EvoLang XI Writer in Residence

This year's writer in residence at EvoLang was Mark Dow.

Talking to Oneself: Note and Poem on Language Evolution

Bertrand Russell wrote that our inability to conceive of time having no beginning is due to the poverty of our imagination.

A few years ago I wrote what you might call a prose poem based on my attempts over a few months, each night before I went to sleep, to imagine the beginning of time (Dow, "Hum," Conjunctions, February 2014). By imagine I mean some combination of thinking, picturing, speculating, observing, and waiting. I played with the possibility -- and, I think, believed -- that if I could notice the moment when my imagination went from blank to something, I'd be seeing a corollary to the beginning of the beginning.

I do believe (I think it's belief, though it feels empirically-based) that all these processes are shaped by the shape of the organ and faculty doing the work -- part of their shape being the shapes formed by their activities.

Goethe, if I don't misunderstand him, believed that we enjoy looking at plants because we are seeing, and thus participating in, exteriorized versions (rhymes or congruences, you might say) of our "spirit" and its manner of growth. My 8th-grade anthropology teacher, Mr. Wilt, said that tracking evolution is like scrutinizing, frame by frame, the raw film of a person who starts to smile. You won't find the single frame in which the smile begins, but you will see a person go from not-smiling to smiling.

One of filmmaker Michel Gondry's animated sequences accompanying Chomsky's words in Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013) shows the cartoony interior of an early hominid brain. Jiggly, circling lines suggest a recursive activity related to thinking, an "internal" activity apparently a precursor to "language" communication between individuals.

This seemed to address something I've often wondered about, and it's there in the beginning of the poem "Gets."

Chomsky also mentions, in that film sequence, how difficult it is to stop talking to oneself. For a lot of people, there is a connection between anxiety and "internal" talking. I've noticed that several of my so-called "Conversation Poems" (I adapted the term from Coleridge. See "'Feedback'" and Other Conversation Poems," Mudlark 59, 2015; and "Three Conversation Poems," Wave Composition 7, November 8, 2013) touch on this, and I've talked to friends about it. When I brought this up in a meditation group I've been attending here in New Orleans, several people had their own versions of the phenomenon. One of them described the experience of observing the internal talk and asking himself, "Who is that?" "Gets" is a kind of cartoon animation of an imagined process "in the moment" and across a swath of time. *


The talking to oneself -- that's evolutionary.

  It must have started as an accident.

   Something like that's not random.

  That isn't what I meant.

   It's weirdly clear but pandemonium,

So clearly interior it's seriously scarey.

Words ricochet around inside my head.

    Wait -- is it words or sounds you hear?

It isn't that clear-cut. They just get said,

  Not even said -- they just appear.


Say something gets expressed, going back to evolution,

  Whatever that might have looked like sound-wise,

   And yes, just wait, I know

  This oversimplifies,

   But someone gets it, gets the new m.o.,

Gets that it's safer, subtler than the old intrusion.

One of the navigating horde or herd,

  Asleep, lipped limbic-stream aloud,

Unchanneled, muddy, but it got as heard

    As the anatomy allowed.


It's intentless at first, just an approximation.

  The shapes match awkwardly or not at all,

   Edge toward each other in fits

  And starts, downstream recall

   A wholeness persists in each little bit

People forget. Affection's also information.

Its auras radiate and intersect,

  Resonances that overlap,

So in between there's no between, no next.

  Layers of self-talk overlap


As each one, one-by-one, divides itself

To find with whom it can reflect itself

To cross the mirrored distance from itself

Doubling back to be, in-and-of itself,

  As much the other as the other is.

   Companions map, drown out, reciprocate, pursue.

  No matter where we start it comes to this:

    One side's inside, one is out.

    Both try to turn it inside out.

   The more each gets an I, the more you gets to you.