The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘words’

Prim and Proper, Crude and Vulgar

April 30, 2015 | by

Enough Said

Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2012, oil on canvas, 24" x 30". © Mel Bochner

Our Spring issue, available now, features “Thesaurus Paintings,” a portfolio of text-based paintings and drawings from Mel Bochner. They have a focus on ordinary language, specifically the “emotional trajectory” that emerges when one riffs on words and phrases of a certain theme. The direction, Bochner says, is evident in

how one gets from the first word to the last word—from the prim and proper to the crude and vulgar. I concentrate a lot on the sense and sound of the language. The flow of words has to have a certain kind of rhythm—or a certain kind of lack of rhythm. That’s how the narrative of the painting is constructed.

You can see what he means by looking at Easy/Difficult, a painting that wends its way from a breezy, “easy” high point, to, well, “some deep shit,” as optimism shades into fatalism: Read More »

Write Tight

April 21, 2015 | by

What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.

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Contest of the Poets, a float design by Jennie Wilde for the 1910 “Comus” Mardi Gras

T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.

Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs. Read More »

Losing Count

April 16, 2015 | by

“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” and the ambiguous history of counting-out rhymes.

Cedar-Central

A Works Progress Administration poster for the Cedar Central Apartments in Cleveland, Ohio, ca. 1936.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo

“Eeny meeny miny mo” is one of those rhymes that’s ingrained in our cultural limbic system—once we hear the first two syllables, the rest unspools whether we want it to or not. No one knows what eeny or meeny might mean; everybody knows what “eeny meeny” means. It turns up in strange places: in Pulp Fiction, in the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Justin Bieber songs. But where did eeny meeny come from? Kipling tells us that “Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, and Mo / Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago,” but that’s not such a good lead.

What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere. In the fifties and sixties, the formidable husband-and-wife folklorists Iona and Peter Opie recorded hundreds of varieties in England and America, including, to name just a few: Read More »

New Words

April 8, 2015 | by

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Sometime in the third grade, a girl in my class began to claim she was ambidextrous. Previously, this girl had said she wanted to be a marine biologist. She also claimed to have athlete’s foot. This girl was a pretentious liar.

In fairness, marine-biology ambitions were all the rage that year. We were just moving beyond the easy descriptor stage; it was no longer enough to want an occupation you could identify from a Richard Scarry book, such as baker, doctor, or fireman. Now people wanted to be not just teachers but middle-school teachers, not just football stars but running backs—ideally, our choices conveyed an element of mystery and worldliness to the other kids. Still, generally speaking, our ideas for future careers were about as complicated as those you see in contemporary romance novels, where the heroines have easily explained jobs that seldom seem to interfere with the business of being a glamorous grown-up. Marine biology, with its vague hints of tropical waters and dolphins, seemed like a perfect career path for both the frivolous animal-lover and the committed scientist. None of us was sure what it entailed. Read More »

Novels Are Made of Words

March 31, 2015 | by

More on automated sentiment-analysis, and Moby-Dick.

neiman mobydick

Leroy Neiman, Moby Dick Assaulting the Pequod.

Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, “But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.” “But my dear Degas,” the poet replied, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.”

Paintings, for that matter, are not made of pretty ballerinas or landscapes: they’re made of paint.

Which brings us to Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s new program that analyzes the words of a novel for their emotional value and graphs the sentimental shape of the book. Dan Piepenbring has explained it all here and here on the Daily, with links to the original postings and the various outcries, some of them in the comments, that have blown up around Jockers.

Many people apparently find Jockers’s research the latest assault of technocratic digitocracy on the citadel of deep humanistic feelings, but that’s not how I see it. What the graphs reveal about potboiler narrative structure versus high-literary arcs, for instance—Dan Brown’s higher average positivity than James Joyce’s, and his more regular cycle of highs and lows to force the reader through the book—is insightful, useful, and great. Read More »

Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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