Tag Archives: words

‘Most flowers die fast or get passed gas’: Exquisite Corpse poems (1 of 3)

2010_07_16 (307)

New Exquisite Corpse poems from this semester’s creative writing class, second hour. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

He shaves your grandma’s legs when cash rules everything.

Love is a many-splendored thing that scares us so.

I’m giving up, up, and away.

Stop signs are pointless because there are many dogs.

Bed time is my favorite color.

Underwear is like outerwear, except for the exceptionalism of the word.

Donkeys are dumb animals on the edge of moonbeams and rainbows having to see the light at the end.

I did not want to drink, or not, to my house and kids I destroyed.

I need you to find true love, which is beautifully hot in Acapulco with coconut.

Winter is the season that rhymes with a bat.

I want a drink of me and the time.

And the award goes to go home sad.

The alligator chewed the gum loudly. The trumpet played quietly.

I ate is the past tense purpose of writing.

Good fortune is bad luck in the bowl of being the best person.

Death-defying stunts are two words that cannot express hatred.

The future will never change.

Big people eat a lot of the tip of my nose.

To the supermarket for 20 years to life.

True friends don’t really exist, like in Jurassic Park with dinosaurs running around.

Mate like two moths under the sea where [you’d] better run or else nothing matters the most.

Twelfth Street is the place where the people stay with me ‘til we are like you.

See the big trees die in the clear blue skies and cold lemonade.

The tree was at the park to hold my love.

You gave up instantly the coffee began spilling.

Red violets are blue; I’ve been drinking watermelon juice.

Time goes by very much in the style that only I have.

Your personality intrigues me to rescue her majesty and marry her hair.

Most flowers die fast or get passed gas.

Orange squares taste exactly enough.

Milk does a body; good God, we need ketchup.

Goldfish are very funny looking through Alice’s looking glass.

The ocean sand in your toes feels like gorillas on water.

Mind-numbing gets done at the people.

The cutest little girl in the middle of the ocean where the water looks like an ugly monkey.

Once upon a time flies when you’re having a kitten.

Why did she do whatever you want to do with my favorite food?

Last night I experimented with all the power in a meadow for unicorns.

“This isn’t fun anymore” reminds me of Macklemore.

“Very odd” is what people call me later.

Selfish people always live longer than an elephant’s trunk that has baby chickens.

Night owl was an owl that I wanted to eat.

Me? I’m the best I ever had.

Man, I feel like a person with a pair of socks.

Any dish makes me feel greatness.

A wild animal had been really confused lately.

Like playing a musical chicken that sings girly stuff, yo’ daddy likes when pony tails aren’t.

Clean is better than nothing.

I’m excited about girls who stink like you.

Where you’re from shapes how you talk

dialect

This is where The New York Times thinks I live, based on the results of a a quiz I took that asked me how I pronounced some words and used some terms. They got my region pegged. Several of my family members who live in the same area  said their quiz results were the same, or nearly the same as mine (in the photo above). I took the quiz a second time, this time choosing another variation of how I might say something, and this time it placed me in Rockford, Grand Rapids, or Buffalo. It’s Rockford both times.

Now, I have lived most of my life in a region where the nearest movie theaters were in Rockford. My parents grew up here, too. But my mom’s mom grew up in northwestern Wisconsin, and my dad’s parents were children of German immigrants, and so I wonder how much of my language is that of my parents, and how much is from my peers.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this list of options:

dialect_foxweddingI love the poetic qualities here — fox’s wedding, liquid son — but what American variant picks the devil is beating his wife to describe a meteorological phenomenon? I guess this one.

Indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest: Letting go of past ideas

I’ve been here, writing at the top of a blank screen, three or four times already. You, reader, wouldn’t know that.  (Even if many people read this post, we read it one mind at a time. Each mind’s on its own, reading-wise, right?)

And I put an idea out there — that I write my journals so I can get ideas out of my mind, so my thinking doesn’t burden others by me telling them all of my ideas — and that’s an idea I had earlier today, and it’s sorta inert. By inert, I mean, it’s … it’s sorta done already. I don’t want to deal in done-ideas; I wanna have new ideas.

I want to write what I don’t know about already (even that’s an old idea). I had an idea a few minutes (and at least one start-over) ago that I don’t have to know where I’m going as I write, that I could really just be as open as possible to new ideas and whatnot. And then that thought seemed worth holding onto, until I realized I was holding onto it and by do doing, I was not being open and fresh and ready to receive new ideas — sitting on the cusp of a new idea.

Metaphors are inept, but then, so are all words. Words are not ept.

But I’ve been critical of words before, too. It’s New Year’s Eve now and I don’t feel very much like looking back or looking forward — I will say this idea that comes to mind from when I thought it yesterday: that I’ll complete my 40th year of living this year, and I had a feeling yesterday, as a salesman at the electronic store explained Windows 8’s “charms” to me (not the program’s charm, but its actual usable features uncharmingly called “charms,” apparently), that I am …

See, it doesn’t matter what I thought, because it was just a thought and it was fleeting, and so I can let it fleet. Also, a charms criticism reference made in 2013 is probably dumb, and so I’ll probably take it out, and if I leave this line in, this text will be hard to read — that revisability aspect of writing can make it some indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest …

And I’m now spiraling into meta-writing and personal self-criticism. Moving on.

So, you know, or should I say, just so you know, I reminded myself today that I don’t really need to feel old as I approach 40. It’s a cliche to think that turning 40 matters.

Someone recently asked me why I write things down — this was at our local diner and I had a piece of paper out and was noting things I heard — for instance, an older lady actually, unironically, used “crick” instead of “creek,” a typical Midwesternism — I felt I was documenting some actual usage. I told my questioner that it’s interesting to pay attention to overhearing others and noting some things, because it makes me realize how much cliche people use (myself not excepted).

And we use cliches and familiar expressions because these things can facilitate communication of meaning. An older man at the diner last week said, “I can’t say enough good things about” a local hospital, where (I’m presuming) he was recently treated, and treated well. I imagine this man trying to say enough good things … standing at a street corner and uttering praises, maybe as someone utters prayers. But that’s me, and I have a tendency to be what some call a “smart-ass,” and I take words apart as if words meant nothing, as if communication were impossible, but of course I’m aware of language weirdness but I also write as if language could convey stuff.

Eh, what are ya gonna do? I’ve also thought lately that it was … I don’t remember what it was that I thought lately. At any rate, it’s past, no? And I’m trying to stay present. I’m carrying on this monologue, straight from my brain-parts to your brain parts. Oh, here is my idea from a day ago: that there can be sentences whose meanings can’t both be true — say, “This stapler is made of metal” and “This stapler is not made of metal” and these two statements don’t try to resolve their discrepancy — it’s only within a reader’s mind that these two statements would feel/seem discrepant, and then we may feel we need to discern which statement is real (and if we’re gonna get technical, which, why not?, we might examine the definitions of the nouns and verbs above — what does it mean to be “made of” something?).

And yeah … I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s damned freeing to not know. To not-know may mean to let go. Writing piles up in books or online, or wherever, and nobody really needs it, probably. Sartre’s dead, my dad’s dead, and I’ll be dead one day. But those too are just ideas — hell, Sartre’s just an idea.

And now I’m boring myself. I’m at 800-some words. I could edit this down to make that last sentence a lie. I could take out every other word as a sort of avant-garde experiment. I could just publish this post in the middle of this sentence. But I didn’t.

 

Reality’s ‘weiners’: Words point beyond words

From a notecard I wrote Weds., 27 Nove. 2013, after shopping at Woodman’s, a big grocery store in Rockford:

I was in the refrigerated food section, in an aisle with cheese to my right and O.J. to my left. I came up behind a cart where a boy was sitting in front and the gate was down and he was swinging his heels and kicking the gate below him. As I passed this cart, I saw a package labeled “weiners” in the cart behind the boy. These may have been in the yellow-red Oscar Meyer package, but what I remember seeing was “weiners.”

I thought how, of all the things I could have noticed — the other shoppers, the boy, the cheese, the O.J., I noticed “weiners” — I saw this, processed this visual as a word, read it, got the meaning, and what I got out of that moment was “weiners.”

I’m posting this because — well, I’m not sure. I’m posting this now maybe because I want a post that has “Weiners” in the title — or maybe I want to post something since I’ve been trying to write this post for over an hour now and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels — I’ve had some ideas but I feel like these wouldn’t do much for anybody but me.

I earlier wanted to claim that this moment described above was valuable because it was real — and because my mind somehow made me aware at the time of that present moment (“moment” implies that boundaries had been drawn around a specific duration or experience, and maybe my mind did that, too, at about the same time as it observed and read “weiners”). I was aware of myself having awareness — I was conscious of my conscious perception of “weiners.”

But now, in describing this experience, I’m relating an abstraction. I’m claiming that I really did have the experience described above, but of course, I could have made it up. It could be fiction. Either way, as fiction or nonfiction, the description above is a product of my mental experience, my inner voice that picks the words.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I tend to value nonfiction more than fiction. Perhaps it’s because I read a lot of fiction as a young person, and I grew up with relatives that were good storytellers, but as I got into my later 20s, I started to question the value of the stories I’d been told. I started to sense that Jack Kerouac’s adventures may not have been as fun to experience as they were to read, and that my family’s stories may have unfairly characterized certain family members.

And from my memory: in the fall of my freshman year of college, I went on an after-dark hike on a trail through the woods, and my friends and I were talking about reading Tolkien, and I remember feeling excited to find other Tolkien fans, and somehow I had a feeling that night of the dark woods being linked with the glory of Bilbo’s adventures, and I remember later that same year that I wanted to write a story that could capture and convey, or recreate, that sense of specialness, an idea mixed with an experience (as if, perhaps, I was interpreting the experience as I was having it). And this is a story I now hold and am using here to explain and/or justify an attitude I’ve taken.

Maybe I don’t like fiction in that I feel nonfiction is fascinating enough — that I don’t need superheroes or fantastic plots in order to find things interesting. Just looking at a real thing — say, my cell phone that is on the desk before me — is pretty interesting. I mean, it is, and it isn’t. It’s not some great action movie, and yet, this is true, whereas everything in a Spiderman movie is not.

Real life is fascinating in its “there-ness” (I’m not sure if this is what Heidegger meant by “Dasein” — probably not — but it comes to mind that I should point it out). And even as I write here and now, I’m using conventions like “I” and “is” and “now” and “there” that are words — quite abstract words — referring to things (and “things” is abstract as hell too) that are obvious in one’s experience but hard to prove or convey. “I” is the word that I use as the source of words that I write — it’s the name for whatever is doing the experiencing that seems private to me (and here we go with the linguistic run-around, how we can define words only in terms of other words, and we can’t break across that idea/reality divide, so that everything that I think about reality is itself an idea, not reality.

“My phone is there in front of me”: “phone” is a label, sure, referring to some physical object; “My” and “me” again refer to this idea of “me-ness” (And Heidegger, in creating or redefining “Dasein,” is just again pointing out the frustrations of using language — defining his way out, which is not a solution.); “in” and “of” show relations; but “is” and “there” both seem to refer to, to make claims  of, reality — but reality (whatever “reality” the idea actually refers to) doesn’t make or need claims. The phone is there — duh. I can see and feel that it’s there without even forming that statement (unless Descartes’s evil genius is deceiving me — but I have no reason to doubt the proper function of my senses. I’ll take what seems real AS real).

And yet, there is some kind of unique value to claims made about real things. For instance, a claim about my phone made now will one day become a historical record, in a way that an old fiction cannot. Historians use, for instance, probate documents to tell us about the lives of past people such as Shakespeare. But then, statements about past people and things are merely ideas and not reality any longer.

So I can’t defend nonfiction texts as necessarily being any more real than a fiction text. We educated Westerners are trained to think of nonfiction texts as having evidentiary, and thus, argumentative, value that fictions don’t have, but then most of what we call education is training students to process abstractions in the same way teachers do.

But perhaps I value nonfiction — or, let’s say, writing about reality, writing about what’s really in front of me, and/or what thoughts really come to mind — as a way of simply coming to pay more open-minded attention to what is before me, near me. The language fails to reach outside of the realm language — language has no purchase on, cannot grip, physical things — but using language is a sign that I’m still alive (as Descartes said, roughly), and somehow consciousness seems the greatest mystery. Being alive is fascinating — and that to try to convey this through language fails utterly, of course, pointing me away from words, back toward living.

And now I realize I’ve written hundreds of words explaining why words fail to describe particular things, and I’ve ended up by detailing a hearty abstraction about why words fail to describe particular things. Distinctions fall apart, too.

I am writing this; I’m alive, and writing what I see and hear and think, these remind me I’m alive — something I don’t really need to be reminded of at all.

POSTSCRIPT, a day later: A couple following-up thoughts.

1. Maybe what seemed so odd about seeing the word “weiners” on the food packaging isn’t just that that particular word (of all the things I could be looking at) stood out to me, but also that once I had seen it, that word fully occupied my mind. I hadn’t been thinking of weiners at all, but once I saw that word, that word was in my mind, and I considered how I could call that noisy boy a weiner. The word occupied — or even, became — my mind, my crystalized thought (see here for another reference to thought crystals).

2. The post above seemed to end with me saying that the priority is to know you’re alive. Today, I’m not sure I’d defend that idea. I might instead say that simply being alive is the priority.

3. On the drive home from work tonight, I thought that the mentions above about “there-ness” could also be explained this way: that sometimes (and not always), I see something is near me, and I’m struck by that thing being there. Not surprised, exactly, but struck — like tonight, a particular leafless tree’s shape drew my attention, and I was struck by that tree being there. It wasn’t a weird or strange tree; it was just that tree. It was there. It seems dumb to use such simple words, but as the post above says, sometimes those are the deepest words, the hardest to understand.

Or last Wednesday, before I went to the grocery described above, I was eating at a fast-food restaurant and facing the low-angled southern light, and I noticed a glint of light, a perfect little speck of sunlight, coming to me from the slug of ketchup in a paper cup. It was striking — not that it was so beautiful (in the usual sense of aesthetic beauty), but that it was there, that I had noticed it, and maybe that the world is so intricate that there can be glints on ketchup.

Another time, I might not have noticed it. I see things all the time and treat them merely instrumentally, particularly when I have a task or goal as an overriding thought. At these times, I may see objects as things to step or drive around, and I may look to use a certain object to achieve an end (for instance, I may grab my keys to unlock a door) — and I may not be actually paying attention to these objects. I probably identify the car, person, or key at some basic level and I respond to each as is proper for me to accomplish my task.

But when my mind is not so task-occupied, or particularly when I am in a place I don’t often find myself, I may pay more attention to things that are (somehow I feel the need to write “are there,” but both “are” and “there” mean “exist”). And when I’m, say, visiting a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time, his person, his presence, may not feel real at first [and “presence” itself is a whole weird thing, since it’s not directly sensible] — this is what people say, too, when something startling, like an accident, happens.  But eventually we accept these new things as real.

This question of whether something is real — whether my mind is really seeing what I think I’m seeing — plays a particular role in my obsessive checking of things: Is my stove off? I can touch the burners, and they feel cool, and I don’t see any flames, and the knobs point to “Off” — yet I tell myself to be careful, to not leave home until I’m sure the stove is off. Or when checking for traffic: if I see a car coming toward my left or right, OK. It’s when I don’t see a car that I feel I have to check multiply and to clear my head, make sure I’m really paying attention, etc.

P.P.S.: After writing the previous paragraphs, I read a link on The Dish tonight about research suggesting that brain stimulation can change a  viewer’s mindset “from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective.”

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

Dictionary indignancy, or paying for more meaning

When I Googled the definition of “indignancy” for a recent post, I found a brief definition, and I found this:

This word doesn’t usually appear in our free dictionary, but the definition from our premium Unabridged Dictionary is offered here on a limited basis. Note that some information is displayed differently in the Unabridged.

To access the complete Unabridged Dictionary, with an additional 300,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary, start a free trial.

I love the idea that some words are more “premium” than others, and thus, are more expensive. Either that, or the definition is “different” — more correct? — the more money the user is willing to pay. It reminds me a bit of this theory.

Poetic sounds: German vs. English, French, etc.

A demonstration for my poetry students and others interested in the sounds of words across languages (and, sure, the pronunciation is exaggerated):

and