November 27, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

"This Is Your Brain on Metaphors" is an essay by Robert Sapolsky that I read on The New York Times’s website. Sapolsky is a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University, and is a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.

It doesn't sound like the CV for someone to discuss metaphors.

He starts by talking about why humans beat out gophers and fruit flies even though
under a microscope they look the same. Neurons are the same basic building blocks in both species.
So where’s the difference? It’s numbers — humans have roughly one million neurons for each one in a fly. And out of a human’s 100 billion neurons emerge some pretty remarkable things. With enough quantity, you generate quality.
So, we can understand symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech and all the stuff of poetry.
We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.
He cites a number of studies. I like this example of how the brain links the literal and the metaphorical. It was a study by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh where volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. Actually, the meeting itself was the experiment. They asked the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee cup - a cup that was hot or iced. The subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.

I'm not sure how all this science will help you finish that poem that you last started, but maybe...

Books by Robert Sapolsky

November 22, 2010

Kim Dower:Joan Didion meets Tinker Bell

I had not heard of poet Kim Dower until I read an article about her "return" to poetry. For several decades, she had turned her back on the poet's life she was leading in Boston for a literary publicist's career in Los Angeles.

"Poetry came back to me," Dower says. "I never decided I'm going to start writing again. The truth is I was watching The O.C. with my son, who was at that point a senior in high school, and that was one of the few things we continued to do together. And I got up during a commercial break and I wrote a poem."

Maybe it's an inspiring story for those of us who feel some writer's block.

That was a few years ago and the spark must have caught fire because she has a collection out now titled Air Kissing On Mars from Red Hen Press.

Some samplings:

She can’t work

if the chair is there
she can’t think
if the clothes are dirty
She wrote at home, on nights and weekends after work for clients and traveled to poetry festivals and workshops in Florida and every summer for three years, she took 10 days at a nondescript hotel to write as the traffic rushed past on Pacific Coast Highway.

The Nudists Are Getting Ready to Pack
How do the nudists get ready to pack?
Do they pack in the nude
or do they dress to get in the mood?
What will the nudists pack
when the nudists are ready to pack?
These poems start from such normal places -

She’s awakened by a hair in her mouth.
It’s not enough to kill her, no
that would take a locomotive crashing
through her window, a train way off track

thundering through her bedroom,
the moon on its back,
simply a hair
stuck to the roof of her mouth,
They took the mailbox away

on Cahuenga and Clinton.
I know because I wasn’t feeling right,
decided to take a walk, figure things out,
remember why I love the clouds.
Found my rent check still in my purse,
gave me a goal, a project I could complete.
But when I got to the corner it was gone,
just space in the place where the box had been...
When she was told that her poems are like "Joan Didion meets Tinker Bell," she agreed that she has a "California sensibility – poems about driving, poems about L.A. and the quirkiness and desperation.. and the Tinker Bell element, I think I'm very whimsical."

The poems are accessible and often funny. Those are qualities that often don't serve poets well with critics. Think of the early success of Billy Collins. But deeper reading of many of the poems reveals deeper meanings.

Dower reads some true stories from her book in a noisy outdoor setting.

November 14, 2010

Prompt: Taking Dinner To My Mother with Burt Kimmelman

Burt Kimmelman's poem "Taking Dinner to My Mother" serves as our model for this month's writing prompt.

The poem marks a point in the poet's relationship with his mother just before she died. The poem's movement is from "mother sits on the edge of her bed", to a cafe where "a new mother fed her infant daughter", and finally to his own daughter, the granddaughter, who "met a boy for a moment in a fleamarket, who is now a first love."

Usually, we avoid assuming that the voice in the poem is the poet. But, Burt is a friend and colleague at NJIT and I know something of the poem's genesis.

It's a poem that I connect more directly to myself lately because I maintain the same ritual of bringing dinner to my 92-year-old mother.

There was an article in Poets And Writers magazine about reading John Donne (The Sick Genius Of Remorse) by William Giraldi where he talks about his own depression that hit him after his father’s untimely death. He rediscovered the poetry of John Donne as a way out of the darkness.

Of course, John Donne of  “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so...” is part of a body of poems of grief that includes Gerard Manley Hopkins and poems like "Deathfugue" by Paul Celan, or many of Marilyn Hacker’s poems, My Mother’s Body by Marge Piercy and “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee.

But that's not what Kimmelman is doing in his poem, or what I want you to try in your own writing this month. I hesitated to even list those poems because I didn't want to receive an inbox of elegies.

Burt also sent me two other poems that he feels serve nicely as companion poems. Both are about the end of his mother's life.

The Waves

When you told me, "I'm dying - it's
all right," I dreamt I was treading
water in the ocean, no land

in sight, and a great ship, its sails
jutting into the night sky, was

making its slow way toward the far
horizon. The world of the dead
must be like that realm where dreams hold

the living, where we come and go,
breathing stars. If I could rouse you

from that place I would tell you how
I swam, swam to shore, exhausted,
where I hear your voice in the waves.

The Sleep of the Dead

My mother would sleep "the sleep of the dead,"
she used to say. We would wake her and she
would sigh, saying she had slept longer than
she had meant to. On the day my father
was to leave our home he lay in bed with
his back to her, a single tear in his
eye - and she, breathing softly, lay with her
back to him. "I wake to sleep," Roethke wrote.
In her sleep she seemed to leave her daily
torments behind with her two sons, boyfriends,
job, landlord, books, music, movies, paintings
and sculptures - as if sleep were without thought,
without language or dream, the stepping out
of time and into a still and deep lake.

In her old age she grew sick, too full of
pain to walk more than a few steps from her
bed. One night, after a light meal with wine,
she fell asleep. When we found her in the
morning she was lying on her side, her
arm crooked at the elbow and tucked under
her pillow, her eyes and lips closed, her cheek
smooth. A thin thread of saliva and blood
had trickled from the corner of her mouth
and turned brittle on her chin. Her heart had
surged and stopped, She looked like she had not known
it. Perhaps that night she dreamed - dreaming of
lying in her mother's arms, of sinking
into the calm water of her embrace.

For this month's writing prompt, try writing a poem about caring for someone old, or sick,  or dying. But don't write an elegy. Celebrate the life, the ritual and the connections that caring has to other parts of life.

You can hear Burt read all three poems at the page for his poetry at PennSound from a reading at the Kelly Writers House. The reading of "Taking Dinner to My Mother" includes some back story about the poem, and refers to Garrison Keillor's reading of the poem on public radio's The Writer's Almanac.

On his blog, Al Filreis has commentary on Burt's poetry and two videos of him reading at the University of Pennsylvania.

Burt Kimmelman has published six collections of poetry. "Taking Dinner to My Mother" is from As If Free (Talisman House, Publishers, 2009).

He has also published There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007), Somehow (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005), The Pond at Cape May Point (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, First Life (Jensen/Daniels Publishing, 2000), and Musaics (Sputyen Duyvil Press, 1992).

Burt Kimmelman is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters and The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona. He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry and co-edited The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry. He has published scores of essays on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry.

November 7, 2010

Poet Liu Xiaobo — Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Did you know that Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, is a poet in prison?

He is a poet and literary critic, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and an advocate for human rights and freedom of expression. He is in prison in China, serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

The Chinese government has reacted, not surprisingly, with anger to the award. They call it “blasphemy” and refer to Liu as a criminal.

Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia was finally permitted to visit her husband and tell him he had won the award. He dedicates it to the victims of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy movement demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Liu Xiaobo
Liu Xiaobo

November 3, 2010

Last Letter to Sylvia Plath From Ted Hughes

Hughes and Plath 1957
"Last Letter" is a previously unknown poem by Ted Hughes, about the night his estranged wife Sylvia Plath killed herself.

Birthday Letters: PoemsHughes published 88 poems years ago in Birthday Letters, but said that some of the poems were “too personal to publish.”

Last month, Hughes’ papers including letters and unpublished poems were acquired by the British Library.

One poem was “Last Letter” to Sylvia. It deals with the story of her death, including her “Last Letter” to him. That was actually a suicide note that was mailed too early and caused him to go to her. She ended up going through with the suicide later anyway.

"What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened....

And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'"

Hughes was appointed the UK's poet laureate in 1984.

There are a number of articles online about the poems including one from the and in this video report you can hear a portion of the poem read.