Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hyphenatic

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Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Forty years ago, I signed on as a part-time editorial assistant at the University of Arizona. The mother of three, I preferred short workdays and made a little money on the side writing poems, stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story. Still, even with my husband’s income as a country-club golf pro, money was tight, so when I was offered a full-time-editor job, I jumped on it.

At the U of A, I was responsible for production of the general catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box—unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process gobbled up paper and time, requiring arbitrary and redundant levels of approval befitting the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read the stuff before it reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.

I tried and failed to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry while waiting for the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor changes to course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the heady issue of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the parallel phrase surface water.

The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a hot topic might involve “Backus normal form and metalanguages of metalinguistic formulas.”  Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus Normal Form” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.

On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.

Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the inflated cost of printers’ ink.

Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending half of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:

History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.

Dash it all!

I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes), eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with obscene circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too. I’d forgotten the purpose of language—to communicate, solecisms be damned.

Over time I learned to pick my battles on the principle that sometimes it’s better to be happy than right. Meanwhile, my work was useful not only in humiliating the most pompous assistant professors but also in taming runaway clauses. To my credit, I was almost always right—tediously so.

I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.

Early on, I had identified two types of hyphen abusers: PAG (point-and-guess) and EOW (every other word). When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who are clueless about hyphens usually call them “dashes.”

(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the phonograph needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratch, often creating another scratch in the process.)

Very special education

Once I accidentally renamed a special-education course via the substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title became “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing with the same course, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale.

Instead we decided to be grownups. It was a matter of catalog integrity. Besides, the special-education folks wouldn’t have been amused. Some of the newer faculty were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.

For the most part, though, I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of feeling superior to people who made gobs more money than I did.

The new rules

I no longer believe that “bad writing” breaks the rules of grammar and syntax. Bad writing disturbs the peace. Its opposite is eloquence, which—according to Ralph Waldo Emerson—”is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”

Written materials produced by organizations are too often not intelligible. The “truth” they purport to convey gets lost in a jumble of jargon and a labyrinth of verbosity. I have come to see these shortcomings as going beyond communication failures. They reflect self-importance, intimidation, even outright hostility. I can fix spelling; I can’t fix a snarky attitude… but I hope I can prove that it damages your writing.

Expressions that confuse and distance readers have infiltrated business, professional, and academic writing so thoroughly that plain writing can seem gaunt and awkward. Even the humblest message has a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by this classified ad placed by a large medical center in search of a building mechanic:

Position description: Under general supervision, the Building Mechanic II position exists to maintain and address the air quality needs of our customer base as it pertains to air filtration and preventative maintenance of major and minor air handling and building mechanical systems. Our customer base includes but is not limited to patients, visitors, staff, researchers, administrators, and coworkers. Areas of responsibility include all building mechanical systems (AHU’s, pumps, exhaust fans, med gas, etc.). Building Mechanic I responsibilities are inclusive to this position. Position is dedicated to achieving excellence through the accomplishment of the medical center’s mission/goals & objectives especially as they relate to customer service. Refer to Required Education and Experience. Refer to Preferred Education and Experience.

The medical-center maintenance managers are  looking for someone who can maintain air-handling equipment. Why don’t they just say so? Because “Wanted: Someone to maintain air-handling equipment” sounds flat and unimpressive. But bare-bones writing is easily mended when writers learn to replace obfuscation with grace and courtesy.

Social intelligence

Over time, this ad and its brothers, sisters, cousins, and sundry other relatives online, in print, and in broadcast media got under my skin and wouldn’t crawl back out and skitter away. I sensed that I was dealing with something more malevolent than sloppy writing.

After years of research and reading weighty, lifeless prose, I began preparing a revised edition of my 2007 business-writer’s manual emphasizing clarity versus jargon in writing and public speaking. My research indicated that the biggest problem in what I refer to as “communication with a public audience” (any form of public speaking, business writing, journalism, and so forth) goes beyond lack of clarity to subtle hostility, an almost feral show of power, with ramifications at every level and in every sector of society.

My new book addresses writing as a form of personal interaction to which the principles of “social intelligence” (as set forth in Daniel Goleman’s excellent book by that title) should apply, as well as the ideals in Martin Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou. A key principle in social intelligence is to increase the number of people you categorize as “us” and decrease the number you regard as “them.”

Of particular concern to me are memes that slide into public consciousness due to the prevalence of “sweeping generalizations” and the abandonment of other journalism standards. But rather than wagging a finger at communicators and invoking their “responsibility,” I suggest that the public interest and their own would be better served by an inoculation of truth and clarity, which might also allay the antagonism and polarity between groups who disagree so violently that they’ve given up even trying to reach consensus.

Grammarwise, you’re safe with me

This book will not scold you about grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth. This book might gently suggest—if, say, the word adventuresome is part of your vocabulary—that “careful speakers or writers prefer adventurous or venturesome.” This book will whisper such admonitions so as to convey sensitivity to your inalienable right to use adventuresome just for a lark or, alternatively, having given the matter a great deal of consideration and possibly prayer and contemplation, to be a whimsical, spontaneous, devil-may-care sort of speaker or writer… indeed, to be flat-out wrong if that’s what you want and it’s been one of those days and you might just drink a glass of strong ale and begin spewing double negatives in clauses containing the word ain’t and even do something shocking with fricatives if you can recall what they are and isn’t it something to do with Flanders, or are you thinking of frangibles or Frigidaire? …because I now view other people’s writing and public speaking as methods of communicating—not as canvases where I can show off my own writing-and-editing virtuosity—and I evaluate writing according to how well it communicates rather than by its adherence to the old rules of writing that I once took such pains to learn.

Welcome to the new rules of writing:

  1. honesty
  2. purpose
  3. respect
  4. clarity
  5. enjoyment

How may I serve you?

To be continued….


decsystem-10-Joe-Mabel

Mary and I entered catalog data on CRT terminals connected with a computer like this DECsystem 10. Since the entire University of Arizona shared time on the computer, during busy weeks such as registration we arrived at work before 7 a.m. to avoid horrific login queues.

The DEC 10’s original processor, the KA10, had a maximum main memory capacity of 256 kilowords, equivalent to 1152 kilobytes. Today’s Galaxy C8 phone has memory capacity expandable to 256 gigabytes—more than 220,000 times greater than the KA10’s.

Photo: Joe Mabel


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

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On Second Thought…

A Renaissance Map of the New World, by Guillaume Le Testu, 1555

A Renaissance Map of the New World, by Guillaume Le Testu, 1555

Everything Old Is New-ish Again

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their dearest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the study of Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with viewers hailing from at least six continents. The seventh, Antarctica, basically four million–plus square miles of mile-thick ice, houses numerous clumps of scientists year-round as well as penguins, seals, tardigrades, and other critters large and small. With at least a thousand humans on the continent at any given time, it seems logical to assume that a few of them, anyway, logged on to the Winfrey-Tolle program each week.

Tardigrades, also called "water bears," are small (growing to only 1.5 mm) but tough. They're known to survive extremes of cold and heat ranging from -450F to 300F. Doesn't this guy remind you of an Ewok who's maybe been gagged to keep him from spilling the beans? (Wired.com; click the photo for a fascinating feature on tardigrades in space)

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

A New Earth, Oprah CD version

A New Earth, Oprah CD version

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. Guessing here, I’d say its message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earthmight literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

In a similar (but not matching) genre, another publishing phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I cautiously admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes a rich and ancient Hindumystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

Williamson's book gave ACIM its legs

A small book with big letters and lots of white space, Energy Ecstasy and Your Seven Vital Chakras appeared in 1978. Anticipating Tolle by decades, the author of Energy Ecstasy, Bernard Gunther, also wrote Sense Relaxation: Below Your Mind (1969), hailed as the first book of the human potential movement.

The astonishing Louise Hay wrote You Can Heal Your Life in 1984, a full thirteen years before Eckhart Tolle’s first book came out. As Hay was entering her seventh decade, she founded Hay House, whose authors today constitute a virtual Who’s Who of self-help and New Thought luminaries, not to mention the most credible psychics and intuitives on the planet.

I strongly recommend that you tune in to Hay House Radio every Wednesday at noon for Trust Your Vibes with Sonia Choquette (that’s SO-nya, with a long O). Then subscribe to her YouTube channel and breathe in a little of the imcomparable Choquette energy, wisdom, and joy. Imbibe a bit of her spirit. You’ll be the better for it. (Here’s a sample. Much more about Hay House Radio below.)

Christian Science Lite

My daughter refers to the more recent crop of New Age spiritual guides as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures (1875), is hard to ignore. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson, perpetuating a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, and the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible.

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the population’s reluctance to forgo medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach to healing, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy.

I have not included the much-loved classic The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle employ, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math, using syllogistic reasoning. (Marianne Williamson is an anomaly; she combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and lovely to behold. I’m a big MW fan.) I have found Dr. Peale’s work comforting at times, but it doesn’t deal much with the darker emotions. For that, God, in Its wisdom, gave us Carl Jung and beautiful Debbie Ford, another Hay House author. That said, Peale’s work brought hope to millions and his legacy is huge; it includes the phenomenal Guideposts organization and its many publications and ministries.

If you haven’t yet (I take that back — even if you have) found a guru who speaks your language (you might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not), try Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings (2005), by Rob Brezsny. I have at least $10 worth of little sticky notes marking the pages of my copy of this book. In fact, there are probably more marked than unmarked pages, which kind of defeats the purpose, but, oh, well…. What does it say about the author that the seeds for Pronoia (more than a book; it’s a movement) were sown at Burning Man and that one of the more conventional synonyms he uses for God is the Divine Wow?  I’m just grateful that he’s on our side and that we are on everyone’s side.

You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay

Christian Science ’round the clock

The numerous Christian Scientists of my acquaintance are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed (and they have every reason to do so), when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message reduced to mere “faith healing” or “positive thinking.” Visit the incredibly generous Christian Science website and sample the wealth of this woefully misunderstood body of wisdom.

People with sonorous voices and perfect pronunciation read from Science and Health 24/7 on streaming audio. If, when encountering the word unerring, the readers were to say un-AIR-ing rather than the preferred un-URR-ing, I wouldn’t be able to listen — the word comes up rather a lot. As it is, I believe I’m healthier for falling asleep to passages from Science and Health being read so expertly, and so is my computer. No joke. According to Christian Science (with apologies to realChristian Scientists where I might be getting it wrong),

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs of separation from God and the reality of  matter
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle
  • Thus, poverty, cancer, and war are manifestations of the “lies” of lack, illness, and disharmony
Cover, The Secret Garden, 1911 edition

Cover, The Secret Garden, 1911 edition

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences.

Recommended Reading Off the Beaten Path

Hay House Radio

Peggy Rometo

Peggy Rometo

You could think of it as thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy. Or you could get real confused. For the most part, the authors who host Hay House Radio programs sing in harmony. Then there’s the occasional discordant note. Louise Hay is the undisputed Empress of the Affirmation, but at least one host is openly skeptical of the benefits of chanting “Life Loves Me” day in and day out. There are authors who warn you away from sugar and caffeine, while others are unabashed chocolate-lovers. Some tiptoe around the word God and shun prayers of petition and intercession. Others offer spontaneous on-air prayers for callers particularly in need of miracles. Caroline Myss (pronounced CARE-oh-linn MACE) is in a category of her own. She’s probably best known for her work with archetypes, though she freely offers her opinion on everything from neighborhood gossip to the state of the planet (dire). She is controversial and at times abrasive. On her Hay House Radio program, callers love and fear her. She can be sharp-tongued one minute, gentle and comforting the next. I could be wrong, but I don’t see Caroline Myss doing a lot of mirror work, à la Louise Hay.

Peggy Rometo, on the other hand, is invariably charming but never saccharine. Her psychic skills are impressive without flash or fuss (like I’d know). She’s always well prepared with remarkably practical suggestions for listeners who want to sharpen their own intuition. With call-in visitors she is patient, perceptive, and respectful — and a better woman than I. After the fourth or fifth caller in a row complains that, despite having made superhuman efforts to move forward in the job or project or relationship at issue, he or (usually) she is “stuck” or is “being blocked,” I’m throwing paperback books at my computer monitor and yelling, “You’ve gotten to the swamp and you’re afraid of the snakes. Quit whining and soldier on. Twit!” And I’m way off the mark because I’m describing my own trepidation, but Peggy has been listening, and she gives thoughtful advice tailored to the caller, not a rehash of suggestions offered to Milksop #2 or #3. Listen to her program, Intuitive Insights, on Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. (PDT); and buy her book, The Little Book of Big Promises (2010), for a treasure chest of useful knowledge, guided meditations, and lively prose.

Hay House Radio offers the highest production values and the easiest accessibility I’ve found on the Internet, and I’m including the BBC and NPR in my comparison.  Here’s a partial list of hosts; the authors whose names appear in bold face have weekly call-in programs: Michael Bernard Beckwith Gabrielle Bernstein Joan Z. Borysenko, Ph.D. Gregg Braden Sonia Choquette, Ph.D. Alan Cohen Dr. Wayne W Dyer Debbie Ford Carmen Harra Esther and Jerry Hicks John Holland Barbara Marx Hubbard Mark Husson Deborah King Loral Langemeier Denise Linn Caroline Myss Michael Neill Dr. Christiane Northrup Robert Holden, Ph.D. Michelle Phillips Diane Ray Cheryl Richardson Peggy Rometo Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D. Eldon Taylor Sandra Anne Taylor Iyanla Vanzant Doreen Virtue Dr. Darren R. Weissman Marianne Williamson davidji

Natural High

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 26

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 5: Personal Rituals

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

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misty_sunrise_2The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

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Nature is the opposite [that is, reflection] of the soul, answering to it part for part…. The ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim. —Emerson, “The American Scholar”

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Journalist and child advocate Richard Louv discusses the problem of nature deficit disorder in his new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Never before in our history have children been so separated from nature,” Louv tells Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith….

last_child_in_the_woodsLouv claims that, according to recent research, lack of direct contact with nature is connected to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He also cites statistics showing [that] children who play in nature perform better at school….

“Biologically, we are still hunters and gatherers…. What happens to the human organism when you take nature away from it and replace it with television and computers? I call that ‘cultural autism’ where children’s use of the senses is reduced to the size of a screen, like a computer. Only in nature are we using our full senses all at the same time in a positive way.” —CBS, The Early Show, May 9, 2005

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See More Sunrises

tuscany_sunriseYou know those bromides people use to cheer you up? Tomorrow is another day. It’s always darkest before the dawn. Hope springs eternal. Every rose has its thorns. Every cloud has a silver lining. Into every life a little rain must fall. Above the clouds the sun is shining. After the rain comes the rainbow.

Don’t they just make you want to spit?

When you’re wallowing in discontent (for whatever reason, from a bad hair day to a compound fracture), do you really want to hear Ethel Merman booming, “I’ve Got the Sun in the Mornin’ and the Moon at Night” or have some perky Pollyanna reminding you that he is happiest who hath power to gather wisdom from a flower? Why do people say these things?

Because they’re true

rowboats_lake_treesAfter we’ve been living on earth for a while, observing the patterns and cycles of nature—day and night, summer and winter, storm and sunlight, decay and renewal—we begin to internalize and generalize from the natural world. We learn to take certain things for granted and to not be disconcerted by them—thunderstorms, for example (unless we are a certain type of dog that perceives every storm as a New and Completely Unexpected Type of Event and quivers under a bed until it’s over).

The same is true of the household routine. Mom and Dad go out for dinner and Mrs. Featherstone, who makes us go to bed immediately because she doesn’t want to be disturbed during Jackpot Bowling on television, comes to baby-sit, and we put our goldfish, Wilbur IV, who has recently died, into her purse. But we endure Mrs. Featherstone because we know that Mom and Dad will come home while we’re asleep and Mrs. Featherstone will go back to her cave.

So when I read about these children who have been locked in closets and basements for years, I am doubly appalled. Besides the general horribleness of it, imagine what it must be like to have no firsthand knowledge of the basic cycles of life and nature—to literally not know that every morning brings a new dawn.

Millions of tiny diamonds

misty_sunriseOn a magnificent summer morning I watched the sun rise over the Missouri River and the prolific farmland of western Iowa. The hills across the river were invisible under a great white pillow of cloud through which poked a few church spires and grain elevators. So much vapor rose from the river itself that it might have been on fire. Gradually the bright green and yellow fields came into view and the vapor turned crystalline, like millions of tiny diamonds ascending, hovering, and rising again. It dawned on me, as it were, that such displays are always available and much more satisfying than whatever I am usually doing when the sun comes up (sniffing at a pile of clothes to see if they’re clean, licking the bottom of a frozen-yogurt carton, looking in the mirror and frowning at my jowls).

I vowed to spend more time outside the closet I keep myself in… to watch more sunrises and remember that we really are new every morning… to grow more flowers and walk outdoors in every kind of weather except “obscenely cold” or “the U.S. Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for eastern Douglas County because a funnel cloud has been sighted in the general vicinity of Mary Campbell.” But, hey! I live in a basement. 

Adapted from Unfamiliar Territory, by Mary Campbell

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The world is too much with us…

This is one of William Wordsworth’s most famous sonnets:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
      Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
      Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This sea, that bares her bosom to the moon;
      The winds that will be howling at all hours
      And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not–Great God! I’d rather be
      A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
      Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus, rising from the sea;
      Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

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Assignment 26.1

  1. What are the meter and rhyme scheme of Wordsworth’s poem?
  2. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

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Finding Your Place in Creation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 3
Chapter 1: Finding Your Place in Creation

I created this course and book…

(a)  for individual readers who want to write and live poetically, and

(b) as a text for adult and advanced-student workshops in poetry-writing, self-discovery, and self-expression.

 

By reading and discussing the text and doing the assignments, you will learn to write poetry that is both artistic and disciplined; learn about yourself through poetry-writing; and write poetry to participate in your own creation (or “co-creation” or “evolution”).

Ð

It is my hope that this book will help you live a fuller, happier life. You’ll experience the joy of creating something worthwhile and giving beauty to the world—no work of art is really completed until it’s shared.

 

Beyond that, writing poetry can be a form of meditation. It anchors you to the here and now, freeing you from worry and regret. It helps you process your experiences and circumstances. It reveals inner feelings and desires.

 

It can even help you find your calling. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations (Boox X), “Everything exists for a purpose—a horse, a vine, even the sun. What then is your purpose?”*

 

From a Darwinian or a spiritual standpoint—take your pick—you are here because the Universe needs you, the way a meadow needs clover and grass and bees and earthworms. You are an essential part of the vast ecosystem. Your talents and deepest desires should guide you to your place in Creation.

 

Mistletoe, literally “dung on a twig” in the Old Saxon language, is spread through bird excrement, and it attaches itself to tree limbs where conditions are favorable. To the Druids, oak mistletoe was sacred because it was rare—mistletoe was much more common on apple trees.

 

Unlike mistletoe, human beings make choices that determine where they land and what they do.** If your wants, skills, and interests were not given much attention when you were a child, you might have grown up thinking they didn’t matter much. Perhaps you’ve made major decisions—whom to marry, where to go to college, what to study, what kind of work to do—more out of obligation or coercion, or to please others, than out of deep desire or a sense of calling.

 

Eventually you may lose touch with your wants. Parents, especially, find their lives governed by their children’s needs. Some choose parenthood with their eyes wide open—parenthood, for the moment, is their calling, and they joyfully make the necessary “sacrifices.” Or they find ways to integrate their own passion for, say, ballroom dancing or growing fruit trees, with child-rearing.***

 

It’s not uncommon to find parents, especially mothers, suffering from empty-nest syndrome when the kids are gone and the daily routine is no longer relevant. The house, so recently a hub of youthful activity, is too quiet. The freedom, once longed for, is too scary. Mom feels superfluous.

 

The universe still needs her, and it is prodding her latent talents and desires. Writing poetry is a way to bring her sleeping passions and creative energy to the surface, as a spring bubbling out of a rocky hillside releases water from deep underground into the sunlight.

Ð

This book has three parts.

Part I

Concepts of art, poetry, and the self. Here I try to corral an unruly herd of meanings into a more or less delimited vocabulary. You can’t just throw words such as art, poetry, spirit, ideal, perfection, growth, and self-knowledge at people without saying what you mean. We are talking about the nature of reality here, not the price of grapefruit.

 

My assertion that reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are “more real” and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs and the mail I keep getting from L. Ron Hubbard, even though I have told the postal service a thousand times that I am not “Margaret Campbell,” even though I have returned the items C.O.D. to L. Ron himself — is hardly original.

 

I draw from the works of Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Carl Jung, and Marcus Aurelius, and from quantum physics, the Old and New Testaments, and many other sources. I am indebted to whoever it was — I can’t find the reference — who wrote an article about Kabbalah describing how the universe splintered at the moment of creation, hurling innumerable shards into space, and how every act of kindness, or mitzvah, puts one of the shards back into its proper place, helping to repair the broken cosmos. And I am grateful to the Book-of-the-Month Club for sending me a book that I forgot to not order, The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher who has worked with western neurologists and physicists to investigate the science of meditation.

Part II

The poetry-writing section of the book, where readers and students will learn the forms and conventions and techniques of poetry and will practice using them. If you have ever taken a poetry-writing course, you will find little that is new or surprising in Part II except, perhaps, my tendency to go off-topic if a gust of wind through my open window carries the scent of something that might be the first drops of rain on a dusty road miles away, or it might be the washing machine overflowing again in the basement, and since it is much more likely to be the washing machine and I will eventually have to deal with it, I keep writing, as if rain on dusty roads were a metaphysical anomaly equivalent to rank upon rank of angels singing paeans in the sky.

 

You might find, also, that Part II focuses more on simile and metaphor, among the many devices that poets use, than your earlier poetry course might have done.

Part III

Poetry-writing as a way of knowing, expressing, and creating oneself. Because you will have read Part I, you will understand what that means, and you will realize that what you are reading here is not empty rhetoric meant to seem profound and important but is a preface to joy.

We will be working with a definition of poetry that, especially in Part III,  includes beauty as a criterion. We will learn to gather the loose, impotent, entropic bits of energy we possess and apply them to the intentional creation of beauty. We will be exemplars of our art. We will be inspired by the certainty that beauty and grace exist not only in the product of artistic endeavor but also in the endeavor itself.


* The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a lovely little fable about the way the Universe directs us toward our destiny.

** Obviously, some people, individually and in groups, have more freedom to choose than others. On the other hand, many people who live in free societies are unaware of the innumerable choices they do have. The real or imagined opinions of others—“What will people think!”—are a common, and often unjustified, constraint.

*** With tragic exceptions, most parents do the best they can most of the time, even when parenthood sneaks up on them unawares. I made a lot of mistakes but I rolled with the punches and loved being a parent because I got to be a kid a lot, because I like ballet recitals and soccer games and eau de sweaty-little-boy and little girls playing dress-up, and snuggling in a big chair with a storybook…. But I had my moments of resentment, martyrdom, fury, and attempts to escape. Fortunately, there was always someone around to either call me on it or pick up the slack.

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Go to Lesson 3.1 Assignment
Go to Lesson 4