Poetics, Linguistics and the Way Art Affects the Way we Think

Another controversial thing I'm into (that Tracy and I had endless discussions about) was how language affects the way we can think, or, more accurately, the way we can express what we think. Since I'm a visual person, I don't think in a logical, verbal way, but must translate. I also have a poor verbal memory. But counter to that, I find that my ability to recognize patterns makes me a better linguist than one would have thought and a better poet than I would have expected of myself. I've been playing around on a new favorite web world: www.ancientworlds.com, which is a community of, yes, you guessed, people gonzo over ancient worlds. They have a bardic college there where people can post and talk about Celtic poetics.

Yes, I see some of you yawning already, but, in my opinion, poetry is to the arts what math is to the sciences. Poetry is the perfection of sound, music of the human brain. The problem for us is oversaturation on really, really bad poetry, mostly in the form of lyrics. True poetry requires a discipline that is quite extroadinary and, for me, just too much fun. In High School, when required to write sonnets, I just about vomited, I hated it so much. I hate a lot of poetry. For me, poetry did not really get interesting until I got to study it in foreign languages. I also found some poets who were not the ones you get to study in school. Sorry, folks, I just can't bear to force myself to read Keats. Tennyson is barely better; Shakespeare is only interesting for the archaic vocabulary.

Before you start thinking that I'm a total snob, or maybe a total brute, I'm going to blame the English again, or rather the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons have some incredible poetry. To be a writer of any merit and not just an entertainer (that's not bad folks, just a different value system) you have to have an ear. Well, is a writer's ear one of those things like an artist's eye? Does one have to have perfect pitch? Like anything, it's a matter of attention. What do you pay attention to? Most people pay attention to meaning. Cool. No problem. I just happen to be one of those people who like so many layers of meaning that meaning dives down into the depths and rises up again forced to jamb the preconceptulized expectation into a new form. Many tales are supposed to do this, it's a form of going into the magical world and returning changed. I want everything loaded with meaning so that one is changed by the very process of reading or listening. But I'm into change.

True poetry is a way to twist the mind into change, like performing a function on a data set. You look at it a different way. It's a brain thing, several layers below meaning and the parsing ability of the verbal mind. But poetry, like story, must work on the superficial levels to work on the deeper levels, my pardons to Gertrude Stein. What are the lower layers like? How do they affect what we can express? Does it ever reach the conscious levels? I'm fascinated with poetry as a way to take language to the point where we can see the topology of language rather than the basic functions such as addition and subtraction. Which brings us back to linguistics, Tolkien, and all the rest. How does an Anglo-Saxon think? How does an Englishman think, deprived of the AS forms, but not the sounds? How does a Celt think? How does a Welshman think deprived of vocabulary but not structure? Can we see this in their poetics? I think so.

"So fret not, like an idle girl,
That life is dash'd with flecks of sin.
Abide; thy wealth is gather'd in,
When Time hath sunder'd shell from pearl."

Here's Alfred, Lord Tennyson at his best. School stuff, but good reading if you like him. He's an Englishman. He got rhyming eight-syllable lines, not in iambs, but in more interesting forms, not sounding Latinate, but a good blend of AS and French going here. I like the mix of AS words and softer French words and the subtle use of some Celtic internal sympathies like fret and fleck, wealth and shell, etc. He also has a good AS ear for hard and soft vowel sounds. He also passes the poetry test: does it read aloud?

What's the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the French? The Anglo forms care about the front end, the French about the back end. French and Latinate poetry rhymes, Anglo-Saxon poetry alliterates. What I find appalling (well, amusing) is that people don't understand alliteration. They think that scrape and stick are alliterative, forgetting that English, being of a Gothic root, has consonant blends and is vowel senstive. Thus a word like kick and a word like cop are not alliterative. Say them--the "k" sound is different. Thus words like grope and grab are alliterative, as are give and get, ten and tin are alliterative and so are thought and thank. Tap and tip are further apart, but only as far as dap and tap. I hope I'm getting you saying these things out loud. It's not about spelling--it's about sound. And English spelling rarely reflects the sounds, especially if you factor in dialect. To people like me, the words "motivate" and "motive" are "d" and "t" respectively, which leads to some interesting spelling variants in people with ears and not eyes! The science of modifying vowels and consonants to make things easier to say (roses and ross's) is called orthographics. To be a poet of the ancient sort, you must be hip on orthographics. No problem if you're learning to say them out loud!

Although we appear visual, we are not. People hear what they read. I'm amazed at some poets who have forgotten to read stuff out loud, listening to it. You can get away with a lot if you have a rhythmic ear. Anglo-Saxon poetry can play the front end game because the language favors the dactyl over the iamb. DA-da over da-DA. English has been modified into an iambic language, but with the dactyl emphasis so much so that the French shake their heads over some modifications of borrowed words. As a child, you have to learn to undo the basic AS prejudice and learn that PHO-to becomes not PHO-to-GRAPH-y, but pho-TOG-ra-phy, counterintuitive to the AS speaker. English speakers, in order to become educated, have to adopt the Southern rhythms and often destroy their own sense of appreciation for the alliterative. Listen to how wonderful the alleriteration is with the dactyls:

Rising weath, pregnant moon, labored in autumn skies-
Reigning queen, precious gem, lady your augur cries

The Anglo-Saxon structures were extemely complex. da-da HA-da-da da HA-da (pause) HA da-da-da-da FA-da da CA-da-da-da da-da-da CA (pause) CA-da da NA-da-da. Much of this is way beyond what we are used to, but when you hear it, you feel it if you are English as a first language. Tolkien took advantage of this with his Riders of Rohan (see even the name is dactyl alliterative!).

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining in the South-kingdom.
Steeds went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled.

I don't know about you, but when I read these verses, I see the horses and hear the singing slaughter and I feel something in the bones, something half-dreamed or half-remembered, the inheritance of a ax culture full of dragons and heroes who fight on even when death is come. Whew! But note, he's careful to avoid any French words, but he's more than that--he's careful to avoid the Celt as well.

As I have gone on (and on) about, the sleeper in many of us is the Celt. No, I don't mean that Lucky Charms guy, I mean that tattooed, head-hunting, six foot six laughing man who'd as soon drink as fight and maybe both at once while he's shouting poetry to keep you company into the next world. He's another berserk, like the Gothic heroes, but he's not "hammer oder anvil sein", he's quicker than strong and sarcastic rather than terse, and just as likely to trip you as to shake your hand. To the English, he's too emotional, he cheats, he drinks too much and those women...well, let's just say that they don't know their place. Most people don't like this fellow and use him as a villanous rogue, a sidekick, or something inscrutable and distant like the elves. Bits and pieces. What does this mean to us? To our language? To our thoughts?

Rowan in Autumn

Blood-red showed the lustrous leaf
luscious bloom, light-gowned then blowed
Fiery-wood, the quickened life,
flushed rife, must end, blazed in blood

This is called a rannaigheacht mhór. The definition is: "a quatrain stanza of seven-syllable lines consonating, no rhyming, abab. There are at least two cross-rhymes in each couplet, and the final word of line three rhymes with a word in the interior of line four. Two words alliterate in each line, the final world of line four alliterating with the preceding stressed word. The final syllable, word or line must duplicat the beginning first syllable, word or line." --Holy moly! Now this is poetry. Not exactly iambic pentameter. Here's another, a rionnaird tri n-ard. "A quatrain stanza of hexasyllabic lines with disyllabic endings. Lines two and four rhyme, and line three consonates with them. There are two cross-rhymes in the second couplet, none in the first. There is alliteration in each line, and wthe last syllable of line one alliterates with the first accented word of line two. he final syllable, word or line must duplicat the beginning first syllable, word or line." (Which, if you note, makes the non-existent cross-rhyme in the first, impossible!) Well, here's the attempt:


Shunning night, mares hurried
reined back by drear vision
dark done by; Dawn, ransom
dream herd from vile 'suasion!

Anyhoo, I'm having fun. The point of this kind of poetry is to help us understand that those who existed before the Norman Conquest were not exactly drunk and dingy. To recite poetry like this, on the fly, while in the midst of battle, fully berserk, is a wee bit difficult. Makes you wonder what else they could do....My guess is that part of it is training, but, sigh, what training! Well, every culture has it's strong points. But what do these forms mean to us other than providing an afternoon of a puzzle? For me, it's almost impossible to understand this kind of mind outside of the language. Celtic languages are murmuring, indirect languages. They are not in-your-face dactyls or militant sounding polysyllabic rhymes. I've noticed, in many people I've known that were Irish, that they were incomprehensible to many people, not because they had an accent, but because of the muttering tone. The linguistic ear is more subtle, hearing an utterance of line where the pattern is discernible, but not the individual words. Does this mean that the unit of understanding was not a word, but a sentence? What would this do to one's ability to express things? You note in the above poems an emphasis, not on the word, but on the sound. The language is much, much closer to music in the mind.

I believe that this is what allowed people like this (and like the Mongolians) to memorized hundreds and hundreds of poems (songs) that were thousands of stanzas. The language moves out of the same part of the brain that is used for logic and moves more into the part of the brain that is tuned to music (pardon the pun). In music, the notes are important, but the phrase is the unit of measure, so to speak. Over and over we hear of the "lyrical" content of Celtic/Anglo writers. This is part of it. Language is fascinating because it bridges meaning in word with patterning in music. Some people cannot listen to lyrics and music at the same time but are forced to appreciate the lyrics separate from the music. This is one end of the spectrum; the other end is where the meaning cannot be separated from the verse. What happens when a person who values words as meaningful chunks meets with someone for whom a word, on it's own is an orphan, something out of context that has no meaning alone? Hm.

© 2007, A.R. Stone