Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)


Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).


GRE prep, two months in & three months away

Back in January, I bought some books so that I could start studying for the GRE. I wanted to take it mid-June; that gives me as much time as possible to prepare while still allowing a month in which I could retake the test (the current version) if I don’t like my first scores. I’m thinking June 13.

I’ve worked through the 80 sets of words (10 per set) in Barron’s Essential Words for the GRE. I knew some, vaguely recognized others, and had never even seen a few of them (like “contumacious”–rebellious or disobedient). Now I’ve begun the section on word roots. I feel more confident about those, but there are still some that I never quite knew (which now make embarrassingly perfect sense, like “ev,” as in “medieval”–“medi” = middle, “ev” = age/era, “al” = a suffix meaning “of,” “pertaining to,” etc.). Medieval. Belonging to, pertaining to, or characteristic of the Middle Ages. What a duh.

I recently noticed the word “vicious” as well. (Think “vice.”) Of course, now the phrase “vicious circle” sounds pretty strange. Somebody anthropomorphized the abstract concept of circularity?

On a diagnostic test in the Barron’s general GRE prep book, I scored 760 on the Verbal section, which is hopeful. (Should I have shown off there by saying “sanguine” instead? …Nah, would’ve just put my mind on Firefly.) I didn’t do so well at the Quantitative portion, but that was before working on any math. I haven’t done the stuff they’re testing in the math section for about ten years; instead I’ve finally begun to get a grasp on sines, cosines, and tangents (thank you, physics), found the tangents of some curves ( 😉 ), and briefly surveyed the terrain of discrete maths (sets, graphs, combinations and permutations, etc.). Those, and puzzles. I like puzzles. Give me a problem with a checkerboard and I’ll be worse than a dog worrying its favorite bone.

I’ve now worked through 200 pages of the Nova GRE Math Prep book. So far, so good. I’ve really got to stop making stupid mistakes, though–I made 2 or 3 in the set of 100 geometry problems–and I should probably start plowing through a couple dozen pages a day just for the practice. That’s the most important thing for me in math; I just have to use it so much that I can’t get it out of my head if I want to, so that it doesn’t take me so long to get to the answers. I can’t try to memorize math (it doesn’t work that way for me), but if I use it, I’ll remember it like remembering how to swim. It takes a little bit to readjust after a long break, but the memory’s there, in the muscle. And if I use math enough, I can begin to see how it works, how the numbers and shapes and equations relate to one another. I love that, and that’s what I need to do. Unfortunately, I’ve only worked on the math in fits now and then, so far.

So, I should go work on some of those roots and maths instead of rambling on about them. Cheers.

Blog mechanics: Comment spam

I have to wonder how the comment system works on WordPress (or other blogs, probably, but this is where I am and this is where I can see stats). There is always a steady stream of spam comments from I don’t know where. The interesting part of it is that I know these comments are spam, even the ones that trouble themselves to compliment my blog theme (it’s the newest one WordPress posted, incidentally, and I kind of like it). How do I know? The comments appear on days and times when there have been no visitors whatsoever to this blog.*

What I don’t understand is how they can do that. How can someone (person or bot) submit a ‘comment’ to one of my posts without registering any kind of visit on my tracking stats?

Also, why is every single one of them submitted to one of my xkcd posts? (Even more obvious way I know they’re spam: they compliment me on a great article, when I have done nothing but hotlink and link to a single comic from xkcd.) But really, why?

* I wonder what Hofstadter would say about the self-reference. There are some interesting quirks to the way we determine the referent of a pointer like ‘this’ — a phrase like ‘this sentence,’ for example, could be referring to itself or to some other sentence under discussion. But we almost never have to think twice about which it is, when we see it. (‘It’ would certainly have similar issues.)


I love to read. I keep a list — over 250 long — of all the books that I’ve read, or most of them. A few from grade school have probably slipped my memory. And I keep a list — around 130 long — of books that I want to read. That list is missing quite a few selections, too, as I’ll make a note to the effect that “I want to read something by Hemingway.” This generally means more than one book…and I occasionally list a set of books as one.

Lately I haven’t read nearly as much as I prefer (proofreading notwithstanding). But today I finally read Alice in Wonderland. That’s right, I had never read this classic (yet sophisticated) children’s tale. Shel Silverstein yes, Lewis Carroll no. I could see better the fun that Hofstadter had writing GEB, which only made Carroll the more delightful. I got stuck on one sentence (one which I’m sure most people either get stuck on till their eyes glaze, or just plain skip):

…never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

Yes, I wrote it down when I saw it. (Ok, truth be told, I laughed a fair bit first.) I tried to block off the separate bits of the sentence, but I can’t make it make sense in modern English grammar.

{Insert 10-minute pause here.}

Ok, I tried to separate the tangled knots of linguistic insanity, but I would need a linguist’s expert help. If that would help, of course. If I clump one phrase in one way that makes sense, the others only get more confused. How frustating (and delicious!).

Thoughts welcome. Also, thoughts welcome on bookshelf widgets that will work on — I recently joined Shelfari and added all my books, even ticked off favorites, owned and wishlist books, only to find that I can’t post my bookshelf on the sidebar here. And it’s such a pretty little bookshelf, too. :sad face: