Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rethinking Grammar

I was sitting on the bus going to work, annotating George K. Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew. My mind drifted away from the text, to my act of annotation, and from there to the grammatical form of the word “annotation.” It's a simple word, a noun. And of course, a noun is a person, place, thing, state, or quality; or more fully, as most dictionaries will remind you, the subject or object of a sentence that can be modified into plural and possessive. But that definition hardly begins to describe the grammatical function that the word “annotation” implies.

Consider. It's root is “note”, , which can be either a noun or a verb, but in this case I'll call it a noun. However, by adding the prefix “an-” it is transformed into a verb, which is thence retransformed back into a noun with the suffix “-tion”! Those ambiguities and transformations all are processed instantly by our minds, and are equally instantly ignored as we read a sentence with the word “annotation” in it.

Now, I ask you, is “annotation” a noun, and if so, what is a noun?!

The more I explore stevespell, the more I realize that the apparently strange and foreign grammars and constructions embedded in it, such as noun-verbs like “annotaten”, are neither strange nor foreign. We simply choose to ignore the complexity that already exists in the language. In actuality, like the quantum mechanical electron, our words are constantly changing forms and states, and we are hard-pressed to know when they're particles and when they're waves and when they're something else entirely.

Of course, back here in the real world, my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Newton, will wag her crooked finger in my face and scold me with nary a second thought, “I'll have none of that, young man! A noun is a noun, and you better be able to diagram it correctly on the next test, or you'll be back in the corner sitting by yourself again!”

Another thing Mrs. Newton doesn't know: I like sitting by myself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quantum Mechanics and Language

Upon reading David Bohm's Wholeness and the Implicate Order.

From the first paragraph of Bohm's introduction to Wholeness and the Implicate Order, I realized that what he was theorizing about in this book, published in 1980, I was concurrently developing in my poetry since the mid 70's. You can find many of my short essays on language and consciousness on this blog or at my website, If you are unfamiliar with my thoughts on this topic, I suggest you begin with a pleasant and easy little essay, “Wy I Rite So Funnee” at:
Wy I Rite So Funnee
If you want to then go deeper, you can explore some of the labels on this blog, such as 'complexity,' 'phenomenology,' and 'poetics,' or you can jump right to this link which is a partial summary of my various posts:
Literary Complexity

Bohm's path emerged from quantum mechanics; mine from phenomenology and consciousness, but both of us realized the necessity of interdisciplinary analysis. My ideas have been greatly influenced by the development of quantum mechanics over the 20th century, as Bohm's have been by phenomenology and the philosophy of consciousness.

Consider this statement by Bohm, who is widely regarded one of the Illuminati of quantum mechanics:
"It is clear that in reflecting on and pondering the nature of movement, both in thought and in the object of thought, one comes inevitably to the question of wholeness or totality. The notion that the one who thinks (the Ego) is at least in principle completely separate from and independent of the reality that he thinks about is of course firmly embedded in our entire tradition.... But this confronts us with a very difficult challenge: How are we to think coherently of a single, unbroken, flowing actuality of existence as a whole, containing both thought (consciousness) and external reality as we experience it?" (Bohm, p. x of Introduction, 1981 paperback, Routledge, Kegan, Paul Ltd.)

He then goes on two pages later:
"In chapter 2 we go into the role of language in bringing about fragmentation of thought.... We then inquire whether it is possible to experiment with new language forms in which the basic role will be given to the verb rather than the noun. Such forms will have as their content a series of actions that flow and merge into each other, without sharp separations or breaks." (ibid, p. xii)

Now consider this excerpt from my mid-80's essay, “Wy I Rite so Funnee”:
"My second intention with stevespell was more ambitious and radical. I wanted to develop a grammar in which subject and predicate, object and action were merged. I had heard that this was possible in Sanskrit, and it seemed intuitively right to me. Surely, the actor and the action are not two separate things, but aspects of one thing.... Perhaps our language was creating unnatural distinctions between actor and action, or between past, present, and future."

In chapter 1, p. 9, Bohm explores his first love, quantum mechanics.
"In a more detailed description the atom is, in many ways, seen to behave as much like a wave as a particle. It can perhaps best be regarded as a poorly defined cloud, dependent for its particular form on the whole environment, including the observing instruments. Thus, one can no longer maintain the division between the observer and observed (which is implicit in the atomistic view that regards each of these as separate aggregates of atoms)."

Here we see the confluence of quantum mechanics and consciousness in two important areas.

First, Bohm, working from Heisenberg, says that, in atomic spaces, the act of observation affects what is observed. We see this in precisely the same way phenomenologically. The act of self observation modifies what is observed (our thoughts). The closer we observe ourselves, the more completely our act of observation is what we see, obscuring and obstructing a free flow of thought. This is a precise corollary to Heisenberg's principle that when we observe phenomena at the atomic level, the more accurately we desire to know where a given object is, the more inaccurate our understanding of where it is going.

Second, just as at atomic level observation we see the breakdown of the “division between the observer and observed,” so we see in consciousness that there is no clear division between individuals. This is quite obvious by observing the transmission of emotion from one person to another. An individual shouting angrily at another causes an immediate and visceral reaction, usually either anger or fear in like measure. This transmission is not based on proximity, and can be verbal or non-verbal. Two people shouting at each other will each become increasingly disturbed, while an onlooker, to whom their anger is not directed, can observe dispassionately. I have also often observed in myself, when sitting silently with someone who is extremely anxious, that although I am not consciously aware of their anxiety, I will find myself inexplicably anxious, inexplicable, that is, until I ask them, “are you anxious or nervous?” Their answer almost always confirms that what I am feeling is their emotion!

I will offer one more example of the confluence between quantum mechanics and consciousness using Bohm's observations as a starting point. On pp. 9-10 he says:
"What is needed in a relativistic theory is to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or 'building blocks.' Rather, one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes. Thus,... instead of thinking of a particle, one is to think of a 'world tube.'
This world tube represents an infinitely complex process of a structure in movement and development which is centred in a region indicated by the boundaries of the tube. However, even outside the tube, each 'particle' has a field that extends through space and merges with the fields of other particles."

Let me now rewrite the second paragraph, speaking of human beings rather than atomic particles:
"This human body represents an infinitely complex process of a structure in movement and development which is centred in a region indicated by the boundaries of the body. However, even outside the body, each 'ego' has a field that extends through space and merges with the fields of other egos."

These overlapping fields are not limited to atomic and subatomic particles and emotional sensitivities. I would posit that the very nature of consciousness is represented better by behaviors described by quantum mechanics than by any Euclidean or Newtonian model. Therefore, time, also must be understood in a quantum mechanical way, since time is a product of consciousness. While the ego is focused into a present moment, that looks back into a past and forward to a future, human consciousness itself is not so bounded. Events of the past can have a profound effect on present behavior without there being any direct series of causal connections. Consciousness connects past, present, and future into a single interactive continuum with multiple, direct causalities.

Our language is structured to make concrete distinctions between objects, between objects and the actions that connect them, and between moments in time. These distinctions can be a helpful artifice, but they misrepresent the true behavior of objects in motion (events in time), and thought (consciousness). Bohm postulates a more active, fluid, verb-based language, but that is insufficient. Stevespell attempts a more comprehensive interleaving of objects, events, and time periods. I would call it a quantum mechanical language, which attempts to represent the more complex, non-Euclidean, interactive causalities operating in the human observation of the mental and physical worlds.

In sum, as we begin to peer into the atomic world, where matter “sublimates” into energy and energy “condenses” into matter, we are also observing the workings of consciousness as it articulates the foundations of space-time. This more accurate observational ability that evolved in the 20th century, shattered our ancient world-views (Aristotelian, Euclidean, Newtonian). Now we are beginning to understand that our further development is inhibited by our language, which also needs to evolve to represent this new, subtler understanding of our world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wy I Rite So Funnee

This pleasant little essay, entitled "Wy I Rite So Funnee" was my first statement about the transformations I'm applying to the English language, and was written sometime in the mid 1980's. You can find it on my website,, but since I'm reorganizing that site, I thought I'd post it here too, because I'm going to make reference to it in my next post.

Wy du I rite so funnee?

This question has been asked of me consistently, since I began altering standard spelling and grammar back in the mid 1970's. It has been asked politely and it has been asked with expletives undeleted. Readers and editors have been offended and confused by it, as well as delighted by it. A friendly but critical colleague from the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange dubbed it “stevespell” many years ago, and that has become my preferred name for it.

Sometimes I feel I am hewing the words out of wood or stone, rough approximations to a deeper, more accurate language. Sometimes I feel like I am taking the “found art” of English, and refining and polishing it. Sometimes the words are like very soft clay in my hands, oozing through my fingers. Sometimes the words are like nuggets of gold discovered as I sift through gravel and fast running water. Stevespell has allowed me to discover new words, new meanings in words, and new relationships between words, and it has become one of the modalities of my creativity.

I realize that to many readers, my language appears idiosyncratic, obscure, and nearly impenetrable. Yet, when I am writing, I feel like I am speaking in an “English” that underlays the infinite variations and personal morphologies that are illusorily lumped together into a single language. People question stevespell, as if “English” were a pre-existing, complete, and unalterable phenomenon in nature, and I am breaking the rules. I am not breaking the rules; I am discovering them; I am extending them.

Here’s the metaphor that I keep coming back to: most people think of words as if they were bricks. They think of words as hard, clearly shaped, baked clay units. They’re made in some factory somewhere – doesn’t matter where or with what clay – to be used to build permanent things. I think of words as soft clay, easily shaped and re-shaped, mostly used to build impermanent things in impermanent and poorly designed ways. It is the rare structure, indeed, that survives these harsh conditions that we build in.

I have two friends in Provincetown, Conrad and Anne, who are among the most beautiful people in the world. One of the tricks Conrad likes to play on the world is to sculpt in brick, in ways that appear to defy gravity. When you see these sculptures, you are forced to wonder: are these “bricks” really styrofoam, or are they real bricks somehow being held up with invisible wires? You bricklayers, when was the last time you made a brick float in air?

Stevespell evolved organically. You can find two relatively early examples of it in the Reading Room on my website, shivvetee: the poem In the Harvest ov Nations and the story “A Pilgrimmage to Mecca.” Compare those writings to In the Ruwenz ov the Tempel, I Herd...! At least to me, the language in them seems so normal, so unadventurous. To my eyes they also lack a certain sparkle and intensity. And yet, those writings, too, generated questions and controversy not unlike what I hear regarding my most recent work.

My earliest intention was two-fold. First, I wanted to normalize English spelling to spoken English. This seemed easy to accomplish, in my naivete. I soon discovered that I wasn’t the first to try such a project. For example, the Chicago Tribune attempted to partially normalize English, only to be booed into submission. On top of that, normalization presented all kinds of new problems. Conjugational and etymological continuities often had to be stretched or abandoned. And what was I to do with regional and national accents? If a written-spoken normalization had been my only motive, I too would have quit the project. But that is not the case. By the way, if you study the evolution of my spellings you will see that I have progressively moved towards a normalization that reflects my accent.

My second intention with stevespell was more ambitious and radical. I wanted to develop a grammar in which subject and predicate, object and action were merged. I had heard that this was possible in Sanskrit, and it seemed intuitively right to me. Surely, the actor and the action are not two separate things, but aspects of one thing. Later, when I began to learn Hebrew, I saw how root words and the absence of written vowels were used to create dynamic, interweaving structures of sound, meaning, and perspective. But English, and most European languages, don’t have (or don’t focus on) these kinds of conceptual tools. Perhaps our language was creating unnatural distinctions between actor and action, or between past, present, and future. So I began to work the clay, and I found that the possibility of merging noun and verb in English was waiting patiently just below the surface. Actually we are doing it all the time! Colloquial usage commonly slurs the “ing” verb form into “in,” as in “I’m goin’ to the store.” Superimpose this on the form that converts a verb into a noun using “-ence” (as in “transcend” to “transcendence”), and, presto, yu ar the transenden ov normel Eenglish!

Critics pointed out to me two other inter-related and important effects of stevespell. First, it forced them to read more slowly. This really annoys a lot of people. We have so much to do, and so much to read, we don’t have time to crawl along, actually paying attention to individual words. But just a second. That’s precisely what poetry is about! It’s about paying attention to each word; hearing them, considering them, going back and reading phrases again and maybe even again, slowly proceeding, and ohmigosh, actually enjoying the sensuality of language. I hope you speed demons don’t have sex the way you read, trying to get done as quickly as possible. I much prefer to read slowly, sensuously, seductively engaged with each word.

The other complaint I got, a complaint by another poet, mind you, was that my poetry forced him to read my work aloud if he wanted to understand it. Darn, that annoyed him. Say what?? That too is exactly what poetry is about: hearing the words, speaking the words, creating not a fleeting shadow of a thought as you rush on through a zillion words a minute, but resonating the words through the very bones of your body, from the chest outward. I remember a wicked northeaster on Cape Cod one February. I was living alone in my parent’s cottage on the beach. The waves were thundering, battering the seawall mercilessly; the wind was howling furiously and pummeling the walls. The curtains were swaying and the cracks in the walls were whistling, and me, I was reading Blake’s Jerusalem, screaming it at the top of my lungs, for hours, until the storm faded around dawn. It was one of the most glorious nights of my life. And I swear, Willy B. was right there with me belting it out, the two of us laughing till we could hardly breathe, then reading on.

So, you’re not breaking my heart if you have to read slowly, and if you even have to read my poetry aloud to get it. That’s what you’re supposed to do with poetry.

There is at least one more effect intended by stevespell. Poetic language has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years between the use of heightened, formal language, and the use of colloquial, simplified language. Often, when language is used to convey a sense of the sacred, it tends towards the formal, and this may easily become awkward or stilted. Nonetheless, I want to separate my poetry from mundane and secular literature. Whether or not I succeed and achieve a sense of the sacred in my poetry is for you to decide, but that, too, is part of my intention.