Speech Therapy

My long-time friend and fellow writer Chris Peditto stopped by for a visit yesterday. The day was cold and rainy here, and he was complaining about the gardening challenges of cutting back and cleaning up after the big ficus tree, date palms, and bougainvillea around his Echo Park home. I kind of envy him the bougainvillea, though.

Our conversations ranged over many subjects–art, music, poets, friends–but one story he related stays with me today. Early in 2010, after some surgery, Chris lost his ability to speak, read, and write. A poet, avid reader, reviewer, teacher of rhetoric and writing, the irony of that loss did not escape him; and he was determined to regain his ability to communicate. Reading and writing returned fairly quickly, but the speech deficit hung on. He told me that as he lay in bed recuperating, and frustrated, he tried to figure out a way to get his speech back. How had he learned to speak in the first place, more than 50 years earlier? Could he return to that process?

Nursery rhymes.

“I sat up in bed and recited ‘Humpty Dumpty,'” Chris said, “And it all came through. Every word. And understandably, too.”

From that point onward, he incorporated poetry into his speech practice and therapeutic exercises. His observation is that what we learn by heart–and he stresses the metaphor there, of the heart doing the “knowing”–integrates more thoroughly, makes up the much-touted “mind/body connection.” Poetry, he stresses, has speech-rhythm and pulse-rhythm. He uses daily recitations of poems to help improve the speech he has regained.

We talked for four hours, so I’d say he’s regained his speech. He doesn’t feel satisfied with the gains yet, because he still slurs and sometimes can’t pronounce a word without a couple of tries. He isn’t giving up; and what a joy his daily practice is! For while he varies his oral readings when he practices poetry, he always begins with this Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, one he’s known by heart for decades, and on which note I will leave my readers:

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

In the Garden

Redbud leaf in fall

“[T]o be worldly… is to be outside the gift of poetry, to be, in some measure, too human for comfort.” Peter de Bolla

A teacher of mine once defined a nature poet as a writer whose subjects and metaphor are nature-based. The majority of my work does fall under that definition, though not all of it. At a recent meeting of my writing group, one member who considers herself a beginning poet asked me, “What do you do if an idea for a poem comes to you while you are gardening?”

As in my work, her poetry often centers on images and inspirations that visit while walking, weeding, sowing, and so forth. So it was a simple and sensible question. Generally, I keep a small journal and a pen nearby when I work. There’s a porch swing near my garden gate, and often I keep my writing tools as well as my gardening tools on the swing.

But today I forgot. I was drawn to the vegetable garden by a break in the soggy weather, a glorious day before first frost, zinnias and marigolds still in bloom and all the weeds going riotously to seed. I pulled up undesirable annual grasses, polygonum, crabgrass and queen-anne’s-lace, wild asters, elderberry stalks, and vines along the edge of the fence. I’m fond of goldenrod and chicory in the meadow, but they make poor companions for asparagus; out they went. A northern mockingbird heading south stopped to perch among the walnuts trees and trilled as cheerily as it would have done in spring.

And I had ideas. And I forgot to write them down.

I cannot recreate that pleasant hour now, but the time spent among the weeds and the late bees and the big spiders catching their last prey and hanging their egg sacs in possibly-safe places while the hawks cry high overhead is comforting and inexpressibly valuable to me. But being in the world—what we tend to call “the natural world”—keeps me from becoming too worldly. Keeps me attuned to the gift of poetry, and keeps me from becoming too human (too rational) for comfort.

Teaching analysis & meaning

My students want to jump to conclusions.

Give them a text, a work of art to view and consider, a billboard, a musical selection…they will make one observation and immediately either evaluate or interpret. I am pleased that young people want to find meaning in so many things–or at least understand that they might be able to find meanings–but I want to tell them to slow down.

It’s tempting to suggest that “kids today” want instant gratification, are spoiled by having instant Google searches on their iPhones, or have no work ethic. I do not think that is true. Perhaps we have not taught our young people how to look, describe, analyze what it is they are noticing. It’s not that they are incapable of these steps; they just do not know that they know them. I think some of my students don’t even realize that they do notice things.

Really, who has not made snap judgments, or interpreted something–a work of art, a remark in passing–without thoughtful analysis? Guilty as charged, in my own case. But I am still learning, and my patience with my own learning process should carry over to my students; at least, I strive for that.

I notice the urge to leap to interpretation most when I am teaching the survey of poetry classes. Students know that poems are supposed to mean, not be (MacLeish got through); but they lack the confidence to explore meaning on their own, in their own ways. They get frustrated and want to find experts to tell them what the poet meant. Delving into their own uncertainties is frightening to them. They’re just out of high school, where they learned that it’s wrong to be “wrong.”

So many good texts out there try to convince students (or other interested, frustrated readers) that there are other ways to be with a poem, to explore, discuss, notice, and find meaning. I read such books to find inspiration for my teaching, for my students, and for myself. When I have time to get back to this post, I’ll begin a list in the comments box below. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions, add them below. I’m always looking for more ideas, more good books, more reasons not to jump to conclusions.

Poetry Break.

I took a break from difficult reading to read Eluard’s “Last Love Poems” as translated by Marilyn Kallet. Alas that I am mono-lingual and cannot read poetry in any language other than English. I have to take the translator’s word for it (literally and figuratively) that the beauty in the lines can be nearly portrayed in English. The struggle translators must have to go through to transform such a studied thing of language as a poem is into a different tongue amazes me. Inevitably there is some loss of connotation, wordplay, music, rhythm, cultural freight; the careful reader understands that there may be lacunae of some kind, and a mono-lingual reader recognizes that she will not be able to track down where those subtle gaps occur. A good translation, however, manages to maintain the beauty.

“Beauty”—now, there’s a moving target. Quine devotes a few pages to the discussion of the concept in his “intermittently philosophical dictionary.” He writes: “The aesthetic pole is the focus of belle lettres, music, art for art’s sake. But it is a matter of emphasis, not boundaries. Scientists in pursuing truth also seek beauty of an austere kind in the elegance of a theory, and happily some of them seek literary grace in their expository writing.” Quine ends his brief entry on Beauty by suggesting that truth and beauty are not a binary system, that we need not see them as poles apart; yet he does not quite agree with Keats’ conflation of the two. We need ethics and rhetoric in addition to truth and beauty, says the philosopher.

Peter de Bolla, writing two decades or so later, inclines toward a less binary way of looking at beauty and truth when he writes that, since the art of music is  an “articulation of the temporal,” there is a “philosophical argument music makes about relationships between time and being.”  And that argument results in beauty, when it is a well-composed argument, I suppose.

Suddenly the welcome earth
Was a rose of luck
Visible with fair mirrors
Where everything sang to open rose

(“Seasons,” Paul Eluard, tr. Marilyn Kallet)

de Bolla asks: What does the poem know? This poem knows music, and beauty “in the gentle desert of the street” and “beneath life overpowering and good.”


ann e. michael, waterfall, poetry

Why read difficult books?

Poetry can be difficult, but I love to read it. Poetry is not the only form of ‘hard reading’ I do, though. Reading a text that’s challenging takes more time and more effort on my part, and for a person who is often pressed for time the question presents itself:

Why do I read hard books?

Bachelard. de Bolla. Girard. Kuhn. I’m immersed in Quiddities by W. V. Quine at the moment. Slow going, though I enjoy his sense of humor, because I’m not as comfortable with philosophical terms as I once was. Next up: Derek Parfit.

Philosophy, poetics, aesthetics…not as easy nor, I suppose, as entertaining as popular fiction. I admit I enjoy how novels erase the boundaries between my life and the characters’ lives, their times and places (historical? imaginary? far from Emmaus, Pennsylvania?); it is easy to feel wrapped up in a novel, and I appreciate being taken elsewhere.  I’m a fan of short fiction, too. It’s easy to love fiction.

That’s not always the effect I seek from reading, however. I read non-fiction to become informed, and I especially treasure information that is delivered in a beautiful, literary fashion. John McPhee, James Prosek, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Terry Tempest Williams, to name a few. Writers such as these make reading science and politics and biology and culture and other informational material a joy.

I read difficult texts such as philosophy and physics because I love to think. Thinking deeply has always resulted—for me—in new forms of perspective, in inspiration, and in poetry.

Poetry is sometimes difficult to read, as well. Think of the many ways the word “difficult” can mean in this poetic context: Marie Howe is difficult in a different way than Jorie Graham, or Lyn Hejinian, or Ezra Pound, Gray Jacobik, or Gregory Orr’s early collection Gathering the Bones Together.

Stuff that is hard to read can be extremely rewarding. And, when I am puzzled (which I often am), I feel inspired to question and to observe…which leads to writing. Much of what we call “art” is a response to difficulty.

Oh, how I relish the difficult!

Intention and Inattention

de Bolla on Glenn Gould and the attention/inattention we bring to listening to music:

Inattention vs attentiveness, and a riff on Intention

In his book Art Matters, which I’ve been reading in my not-copious spare time, Peter de Bolla talks about a deep introspectiveness necessary for complete attention. In a fairly long and typically convoluted philosophical passage–clear enough to philosophers but harder to read for the uninitiated–he suggests that when we really listen carefully to music (music-as-art rather than music-as-background-noise), we must first prepare ourselves for attention and, paradoxically, move ourselves into a state of inattention. He uses Glenn Gould playing Bach for his example, and what follows amid the philosophy-talk is an interesting “take” on how we experience music and why critics are divided on Gould’s decision to blend recordings in order to construct his own particular perspective on the best interpretation of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Spoiler: de Bolla essentially defends Glenn Gould. I’m not a music critic, so I withhold judgment on that issue.

I’m also not going to reiterate de Bolla’s argument statement by statement in this brief post; I am going to mention that the paradox of attention/inattention reminds me a good deal of Zen practice. In addition, I enjoy the potential wordplay possibilities of attention, inattention, in-attention (de Bolla’s addition) and the Buddhist concept of intention. If we listen with in-attention by preparing ourselves to experience deep attention, are we also listening with intention?

If we then let go our attentiveness in order to give in to the full experience of the music (or any other form of art), are we truly experiencing art? Or are we experiencing “Unfettered Mind,” which is also a Zen-related experience?

Consider “The Unfettered Mind” by Takuan Sōhō.   Takuan was a circa-16th c. Buddhist monk whose works interpreted martial arts through a Zen philosophy. Or perhaps vice versa. So far as I can tell, his most-quoted aphorism is in the form of a poem (I cannot seem to identify the translator):




Is a somatic art-encounter experience a form of unfettered mind?

Meanwhile, my daughter is vaccinating full-grown sows, and Lesley Wheeler is reflecting on how the brain case empties, or seems to, under the load of extraneous work, deadlines, children, and…YES…attention. See the October 3, 2011 post on The Cave, The Hive.

Aerial Roots

The Wildflower Meadow @ Grounds for Sculpture w/Tobin’s Aerial Roots

Visitors descend upon the newly-opened meadow. Aerial Roots will be in residence for about a year. By spring of 2012, the wildflower meadow should be well-established; the plan was to provide a native ecology setting (for central NJ near the Delaware River) in which sculptural works could be displayed. As the smaller trees mature, they will screen some of the sculptures, lending the possibility of surprise as the visitor walks the paths. Right now, the meadow is more of a flat setting for the steel roots–we can see everything from the rise as we enter the park. In time, revelations may be part of the experience. Visit the mature areas of GfS to get some idea of how the meadow may evolve naturally around the artwork.

Surprise is, for me, one of the hallmarks of wonder, awe, and art. I like to be surprised when I view or read or listen to works of art. Surprise leads, when the work is good, to revelation and reflection. It is not the sum of the aesthetic experience, but it seems to me a necessary component.