Thursday, December 5, 2013

Computing Meaning: Topics and Divisions in Prose

With a note on poetry tacked to the end

It’s a little thing, really, how one divides a long piece of writing into subsections, if one does so at all. Most of my longer posts will have subtitles. But sometimes I’ll just insert a series of five asterisks into the middle of a line. Yesterday I wrote a long post – one of my longer ones – on golf. I divided it into subsections, but didn’t use any subtitles at all, just that line of asterisks.


As I drafted that particular piece I didn’t insert any subtitles or asterisks. On many, perhaps most, of my longer pieces I’ll write at least some of the subtitles before I write the prose that comes after them. I know I want to cover certain topics and so I list them as subtitles.

I’d conceived the golf piece as a continuous essay and drafted it that way. But, upon reading through an almost finished draft, I realized that some of the paragraph-to-paragraph transitions were a little rough. I also knew – having been at this for a long time – that writing good solid transitional prose could well take more time than the results could justify. This wasn’t a piece that required seamless continuity all the way through. Breaks were possible.

So I inserted lines of asterisks and various points. Just enough to let the reader know that the topic’s going to shift, just a bit. I suppose I could have inserted subheadings. Indeed, I thought about it a few minutes ago when I went in to edit a paragraph.

But it didn’t seem necessary. I didn’t need to be THAT explicit about transitions. Instead, I decided to write this note.

* * * * *

What service do these indicators, subheadings or lines of asterisks, provide the reader? I figure it goes like this: As we read along, we keep adding new meanings onto the meanings we’ve already extracted from the text. But we’re also projecting, guessing, about what’s coming up. We expect it to attach cleanly and effortlessly to the meaning structure we’ve been building.

When we see one of those indicators, however, we know that we’re going to get something new up ahead. It isn’t going to attach cleanly to the structure we’ve already got prepared. So we make provisions.

We ‘tie-off’ the current structure and create a space where we can build a new one. If we’re doing so at the prompt of a subheading, that subheading tells us something about the relationship between the new stuff and the existing stuff. If there’s no subheading, then we don’t get that information. But we can also assume that there is some more or less recognizeable connection between the new and the old, even if the exact nature of that connection isn’t spelled out.

* * * * *

And, in turn, is all about computation. Not computation as numerals and arithmatic. But computation as a natural language process.

Why, you may ask, am I thinking about THAT? Because I’ve been thinking about it in one way or another for the last four decades or so. That’s at the center of my interest in “Kubla Khan” and in literature in general.

How do we get from one moment to the next? What’s the connection, the continuity? The “Kubla Khan” strategy is radically different from the “Lime-Tree Bower” strategy. The “Lime-Tree Bower” strategy is obvious, narrative; each line of poetry connects to those before and after as each moment of lived experience connects to those beofre and after.

“Kubla Khan” isn’t like that. The nature of the connections is mysterious. There IS a connection, but what? And why does the keeping of a personal history – as in “Lime-Tree” – have to be pushed to the side in the process.

Simple questions.

No answers.


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