As we near the start of IPM 2017 on Feb. 1st, submissions are arriving and I’m getting excited about presenting them to our readers. I was thinking about communication networks, social networks and neural networks. While looking for images of neural-network maps, I ended up with a bit of a headache from trying to understand what is and isn’t understood about how these cells function in the brain. It turns out there are hundreds of different types of neuronal network maps. I finally settled on one that reminded me of a Gustav Klimt painting – it’s from the sound-processing area of a mouse brain.
The number of neurons in the human brain is enormous, estimates vary from 86 to 100 billion, but the truly fascinating thing is that each person has an individual ‘neural map’ that develops over time, formed and annotated by personal experience and varied input. One of the many jobs these networks do from the very beginning is process language – expanding our ability to express ourselves and to understand one another. One of the tools we use to achieve this result is the word; but words must be set within a structure to be understood. Some languages are now unreadable – such as those of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations: the words and their supporting structure are there to be read but, frustratingly, we can no longer decode them. As I mentioned in my previous post, others, such as the Sumerian and Akkadian of the Gilgamesh epic, are thankfully still communicating across the millennia despite the challenges of decoding them.
“We don’t actually see light, we only see its effects on objects. We know it exists because it is partly reflected by the things it encounters, thereby making visible what would otherwise be invisible. In this way nothing, illuminated by another nothing, becomes, for us, something. Words and sentences work in the same way: they have no content of their own, but if they encounter someone who listens they become something.”
Submissions are still open, so if you’re a poet please send your work to be considered. If you’re a reader – get ready to illuminate with your gaze the upcoming 28 poems and transform them into the splendid ‘somethings’ they were meant to be.
This year I had the pleasure of an excess of inspiration, both in my work and outside of it. First and foremost I had the amazing luck and pleasure of translating a book by Andrea Moro, an Italian linguist and neuroscientist. The book was about the verb ‘to be’, its grammatical (and in some senses philosophical) history, it’s unique position in linguistic theory and a tempting little possibility of a hint about how our brains ‘react’ to language. Fortunately for me, the book was geared towards a non-specialized reader and chock-full of fascinating stuff that I never knew about language. I learned more than I could have ever imagined. Meanwhile, in preparation for translating that book, I read a few of his other books, both in Italian and in English to get a sense of his perspective and voice before I began the translation. As soon as I read the following line from “The Boundaries of Babel: The Brain and the Enigma of Impossible Languages” my mind went straight to this essay that I would be writing to introduce International Poetry Month 2017. It so clearly describes the reader’s experience while also implying the writer’s:
Even now, your eyes are following a string of black signs that conveys ideas and images that were produced by a different brain in a different place at a different time. If I wanted, I could, simply by writing, activate images in your mind that may not have been there before: A long line of lizards crossed the desert without even stopping to dream. It is quite unlikely that you have already encountered this sentence. Nevertheless, the image was created in your mind with no effort, just by your scanning that string of black symbols. -Andrea Moro
Imagine what power poets have to create in the mind of a given reader, who exists in a completely different place and time, a never-before-encountered image. What a joy it is to write! Communicating across time and space, creating a word-map of your own images, associations and experiences waiting to be unfolded and explored. And then again, what a profound pleasure to read! The unexplored word-map awaits only your eye to be revealed and, in the reading, creates a new map of your own associations and experiences.
Over 2016 the power of language to damage and tear apart has never been more evident, from Oxford’s word of the year,post-truth, to fake news, to political rhetoric, to harsh exchanges between friends and families. In February of 2017 I would like to counterweight language’s destructive power and offer instead an opportunity for language to link people and places in a shared ‘neural network’ of creative exchange between readers and writers.