Ask Silliman

"The Language Man"

Dear Silliman,

Crisco here, up late again, pondering the cube or "six-sided die" on your blog and trying to reconcile it with Jakobson's idea of language's six distinct functions and also with the Coolidge piece (sorry, haven't been able to download the entire 94-page optically scanned poem yet, my processor can't handle it all at once). Ever since I read the Coolidge stuff my head has been filled with a percussive-like drumming and when I lie down, I still hear it, even though I can't see it. Sometimes I can smell it a little and last night I think I felt it on my arm, like a flea. I think it wants to have a physical relationship with me. I'm not sure if I should, at least not so soon. I have hardly grasped the six distinct functions (though I'm fairly sure I understand the "addresser" and "addressee"-of course, this is the easiest function, as you point out) and I'm not sure which side of the die is "up" at this point, if you know what I mean. What should I do?


Dear Confused, as you might already know on some level, the psychic interaction necessary for you to enjoy physical contact with the Coolidge poem is not strong enough yet, certainly not on a first or even tenth reading. In the nearly 30 years since I first encountered Jakobson's Six Functions thesis, I have never come across a speech act that has as much sheer percussive energy as Coolidge's, one that requires not only an attentive "courtship period" but one that may, if you are not prepared, blow you out of your meaning frames prematurely, sometimes causing partial deafness. As you know, Coolidge was a jazz musician and would therefore "drum" his poems into his listeners. For example, take a listen to this:

such like such as
of a whist
a bound
the mid eft
the mode
own of own off
partly of such tin of such
the moo
which which
lably laugh

Notice how he deftly extracts the "eft" and hits you with it midway through ("the mid eft")---it's literally a "lulu" and something of a signature gesture--one that will knock you right into a "lably laugh"! His ear is impeccable, his music so subtle that once is never enough. You must return to "the moo" several times a day, the "which which" at least once before bedtime (I never tire of this line, the difference between the first and second "which") and to the killer, one-liner "dull" only on an empty stomach. This guy can twist your guts out through your ear! Furthermore, the poems never leave your body once they get in, so it's extremely important for you to prepare a nesting place for them inside--they are known to live well in the liver, using the ironic referrent of that word as a "hook" with which to attach themselves. All of which is a roundabout preface to note that this kind of contact requires complete familiarity with the visual analogy of the six-sided die, as you must learn not only what to foreground but when to foreground it. Now get some sleep (and don't forget the earplugs)!

Dear Silliman,

I'm having a fight with my girlfriend over her tendency to violently pierce the surface of a text and wrest meaning out of it. I'm tired of finding text-skins all over the house. I find her vulgar. I want to extricate myself without foregrounding contact. Any advice for me?

--Agent Tochus

Agent Tochus, this is a classic new relationship problem. She's seeing "meaning" where there are only frames. In other words, it's a case of you say signifier she says signified. But don't call the whole thing off! She's probably also too involved visually to hear the sound of phonemes in the text. I suspect she's looking for the signified in all the wrong places and needs help distinguishing those works that foreground the signifier from those that foreground the signified. She's also complicated matters perhaps, by placing a secondary emphasis on the referential world. Don't give up. There are good cognitive linguistic counselors available.

Dear Silliman,

Even though I have foregrounded contact, my cat's speech act (MEOOOOOOW!) and my own (WHA?) are clearly not generating enough psychic interaction between source & recipient to make communication possible. What am I doing wrong?


Wryman, even an incoherent shout - WHA? - stresses the role of contact, without which (even in an empty room, or an empty forest) there would be no impulse to shout. I suggest you take a day off, go down to the lion's cage and scan their roars (GRAHHHRRRR). I guarantee it will put your speech act back on track. (And Kitty's too!)

Dear Silliman, I just want to say how grateful I am for your advice column. It's like walking through a hall of giant intellects to read it. I've had so many gratifying nights listening to the sounds in this Coolidge piece:

laurel ratio sharp or hard
instrumental triple to or fro
granule in award
one to whom is made
as the near wheel

I laugh out loud when I get to the part that sounds like rainwater sputtering through a drainpipe (NAVE/bean/shin/SPECtacle/as the NEAR wheel). It's such a joyous feeling. One thing I wonder about is the number of schematic frames here. Why would Coolidge choose to put so many frames around his words if he wasn't intending to lead us to a vulgar figured narrative at the level of the signified? If you have referential meaning fixating at one level, while the sonic structure resolves on a whole other level it seems to me that I'm missing approximately 5/6ths of everything I'm reading. I wonder: am I actually reading or have I contracted a condition much more devastating than color blindness (for even the profoundly color-blind can tell the difference between dark & light) where I am seeing marks on a surface and hearing them as "notes" in a composition---but they exist solely on the axis of the signified?


Dear Worried, this is a common reaction, nothing to worry about. Coolidge unfurls lines that are clearly clauses from larger stretches of grammar - one to whom is made or as the near wheel - instances where that "close-to-the-word" feel of language from the other lines suddenly pulls back into these larger structures. It sometimes swerves too close, of course, and I always recommend a complete grammar bath after an encounter with Coolidge. But to suggest that this work is without meaning, or is "only sound," is to envision a language so one-dimensional as to be without depth or detail, a language that has no function other than to communicate something, a language, in short, that has prostituted itself to the vocal chords of humans and can no longer attract attention from the cerbral cortex of a higher-functioning academized being. This is why I find works that only operate with a fixed relationship to a referential universe, while ignoring all the other functions of language, pallid & lacking in imagination. And why the idea that writing is "only words" is as appalling as the idea that painting is "only sight." If all you see when you look at Clark Coolidge is "only words," you haven't begun to read. Take another look, this time using using only your ears. See without eye, read without mind. Hear that pounding, repetitive non-sense? That's the sound of the signifier hitting the signified. That's music, my friend, music to my ears.

See: Silliman's Blog, On Clark Coolidge, Monday, June 06, 2005