To Choose a Word

I recently learned that humans have the most inhibitory neurons of any species of animal life on Earth. At its most basic, this seems to mean that much of our mental activity is devoted to not acting, it seems more than to acting. The logic that underlies this is not too difficult. Of all the animals, we have the most capacity for adaptivity, for the selection of various options for behavior in relation to our physical and social environment. For this adaptivity to be a live option for us, we must be at least unconsciously aware of a vast swath of potential future paths of action. But, of course, potential must become actual. And that actualization of one path among countless requires a hard stop, a neural brake, in order to for narrowness of some option to outweigh the presence of all others. It seems, then, that most of what we do is comprised of what we do not do; or, rather, in order to act we must cease from countless actions.

The consequences of these facts for the arts should be illuminating. It would seem to suggest (and this is hypothetical, mind you) that much of what creativity consists in is in choosing the best among those countless options mentioned. Now, it is a rather complicated story of course. Those arts that involve the training of the organism’s body, such as painting, or sculpting, or music, involve coordination and not just the selection of the elements of the recreation. Poetry is simpler inasmuch as it requires basically no bodily training (beyond learning how to write, or type). One begins poetry with easy access to its materials: words. The materials needed for the art of painting are not natural to us: we weren’t born with an inbuilt system for guiding a brush over a canvas in some particular fashion. But in the case of language, that is precisely what we have. In some sense, it is the most natural art, with music being the only other contender I think for that title – and they go together so well anyways…

So with poetry we can come right down to the question of how this selecting process takes place. My major hypothesis, to state it more clearly (and it is rather wild), is that the material for the greatest poetry already exists in the unconscious of the human mind, inasmuch as the human being has encountered the world enough to provide the inner shapes for that material. In other words, to take an empiricist’s side, we need to have sensual experience of the world in order for the inner creative faculty to manufacture the contents of the unconscious, the forms that are available to the person. The art of poetry consists in the capacity to discover these inner materials and present them in the “right” order. That goes back to Coleridge’s dictum that – to paraphrase – “poetry is the best words in in the best order.” And while I have always wanted to modify that statement, I think it helps to remind us of the selective aspect of poetry.

All of this seems even more relevant with the recent advent of large language models online. Although we, the learning public, can only confront these innovations as black boxes (and, as far as I know, the “professionals” are not in a terribly better position either on that front), I think we can appreciate the basic logic of these linguistic contraptions. They work much along the lines of what we have been talking about – by selecting some text from a vast selection of text available to them in the “space” of the internet. By analogy, it would seem correct to say that the textual data of the internet is the unconscious of the language model. Just remember that you never have the entire English language in front your conscious attention ever – you only have what you need for the present context. And moment to moment, as you speak, or think in words, you cannot tell really how you are doing it. If you try to analyze it, make sense of it consciously, you’ll just get in the way of actually using the language – since the act of using language is distinct from the act of conceptualizing it. You yourself are much in the same position as these AI’s, but as far as we can tell, they are not conscious.

It may be that there is some analogy between the functionality of our mind’s use of language and the way in which these programs utilize it as well, but my suspicion would be that it is only deep similarity concerns this issue of selection according to the parameters of some dialogical context (which, by the way, is why you talk to yourself in your head – it’s not actually crazy, simply necessary). The selection of any series of lexemes requires it to be a response to at least an implied lexemic context, or an anticipated one. That is to say, the use of language always occurs in response to some other use of language or anticipated use of language. Life is a long conversation that we continue to interact with (or within), and the change of conversation partners is almost neither here nor there in the long run.

Now poetry is a species of this conversation that we have learned to carry out. It is carried on with other poets, with society, with nature and the cosmos at wide, with God or gods, and on and on… It is, whether we think on it or not, an exploration of the possibilities inherent in our unconscious, which is the mediator between us and Reality, so that it is hard to draw the hard line between any of these named entities (I, unconscious, nature, etc.). It is an attempt to find out just how “right” our words can be – how fitted to some barely anticipated feeling that arises coincidently it seems with our reaching out to grasp the words for it. We write bad poetry when we don’t know how to say no to it; before we can finally say no to most all the nonsense and find the better strains within. And we can sing with those.

Featured image: ‘Solar Eclipse’ by Howard Russell Butler (1925), image in the public domain.

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