Perusing Poetics: Say Nothing, See Nothing

I promise that this week’s post will be an actual intellectual piece of reading material. I promise. Read on and see.

This week we read two really awesome things, and I had so many things to say about both of them. First we read excerpts from Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley, and then we read an essay by Jerome Rothenberg from The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. My initial reaction was, “Oh yeah totally doing something from Bradley because the only thing that Rothenberg’s got going is A REALLY ANNOYING USE OF THE AMPERSAND AGAIN AND AGAIN” but actually … I was wrong.

If you’re into Bradley’s book, I do highly recommend it. But my rant about persona and Truth and all that jazz got sidelined when Rothenberg gave me this little quote:

“The hypothesis would be: I see through language. And its corollary: without language, I am blind” (13).

Now, the quote that I instantly connected to before this one was “‘a new language must be found’ … not only for the sake of speaking but of seeing, knowing” and I was like “YEAH THAT SOUNDS AWESOME” (12). Then the one in block quotes came around a few sentences later and then I was like, “Hang on. What?”

At first, I took a step back and said, “Uh, no.” Because what sense does seeing with language make outside of reading? (I should probably have explained that a lot of Rothenberg’s focus is on “‘wordless’ oral poetries” [14].) My immediate reaction is that when I see a red flower, it doesn’t matter if the person next to me can communicate our shared vision or not because we’re both looking at the same red flower. (Also, I am aware I am working under the assumption we are both in possession of our sight. That is not a slight against those with blindness but rather I simply relating my own thought process given my privileged of having my sight mostly intact.)

Now let me back up a little bit. You may or may not know that I was abroad last year. Though I lived in London, I traveled in Europe a lot. The favorite question for people to ask when I came back is which place I went was my favorite. I always hedged this question by replying that I loved everywhere I went, but I was just more comfortable in places where I could adequately communicate, like Ireland and Scotland. When I traveled to Paris, Barcelona and Italy, I always had at least one travel buddy who spoke the language we needed. It is this experience that I drew on to refine this “hypothesis and corollary” in my own mind.

See, when traveling to new country where you don’t speak the language, the inability to communicate does feel like a type of blindness and a sense of invisibility all at the same time. Especially on public transportation, you feel removed from reality in a sense. There is all this chatter happening around you, but you can’t understand a word of it. You can’t overhear a funny story someone is telling or engage with a shopkeeper about buying a silly souvenir. Sure, you can get by with pointing and playing charades, but it is the most physical feeling of living in an alternate reality that I have ever had.

This is especially potent when someone you’re traveling with DOES speak the language. They end up ordering for the group at dinner or getting directions or navigating the public transportation. This isn’t a bad thing; I’m forever thankful for my friends for this. I might have died from anxiety otherwise. But when someone else can jump into a dialogue before you can, the muzzling effect is deafening. Perhaps this is just me, being someone who is not accustomed to taking a backseat for extended periods of time–and really wanting to be in complete control of every situation–but that is the deepest truth I can admit about traveling in those countries.

Again, I don’t regret those travels. They were some of the most amazing experiences of my life. But this was also certainly a part of my experience. It just wasn’t something I connected with the act of seeing until Rothenberg said it. I think of the five senses as five separates. But the truth is, as with much of the human experience, nothing is separate. Everything we do or don’t do feeds into something else with simple cause and effect.

Advertisements

Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

When I was born, my parents got one of those dumb baby book things. Under family resemblances, my father wrote “Worf from Star Trek.” I HAVE A BIG FOREHEAD, OKAY?

This has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post, except for the fact that this week I’m talking about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought,and Reality and I keep thinking of Whorf from Star Trek instead of this really smart linguist. So now you know something really weird about me.

How I arrived at my topic for this week’s post is also kind of weird. It’s a convergence of three things, really. Firstly, there’s Whorf. One of his essays in this collection is titled “On the Connection of Ideas,” and it’s basically him writing to this compiler of psychological terminology asking for a better term for connected words and ideas than “association,” which he finds lacking for a multitude of reasons. The takeaway here is that he, a linguist, is asking for help not from another linguist, but a psychologist. Kind of weird, right? (Not to me, as you’re about to see.) Then, there’s this craft class I had today with poet Li-Young Lee. He said today that he thinks that art is really just another version of psychology, since all art comes from an inner psyche. Finally, there’s me, and my now three-year-long maintaining that if I wasn’t an English and Writing major, I’d be a psychology major.

When I first had a little wonder, as a freshman, if I should major in psychology (preferably educational), I threw it out of hand almost instantly. “I’m not science-y!” I said. “I’d never survive. The connection makes no sense!” So I continued on my merry English-and-Writing way. And I’m glad for it.

Me. Doing science.

But the thing is that there is a major connection between art and psychology. A BIG ONE. I’m going to focus on writing here, because I can’t art in any other way, but I’m sure an artist or musician–for example–would probably have a connection to make as well. What is a writer, but a creator of character? When you’re in a writing class, one of the major things you are told you have to figure out is “What do your characters want?” Writing–especially, for me personally, fiction–is simply accessible psychology. (The good stuff, anyways.) You sit down, you read a story, and you understand step by step why a person or a group of people do what they do within the story. You learn how people change, grow, fail or succeed through story arcs. To me, it’s pretty bloody magical. It’s why I write. The human brain fascinates me. Psychology is only one access point to the crazy questions humanity poses about WHY. Writing is another.

Whorf, however, is a linguist, so we have to break this down a little bit further. Sure, the connection between stories and psychology might make sense, but Whorf is operating on the word level. He’s seeing a connection to humanity through not just whole stories but single words and syllables. He suggests this hypothesis about how someone’s language is a major part of how they understand reality and behave within it. This collection basically admits that this hasn’t been proven, but it hasn’t been disproved.

To me, what he’s saying just makes sense. (Okay, well, not some of the time. But what I can understand from him, I like.)

It’s why I still wish I’d gone into psychology sometimes. It’s why I want to find some way to get a PhD where I can explore the links that Whorf talks about, between language, society, culture, etc. It’s because when I engage in my area of specialty (the young adult book world), I see the connection between cultural norms, young adult reception of these stories, and society at large. YA novels work in massive trends, but it’s fascinating how the slightest shift in language can make or break one vampire novel to the next.

At the reading by Li-Young that I attended tonight, he said that he was currently engaged in a massive back and forth with a minister friend of his because Li-Young is trying to convince him that all the world is speech. Well, that’s the world I choose to see, too.

speech-bubbles-world-map-vector-306917