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April 1996, Volume 3 Nr 8, Issue 32

Language and Literacy

One of the formative experiences of my life occurred in the 3rd century C.E. When I was about eleven years old, I learned of the fire that destroyed the Great Library at Alexandria. I grieved. Wrapped in despair, I stumbled for many days through a colorless world in mourning. When the balms of time and youth and present wonder had healed the first griefwound, I found my daydreams for months concerned with the fire. Daydreams at that age tend to two types: romance and heroism. My predominant daydream that year developed into ever more elaborate detail but here's the synopsis:

Disguised as a contemporary 3rd century male scholar, I timetravel to the weeks before the fire and move, a quiet spy, among the parchment and papyri stacks. I know from science fiction that I dare not rescue books or even prevent the fire. To do so would change history in ways I couldn't imagine. Hitler could become emperor. I might not be born. So I, unnoticed heroine, neglected young man in this warehouse of a university, would discreetly capture every word, every leaf, on microfilm.

This Metaphoria is very personal. This issue is a love letter to language. To writing and reading, and how literacy helps us think, helps us communicate.

Literacy Saves Lives

When an adult learns to read, it is the same hard and frustrating work for him as it is for a child. Harder perhaps, because the patterns and pathways are atrophied even in the brightest adults. The ability to learn to read later in life has almost nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with neural networks and disused byways and cultural conditioning and self-perception. We may fool ourselves, as teachers, as parents, as observers, as readers, into believing that a systematic curriculum will steadily move a student from illiteracy to the wondrous powerful gift of reading and writing. But, it really looks more like magic: aligned with a desire, the lessons neither begin nor end with the tutor. The tutor can be a catalyst, a guide and a support. But, it is the student's whole world and heart that present the opportunities (and obstacles) to the project.

What might literacy do for an adult person? It can save lives. Listen to the words of some who spent childhood and adolescence as functional illiterates:

"I can see ideas in my mind. Before, everything was confused. Now I decide what I want to think about and pick it up." These were the words of a man in his thirties after several months work with tutor Margaret Todd Maitland, a writer who edits Hungry Mind Review. A drab, uncared for man began to care for himself and change his clothes and apply for jobs and report on his bemusement at his "interior landscape taking shape" as Maitland writes. She notes that children don't always report on the process. Perhaps it is so much of a piece with a juggernaut of development that it is taken for granted in children - as natural as walking, as talking. An adult becoming literate recognizes the miracle, and the often hard work.

The poet Jimmy Santiago Baca credits language with saving his life. He'd be robbing a bank, or in prison, or dead but for the power of the word.

"Oh, it caught me up in the fiercest typhoon I have ever been in and from which I have never escaped. I have continually swirled like a leaf."

Baca taught himself to read and write in prison. He saw so many inmates, so many other Chicanos denigrate books. Books had nothing to do with life as lived. A book couldn't teach you how to fix a '57 Chevy or make a business deal or court a woman - those were hands on, person to person activities. Besides, books lied, about our Latino history, and about power. So went the arguments against books. Baca knew they were only partly right. He knew that for all their talk, many of these men were bereft of a language to deal with their despair, their frustration, their grief, even their joy. He taught himself to read and he's never turned back. He's turned back to his childhood, his culture, his history, and added his skill with language, to create some powerful and gorgeous poetry.

Chicagoan Luis J. Rodriguez, who works with gang and non-gang youth, and leads expression workshops in prisons, migrant camps and homeless shelters, knows that "people will read a book if it connects with their natural capacities to voice, create, and think." Recently, as he writes in an essay, "a homey decides to rip off a few of my books...a teenager who didn't finish high school and earlier this year, near my house, was shot three times. What do I do now? At least he took books. I don't know whether to jump on the dude's case or demand a book report."

Rodriguez' love affair with books sometimes feels solitary but he notices kindred spirits haunting book stores and libraries, as does Dorothy Allison, the uncompromising, crystalfierce author of Bastard Out of Carolina. Allison notes that "sometimes people go to bookstores to see other people who are reading books." She also speaks of how literature can save lives.

"Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Angela Carter. My life has been saved over and over again by picking up a book in which someone captured the whole experience of being despised and not dying.

"I'm going to write a lot of books if I live long enough. Each and every one of them is going to be about being despised and not dying. Each and every one of them is going to be a small gesture toward the possibility of justice."

Information and Infoglut

In the "information age" there may be a hesitancy for people to simply read and simply write. How I so want to encourage people to let go and let love, to allow reading, allow writing.

Not as a way to compile more information. Not as a self-improvement project. Not because it's good for you. Not because you should - we are usually capable of shoulding all over ourselves and don't need others to add to the pile. Not so you can add to the info glut. While in a very broad sense, information may include all perceptible phenomena, including books, television, music, conversation, light, touch, visual art, etcetera, we usually use a narrower notion of information: units of discrete, though perhaps immensely interrelated, facts and ideas. Information in this narrower sense relates to commodification, practicality, a nuts-and-bolts sensibility which is focused on doing. It's an important piece of a balanced world view. For many, it has become the view. The speed, the distractibility, of information, fosters a desperate neurosis manifest in neediness for more and more info. Many are living in a neurotic contradiction that with an overabundance of info, we feel not abundance but scarcity. While living in paradox, holding perceived opposites in a way that the creative fire may be ignited, is a healing practice, the near enemy of creative paradox is destructive contradiction.

A symptom of info addiction may be seen in acquaintances who tell me, "I never read fiction, I only read real stuff," or, excuse my involuntary gagasp at this one: "I only read self-help books." If I stay centered enough to respond with "Tell me more", (rather than react with "Get a mind!"), I will hear all manner of tales illuminating the individual. Of course the tales are all different - eventually - but there are such similarities in most of the initial explanations people give for saying, "I only read self-help books" that I'll dare to generalize here. It's not surprising that the people who make that remarkable statement are very likely to generalize and categorize themselves and others. They usually are not aware of the depth and individuality of their own tale until I draw it out of them with the repeated, unattached request, "Tell me more."

Unfortunately, the addiction to reading self-help books comes from, not a desire to enhance one's already well-loved first person singular, but out of a felt need to fix oneself. One's flawed, screwed up, dissatisfied, codependent, poorly parented, angel-deficit-disordered self. There is valuable information in many such books - I'll stay off my soap box about how it's usually presented to our consumer-heads rather than our poetic-hearts, nor how most of the writing runs from pedestrian to lousy to unreadable, (she writes from her soapbox.) One of the first and most valuable aspects of self-help books is also one of the potentially dangerous: the book may give us an anchor, a recognition that we're not alone, a language to name our fear and therefore gain some control of it. The near enemies of such naming may be tribalism, overidentification with a label, so usually with a perceived pathology: I'm damaged, recovering, addictive, and that's mostly what I am, in a vacuum.

Self-help books always suggest some practice to discover one's being. An addict to self-help books usually avoids just being, though. She may want to try meditation or writing, but has such a self-history of "doing it wrong", (whatever could that possibly mean? "Writing wrong"?), that the nearest solace may be another self-help book - reliable format, reliable jargon, reliable enticements.

Hear this now: you cannot fail at practice. You cannot. If a practice resonates with you that doesn't mean you fail if it doesn't always meet some expectation. Stop going to your practice with a report card version of expectation. Simply practice. If it is a practice you've chosen because it resonates with you, it will exceed, and surprise you out of, expectation. Life is not high school. Your spiritual teachers are not like your biology teachers (although I've had biology teachers who were spiritual teachers).

On infoglut, our ancestors had these to say:

Once and for all, there is a great deal I do NOT want to know. Wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge - Nitzsche

I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity. - Goethe

Sign Language

American Sign Language is still often dismissed by hearing people as a defective bastard English. It was generally assumed that a language must be verbal until only about thirty-five years ago when linguists recognized ASL as a natural language. Children acquire comparable language skills at the same age whether they use English, ASL or Arabic.

Unlike most literate educated people in the United States, but like most such people in the world, Americans who use ASL are bilingual. Those using ASL are also expected to use written English. Few outside the deaf community realize that these are distinctly different languages grammatically and syntactically.

Sign language makes me appreciate the often forgotten aspects of my own spoken language. Sign involves facial and body postures, gestures as well as more eye contact than most English speakers could tolerate. Native signers think in terms of the proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses. They actually feel thought.

I hear my thoughts and images often. Of course I can think colors and sensations, but usually the tapes rolling in my monkey mind are noticed as words heard. Because spoken language is carried on air, it is small wonder that we often lose some contact with our words and our thoughts. They seem to float there disembodied in a way ASL never is. ASL reminds me how powerful it is to embody words. Singing does the same. If I embody words I am paying attention. I am actually breathing and toning and tasting the words. I tend to slow down. I tend toward silence.

Poetry Redux

One of the wondrous things about the bloom of poetry readings is that people are actually slowing down enough to listen to language. To be attentive. To breathe among words. To fool around with language. To be surprised. To not make sense.

Poetry, paradoxically, both takes time and is timeless. Try reading some poetry out loud. A recent study reported on WAMC (Albany, NY) was about how people reading aloud are most relaxed, least stressed when reading not to their spouse, nor even alone by themselves, but to their dog. With another, even a beloved and supportive other, reading aloud is classically stressful to people. Perhaps, because we are often hyperselfcritical, it raises our anxiety to read aloud even alone. But, a dog is an audience who accepts us unconditionally. So, find some poetry you like and find a dog, and read aloud. Tasty language, exhaled words.

I wonder about a practice that connects pranayama (breathing yoga) with poetic language. Chanting mantras, Gregorian chant and many lullabies are part of this practice.

Reciting or performing Shakespeare ties together one's "right brain" and "left brain". This is a very important point I'd like to make. As we try to integrate, a central metaphor whether we are integrating body/mind/spirit or intellect/feeling or right brain/left brain, we should develop awareness of language.

Conversation Lite

What has become of conversation? Is it too derivative, too desperate, too cynical, too hip to nourish us? Much of our personal and public discourse has become Conversation Lite. It resembles communication, and at a superficial level it is, but it tastes thin, off, and leaves us unsatisfied.

To be hip now means to be ironic, and not a gentle bittersweet irony but a cynical jaded irony. To be jaded is to be wonderless, and to be wonderless is to be shallow. Unfortunately, a lifesucking cool has been bought by many of us as hipness. We buy it because it plays on our fear of being "out of it", literally exiled. People need community like they need air and shunning is a powerful incentive.

But who is really hip? The notion calls to mind some perennially hip folks: Louis Armstrong, Gandhi, Gary Snyder (wild mind poet mediator), the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, Emily Dickinson, Ani DeFranco (punk folk poet grrrl singer), bell hooks, Margaret Gilcher Reddy (my late grandmother). This list could go on and on. Think of some people who would be on your hip-list.

Time magazine ran an article last year of which I only remember the title: "If Everybody's Hip, Is Anybody Hip?" Jaded and wonderless is bored and boring, uncreative - definitely unhip. Since hipness today is generally commodified and fashion-rated, I suggest we dispense with it all together. Try authentic.

Conversation Lite is a paradoxical response to our loneliness. We are so defensive we have developed a safely superficial discourse. This is a masquerade, complete with flashy theatrical masks, dramatic emotional display. Conversation Lite is usually busy and fast and dressed up. There is little actual listening, and even less silence. Silence is part of fine conversation, as it is part of poetry.

Another characteristic of Conversation Lite is a glut of opinions. Most people have an opinion about any issue you may present. It is refreshing, and rare, to hear someone say, "I'm still gathering information on that one. I'm still thinking about that. I'm processing that. I don't know." Such a person develops an opinion. Most of us just have opinions. Considering so little effort was put into one's opinion - in fact opinions these days (perhaps always) are borrowed, rather than developed - it's strange how energetically one defends it.

In a pattern sometimes seen in support groups or radio talk shows, people gather with a near-desperate need to connect, to tell our stories. Yet, when I listen, the language is often so rudimentary that all that comes across is a disempowered superficial parroteze.

Optimistic or pessimistic, there's a formulaic sameness by which we buy admittance to a neo-family by adopting its notion of what a person should or must be. It's easy to learn the language and to fit a few spare details with our individual nametag on them into the ritualized tale. There are no surprises in that kind of conversation. There is not depth because depth and true wildness are not safe or circumscribed. The muse may be called but she may not be tamed.

A Wiser, Wilder Muse

The sheer mass of printed and broadcast words may fool us into thinking we are in an abundant, wordful world. But, the availability of words does not guarantee their quality. In fact, we tend to all talk too much, too fast. We fail to appreciate words, we take them for granted. There is a bland sameness to so much popular culture.

Our voracious appetite for language has us consuming forests in the manufacture of books and other printed materials at a rate that will ultimately kill the biosphere through fatal undermining of its respiratory and circulatory systems...But our appetite is not assuaged, because these are empty calories, words stripped of their vitalizing capacity through being pressed into the service not of Wisdom, but of ambition.

I've often said, "I write to find out what I'm thinking." Writing - poetry, essay, journal, any writing - releases a part of me I can rarely access any other way. A wiser, wilder muse. She cuts through the foggy cloud of spoken words and speaks clearly in silence.

To allow the written word to rescue us with unpredictable wild humanness is a great adventure.

Writing is done in a sort of fullness of solitude. It is not a practice for a group, or even a couple. A couple (or even a group) may share writings, may edit together, but the essential act is nearly always solitary.

I have been writing poetry. In the car, on the table of contents of a magazine, on a shopping list. Where it strikes me, I write. It frequently surprises me. As long as I don't edit as I go, little gems glitter in the pedestrian sidewalks of my verse. Sometimes, just a line. "He was looking for a woman with oak trees in her thighs", or "the green band around my leg you trace with your finger" (a lot more evocative than "you noticed my varicose veins"), or, in a poem about Buddha statues, I made up some words: "anorexia illuminata, anorexia egosah" and, about orthodontics: "sagittal section in slo-mo".


Your soul is very much smaller if you don't read.

Robert McNeil

15% of American adults are functionally illiterate and as many as 40% have only marginal reading skills.

Donna Seaman

God is a fire in the head.


Don't stop to think of the words but to see the pictures better.

- Jack Kerouac on making poetry. Besides his better known exuberant, unedited flow writing, Kerouac has many concise directives that I read as pith teachings, such as he found in his Buddhist studies.

Life is so short.
We must move very slowly.

Thai saying

As you write, don't try to decide where you want to go with your poem.  Sometimes, you start a poem, You think you want to go to church, but the poem takes you to the dog races.

Sandra McPherson

I generally do not know either what I am going to say, or what I want to say, or even how I feel when I start with the blank page. You just feel full. Or sometimes you feel empty...

Sandra McPherson

Don't worry about big ideas or where you are going. If you knew where you were going, you wouldn't need to write a poem to find your way.

John Fox

Talking to paper is talking to the divine.
It is talking to an ear that will understand even the most difficult things. Paper is infinitely patient.

Burghild Nina Holzer

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks.


Toni Morrison's Floor

Reading Beloved
I dreamed of going through her trash
Sweeping her floor
To gather up precious scraps
Which did not fit.
In courage of editing
A surgical gardener

She excises phrases
With a vegetable peeler
They lie on the floor
White curled parings
I collect
And hang like tinsel
Around my writing desk.

The Spring Roads

The spring roads
are swollen with mud.
The paved roads
and retract
like so many breathing torsos.

Mud or pavement
they buckle fold into themselves
in slow peristalsis.
The roads are snakes
shedding into springtime.

1996 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

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