Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Making of a Poet: Part Three (Found Words and the Poetic Family)

In our family--like so many families--we have a few traditional "knowledge" games we play. These games often center around various words and, as often as not, games that involve bits and pieces of esoteric knowledge.

As a group, we're pretty curious. So finding new words and/or teasing each other about books, movies, music, art works etc. etc. that we deem essential to being a fully-realized human being is something like sport for us--and all done in good fun and high spirits. It is how we entertain each other.

We come by this pasttime honestly. My husband's family had a long tradition of word games as well as spouting quotes from famous books and movies and then quizzing the rest of the family as to where the quote came from and who said it.

My mother-in-law and father-in-law were highly self-educated people. Walk into their home on any given day and you would see  stacks of books such as The Confessions of St. Augustine (which my father-in-law annotated) and the works of French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin shoved in piles next to their favorite living room reading chairs.

As for my family, my mother would play word "imagination" games with us.

"Look at that pattern in the wood," my mother would say, "what does it look like to you?"  Then she might point at the swirl in the wood paneling in my small bedroom and say something like this: "It looks like a little girl in a big wide brimmed hat holding fishing rod. Look! She's about to put the rod into a large pond. Now tell me, what do you see?"

And it was standard fare in our home to sit around the family kitchen table to debate the pros and cons of the current political affairs of the day.

My father--the happiest and gentlest of men I have ever met--required that I state my reasons as to why I believed this over that or why I wanted to do such and such....and then he would challenge me in a friendly debate. I had to think carefully and defend my thought process to him--and this requirement that I think clearly and precisely extended beyond the political and theoretical. If I wanted to go to that basketball game or stay at my friend's house or take a certain French class instead of a Spanish class, my father wanted to hear me state why I wanted to do so.

Sometimes I hated having to think so much.

Later I realized what a gift my father had given me. He was kind--but he was still the authority figure...so there I stood...as a 13-year-old--or 15-year-old-girl--or whatever age I found myself standing before him--for the debate between my father and I never changed even as I grew into a grown up woman --so there I  would be standing before him, looking up at him. I was accountable for my ideas.  And as  a girl --who as often as not--I just wanted to go and "do stuff" and just wanted to "say things."

But no.

My father challenged me--to think and to have confidence in my ideas.  I believe he must have thought if a girl could stand up to him--to the authority figure in her life--if this girl could clearly and articulately--with dignity and with the expectation that good ideas and sound thinking will win out over whatever powerful forces were in the room with her--then there is no one or no thing she can't stand up to. There is nothing she won't be able to do.

As I have said before, I come from remarkable people. And I should say here that both sets of parents (mine and my husband's) did not go to college. Both sets of parents were first generation Americans. They believed in the American Dream and worked hard to give it to their children.  They were not rich people--though I think they would have thought of themselves as "middle class." Later, after I had gone to college, I came to realize they were---for the large part of our young lives--"working poor."

And too, with the exception of my mother-in-law, our parents did not finish high school. But it didn't stop them from reading and thinking, from teaching us and challenging us. However, their lack of formal education was felt deeply by all of them and, I believe, was a wound that never really healed inside of them.

As I have said before in this space, there were other examples and other family members who contributed and who continue to contribute to my creative and intellectual life. I am so grateful to them all and will write about them at another time.

Below is an email I sent to my family circle.  It demonstrates how both my husband and I are keeping our respective family traditions alive.



I suppose one of the values of reading the New York Times Book Review is to find some new words--to experience that odd  blending of a wondrous sense discovery with that "oh-my!-should-I-have-known-this!" feeling.

There's an article in today's NYT BR that, truly, only those who have studied--obsessively and in-depth--the already difficult to understand works of contemporary literary critic Harold Bloom would have a chance of "getting."

Nevertheless, here is a list of words that I found--most of which I haven't  encountered--ever or much--in my readings. So I offer them to you in the event that my husband resumes his "I-Have-the-Dictionary-In-My-Lap-Now-What-Does-This-Word-Mean" games.

And assuming my dyslexia has not kicked in too much, I write out the word list below this note...which, hopefully, will give you a running start at "The Deeley Summer Games" at least.

Below that list,  I'll give you the definitions.

PS I dare you to slip any or all of these words into family conversation.

poetic doctus


thumaturgy--miracle working

        the working of wonders or miracles; magie. — thaumaturgist,                  thaumaturge, thaumaturgus, n. — thaumaturgic, thaumaturgical,  adj.

adumbration-sketchy outline; obscure
        ad·um·brate  (dm-brt, -dm-)
tr.v. ad·um·brat·ed, ad·um·brat·ing, ad·um·brates
1. To give a sketchy outline of.
2. To prefigure indistinctly; foreshadow.
3. To disclose partially or guardedly.
4. To overshadow; shadow or obscure.

tendentious--promote a cause, point of view
        tendentious, tendencious [tɛnˈdɛnʃəs]
having or showing an intentional tendency or bias, esp a controversial one
[from tendency]
tendentiously , tendenciously, tendentially, tendencially adv
tendentiousness , tendenciousness n

poetic doctus--poetry taught

dithyramb--frenzied choric hymn
    dith·y·ramb  (dth-rm, -rmb)
1. A frenzied, impassioned choric hymn and dance of ancient Greece in honor of Dionysus.
2. An irregular poetic expression suggestive of the ancient Greek dithyramb.
3. A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing.

metaleptic--act of taking one place to another; transverse (as in "transverse the muscle")
a.1.Of or pertaining to a metalepsis.

2.Transverse; as, the metaleptic motion of a muscle.

3.(Chem.) Of, pertaining to, concerned in, or occurring by, metalepsy.

a rhetorical device in which a word that is used figuratively is taken through a succession of its different meanings or two or more tropes are united in the use of a single word. — metaleptic, adj.

heterocosm--alternative world
A separate or alternative world

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Poetry, Students and Teachers

Like so many writers who teach writing across the United States, my semester is almost over.

And, I suppose, I could go on quite a bit about how busy, how exhausted, how demanding these past few months have been.

But I want to say something else here, I want to speak directly to the serious students of creative writing. I want to say--what I always say--to my students at the very end of my creative writing classes--

thank you. 

Thank you for trusting me with your stories.
Thank you for allowing me into your imaginations.
Thank you for your serious and considered efforts.
Thank you for speaking--which, as those of you who know me have heard me say often enough--
is not insignificant.
Thank you for giving me a job--which is also not insignificant--and I mean that in the most profound way.
I consider it a blessing to be able to speak about creative writing--with "serious intent" as Lucille Clifton used to say--to speak with passion and focus-- to those who feel that same seriousness of purpose--to those whose very presence in class constitute the "making of our contemporary literature culture."
Thank you for being brave. For taking risks. For looking--unflinchingly-- at yourselves as writers but also as human beings.
Thank you for your courage, your convictions, your passionate devotion to literature...

for all this--and more--I say thank you.

 I am a better writer--and a better person--for having you as my students.