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Monday, March 13, 2017

The Full Weight of the Word

On Language: 
Jabberwocky vs. Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town: 
How we process sentences: Sound, syntax, "meaning."

My poetry students rarely have trouble with Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” They have a lot more trouble with E.E. Cummings’ “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town.” The former includes a large number of nonsense words, words which, in the dictionary sense, have no meaning. The latter has no nonsense words. But it does use words in unusual ways, both against the expected meaning (in the dictionary sense) or against the expected part of speech. Both poems tell a story.
My poetry students generally have little trouble paraphrasing the Carroll poem but a great deal of trouble with the E.E. Cummings. There is more than one way to explain this, but I think no matter how much weight we give to the fact that some of Carroll’s nonsense words have made it to the dictionary or to the fact that the students may have been exposed to the poem in one way or another in their youth, students would still always find Carroll easier to understand than Cummings. Virtually anyone whose virgin exposure to the two poems occurred simultaneously would find Carroll’s story easier to follow.

Why is this? Or to ask it another way, how is meaning processed? How do you “get” nonsense? Strictly speaking both poems should be nonsense. The dictionary won’t help you over your troubles with either poem.

Three factors seem to be at play here: sound, syntax, and “meaning” (narrowly defined as “dictionary meaning,” which I’ll distinguish from the more general sense of meaning by the quotation marks).
Carroll’s poem gives the student familiar syntax and suggestive sounds but strictly no meaning at crucial points. “Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!” We don’t know what kind of bird a Jubjub is, what a Bandersnatch is or what makes a Bandersnatch frumious. But we do have a sense of what kind of bird a Jubjub bird would be, what kind of monster a Bandersnatch would be and what would make it frumious. “Snatch” helps. And the sense we each have is probably pretty similar. The sounds themselves and the positions of the nonsense in the sentence create meaning despite a complete lack of “meaning.”

Cummings’ poem presents us with both overlapping and different problems: “someones married their everyones laughed their cryings and did their dance (sleep wake hope and then)they said their nevers they slept their dream.” It’s not hard for an experienced reader to take meaning from this sentence. But it’s nonetheless more challenging than it is with Carroll’s nonsense, harder still for students new to the study of poetry. Despite the lack of dictionary support for “Laughed their cryings” each word is familiar. And the familiarity it seems to me actually blocks the student trying to render the sense. But there is no such block in Carroll. And so the meaning flows out almost familiarly.

I doubt that any of this will meet much resistance from English teachers. Why it matters is this: What we processors of language do with Jabberwocky is what we do with language in general. Learning to read poetry is just learning to read period. Poetry often blocks new or inexperienced readers for at least two reasons worth thinking about: because the words are familiar and because the words are all presented with something like their full weight. In everyday language the looseness of usage and the ease of head nodding or shaking comes from the way that meanings are processed with an acceptable level of vagueness, the “you know what I mean” deployment. We can get away with not quite knowing what we want to say because our interlocutors are perfectly happy with processing as much or as little as they want, picking up on sounds and syntax and not really bothering so much with “meaning.” The trick with poetry, and a practical value of poetry for life, is that it trains readers to pay close attention to “meaning” in the production of meaning. 

When we're dealing not just with students but with anyone at any time, we're dealing with someone whose strategy for processing language may be more on the Jabberwocky level than the Cummings. They may be after a sense rather than a meaning. And people who go through life demanding nothing more than a sense from language do just fine, at least in conventional terms. They do well in school--particularly if their degree isn't strongly language centered, but often even if it is, since there are tricks to pretending to knowledge so successful that even the student thinks he's actually learning. They get good jobs. (They may become president.) They have as much chance at "success" as anyone. A lot of it comes down to luck and social supports, but you can't pick them out of the crowd. They are the crowd. But they struggle in the most important ways people can struggle. 

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