Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Darwinian Poetics

Discussing the Clark Coolidge poem in class started me thinking about combining language with evolutionary theory. The words Coolidge uses—the compounds—combine to form the word trilobite, which, in turn, produces trilobites. Coolidge’s building blocks—a unit of measure (ounce), a system of arrangement (code), and a classification (orange) come together to form the basic units of language (the articles a, the) and then, with a little help from an electrical event (ohm), the trilobites are formed—not only the creature but the word representing the creature. Trilobites are well represented in the fossil record and were the earliest arthropods on earth, living between 550 and 250 million years ago. Coolidge’s poem seems to be, at once, a commentary on the beginning of life and the beginning of language—no small feat for a poem consisting of eight words.

This is where my head was when I began to think more about Fenollosa's ideas in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Over and over, Fenollosa talks about nature. He says that European speech grew as “metaphor was piled upon metaphor in quasi-geological strata” (377) (much like our little fossilized friends the trilobites—a metaphor, remember, for both life and language). Fenollosa doesn’t necessarily think that the evolution of language is a good thing however. He laments that “our ancestors built the accumulations of metaphors into structures of language and into systems of thought” that are “thin and cold” and that the structure of language is “less like a paradise than a factory” (379). Poetry, he insists, “was the earliest of the world arts” and that the Chinese written language is aligned with the “poetic substance of nature” (378) while European languages have (d)evolved into a “vulgar misuse” (379). To Fenollosa, complexity is a big problem when it comes to poetics. The “primitive metaphors do not spring from arbitrary subjective processes” (377) and “abstract meaning gives little vividness” (376).

Fenollosa’s “three terms of a natural process” (illustrated in the essay by the Chinese characters for ‘Man Sees Horse’) (362) follows the form of our trilobite (which consisted of three parts—a head, a thorax, and a tail). The three symbols are “alive” (363)—agent, act, object—farmer pounds rice (367). The Chinese transitive sentence and the English version as well (omitting particles) “exactly corresponds to this universal form of action in nature” (367). Unfortunately our trilobite eventually evolved, developed rudimentary legs, climbed out of the primordial soup, and became Robert Frost—okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that—it did take millions of years, after all, so it is possible that there may be a missing link in there somewhere. Based on Fenollosa’s arguments (which I believe are valid), we can see how the evolution of species and the evolution of language can be looked at in much the same way. We humans, arguably the most complex creatures on earth, hold within us approximately 97% “Junk DNA”—DNA left over from evolutionary fits and starts, and myriad dead ends. We, then, are a novel, filled with abstract meaning, intransitive verbs, and innumerable nouns, adjectives, and articles while our prehistoric trilobite is the embodiment of the poem in form and language—simple and beautiful in its way—agent…act…object, head…thorax…tail…

I really got into the Fenollosa piece (and the Coolidge poem) and I’m interested in following this line of thought more thoroughly and, although I haven’t tried it yet, I want to apply some of the ideas to my own poetry—kind of poetics by natural selection, if you will.

Next Time…TRILOBITE WINS THE PRESIDENCY! A spokesman said, “Sure he’s been extinct for 250 million years and he doesn’t have a brain to speak of, but he’s leaps and bounds, evolutionarily speaking, beyond the last guy.”


Ducky said...

In applying these ideas to your poetry, what sort of effect to you forsee? An increased quality to the language, a greater prescriptive force, ect.? It sounds like a cool idea, but is the reflection between language and life to be purely descriptive, a metaphor, a rule for your syntax, or do you still hold (a bit like Shelley maybe in an ideal way) that there is a transformative power in a new description that you are captivated by which a poem might intentionally control?

Michael said...

I'm not interested as much in a new description as I am in "concretely and vividly expressing the interactions of things"--getting to the "science" of the poem rather than the "logic" (which Fenollosa thinks has "abused the language"). For me Coolidge does it really well-- and that is more the direction that I'd like to go with my own poetry. I meant to address these ideas more clearly in my post but I was, as usual, sidetracked by copulas, metaphors, and logic. :)

K. Silem Mohammad said...

More! More!