Maximally bent & broken

bent and broken

bent and broken

The linguist/scholar David Crystal writes that “Poetic language is the domain where linguistic rules are maximally bent and broken.”

The context here (in his book The Stories of English) is an explanation of how historians of language accomplish their sleuthing; Crystal notes carefully the differences between written and spoken versions of the same language, not to mention dialects and artistic expression and diversified diction based upon the intended audience, and uncertainty as to region, origin, and date of the manuscripts and texts under scrutiny. He cautions readers not to take linguistic theories and received stories about language evolution too readily; the story is a multitude of stories, examinable from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Much of the story is ephemeral, being oral/aural and carried on in dialects. A fascinating puzzle, really, full of lacunae and contradictions…and a reminder that when I am in my teaching role, I should remain mindful that Standard English is something of a misnomer. A living language, as Crystal demonstrates, operates on many levels and evolves concurrently with social, economic, religious, and technological trends.

I fervently agree that poetry offers language new routes of expression, a place to expand, warp, and break rules while managing all the same to convey information. The information may be conveyed in surprising ways, though, non-standard ways: neologisms, compound words, old words used in a new fashion, or as a different part of speech. Poetry is a major arena for this sort of experimentation, though not the only one. Further, I am inclined to follow a non-prescriptivist approach to writing  even though my job at the college is to impart the basic rules of Standard English, a task which (alas) tends to involve judging things as less-than-correct or “in need of improvement” for the sake of clarity and general comprehensibility.

Should I therefore be more tolerant of non-standard use of the apostrophe? I’m not quite ready for that, because the resulting texts are still so frequently confusing. The point of good writing is, most often, to convey information–though that could be argued–


Crystal points out that much stereotyping of speech patterns and much arbitrary standardizing (to the degree possible) has been due to our creative writers, and compounded by writers’ love-hate relationships with printers (and, later, editors) who rely upon codification. A widely-literate audience benefits from generalized written standards, he notes–but there’s no need to become “Grammar Nazis” despite human beings’ natural inclination to be conservative and, let’s face it, contentious. He takes a sociological all-embracing stance about English, welcoming changes.

Having read this text, I am of the opinion that ours is another of those linguistically-transformative periods of messy additions and alterations thanks, largely, to technologies and the sciences but also to media and particularly social media. [viz, meme. What an adaptable coinage!] As long as I have been teaching, I have reiterated to my students that I am giving them a code, a tool, Standard Written English; the way they speak or write is not wrong or incorrect. It is simply not clear and standardized enough for academic work. Get the right tool for the job!


Crystal lauds Samuel Johnson for his zeal for language and languages and dialects, even as Johnson sought to “stabilize the disorder” of English in the 18th C. The author goes on to insert his view that prescriptive, “correct” approaches to the language “prevented the next ten generations from appreciating the richness of their language’s expressive capabilities, and inculcated an inferiority complex about everyday usage which crushed the linguistic confidence of millions” (not to mention enforced class distinctions even further). I need to remember this balance between clarity and variety. I admit I have been a not infrequent eye-roller at the “sloppy, slangy, abbreviated” English of television, tabloids, Twitter, texting, and my students’ lingo. It is refreshing to think of these annoyances as potentially enriching–rather than degrading–to the language I love to read, speak, and write.

When I read poems, I know there are writers who employ archaic words, dialect words, slang words, colloquial syntax, interrupted syntax, irregular capitalization and punctuation, neologisms, invented compound word-phrases, curses, technology terms, scientific jargon, Latin, Spanish, Spanglish, Chinese, obscure place names, alternate spellings (orthography)…and on and on. Some are looking back; others look ahead. Some are encapsulating the moment–now–in the framework of a verse. They bend and break the language in startling, haunting, beautiful, memorable ways. This they can do because a living language allows them to.

Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.



Parenthood & writing

My life, in my role as parent, has lately trumped my reading-&-writing time. This happens periodically and is one of the challenges–one might suggest hindrances–of being a writer who has children.

My children are grown, yet the occasional interferences continue. I rush to note that these interruptions can be marvelous; June has been pleasantly subsumed in the marriage festivities of my youngest. My blog plays a decided second fiddle to family. Or third fiddle. Or maybe just a fiddle that sits in the closet for months.

The recent New York Times Sunday Book Review offers two delightful essays on how parenthood affects writers: the columns by James Parker and Mohsin Hamid speak for me on how parenthood has informed these authors’ “writing life.” There is a difference, though it may be only one of small degree, between real life and the writing life. These men demonstrate the interaction, inspiration, and interference well, so I will let their words stand in for mine today. Please do click the link and read the essays.

Meanwhile, I observe with joy and a mixture of feelings (and a certain amount of preparation and planning and organizing) as one of my best beloveds chooses a lifetime partner and the two of them head off together into a shared life. I will be on the periphery. Which is as it should be, I suppose.

Many blessings, daughter.



Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?


A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:


dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.