Monday, December 15, 2008

Exuberant Interjection Exclamation Point Exclamation Point

Parse is a 284 page book of parsed sentences. I’ll bet you haven’t read any books like that lately. Even if you have, you ought to read this one.

Poet Craig Dworkin explains in an end note – one of the very few parts of this book which isn’t presented only in parsed form – that Parse is a “translation” of a nineteenth century grammar textbook. By “translation,” Dworkin means that for each sentence in the book he analyzed its grammatical constituents, and then wrote out (to present in Parse) each word’s or sentence component’s grammatical function, including the applicable part of speech/writing and, if applicable, inflectional form and/or syntactic function.

Remember grammar from school? Diagramming sentences? Dull and impossible freight, you say? Well, here’s almost three hundred pages of it. And to me, it ain’t dull at all.

It took Dworkin more than five years to work through what must have seemed an endless number of sentences in the book (I don’t know the exact number involved, but the total surely is at least a few if not several thousand). In an e-mail reply he kindly provided when I asked him about it, Dworkin described the work as “EXCRUCIATINGLY slow” (emphasis his) at the beginning, but also said that by the end he could sit down with the source text and parse-type at “full speed.” At either end of this spectrum, it’s pretty amazing, as is all the work – particularly the attention to detail – done in between.

On the Ceptuetics radio show about two months ago, Dworkin stated that did not write Parse for any audience (though of course it has one, or potentially does, now). That sort of authorial decision to not have a primary interest in potential readers is not only okay by me, but a big, big plus. To use two non-literary examples, Simon Rodia didn’t build his towers for anybody but himself, and the same’s true of the Facteur Cheval and his Le Palais idéal. People who pursue a creative vision attuned to their own neccesities regardless of audience, especially when the quest persists through time (Rodia worked for 33 years in Watts, Cheval for about the same amount of time in Hauterives), can come up with some mighty interesting work.

Dworkin also said on Ceptuetics radio that he wrote Parse it to see what might happen “inside the skeleton of grammar.” I like that metaphor. In each parsed sentence, Dworkin shows the skeleton of that sentence. The poet here (Dworkin) becomes a kind of x-ray machine. And if that’s so, the reader then becomes a sort of radiologist.

What do you see, doctor?

Well, the first thing that’s apparent – readily apparent – are the marvelous complications of our language. For all but the very simplest of sentences, the identification and description of the grammatical units reveals the sentence to be a very complex thing. Just as one should be humbled by seeing an x-ray of the hand with its two dozen or so inter-related bones, reading Dworkin’s parsed sentences for page after page creates awe and respect for the high level of processing that we humans routinely, mostly automatically and almost instantly undertake when we read, speak, hear, or write. Read Parse and you must conclude, over and over and over: our ordering of words in relation to one another, consistent with generally accepted rules (“grammar”), is a miracle.

The other thing that’s readily apparent is that no different than a human skeleton, the skeleton of language is by itself a mostly lifeless thing. There are a few instances in the book where Dworkin lets the original words of his source text stand, or in the midst of his parsing editorializes a bit about the word choice or grammaritical significance. Those non-parsed moments, after pages and pages of parsed sentences, seem sensual and exciting as a first kiss.

The relative barreness of the parsed sentences can also kick-start the imagination, if you look at them right, or maybe simply if you read enough of them for long enough. At certain points, I couldn't resist trying to put flesh on and blood (words conveying meaning aside from the parsing concepts) on the skeletal grammatical descriptions of the sentences. This impulse is extremely liberating. It also underscores the vastness of language, since there are multitudes of possibilities for any particular parsed sentence. Even the simplest such sentence is a skeleton for who knows how many – hundreds, thousands, millions and millions? – of word groupings and relations that might come alive to dance or strut or even die on the page and in our heads. Here’s a parsed sentence of my own making:
quotation marks Definite article adjective noun transitive present simple verb preposition definite article noun period quotation marks
Despite the limitations imposed by certain elements of the grammar of this sentence (the punctuation is immutable, there is but a single definite article in our language, and the specified verb tense obliterates the past and denies the future), the possibilities seem endless: One might start with, “The addled apple appears in the attic.” And then go through all kinds of other possibilties, including: “The zealous abecedarian alphabetizes among the zebu.” And then perhaps end with: “The zany zebra zooms to the zinnias.” Etcetera, etcetera & etcetera.

Another thing that happens when reading Parse is a renewed appreciation for the actual terms of grammar. This is trippy shit, almost alchemical. “Locative Preposition adjective of inclusion plural deitic adjective plural noun comma adjective of exception . . . ” (page 157), is but one of many wild and lovely examples that can be found in the book. I’m not sure, but I understand that a “locative preposition” and a “plural deitic adjective,” if added at the same time as the “Adder’s fork” and “blind-worm’s sting,” will add tremendous zing to the charmed cauldron of Macbeth’s witches.

The grammatical term in Parse that really sends me – and I’m not sure where Dworkin got this, but he got it, and I love it – is “marks of quotation.” Not “quotation marks,” as me and you and a dog named Boo almost always say these days, but instead, “marks of quotation.” It seems to be an archaic lexical construct, but it seems so dignified and special that way, doesn’t it? Flipping the usual word order, and inserting the preposition, somehow gives ther term a poetic twist.

Dworkin has said that Parse is an example of “non-expressive” writing. On one level, he’s right. There ain’t much personal feeling or subjectivity or traditional narrative in the book.

On the other hand, if it’s so “non-expressive,” why did the book make me feel so good about the complexity and possibilities of our language, the crazed terms used in grammar, and the poetry of “marks of quotation”? Parse may be non-expressive, but it’s damn inspiring, an out there high concept prose poem of the most unusual kind. To use a word that’s consistent with the parsed title at the head of this here blog post: Wow!!

1 comment:

? said...

Thank you for writing this review.

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