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What I like best about poems, beyond their sheer aesthetic pleasures, is the way that the intimacy of a single voice speaking across time and space can become a call to empathy. In this poem, the close and particular focus invites a kind of mindfulness — a way to recognize ourselves in others, linked by our common need.
The Word That Is a Prayer
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
since my mom had me playing scrabble at a young age, i was naturally attracted to today’s mental exercise (via the great puzzle site the master theorem). details via the puzzle’s creator:
There are lots of games and puzzles that I’m into, but Scrabble tops the list of challenging ways for me to show off my hardcore anagramming skills. And what better thing to be known for?
I’ve spent hours plotting and scheming to get the very best words in the perfect spots so I can knock out my lexical opponents. My favorite way to earn points is to layer word upon word so that each of my moves actually creates a couple words at once.
Again, I’m pretty good. How do you think you would fare against me?
You might not want to invite me to a game of Words with Friends quite yet.
This is today,
take a close look at the scrabble board above (click on it for a closer look) as well as m’s message. then, use your deductive skills to figure out the one-word answer to this puzzle. if you need some help, look out for a hint on atolemdro’s facebook page.
more brain teasers: when shouldn’t you trust love? | the stable marriage problem | see if you can solve this math square | who is right? the professor or the student? | the integer called bleen | genius logic | einstein’s riddle
the strongest evidence of retained knowledge is the ability to teach it to someone else. sometimes, this requires breaking down complex concepts into words/ideas simple enough to be grasped by a broad audience.
recently, mental floss featured people trying to do just that. see how they explain complicated things like paleomagnatism and cognitive science in ways that a child could understand:
“I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies.” Jennifer Wang, research technician in a lab studying fruit fly olfactory behavior
“Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again.” Brandon Jones, Google Chrome GPU Team
“I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money.” Warren Durrett, political economist
“Deep inside our world is a huge ball of hot stuff. This is the stuff that turns the black rock we use to find our way when we go far away. I used to study tiny bits of the same black rock, inside real rocks, to know the pull of the deep hot under world ball long, long ago—before people, or animals, or trees, or almost any living things were here. I studied bits of the black rock, like the pieces we use to find our way, inside other rocks that formed in fire under the ground. The hot under ground ball gave these black rock pieces a direction long ago, and they did not forget.” Peter Selkin, paleo/rock-magnetist
“I study old human stuff. We look at the old stuff to see when and where humans came from and why we look and act so funny instead of acting like other animals.” Meagan Sobel, Biological Anthropology student
“I look at how water from the sky reaches the ground when there are trees in the way. Especially trees that are burned or dying. I try to figure out if the trees change: (1) how much water gets to the ground, and (2) what happens to the water when it’s on the ground. I also try to figure out what will happen to this water in the next tens of years. This is important for things growing on the ground and living in the water, and for the water we use and drink.”Sarah Boon, environmental scientist
“Where I work, we slam together small things to break them into even smaller things until we have the smallest things possible. This is how we know what matter is made of.” Paul Sorenson, Physicist studying Quark-Gluon Plasma with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory
“I tell space buses on a big, cold red rock in space to take pictures of the rocks and the sky. I look at the small rocks that go around the big red rock. The small rocks tell us about what it is like inside the big red rock. I like to look for ice water in the sky. I also take pictures of the Sun to learn about how much ice water and other stuff is in the sky. My favorite thing to do with the space buses is look at the stars in the night sky to look for ice water in the sky.” Keri Bean, planetary scientist
“I look at how numbers play with other words when we speak. I think a lot about the way we mark words (like marking ‘eats’ different from ‘eat’), and what that tells us about what they mean, and what other words around them mean (I show that it tells a lot). I also think a lot about whether the things we say allow more than one meaning. Like if someone says ‘twenty boys ate a hot dog,’ if it means they all shared one hot dog or if it means each one ate a hot dog, or if it means both.” Sarah Ouwayda, Linguist (syntax, semantics, Arabic, Semitic languages)
“There are bad people who want to make the things you see on the computer go away. Sometimes it is for money and sometimes it is a game. The simple way of making computer stuff go away is like shouting very loud so no one can hear. This makes it so you can not see the things on the computer you want until they stop shouting. I try to make them be quiet.”Christian Ternus, information security researcher
“If we want to know how the brain makes memory and uses memory, we need to make people do things like learn stuff and then remember it. I want to know how we imagine things, and how memory makes this possible. So, I ask people to imagine things, and see how good they are with different words. Then, we look at their brains at work using a big noise box that takes pictures inside the head. We also ask people who are missing a piece of brain to also do stuff to see what they can and can’t do. Then we’ll know what different brain pieces do, and one day put all the pieces together to understand the mind.” Kristoffer Romero, PhD student at the University of Toronto
“Our body doesn’t like to have visits from other things that don’t look like friends. When they come inside us, our cells look at them with many different types of eyes. Different eyes see different figures and forms, so they can find out what they are and what to do with them. They are not usual eyes, they work like little hands too and grab things. I am studying one of these eyes that sees weird stuff, like those things that grow on your food when it goes off. But this eye doesn’t do it alone. And that makes it exciting. It has some other friends helping; the more eyes the better! All-in-one they catch the stranger and they eat it. Once eaten, they show the left-over little pieces to their cell-friends. So that they know what kind of bad guys to fight. They also call more friends in if there is a lot of it to eat. This is how our body keep us free from being sick and stay happy, isn’t it amazing?” @Analobpas, talking about C-type lectins
“People ask how many of a kind of thing there are; the thing might be a kind of number, or something like a number. I, together with others, work out how many of those things there are by understanding the way some kinds of spaces look; these spaces are, in a way, the same as the things about which we ask, ‘how many,’ but in another way they are different. This allows us to use different ideas when we think about them, and answer some questions about numbers which could not be answered before.”
Jordan Ellenberg, number theorist. (Blog, professional homepage.)
can you break down complicated ideas into simple terms? try to explain your job/field using the up-goer five text editor, which only accepts the 1,000 most used words in the dictionary. share your results in the comments.
[Design student Pei-Ying] Lin solicited the list of “unspeakable” words from colleagues at London’s Royal College of Art, and found that their definitions in English usually came down to something like, “it is a kind of (emotion A), close to (emotion B), and somehow between (emotion C) and (emotion D).”
Next, to visualize the relationship between the foreign emotion-words and English ones, Lin used a linguistics model to map out five basic emotions (large yellow circles), along with several descriptive words related to each (smaller green circles). Finally, she used her sources’ descriptions to place the new/foreign words on the English map.
click on the map above for a closer look or go here for the fancier version. in the meantime, here are a few examples:
Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
Gezellifheid (Dutch): Comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones, or general togetherness
Saudade (Portuguese): A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.
Tocka (Russian): Great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. Ache of soul, a longing with nothing to long for
Viitsima (Estonian): The feeling of slight laziness, can’t be bothered by anything. Don’t want to work nor go anywhere.
A few years ago, I was working for a science teacher professional development program. My job was to go into schools and watch how high school science teachers were integrating the program’s curriculum and content into their lessons. Not many people knew that I was a poet, not a science teacher. In fact, everyone around me asked me science questions. Like “What is the normal sugar level for someone with diabetes?” Or “Why do metals behave differently at different size scales?” These were not questions I could answer easily, but I did my best. I hid my poet self relatively well.
I didn’t expect to find any poets there, but I did.
It first started when one student in one of the underperforming schools (a school with national test scores in the bottom 25 percent in its state) gave me a CD he’d recorded of himself reading his poems. I said thanks and asked him about it. He told me he was aspiring to be a hip hop star. I told him I loved hip hop, so he invited me to one of his performances. When I took the CD home and listened to it, I heard a stark and powerful poetry. His eloquence surprised me a bit, because the student never talked in class and was always late. It would have been hard to know he had this much language at his disposal, because he didn’t use it in class.
All students can write, if we let them. The key, I think, is poetry.
As a poet myself, I have a love/hate relationship with schools. For the most part, schools have been a place for me to learn and grow. They’ve given me the chance to find readers of poetry and to connect with the poets of the past. I have found almost all my poetic brethren (dead poets who speak to me through their work) within a classroom setting.
However, because I am a poet, I am always searching for ways to change language. Schools are often a place for a certain sort of rigid language instruction, which can make them hostile environments for poets. Grammar and persuasive argument are essential skills for any student. But if someone is telling you that there is a set and finite way to construct a sentence — and you’re a poet — you will naturally get a little annoyed. And you will be justified in feeling this way, because it’s simply not true.
Nothing is more important to the future of humanity than the freedom to make new ideas. I would argue that the act of writing poetry is important for the creation of those new ideas. In her essay “Poetry and Grammar,” the great American poet Gertrude Stein wrote:
That is the reason that slang exists it is to change the nouns which have been names for so long. I say again. Verbs and adverbs and articles and conjunctions and prepositions are lively because they all do something and as long as anything does something it keeps alive.
Supporting poetry in our schools is essential because it engages students’ thinking and it keeps language alive. Over the past 14 years, I have worked as a teacher in a variety of educational settings. I have found that all students can write. And one of the surest ways to awaken their love for language is poetry.
The 60 students waiting patiently to get into one creative writing section at an elite private college where I taught loved writing poetry. The 2 year olds I used to teach over a decade ago in a wealthy day care loved poetry, too. Even in their pre-writing state, they recited poem after poem for me, and I wrote each one down for them to then illustrate. At an underserved elementary school, I read Merwin, Sexton, and Whitman poems out loud, and the 5 year olds in in the class loved to bounce around the rhythms and the sing-songy rhymes, along with the slanted ones. It was the music of poetry that they loved. The music of poetry is a delight for the mind.
Every outstanding essay involves meticulous word choice and sheer aesthetic prowess. Poetry teaches students how to do this.
A lot of people argue that poetry is “difficult” or that it has no real value for children’s future. That’s just not true. If you think poetry isn’t important to your students, you are not listening to them. You are not noticing the headphones in their ears, blasting poetry to soothe their walk to class. You are not thinking of them in their rooms at night, writing down their experiences. It may be that you are defining poetry too dogmatically.
In a book entitled The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, Eleanor Duckworth explains that the most important thing a teacher can do is to give his or her students the space to have a new idea and feel good about having it. She argues that this is the key to intellectual development. I would argue that there’s no more natural space for a teacher to value a student’s idea than in a poem. Because in a poem, a student not only has the freedom to express a new idea, but to do so in novel language he or she has just created. More so than any other type of writing, a poem takes into account the indispensable dimension of well-chosen words.
Learning about poetry (how to read it, write it, and appreciate it) is an integral part of teaching students about all forms of writing. A poem is not just a place to present a student’s grammatical knowledge (in fact, it is often the space to subvert it!). Poetry, more than any other form of writing, trains students to take into account the style of language. This close looking and listening is crucial to writing well in any manner. It would be hard to say that any outstanding essay does not involve meticulous word choice or the ability to persuade a reader through sheer aesthetic prowess. Poetry teaches students how to do this.
In the “Importance of Poetry in Children’s Learning,” Michael Benton argues that poetry is key to children’s learning about language because poems read differently than other forms of writing. Even though contemporary poetry rarely adheres to traditional poetic forms, all poetry (contemporary or otherwise) pays close attention to the sound and form of words. When students develop a deep familiarity with the craft of language in a poetry class, they learn how to express their new ideas in sentences and phrases full of their own style.
There are practical ways to do this in a 2012 classroom. When I teach classes on the argumentative essay, one of my favorite books to bring in is Jay-Z’s Decoded. It is a gift for teachers, because Jay-Z provides very clear, close readings of his own poems. (This is something few poets throughout history have provided.) I have had many successful lessons in which I have played his song “99 Problems” for students and then showed them how he breaks down its construction in Decoded. Once students can see that Jay-Z wrote each line with such purpose, crafted many complex ideas into powerful verse, it paves the way for meaningful discussions about how to create any argument in language. Students can see that their ideas are important, and that style helps their impact come through.
Kenneth Koch, the author of Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, was a revolutionary educator who brought poetry to thousands of public school children in New York City. He famously argued that the best poetry refuses to “condescend” to the minds of children. If we care about how well our students write, we should not condescend and limit their exploration of language, either. We should make sure students have the space in schools to learn that they can write, and develop a lifelong passion for words. Poetry is the way to do this.