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Poetry as Repair

Posted 06-06-2010 at 04:22 AM by AZ Foreman
Updated 06-06-2010 at 05:07 AM by AZ Foreman
The relationship between the creative act of poetry and the scientific field of linguistics is one that has fascinated me for a while but which, for many a reason, isn't one that most linguists focus on. However, I had a long conversation with my syntax professor today about that very subject.

I commented that many of the formulations of phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics used by linguists to describe natural language seem to go off the rails where poetry is concerned. To do this, I brought up an example from an exam he had given where the students had to explain the peculiarities of the word "it" in explaining why "She is snowing" is not a natural English sentence whereas "It is snowing" is. The correct answer had to do with the fact that "it" is a catch-all placeholder which is selected for when there is no notional subject available (as in constructions such as "it seems that I am tired.")

I mentioned that "She is snowing" could indeed be used in poetry for any number of reasons, and that therefore it would seem English poetry obeyed slightly different syntactic parameters than English natural speech. I further added that, even though modern English-language poets (in contrast to, say, Arabic or Russian poets) seemed to be under the rather absurd and unfortunate impression that poetry must use "natural" language, sentences like "She is snowing" are still commonplace. I asked him if, therefore, syntacticians had attempted to analyze such behavior as it occurs in poetry, and whether such violations of natural structures were purely cultural, or could have some underlying basis in the nature of the language.

His answer was that such studies hadn't been done, to his knowledge, but he would imagine that our ability to understand sentences like "She is snowing" is the same sort of mental process that allows us to make sense of other anomalous utterances as when, for example, an English-speaker applies a recursive preposition in quick speech (e.g. "Towhom are you talking with?"), or when a non-native speaker applies his/her native grammar to a new language, such as a French-speaker saying "How did you learned to speak the French?" or even a Hindi-speaker saying something like "Girl this too many toys have." I'll gloss over the technospeak and just say that there is a repair-mechanism which a language's speakers use in order to correct for such unusual behavior so we can process the information it contains. When someone says "Girl this too many toys have" we can process it and rearrange it into "This girl has too many toys." And once we get used to it, we don't even need to think about it all that much.

It's a reasonable assumption that this repair mechanism would also be triggered by similar anomalies present in "She is snowing" (after all, one could imagine a Turkish-speaker, whose language does not have separate words for "He/she/it" saying something just like this when learning English.) The brain would attempt to repair the data by attempting to posit what the sentence would look like if it obeyed the correct parameters, so as to extract the information from that reassembled utterance. The thing is, though, that, using this process alone, the sentence wouldn't necessarily be entirely reparable in context. If the entire line were "She is snowing and holding her child," you couldn't simply substitute "it" for "she" without upsetting anaphors that bind it to "her" in the rest of the line.

However, there are other processes which a language's speakers employ. Languages change all the time (as any comparison between Latin and Italian will illustrate.) One of the ways they change is with new words (like "laser") being coined, or simply arising naturally (like "hella" in southern california used to mean "very" as in "She's hella smart" or the "p" at the end of "Nope" and "yep") The same is true of syntax as well, whether this be a word changing from noun to verb (as in the word "friend" in the phrase "to friend someone on facebook"), a lexical word like "going to" turning into a tense-marker ("gonna") in sentences like "I'm gonna go to the store," or even a change of the entire tense-system (as in Black English.)

Such changes gradually occur presumably because our brains are equipped to handle such novelties. So if we can't repair the sentence "She is snowing" at the syntactic level, then perhaps the sentence would then trigger the same process that allows us to understand things like "She friended me on facebook." In this case it would be to posit that "snowing" has acquired some new definition, just as mid-20th century American English speakers came to understand that "cool" meant "positive, favorable" as well as "not warm."

Because the way our brain learns new words' definitions is through context, the brain of a reader of "She is snowing" would create a separate lexical space for this use of "snowing" but, unless this usage occurs again in the poem in other contexts that hint at the meaning, there will be no definition to fill in, and the brain will be left in the position of not knowing what it means, but that it must mean something.

Here, then, the brain will try and come up with its own possible definitions. If I said "I lightbulbed that man," and you had no notion of "lightbulb" as a verb, the response would be to posit what that verb could mean, and derive that verbal meaning from the nominal one. Perhaps it means I threw a lightbulb at him, or perhaps it means that I set him on fire and watched him glow. Or maybe I got him sexually aroused and his cheeks flushed till he was glowing like a metaphorical lightbulb.

This same process would then cause an array of possible meanings to be generated for "snowing."

This entire mental process, consisting of a series of subconscious (or perhaps barely conscious) attempts to repair the data is what would not only make the sentence memorable, but also generate the various nuances, metaphorical implications, and quas-meteorological connotations of "She is snowing and holding her child" if we saw it in a poem.

Naturally, it's just an offhand idea. But it's a pretty cool notion, to me, that poetic-ness results from mental processes triggered by utterance's refusal to make sense as the brain executes the various repair-programs used on other anomalous data, and in so doing forces new shades of possible meaning to be extracted with every new attempt.

People today often talk about how modern poetry doesn't make sense, how hard it is to understand, or how it seems to mean nothing to anyone but the poet him/herself. Maybe our repair-algorithms need updating.
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  1. Old
    Or maybe lots of poetry is beyond repair?

    What you say is sort of interesting, but to me there's less there than meets the eye. Agreed, we all try our best to understand and makes sense of words and sentences even if they are unclear or ungrammatical, and we're darn good at it (for the most part).

    But can you give an example from a well known poem in English in which that quality is exploited in an interesting way? "She is snowing" isn't from a poem as far as I know.

    I think this is an aspect of what I sometimes tell clients when I am preparing them to give a deposition. I explain that in normal conversation, people often do not express themselves correctly but we hardly even notice it because we have the ability to know exactly what they mean even if they have not actually said it. We "repair" what they say. I then explain that they should try to turn off that capacity during the deposition and not give the questioner any help. I tell them to listen hard to the actual words of the question, and, if the question does not speak for itself, they should not (in your words) "repair" the question before answering it. They should answer the question as it is put, not as they are confident it is intended, or, if the question makes no clear sense as it is put, they should say they cannot answer the question. Ordinary conversation is possible mostly because we are willing to help each other out and we are motivated to understand one another. Answering questions under oath, however, posed by someone who has differing interests, should not involve that same sort of willingness.

    I don't think I expressed that very well, but I'm counting on you to repair my poor expression and understand me as though I had just been clear and eloquent.
    Posted 07-14-2010 at 03:45 PM by Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
  2. Old
    Václav Pinkava's Avatar
    She is snowing:
    Clearing snow?
    Shedding dandruff?
    Snorting! So,
    He is slowing,
    Cos he cares
    less the cost of the repairs.
    Posted 03-04-2015 at 04:53 PM by Václav Pinkava Václav Pinkava is offline

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