The California Prose Poem


This Saturday, April 2nd, I participated in a panel on the prose poem that was hosted at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Los Angeles. Accompanying me were three other poets, each of whom also write prose poems. Moving from the left of the photograph to the right, they are: Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, and Christine Kitano. The format was to have each of us explain why we write in this poetic form, and then read a handful of our poems to illustrate our various perspectives and philosophies. What followed was a discussion with the audience, during the course of which this photograph was taken: candid and live-action. I read from my book, My Gargantuan Desire. The text of my introductory remarks is as follows:

Apologia: Why Write Prose Poems?

I think of poetry as first a voice, an utterance that is temporal, sequential and dramatic. It is also inherently rhythmic and composed quite literally of sounds: rhyme, assonance, consonance are integral to the voice. Before they were ever written down, poems have existed for millennia as oral traditions in the fabulous Homeric epics, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the religious stories of the Navaho, and on and on the list goes. For the convenience of preservation these voices can be codified by the tools of our notation: the alphabet, marks of punctuation, even line breaks. But I do not think of poetry as essentially a visual thing, anymore than I would grant the score of Bach’s cantatas the primacy of place over, for instance, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing them. Languages like music are auditory, and they too like poetry have existed for whole eras before written forms were created to represent them.
I know there are languages that are not auditory–American Sign Language for one–but I am not composing poems in them. And let me admit I have nothing truly against the written word–I’m actually glad to have the alphabet. But I don’t choose to accentuate its visual presence over the auditory being of language, and so I present my poems as prose: the invisible format. I have conceived of my poems here in my first book as spoken aloud to someone dear to me. It could be you. I have also composed these poems as formal Shakespearean sonnets, after which I then dissolved the lines into their basic sentences. As I‘ve said before, the rhythms and aural characteristics of language are integral. Visually breaking the flow of speech into lines is not. As prose, I am presenting poems with the metrical and auditory sophistication of the sonnet but embedded within the sinuous poetry of personal utterance.


Even My Bad Ideas Are Good


     For the last three-plus years, Gary Young has been working on a limited fine press edition of the late Zen priest Kobun Otogowa—who is probably best known in the United States as the spiritual advisor of the equally late Steve Jobs.* As news of the project spread, an invitation was extended to Young to come to Japan itself, where he could work as well on a poetry translation of that calligraphy. And so in the summer of 2011, immediately prior to the publication of his book, Even So, Gary Young journeyed to the mountains above Ono, Japan, where in the Hokyoji Temple he sat ZaZen for weeks, participated in general temple life, and met with multiple Buddhist scholars, who together explained some of the textual origins and metaphorical meanings embedded within the calligraphy as Young worked out his translations.

     I offer this biographical tidbit to introduce you to the respect that Young has gathered in far-reaching communities that are at once outside the traditional academic centers in which poetry is largely embedded these days, and beyond the national confines of English-speaking poets. In Japan, in the esteemed environment of an ancient Buddhist temple, Tanaka Shinkai Roshi declared that Young was “a Bodhisattva, whether he wanted to be or not.”

     And indeed to read the poems of Young’s latest collected works, entitled Even So, is to be introduced to a natural affinity between Young’s contemporary prose epiphanies (certainly in his last five books), and the elaborate, wonderful millennium of Buddhist poets writing haiku and other, later forms, whose tonal spirit hovers within and behind Young’s poetic efforts. When Young writes, for instance–

Queen Anne’s lace crowds the air; cicadas call from beyond the stream. Monkeyflowers rouge the hill below a pasture where six horses crop sage; and beside the road, between riprap at the river mouth, down gullies and the wasted ravines, thistles are showing us their hearts again.

–the East/West interpenetration is self-conscious, almost an homage. As a benchmark, here is the Monk Jakuren’s poem, written sometime near the end of the Twelfth Century:

The hanging raindrops
Have not dried from the needles
Of the fir forest
Before the evening mist
Of autumn rises.

Young is characteristically honest regarding his influences, in which he delights rather than broods resentfully. Nevertheless, he is using his distinctly American hand to point to those past masters. Notice that both poems are written as one sentence, but Young in that last clause employs a syntactical mimesis which the Zen monk would never imagine because there is too much rhetorical effect. Young’s winding sequence of prepositional phrases leads us to the end of ravines, where the metaphor is blooming: “thistles are showing us their hearts again.” This syntax, and the use of metaphor, distinguishes Young’s work from the Japanese. In both poems we find that simple, focused, direct  natural observation, but there is less a delight in metaphor in the monk’s verse, less device. Instead, there is the intent to create a sensibility whose simplicity allows experience to register at once delicately, but indelibly. Young, on the other hand, uses the quiet Zen-like attention to arrive at a definition, a declarative statement, a captured truth. There are revelations in his poetry, but you have the sense that he set about to capture them, a silent predator after an elusive prey.

     And that, I think, represents the essence, the essential characterologic friction Tanaka Shinkai Roshi is indicating, as he observes that Young is an enlightened being (Bodhisatva) “whether he wanted to be or not.” Because Young would not necessarily prefer to know what he has learned, or choose to feel what he has experienced. He is not benignly tolerant.  Many of Young’s empathies are disagreeable to him: he doesn’t want to like these hateful people he often portrays. Similarly, his clarities are ambiguous, his loves are dying, his loyalties make him angry, his persistence is as much resignation as courage. He is full of surprises when you least expect them—which of course is what constitutes the surprise. For instance, I suspect that most of his many students in general (not to mention this reviewer in particular) would admit it is hard to imagine Gary Young sitting still for hours at a time with an empty mind. I don’t see it happening—even in the Hokyoji Temple. He is the kind of poet who does not empty his mind, so much as clear away a bit of space in his perception for yet another insight, one further observation, a second look. Nothing is lost on him.

     In this he reminds me of a resolutely American poet, Emily Dickinson, who also spent her time crafting finely wrought moments of perception, paring away the inessentials to capture a necessary truth. “I like the look of agony,” she writes, “because I know it’s true./Men do not sham convulsion”. Well, actually they do—at least in contemporary mass civilization, pseudo pathologies have arisen—, but her point, really, is that you do whatever it takes to arrive at conviction, which is pleasing even when it is unpleasant. Young writes in a poem I will fully quote later “Even my bad ideas are good,” and both poets agree—over a century and a half apart—that life is built upon contradictions, that empathy is hard to reach, that truths are not self-consistent, that pleasure may contain horrors. Insight is a bitch—but it is also to the purpose, the heart of the poetic act. Both poets as they write concentrate each poem upon one act of clarity, a sole idea realized, a single event captured. Accordingly, each instance of imagination is encapsulated; there is no narrative provision made to connect one poem with another.

     With that said, because he himself organized the sequence of poems in the individual volumes comprising this generous selection he has entitled Even So, Young can create a sense of thematic connection that may generalize over his untitled prose poems—an opportunity that Dickinson’s lack of publication denied her.  Young’s early work is a bit more traditional than his subsequent prose poems, and offers an early  taxonomy of themes that Young explores in more detail, in layers of nuance–and as the mood strikes him–, in his later poems.  Open the book, and we first encounter  “Walking Home From Work,” which introduces the cardinal points, the coordinates of Young’s poetic world.

Asphalt and gravel flex with my shoes as the heel
hits and pulls the rest of my body forward.
Ahead of me, twilight is ending
and the ragged outline of the mountain
is glazed with iridescence, each tree
singular and sure.
Each night the same. Or if not
the same,  then part of one long night
that leads me to my house, there
on the high ground of the foothills.
A thin streak of gray smoke
rises from the chimney,
a string from which the house
is suspended in the darkness.
I am a block away before shadows appear
moving against the fogged
windows in the kitchen.
My wife is baking bread. A hand
reaches up and wipes away the steam.
Light spills out of the kitchen
and begins to fill the world.

Work, we are to gather from the title, is important: it is the source of material well-being, the means to keep the wolf from the door, the opportunity to insure the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of human necessities.  We have food, water and shelter, possibly bread—and there Young draws his imaginary line in the civilized gravel. On his side we find the means of life; on the other there are hazards.


     What exactly constitutes the nature of those threats to the domestic image is left  to be explored in many subsequent poems of this volume. But for now, the quiet, lovely tone of the poet in “Walking Home from Work,” focuses on the positive things—once the possibility of menace is acknowledged. We are to notice, as he does, that there is an inchoate pressure of darkness: the impenetrable stuff that remains opaque and inhospitable. In the midst of this unlit gloom, the house—his native place–is suspended on a thread, a sort of inverse Sword of Damocles. Cut the thread, and vitality is swallowed once again into the inessential night. This time, however, he makes it home to the promise of sensual intimacy. The house is warm. His wife is beckoning through the window, bread is baking, the windows are steamed with the aroma, and the light of all this affection spills into the Biblical darkness. We sense at once the immense importance of Young’s protected space—which is a shared territory. The scale is not sublime, but human and individual, because it is within domestic rooms that personal identity is made possible. Indeed, domesticity is the very horizon of identity. It provides the setting, and the opportunity, for intimate knowledge: of one’s self, and of others. It allows a person to enjoy sensual pleasures, to form friendships, build habitual associates, establish a familiar network, create a social status, enjoy a civic stature.

     Young is systematic in his exploration of these themes, and their corollaries, in his subsequent quartet of books– Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had, and Pleasure—though he does so by intensifying his thematic focus to a degree that omits history, with its material clutter of specific dates, different names, separate places. None of the poems are titled in any of these four books, and so there are no identifiable places or grounds, no generic frame of reference, no executive authorial contextualization. Indeed, to take Days as an example, we immediately observe that we are given no information to identify the people appearing in the book, whose lives and conditions nonetheless comprise the book’s material.  Days in poem after poem elaborates the scope of social possibilities: marriage, separation, health and illness, mothers and fathers, wives, friends both male and female, life and death,  babies, infants who are acquiring language, and elderly stroke victims who are losing theirs. An unnamed stranger accosts him in the street to request that she hold his infant son:

I’m a mother, too, she said, and took the child in her arms. She closed her eyes, kissed his head, smelled his neck. My baby is twenty-nine, she said, and she handed him back.

That is the whole poem. Because there are no stated identities (and indeed, Young’s wife, who is holding the baby, is not even specified, her presence merely indicated  by that inclusive adverb “too”), we are able to concentrate on the ways available to us to connect our communities. A stranger can assert primal identifying events that survive temporal changes (her baby is twenty-nine—i.e. an adult), and collapse over individual differences. The two women have intimate connections, a shared experience, a common body of knowledge, similar loves and commitments, even though they do not know each other. And, we should notice, it is an act of kindness to allow these communal ties to be acknowledged: presumably Young’s wife does not need to hand her baby over to a stranger.

     Acts of trust and kindness are part of the privilege of living in a related body of other human beings, part of the means by which the scope of personal life is magnified. Vitality itself is a privilege—a miracle, not a right:

Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they were born at all.

When they were lifted and laid down again, unclothed and baptized by fire, their status reveals the essential wonder of things inhering beneath the illusion of human control. Their survival in the wake of the atmospheric random blast is a miracle because unpredicted—both in the sense that they were the ones stricken by the lightning, and not someone else, and in the sense that their survival defeated the odds for such a thing.  Nothing about their lives is in fact predictable. No biological law will create an individual personality, no social authority will control lightning, no government will legislate consequences to random natural acts. Most people do not get hit by lightning (though these girls do), and those who are so stricken commonly do not survive it (though these girls did).

     The nature of miracles is a continual theme running through all four of his books of prose poems. In the instance above, the miraculous is to be understood as an event that is at once statistically unlikely and also (unexpectedly) beneficial. Its occurrence operates within the perceived laws of nature, but it nevertheless discloses values obscured by quotidian oversight or inattention, until they are illuminated by the extraordinary persuasive event itself. Whether lightning strikes you or not, just to be young, just to be able to stand in the sunshine in your bathing suit is a miracle—an opportunity that is temporary, and that is not given to everyone to enjoy (check out the burn units, the neurology floors, the ERs in any given medical center, or the battle field of any theater of war. There are lots of them.). Nor is it an opportunity that is guaranteed to be given twice. You never know when or where lightning may next strike—or in what form, or with what force.

The bodies of men and women sometimes ignite from within, and burn from the inside out. Nothing remains but a pile of ash where only minutes before a girl had been lying on the beach, or a young man had complained of the heat and then burst into flame. How can we explain the world? My heart is beating, I can feel it. God loves us more than we can stand.

In one sense, this poem is a revisitation of the lightning, occurring in another book—Braver Deeds–, in another mood with a darker cast to the advent of miracle. Again we have the abrupt arrival of unexpected revelation, but the violence of the disclosure is not to be withstood. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing to be the recipient of so much affection.

     Indeed, in Braver Deeds, as well as in If He Had, Young explores just how various the qualities of his experience can be within this miraculous life. I should probably mention here at the outset that Young can write more bluntly about the presence of God than I, for one, am quite comfortable with. But then again, Young also writes bluntly about the pleasure he takes in looking down the blouse at the exposed breasts of an unaware young woman, and about how many times his wife orgasms–which for my part I would not openly discuss either. You know these events are sure to have happened; it’s just that there is often a decorum about admitting it. But Young won’t have any of that. He is kindly enough, generous in his empathy, but nonetheless unsparing about what he does, what he values, what he believes. Because he is equally direct regarding what he presents in each of his poems, regardless of the niceties of his reputation, he is all the more persuasive about the mixtures he imagines, the inescapable paradoxes by which people are at once redeemed and gravely tested, saved but pretty much left without gratification.

Tom Bone fell from deck, and watched as the ship sailed on without him. He tried, at first, to convince himself that he wasn’t there, then he swam all night. He drifted with the current, and in the morning saw an island, and swam to it, and was saved. There’d been a moment, before dawn, when he’d lost all hope and lowered his head into the water. He was about to take a breath, when he heard a voice say, you’re going to live, don’t give up, you’re going to make it. I have listened to that voice all my life.

The voice that tells Tom Bone ‘don’t give up’ says nothing at all about happiness that might accrue if he perseveres, nor are there promised satisfactions, no guaranteed rewards, no escape from pain, no immunity from fear and terror, no assurance that he will survive the next challenge. This is an old-time–an Old Testament  poem that critiques the orthodox conviction extending from our original Puritan fanatics to our contemporary evangelists, who expect privileges to attend to their religious conviction.  You are saved, therefore you can expect happiness and wealth. The corollary is also professed: if you are not happy and wealthy, then you are a sinner who deserves to burn at the hands of an angry god.

     Tell that to the Apostles, each of whom died violently: some crucified, some stoned to death, some flayed alive. Young insists that love—divine or human—does not protect from the malevolence of pain, the injustice of circumstances, the trauma of disease, the extreme conflicts of interest.

I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s left me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.

None of the reassurances in this poem actually relieve anyone. That nineteenth operation does not signal a freedom from the girl’s fright, or her release into confident health, but—as with Tom Bone’s certain voice—it testifies only that she will make it to the next island: the twentieth operation. Young ‘s reassurance to his son—‘please don’t worry’—is not likely to put his son’s mind at rest. Nor isYoung reassured against his own guilt and remorse, because he knows he may be called upon to hold his son down again to allow further torment. That’s why he needs his own courage: it is the case with all survivors that they live in order to face further shocks and challenges. Risks are never taken from them, and what they are given is the opportunity to keep swimming against despair.

     There is, in short, nothing sentimental about Young’s belief in revelation, or in his conviction regarding the essential value of life over death. Even during casual promises that arise during any given day, the occasional satisfactions, the momentary bursts of small joys—nothing grandiose–, even then Young prefers to acknowledge the thrill of coequal sorrow.

Every Wednesday, Fidel brings oysters to market. I like to eat them with salsa, cilantro and lime. I like to run my tongue along the slick lip of the inner shell and suck them into my mouth. I love knowing they’re alive. Fidel wants to know, how many? And when I tell him, I’ll start with two, he taps his blunt knife against a block of ice, and shucks three.

The Epicure confesses here, ‘I love knowing they’re alive,’ as he consumes the material of living things. Whether you enjoy oysters as much as he does, Young nevertheless conveys his relish in unabashed, thoughtful detail. He means us to admire, as much as he himself admires, Fidel for knowing him so well, who is not fooled by Young’s initial profession of modest enthusiasm. Neither man is to be mistaken for half-hearted, tepid creatures insecure in their pleasures. We are meant to respect—as Young himself respects—Fidel’s confident pride in the quality of what he has to offer, the source of a pagan delight.

     At this point I think we ought to return to Tanaka Shinkai Roshi’s summer observation regarding Young’s status as a Bodhisattva—which is to say, one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones his entrance into Nirvana in order to remain among the confused, blundering souls on earth, so that  he might assist them in attaining enlightenment for themselves. There is a benign heroism in a Bodhisattva, but Roshi’s observation—‘whether he wanted to be or not’—indicates a double meaning. The first, of course, refers to the understandable reluctance to renounce Nirvana. But the second meaning, I think, acknowledges Young’s unseemly pleasure in the mixed blessings of sublime, ugly struggles. Here is that poem I promised you earlier:

The world is at home in my mind. I can spell Detroit. I know where my cats are buried in the orchard. I know the quadratic equation, my mother’s maiden name and the  suicide squeeze. I know all the words to A Good Woman’s Love and I can hear them in my head at will. Every thought is like a sweet rolled over the tongue. Even my bad ideas are good.

To many of us, it may seem unusual, if not outright quirky, to renounce Nirvana in order to learn the quadratic equation, of all things. But fortunately we have an entire, generous, persuasive  book of poetry—Even So—in the course of which Young produces for us his many reasons why this is his free choice.

* Just so you know, an edition of this book is forthcoming from White Pine Press.

My Life With Skunks

A friend of mine–Bruce–had a pet skunk that he kept in his apartment, where it was about as house-trained as a cat. It had its own kitty litter thing in the bathroom, and we would feed it raw hamburger and eggs, and it was relatively affectionate like cats sometimes are. Occasionally at night, though, it would get territorial with Bruce’s new friends coming over to visit, and at such times it would stamp its little feet in a cute way, then spray you in the face with this incredibly foul, noxious fluid that would burn your eyeballs out. Then we would all live on the beach for a couple of weeks until the apartment aired out. That’s how we rolled in Southern California in those days. We were pretty laid back.

I mention this as prologue to the afternoon years later, when my beeper went off, and I was paged to the ER to evaluate an adult who had just been brought in by ambulance. My office was in another part of the hospital, and while I was walking through the corridors I was reminded of my sunny adolescence as I met the unmistakable essence of skunk rolling like an awful fog up the hallway. Once I arrived in the ER, I didn’t need anyone to point out who I was supposed to be evaluating–which was a good thing, really, since the place was pretty much empty: patients, doctors, family members, nurses, social workers, orderlies, receptionists–everybody had cleared out.

Except two unhappy EMT’s from the ambulance, and this emaciated guy wearing a sort of breech clout and vest that he obviously made himself out of maybe a dozen skunk skins. He hadn’t tanned them, so of course they were rotting (this was September, the end of summer), which only added to the flavor of the encounter. It was memorable. The first thing I did was order the three of them outside into the courtyard, and tried to get up wind of him. I wasn’t worried that he would try to escape: there was no place on earth he could hide, and besides, you could see he was starving. It’s true he was also floridly psychotic and paranoid, but he was tamed by the lethargy induced from his long want of food. He was actually in a bad way.

He had spent months out in the woods, and the woody terrain bordering the farmland of a nearby town. It turned out that everybody knew he was out there: farmers spend a lot of time outside in the summer looking at their crops, the weeds, the weather, rain clouds and so on, and folks noticed this young man in various stages of nakedness roaming around in the miles and miles of forested countryside. He wasn’t harming anyone, and so in the egalitarian way of stoic New Englanders ever since Robert Frost, they let him do his thing. Also, they were really busy this time of year.

Whatever crazy, fearful thinking first led him out into the woods, after he was there a while the most important thing on his mind became food. It is hard for a person in a disorganized, disheveled mental state to find and capture enough edible materials–whether animal or vegetable–to keep his body sound for months on end. The only things that he could find to eat, and that would not try to run from him, were the skunks. They don’t run: they stand their ground and warn everything else to get away, fast. So he could kill and eat skunks–and then after his fashion, he made clothing from their hides once he lost whatever he was wearing when he first left his civilized mind in whatever place he once called home.

I suppose it’s true everywhere, when you think about it, but in the part of New England I’m talking about, skunks are in finite supply. There’s just not that many of them,
not enough to support a large and clumsy predator forever. So after he had killed and eaten all the skunks he could find, the only other thing that wouldn’t run away were the cows out in the pastures. It must have taken a while for him to figure out how to attack a cow, or to get hungry enough to try, but he eventually shot one with a bow and arrow he got somewhere, and that was too much for the area dairymen, who had a tough enough time trying to make a living without having people shoot their best milkers with toy arrows. One of them called the police, and that in the due course of events led to my chance to meet him. It was as natural as breathing: find someone in skins shooting arrows at cows, and bring him to the Emergency Room to see me. I’ll sort things out.

This time, however, I wasn’t given a chance. No community can afford to have its ER shut down, so while I was outside with him, a team of people with a large van came to collect him and bring him to New Haven, where there were facilities that could handle the particular challenges my guy presented. They bundled him up in some sort of cloaking fabrics, and off they went. I never saw him again.

Over dinner one night I mentioned the encounter to a friend of mine, Gary Young, who was as moved as I have been by the passions stirring my scared hunter. So Gary wrote a poem, which is published on page 225 of his book, Even So: New and Selected Poems. You can also read it here (It is a prose poem):

In Western Massachusetts, a man wandered into the woods to live alone. He tried hunting, but the only animals that stood their ground, the only animals he could catch were skunks. The man was sprayed, of course, but he caught them, ate them, and dressed in a cloak of rancid pelts. When he was found, the scent was on his breath, his skin, and when I heard his story, I thought, comrade.

Precious Mirror

The poet and artist, Gary Young, was one of the panelists in our recent AWP presentation in Seattle. He has created a PowerPoint presentation illustrating aspects of his translation from the Kanji of Kobun Chino Otogawa–who is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the spiritual guru of the late Steve Jobs. The esteem lavished in Japan upon Otogawa is founded, as you might imagine, less on commercial or media-driven hype, than upon his character as a monk and teacher.

White Pine Press is publishing Gary’s book of translations, along with Otogawa’s kanji.

Precious Mirror – Gary Young

Freedom in Translation: Finding Ourselves a New Poetics

At the recent AWP Conference in Seattle, which convened at the end of February, I moderated a panel on translation as an emblem of poetic freedoms. What follows is the text of my introduction.

I. Our presentation today focuses on two essential concepts:

1. That the act itself of translation chooses among various aspects of sequential cognitive resources—some linguistic, many that are not (What these resources are I will defer for the moment). The crucial feature within translation is its insistence upon a pluralism of linguistic aims.

2.  That the act of translation re-imagines and redefines the mechanisms by which language works: what language is, what are its aspects and features, what are its resources.

II. The first activity will be engaged by my three colleagues–Gary Young, Stephen Haven and James Brasfield– as they each in turn discuss specific features of their work in translating into contemporary American English the poetic works existing in three distinctly non-Western-European languages: Japanese, Chinese, and Ukrainian.

III. My task here is to engage in that second activity: I want to introduce a basis for re-conceiving a poetics that can reflect the range of creative possibilities available to the imagination—because current versions of postmodern poetics constitute a remarkably inappropriate reductivism.

As I’m sure we all know, the core of this poetics inhabits the troubled relationship between the sign and the signified. Its intellectual pedigree runs in generations from Saussure and Nietzsche, to Heidegger, to Derrida and Foucault, and subsequently into the current metamodernists and antihumanists.

The architecture of the argument is benignly simple:

a. Words have no essential relation to their referent. 

b. Rather, meaning is merely a social consensus. 

c. Therefore meaning represents the play of power and money by which social consensus is reached.

d. Ergo, language is the exercise of power, wielded by the wordsmith, to repress other similar exercises.

This entire house of logical cards derives upon that initial proposition: that language is a collection of nouns looking for their referents.

From the point of view of neuroscience, this proposition is untenable for many reasons, but we can start with its entire lack of empirical foundation. What is described by post-modern theorists does not represent the phenomenon they purport to explain. Saussure is the linguistic basis to which the philosophers point for justification, but Saussure was not fluent in, nor ever had even heard a native speaker using, the Indo-European languages from which he derived his theories of linguistics—from which in turn he then generalized to all languages. Accordingly, his conclusions amount to a sophisticated provincialism that, in my belief, has been persuasive largely because it has bolstered the provincialism of Continental and North American theorists.

Postmodern linguistic theory does not survive the translation to non-European languages. For instance, as Steve Haven will be explaining, any given sign in Chinese changes meaning according to which one of the four formal tones of voice in which it is spoken. Chinese does not limit itself to signs and signifieds, but introduces tonal aspects into its linguistic usage—which have remained unconsidered in postmodern theoretical formulations.

I want to propose a different intellectual practice–which will conserve the expectation that a poetics will be based upon features of our language, but that will define those features according to empirical observation and structured inquiry into the phenomena in question. I am, in other words, going to dip into neuroscience to provide an alternative study of the nature of language. *Accordingly, I will start with three observations about language, from the point of view of empirical science:

 a. language is sequential: phoneme follows phoneme, word follows word, sentence follows sentence, paragraph follows paragraph;

 b. it is also patterned:–its features have regular, definable arrangements, which we can group into rules;

c. it is temporal  (It took me 28 seconds to say the words in that sentence.)

These sequential features are not limited to language, but in fact represent a primary inductive category according to which the brain makes cognitive sense of the environment at large. The world is chock full of sequential patterns—the regular and coherent occurrences of sounds, objects, and events to which the brain is sensitive. Some of these are linguistic, but many are not.

a. For instance, laughter is one of the set of complex, nonlinguistic vocalizations that nonetheless communicates a wide range of messages with different meanings. 

b. We likewise find music meaningful,—which also is a structured sequential event–though it, too, is non-linguistic. 

c. Many of us also find meaning in the sensuous sequences of dance–or (to pursue the world of motor movements further) even learning to swing a tennis racket. Dances, procedures for hitting a tennis ball, a golf ball, etc, are each a meaningful set of steps with which motor patterns are engaged. Along these lines we should likewise acknowledge that we walk and run, which are themselves brain-mediated sequential practices…which are non-linguistic. 

d. Finally, we also keep track of time itself, which by definition is sequential—on a daily basis, as well as over prolonged years of developmental, biological time (i.e. circadian, developmental) and worldly time.

What science finds is that there is an interplay among these various neurological sequences. Language is not separate from the rest of cognition, but uses the same underlying neurological mechanisms as other non-linguistic sequential tasks. For instance, aphasic patients are commonly apraxic as well—meaning they are impaired in the production of novel sequential hand and arm movements. Further, the converse is also true: among aphasic patients, the work done to improve non-linguistic motor skills can contribute to improvements in syntax.

So let me conclude here. The translator, having assumed there can be no perfect copy of the original meaning,  is thereby compelled to re-conceive & revalue linguistic resources other than simply matching referents–what the words purportedly mean. The translator is free to look to the interplay among whatever expressive sequences seem called for–whether linguistic (such as hunting for appropriate words), or nonlinguistic, such as establishing a prosody, or working out an appropriate pace of the voice, or introducing tonal features such as sarcasm, or sometimes even environmental noises (The French, for instance,  translate the sound of a barking dog as Woooah Woooah). There is an immensity of sequential sounds, symbols, facial expressions., and physical gestures to sample. The task of the translator thereby opens the inquiry to a range of poetic expression that escapes repressive theory, and finds its limits—insofar as there are any—within the play of imagination itself.

Links to further thoughts and entertainments: