Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Monoecious silence and other nonsense

Arrowhead (Sagittaria Sagittifolia): a monoecious plant
from the book "Wayside And Woodland Blossoms", by Edward Step

I recently did an exercise by Karen Swenson from the book The Practice of Poetry. It consisted of choosing unfamiliar words from a dictionary, assigning different parts of speech to them and using them in a poem. The object of the exercise was to concentrate more on sound than on meaning. Here is my attempt:

In dargion safety the sparrow lings softly,
as the orphrey, shallooning his wings,
ginks and clacks to the Trisagion west.
Coffling wanly the niblick sinks
into the monoecious silence.

I found it interesting that ‘orphrey’ (actually an ornamental border on ecclesiastical vestments) must have subconsciously reminded me of osprey and led me to turn it into a bird - showing how we may be influenced by similar sounds to infer meaning, often without realising it.

I liked the phrase 'into the monoecious silence' and wondered if I could recycle it to use in another poem. The dictionary told me it meant, as a biological term, 'with unisex male and female organs' and as a zoological term, 'hermaphrodite'. "Ah", I said to myself, "that won't work then!" But no sooner had I thought that than my mind did a little hop, skip and jump (the way it does) and informed me: "A monoecious silence is one which is sufficient unto itself". And, yes, in a poem you could say that, since poetry isn't wholly subordinate to the structures of meaning that would pin words down… It's one of the reasons I like poetry so much - the alchemy of sound, meaning and association; the mental gymnastics.

This set me thinking about Noam Chomsky's sentences:
1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Chomsky said “It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally "remote" from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not grammatical.”

People have tried, successfully, to incorporate the first sentence into a prose piece, drawing on the several meanings of the words. There is this, for instance, by C.M. Street:

"It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously."

The second sentence is not so easy to use in prose, being ungrammatical, but it doesn’t present too much difficulty for poetry. For example, off the top of my head:

Across the pale defeated hills
furiously sleep ideas,
green colourless.

Poetry does not depend upon grammar to quite the extent that prose does. It incorporates other ways of understanding than by logical processes. The evocation of emotions and intuitions from the varied meanings of words and their sounds, from their echoes and resonances, means that poems may even incorporate contradiction –“green colourless” - and paradox and still convey something meaningful. T. S. Eliot said that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” and this partly explains how. The right brain is engaged as well as the logical left brain.

Jung has talked about the rush of psychic energy that symbols may give us, caused by the conjunction of different images; their union releases an insight, making us go “Aha!” I think the same psychic charge occurs when the mind does that little hop, skip and jump in order to go outside the usual structures of meaning and expand its understanding when confronted by words used in uncommon and uncharacteristic ways. Which is why I think poetry is often more exciting than prose...

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