On revision (again)

iceimageI am going to go out on  a limb here and make a blanket statement: Revision should be every writer’s middle name.

I tell this to my Comp-Rhet introduction to academic writing students all the time, but they have difficulty figuring out how to revise effectively. There are good tactics out there, but they do not work for everyone; how a person thinks and learns and processes information varies considerably. Lately, I have been using a strategy I teach to students writing essays to revise my poems. I ask myself: how is this poem organized? Is the structure working with or against the poem? Too predictable, or not predictable enough?

Just as in a well-wrought prose piece, a poem’s obvious and underlying structures matter a great deal in how well it “works” for a reader. It’s also an aspect of writing that people tend to overlook, so analysis of structure in the revision stage can be useful.

Another revision strategy I have been mulling over recently coincides closely with what Grant Clauser describes in this post, The Poem Is the Question. He writes:

I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems… Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader.

I have found myself going back to a draft and asking, “What got me going on this poem? Do I even recall? Is the impetus an interesting one? If not, can I change it?” Clauser suggests a more specific kind of investigation, and it’s one I have been employing today (snow and ice out there and the roads are lousy, so the campus is closed–hooray for a half day of unexpected free time).

Lesley Wheeler has also recently blogged about revising. She observes that the word revision, which places “emphasis on ‘looking anew’ doesn’t entirely capture” the process of late-project revision. She’s listening to her own words aloud as she revises…another approach that has worked for me.

Maybe the month of February calls to us as a quiet time of yin creativity, which is a way of looking at revision as an inwardly-focused energy–as opposed to marvelous bursts of creativity from inspiration or the much-vaunted Muse. The lunisolar calendar used for centuries in Asia calls February the first month of spring (立春  lìchūn)! I had better keep at the revising, therefore. Before I know it, yan energy will return with the start of the gardening season in eastern Pennsylvania.

 

 

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Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson

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One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.


“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.

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).

 

 

 

Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.

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source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.

termite-hills-Steve-Tobin-5

Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com

 

 

 

The ethicist & the healer

The “Morbid Book Group” recently read John Lantos’ book on ethical issues in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), The Lazarus Case. As one of our members is a pediatric physician, one is a NICU nurse, another a hospital social worker, and another a former obstetrics nurse–we had quite a bit at stake when discussing this book, and quite a few different perspectives. Add to the mix my armchair-philosopher and educator point of view and all the questions a non-medical person has to ask to clarify the issues, and we spent the evening in lively and often challenging discussion.

Lantos tells his readers that medical ethics questions are not really answerable. They depend too much on cases, contexts, and–whether we like it or not–economic situations. An example: Until third-party payer systems are dismantled or significantly changed, confirms the doctor in our book group, NICUs will continue to be profit centers in addition to places where terrifyingly premature babies are saved, or not saved, not so much by technology as by individual circumstance over which doctors and nurses have less control than the parents of these neonatal patients may think.

The NICU nurse told us that Lantos’ book made her question her vocation. One of his observations is that NICUs have become the profit-hub of many hospitals in the USA; then, he asks tough ethical questions about “viability” and “pain and suffering.” The nurse says she sees these babies suffering and feels that too often, the suffering is prolonged when the baby is clearly unlikely to survive–prolonged because the parents cannot let go and the technology promises miracles that only occasionally occur. The doctor in our group gave us her point of view, which many of us found a bit too “scientific”–but that’s how doctors are trained, as she reminded us, while acknowledging heartily that doctors need more real-life experience in compassion, listening, and psychology than they receive in med school or as interns.

tulip

These are the sorts of circumstances that lead us to philosophy. Lantos writes: “Moral reflection begins with a particular type of suffering,” when we are faced not with abstract ethical dilemmas but genuine, frightening, life-altering situations. Lantos argues that doctors must not be “passive vessels” dispensing adrenaline, oxygen, delivering technology to a human being whose individuality the physician may not even notice in those crucial moments. He does not deny that there is value in the dissociated emergency response protocol, when the doctor’s training takes over and pulls the person acting away from emotion.

There is a “but,” however. Lantos says there are times when the healer is the medicine, when trust in the doctor, and the doctor’s willingness to take time to listen to the  patient, can “create a moral framework for dealing with the limitations of being human, of getting sick, suffering, weakening, dying,” when it is understood that the patient might die while under the healer’s compassionate care, and there need be no blame.

How do we get our society there?

“We make changes in medicine the way we make changes anywhere,” says our book-group doctor. “All of you are asking me very hard questions. I don’t have answers to all of them, and you may not agree with my answers or my rationale. And that’s great! Medicine needs to be challenged. There is no way for the medical industry–and it is an industry–to grow in a more positive way if patients and their families, ethicists, and even the damned lawyers remind us that behind the technology is always, always, a singular human being…it ain’t just a science. It’s an art.”

Doctors do need to be educated in the humanities, we agreed, and to spend more time learning about culture and psychology through experiences that develop compassion. Patients need to learn to ask more specifically for that kind of response, and to let hospital administrators understand how often it is lacking. Most of all, we need not to shy from asking the Hard Questions, those life-and-death ethics questions. Not for the sake of answers, but for the sake of discourse and understanding.

If you want a breezy article about how to go about the process of talking about what we fear and wonder at, here’s an article from HuffPost. A reply to Lantos’ critique of NICUs from Jonathan Muraskas and Kayhan Parsi is here.

 

 

 

 

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).

Seeking

The semester has begun. I’ve been immersed in reading Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) and Daniel Ariely (Predictably Irrational) while procrastinating on uploading materials to the software platform for my class and making tomato sauce at home.

Robinson detects, amid all of our human endeavors, a search for answers. That we have questions at all seems proof of sentience, if there can be such a thing as proof. Certainly the process, myth, and language of seeking surrounds most human developments: religion, art, philosophy, science, and others. It’s the classic quest narrative that runs through anthropologically vast distances, from Gilgamesh’s efforts to find eternal life to the Ramayana (with Sita as the prize, in Ravana’s clutches) to Rowling’s Harry Potter, who snags the role of “Seeker” in a game–a metaphor that continues through the series.

But are there answers to our questions? And a corollary: are we asking the “right” questions?

256px-Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God~

Ariely, like Dan Kahneman, reminds us that we do not always–in fact, hardly ever–choose the most rational actions or answers to dilemmas. We fail to ask ourselves the better questions. We fail to act upon the better actions or decisions.

But we keep seeking. I find that intriguing.

~

Event Ahead:

On September 16, I’ll be taking part in an art-&-poetry event at a gallery in the “Christmas City” (Bethlehem, PA). Info on my Events page, here.