Poem of the day #29

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
William Wordsworth

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Poem of the Day #28

Elegy for Jane
Theodore Roethke

My Student, Thrown by a Horse

I remember the neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidling pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing;
And the hold sand in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure
Eve a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw;
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not there,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in their matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Poem of the day #27

Adrienne Rich

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
astronemer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman    ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces      of the mind

An eye,

‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
from the mad webs of Uranusborg

encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us

Tycho whispering at last
‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is chaining

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

I am bombarded yet      I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep     so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me     And has
taken     I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images     for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

from The Facts Of A Doorframe

Language never gets easy.

I just survived a Philosophy Intensive, which means that in the last 30 hours, 12 of them were spent in a class covering Analytic Philosophy.

Huh, and when you put it like that it doesn’t look too bad. Suddenly I feel less hardcore than I did before I started this post.

Anyhow, one of the things were were covering in class was the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his work on language. (I wrote my paper on his Mysticism. And that’s the last you’re ever going to to hear of that paper, because for complete lack of excellence it ranks right up there with the stories where I mistook architecture for plot and finished conversations by people jumping down holes in the ground.) In addition to really kicking off Ordinary Language Philosophy, one of the things Wittgenstein worked on was the theory of private language vs. public language.

This is where it gets interesting, I promise.

Okay, so one of the things that has been thought about extensively over the last couple millennia has been how we acquire language. The general consensus was that language was something that arose internally. When we were children someone pointed to a cookie and said “cookie,” and so when we wanted that thing we went to the pictures in our minds, found that it was called “cookie,” and asked for it. Language is primarily internal, arising from private experiences and sensations we learn to put names to.

And then Wittgenstein came along with a bag full of wrenches and threw them at everything. He said that language arrises from shared experiences, experiences that we’ve decided on a name for. It is essentially public, and essentially experiential. Even in the example of the child pointing at the cookie, the important part is not that the child wanted to name the thing a cookie. The child wanted a cookie. (Speaking of shared experiences, pretty sure that one’s common…) We don’t walk around with a catalogue of names of things in our head, we walk around with a collection of actions in our heads.

From this it follows that language is essentially culturally constructed. (And if you add the fact that experience is filtered through “language,” experience is culturally constructed, and so is reality, but that’s a head trip I’ve barely even started synthesizing yet, much less decided if I agree.)

Speaking of experiences that make sense within culture…

So that’s interesting.

I had never gone into the issue as deeply as we did this weekend before, but I had thought of language as a cultural construction before. It’s one of the things that comes up if you move a lot. (Just trying referring to the boot of a car in California and see how far that gets you.) And it’s also something that comes up if you’re writing or studying writing. It’s why you often need to know where or when someone comes from before you interpret their work, or you’re left thinking as all those poets talking about courtly love as creepers who can’t even talk to women. Where if you know that the genders were entirely segregated at the time of the writing, you know that the poet isn’t a creeper for not talking to his lady love. (He’s a creeper for other reasons. :D)

One of the things I was wondering this summer was whether a common language is actually an impediment to communication in our world. We have so many people who speak English, and because of our shared media and art we all talk fairly similarly. There are, or course, exceptions– Singlish being one which comes to mind– but generally most people who talk English are fairly comprehensible to each other. However, we don’t all come from the same culture. Yes, we come from similar cultures, but our experiences range from subtly to very different. And yet, we all have the same words for things. So we assume we’re talking about the same things, when sometimes we really aren’t.

I beg your pardon?

I thought of this again when #Occupy protests started spreading around the globe. Because yes, in the USA when you say “Bank,” you’re talking about an institution which has some serious institutional flaws. More Regulation Needed, Please. However, that isn’t necessarily the same everywhere. In Canada while the USA financial system ours was the most stable in the world. So when people hear on the news that “the financial system is corrupt and flawed and needs to be changed,” and then they go out and protest it, they’re protesting an issue that might not even exist in their country. If it does exist, it’s certainly not going to be fixed with the same solutions here! But because the words are the same, we assume the experiences and references are the same.

tl;dr version: Define your terms.

Poem of the day #25

The secretary chant
Marge Piercy

My hips are a desk
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair
My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink.
My feet bear casters.
Buzz. Click.
My head is a badly organized file.
My head is a switchboard
where crossed lines crackle.
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear credit and debit.
Zing. Tinkle.
My navel is a reject button.
From my mouth issue canceled reams.
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
Zerox machine.
File me under W
because I wonce
a woman.

From Circles On The Water.

Poem of the Day #24

John Terpstra

The location and number of stars in the sky is determined by
the trajectory of individual branch tips, each of which bears
responsibility for a single pinprick of light.
     As well, the individual bent of each branch is the result of its
having scanned the black dome for an unlit location.
     These are, of course, preposterous hypotheses, and it is
likely that only those who are willing to admit to an uncommon
empathy with trees would ever entertain them.
     In any case let it follow that when a tree falls the lights dim.

Dark Age Ahead: Living without Community.

For International Studies, I got to read a bonus book, and the one I chose was Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs. (It was awesome.)

The main crux of the argument that Ms. Jacobs puts forward is that North American society is heading for a Dark Age, because of the decline of certain pillars of our civilization. And she points out that a Dark Age occurs when a civilization no longer even knows what it’s lost. The people assume that they live at the pinnacle of their nation’s glory while it’s crumbling underneath them.

So what are these pillars? She outlines five, the crumbling of each which has led to a whole host of other problems we regard as the normal state of affairs.

  • Community and Family
  • Higher education
  • The effective practice of science and since-based technology
  • Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • Self-policing by the learned professions

Most of these I’d heard discussed, but I’d never really heard the Community one taken apart. That is, aside from the THE DECLINE OF THE WESTERN FAMILY OUR SOCIETY IS CRUMBLING thing that we’re all so tired of hearing. So it was very interesting to me to hear the stats taken apart. And because I believe sharing is caring, (lol), I reproduce the info for you here. ^_^

So what IS going wrong with Community and Family? Well, basically our society is set up currently to make sure they are very difficult to keep together. Jacobs cites two main ways our communities are rigged to fail, and the first is the fantastic cost of shelter.

The family, after all, is the smallest unit of a community, and to keep that community housed we almost have to never be in the house. When a family spends over 30% of their income on shelter costs, it is regarded as unaffordable. Contrast that with the common budgeting advice that 50% of your income goes to housing.


So to keep the house over the family’s head, wage earners within the house are told they must work more hours at a high paying job. (We also have a cultural belief that the only real reason someone wouldn’t work outside the house is because they’re lazy, but that’s another topic.) This both means that people don’t have the energy for activities in the larger community– which is bad for the continued existence of the larger community as a functioning thing– and puts a great deal of strain on the family as a unit. If you’re only home long enough to watch tv, sleep and possibly entertain, what is that going to do to your relationship? According to the 2001 Canadian Census, 23% of people ever married had that marriage end in divorce at the time of the census. And of the people married within the ten years before the report, that number jumped to almost a 40% fail rate.

Related facts? Possibly.

So to deal with the cost of renting (never mind buying a house) people can either work more hours, with all the risks that entails, or push their expenses off into debt. We do live in a consumerist society, where to not-purchase is to be anti-social or a failure, after all. Debt isn’t something she specifically touched on in the book, but I think it’s something that is also setting up our culture to be in deep, deep trouble.

Jacobs does points out that we are also dissolving our communities with the way our transportation is set up. Our suburbs encourage long commutes to work, because a.) god forbid you should live near where you work, and b.) all those green lawns take up a lot of space. This could be partly avoided if people used public transit instead of travelling along super-congested super-freeways, but using public transportation is both an admission of failure to consume– (Translation: you are anti-social and/or a failure, see above)– and just not seen as a viable choice.

Jacobs points out that public transit– as competition for major automobile companies– has been the target of systematic attacks by those companies. General Motors spent the 1920s though the 1950s buying up electric trolley lines and replacing them with expensive and inefficient bus lines. And then once that had been completed, the car manufacturers had to move to vilifying busses in the public consciousness so that every family would need a car. (Then they moved to promoting the essential right of every person to own a car, so that a family will have two to four vehicles. Perhaps next we’ll be sold multiple cars, one for work and one for off-roading? Oh wait, that’s already happening.)

So where are we now? North Americans now spend so much time on their long commutes, after working more hours per year than the Japanese, (and that’s saying something), that driving fatigued is running neck and neck with drunk driving as the source of traffic fatalities. Enrolment in community activities (including voting, which has FAR-REACHING repercussions) is falling like a stone, and average household debt (Which at the time of the Great Depression was at 30% or so of household income), exceeds 100% of yearly income.

And we all think this is perfectly normal.

Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs.
Vintage Canada 2005