Poetry Month. This year’s poster was designed by one of my favorite cartoonists, author/artist Roz Chast. She illustrates Mark Strand’s famous poem. Click the link to order a copy! You can donate to Poets.org while you’re at it.

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Apropos of my last post (here), it turns out that Berkeley Social Interaction laboratory (BSI) has done studies on…awe. Awe might be what Ehrenreich experienced in a fashion more ecstatic or charged than the more garden-variety awe that BSI’s Dacher Keltner writes about in this essay in Slate. Some of the early findings from social research suggest that awe, even more than compassion and joy, contributes to a sense of personal well-being and counteracts depression.

Possibly more surprising is the indication from respondents that awe is not as uncommon as we think:

[A] study from our Berkeley lab speaks to the promise of daily awe. Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living. Every third day, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend. For example, seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such an experience. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.

When I reflect on my own daily life, I realize that’s true–this sort of experience grounds me many days when I feel I am losing purpose or overwhelmed or simply sad. It might be the sight of a raptor in an amazing dive toward prey, or the shimmer of light on a bird’s feathers, or a particularly stunning sunrise. It might be a story a student tells me, something moving or courageous.

Every once in a rare while, awe is larger, encompasses more, displaces my sense of self, flames into ecstasy. That kind of experience exhausts, whereas “everyday awe” invigorates, calms, balances life toward the bearable. And often, reading a poem pushes me into the state of awe. For Poetry Month, I will grant myself the daily possibility of awe by reading poetry.