My Other, My Self; or Thinking about Other Minds

Multicellular organisms came about, if I’m understanding this correctly, when single celled organisms didn’t divide very well. Then those not-quite divided cells learned to work together, in that way that can happen when two people in a race where people have their legs tied together can learn to move in sync, and tumble over the finish line ahead of everyone else.

So anyway, eventually there were all these multicelled organisms bumbling around. At some point, they bumbled into each other and became aware of each other, and therefore aware of themselves. (I’m hugely simplifying this of course, making scientists gnash their teeth and rend their garments, and apologies to poor Peter Godfrey-Smith, whose fascinating book Other Minds gave me just enough information to make me dangerous.)

And quite quickly the organisms began to alter their behavior around each other in any number of ways — and so it is that try to go to the mailbox when my neighbors are at their daily visit to the bar, so I don’t have to ignore them to their faces as they ignore me to mine.

I’ve talked about this before, but as soon as there is an Other, we come to find it annoying. Or we fall helplessly in love with it. Oh, I suppose there are other attitudes as well, but these two are what has shaped our world. Well, really, the first one. Not so much the second. At any rate, it sounds like we became conscious of ourselves in response to our becoming conscious of others. (And I bet quite quickly we began to define ourselves in comparison or opposition to the others, either trying to find how we fit in or trying ostentatiously to show that not only do we not fit in but we don’t even want to fit in, so there. Or we slink quietly down the hallways and hope to not get too noticed but find a friend or two there along the walls. I have a young friend who is going through just this very thing at the moment, and my heart goes out.)

I guess my only point here is that Godfrey-Smith lets us peek into the murky lives of the Cambrian era, but I can’t see that much has changed. Here’s this: “During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each. Behavior became directed on other animals–watching, seizing, and evading. From early in the Cambrian we see fossils that display the machinery of these interactions: eyes, claws, antennae. These animals also have obvious marks of mobility: legs and fins. Legs and fins don’t necessarily show that one animal was interacting with others. Claws, in contrast, have little ambiguity.”

The bones of our weaponry already litter the landscape. What will the fossil record make of the impression of all our bodies clutching our cellphones? Are they claws or are they antennae? Some might say weapons don’t kill people; people kill people. Indeed they do. Indeed they do.

Anyway, Other Minds is a fascinating book. And I didn’t even tell you about any of the wonderful octopus stories within. Who doesn’t love a good octopus story? (Okay, just this one: A diver who had been frequently visiting a particular area in which a number of octopuses had dens found himself one day approached directly by an octopus who reached out an arm, seized the diver by the hand, and led him around, showing him the sights, for about ten minutes, whereupon they returned to the octopus’s den. I presume a cup of tea was offered, but am not sure. No one is. Could have been whiskey.)



Know When to Run; or, When Work in Progress is Not Making Progress; or, Giving Up as Part of the Poem Editing Process

I have been stuck on a couple of poems. They didn’t do what I wanted them to do, resisted even doing something different, resisted any effectiveness in coming together in a way that made me satisfied. I think I pulled out my entire arsenal of editing ideas. Here were my editing efforts:

– Walked away from them for a couple of weeks.

– Rewrote them backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Broke them apart and put them back together differently.

– Took out entire sections.

– Plotted the logic of my arguments/analogies to make sure they were solid.

– Asked a poet friend to take a look at them and I did the edits she suggested.

– Tried combining the two poems into one.

– Did a writing exercise starting with the prompt: What I’m really trying to say is…

Nothing worked. And so it goes. So I add them to my pages and pages of abandoned poems.

Sometimes whatever the impulse was to speak just does not lead to something worth hearing. It’s sad to abandon an effort. I keep the pages of abandoned poems around and revisit them occasionally, hoping some new insight will enable me to save them. I cannot recall a single instance of this working.

Part of working toward being a good writer is knowing when to walk away. Part of working toward being a good writer is asking enough of your poems that some of them just can’t make the bar.


Once Upon a Time; or Telling New Stories to Save the World

As Yuval Noah Hariri indicated in both of his books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, homo sapiens came to dominate all homo species as well as many other species because of its ability to cooperate. Homo sapiens developed that ability to cooperate across many individuals, time, and space, according to Hariri, because of its ability to tell and believe stories. And oh what stories we have come to believe — gods and monsters, gods and monsters. (And democracy. And the free market. And justice systems. And the importance of putting details of our life on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, with the corollary that people give a shit about the details of our life enough to view them.) So we excelled at creating vast networks of behavior that enhanced our ability to survive and thrive (often at the expense of whatever was in our way — large animals, other people who believe somewhat different things, the Earth).

Although I haven’t read the book yet, I believe Kurt Andersen argues in Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire that it was Americans’ particular impulse to believe all kinds of stories that led us to this fake-news moment in American history. He says our individualistic national culture was based on “epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies….” He claims that we began to believe that truth itself is individual and relative. Now in the face of scientific facts — that is, provable, verifiable — people still feel free to believe the opposite. Story is stronger than fact, and has sunk us deep into fantasyland, to the peril of our institutions and our world.

But maybe story can save us too. I keep thinking about the energy crisis in the ’70s. People actually changed their behavior, temporarily anyway — drove cars with better mileage and drove them more slowly, turned their heat down, recycled. Sure, there were plenty of gas-guzzling cars still on the road, plenty of speeders, plenty of people strolling around their homes in shorts when it was 0 degrees. But a lot of people changed their behavior based on ongoing stories of what will happen if we don’t. We heard tell of a crisis, we heard about what we could do, we did it — I mean, with the help of some economic incentives and disincentives. I think too about littering. In spite of all the litter I see on the street, I suspect the anti-littering campaigns, particularly those that target kids, have created what amounts to a widespread habit of not throwing stuff on the ground. We believed in that crying Indian in that TV ad from the ’70s. Don’t cry, man, I’ll put this hamburger wrapper in this trash can, okay? Geesh.

So come on, storytellers. We need a new story to believe to bring us to the next level of development as a species. We need us some fresh gods and monsters to save us from ourselves.

Oh, No, You Didn’t; or, In Which I Venture Forth a Definition of Poetry

In his incredible book Homo Deus, a sweeping view of the entire history and future of the human species, Yuval Noah Harari, asserts that over time we have greatly reduced the incidence of the three major threats of much of our history: famine, plague, and war; and will in the not too distant future also get under control economic and ecological equilibrium, the two things he identifies as the key modern issues. What will we do then, he asks, and jocularly offers a suggestion: “What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day? Write poetry?”

Oh, ha ha. What a joke. Who would do a crazy thing like that…?

But it made me thing of the two strong reactions I had recently in one week as I was encountering poetry:

– “Wow, people are writing some really interesting poetry,” and

– “Oh, dear.”

I ran into some really good work this week, as I was poking around in what people are up to from various fine presses — powerful, inventive. Wow. It is humbling. And inspiring!

And I also ran into work on the other side of the spectrum in some closer encounters. Somehow too many people have gotten the impression that if you put heartfelt thoughts on paper in short lines, and rhyme the endings, you have a poem.

It’s okay to write your heartfelt thoughts on paper in full sentences. You don’t need to make rhymes. The process itself is the point. The record will make for an interesting encounter with yourself years hence. If you have to call it something, call it a diary or memoir or thoughts on life.

Poetry is…well, as soon as I write a definition, I’ll begin to argue with myself, and doubtless you will too. But I’m going to give it a shot.

Poetry is experience/memory/sensation/idea/imagination distilled and thoughtfully crafted with:

– an ear to sound, an ear to silence

– an eye to how it sits on the page (IF it sits on the page), an eye to density, to white space, to line breaks, stanza size and number

– a deliberate creation of rhythm and arhythm

– use of imagery, metaphor, simile developed through imagination

– some awareness of what has come before in poetry tradition

– a sense of something at stake in what is being addressed and how it is being addressed

So come on, all you scientists, investors, bankers, presidents, average schmos. The species could do worse than to concern itself with the task of writing good poetry. AND work on solving all those other problems. In rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter.

Hope Against Hope; Art in the Face of All This

In Why Poetry, Zapruder quotes Jorge Carrera Andrade from his 1940 essay “Origin and Future of the Microgram”: “It might seem almost impossible to enclose the great movement of the universe in such a narrow space. But through a kind of magic, the poet manages to make the infinite enter into that small cell. There, every surprise may fit.”

I’ve been talking recently with fellow writers about how to manage our world and its nonstop televised violence into the intimate rooms of poetry, while maintaining both our sanity and our authenticity as citizens of the world and artists too. We see everything just like everyone else, have the same responses: “What the…,” “How the hell…,” “This is horrible.” But a lot of art expressing “this is horrible” is not going to make an impact in the saturated world.

I think of Picasso’s “Guernica,” of Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” of Maya Lin’s devastating Vietnam Memorial. How did they do it, how did they absorb for us the pain of the time and make of it something that remains chillingly relevant for a future they had no way of seeing?

Pain never ends. Horror never stops. We suck as a species. But we, or I, anyway, persist in thinking that art has some role to play that transcends the everyday outrage, that jolts us from our daily “Are you f’ing kidding me?” into a space of, if not hope, at least of a sense of connection. And in connection lies the possibility of…what? Hope, I guess. Yeah, hope. I guess.


You and Me, Outside; or Only Connect

Mornings now, finally, are chilly and damp with whatever it is that happens in autumn nights that makes everything sweat so, and so gloriously, shining in the morning’s sun. I’ve cut down the garden but for the inane zinnias still blooming like nothing is about to happen. Even the small mum I planted in early September has given up. And what of it? Death comes to us all. It’s the peculiar task of the living to ignore that. (Matthew Zapruder again from Why Poetry: “More than any other use of language, poetry speaks, while also pointing to and reminding us of nothingness…In a poem we feel what’s there, but also what is not.”)

One primary task, surely, is to try to figure out how to make the best of living among each other. Each Other. Will we ever evolve enough to stop seeking to define — and therefore hate — the Other? Will we ever stop being overly alarmed by not-same-ness? One of these things is not like the others. Yes. Hallelujah.

Surely our life task is to find ways to connect with all the other things, the Other things, that are awake and breathing this day.

Even the loud family across the street? Yes. Even the people next door who let their dog bark frantically on and on? Even the centipede scurrying disgustingly down the wall? Ew. I guess no one said it would be easy. Some tasks are lifelong. Wait, even the terrible invasive vine that’s constantly trying to strangle the apple tree and forsythia? I’m sorry, I have my limits. I’m only human, you know.