Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ghostlier demarcations

 
 
 
But isn't that what David Markson did (for longer) in This Is Not A Novel?  No. Not at all. This book is different, for all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.  Here's a guy who has turned his genre into a vehicle for serious ideas and serious emotion--and has never, unlike Markson, been tempted to write more than necessary.  Markson hesitates to label his work "experimental" and instead characterizes his novels -- both "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage" -- as "playful."  There is no linear (or nonlinear) sequence of events to exploit with a wink-nudge because there is no novelistic time employed at all, no events that would require such sequencing.
 
 
 
 

 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

By way of a longish placeholder, and an observation about parties

“Song” The song tells us of our old way of living,
Of life in former times. Fragrance of florals,
How things merely ended when they ended,
Of beginning again into a sigh. Later

Some movement is reversed and the urgent masks
Speed toward a totally unexpected end
Like clocks out of control. Is this the gesture
That was mean, long ago, the curving in

Of frustrated denials, like jungle foliage
And the simplicity of the ending all to be let go
In quick, suffocating sweetness? The day
Puts toward a nothingness of sky

Its face of rusticated brick. Sooner or later,
The cars lament, the whole business will be hurled down.
Meanwhile we sit, scarcely daring to speak,
To breathe, as though this closeness cost us life.

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations,

And the purpose of many stops and starts will be made clear:
Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow
Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways
Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love.
--Ashbery
Placeholder: I've always disliked facile talk of the green-world/real-world distinction in Shakespeare. Belmont, the Athenian woods, the Forest of Arden, Bohemia. As though Shakespeare was acknowledging fantasy while gently tutoring us in the reality principle that moralist critics, each a mini-Leavis, valued most.

Of course there's something to the contrast of moods that Shakespeare is after, a contrast to which locale contributes. But I think the contrast is temporal: it's a different kind of experience of time that he's after, the suspension of action, the ritardando slowing the impetus with which cause attempts to burn the stages of effect to achieve its final purpose, that I wrote about here. It's how Shakespeare manages theatrical time, makes theatrical experience into something other than a causal nexus. Our relation to time changes, we live (to alter Beckett slightly) a Shakespearean pause. That's the point: not the contrast between green and real (urban, ordinary, everyday, whatever) world, but the access to that pause.

I can segue to my observation by quoting the Beckett I alluded to, the narrator's description of Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks:
He lived a Beethoven pause, he said, whatever he meant by that.... He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.
The pause is where the serious is suspended. It's not unlike (especially in More Pricks Than Kicks) Deleuze's evocation of alcohol as the world of the passé composé, the suspended, timeless, lost and present-in-its-loss world that is other than the careening, unfolding, continuous, exorbitant present. It's the achievement of a non-serious relation to time.

The achievement, that is to say, of parties. Proustian parties we know about, but it's been striking me how many parties there are in Shakespeare, how (as in Proust) they seem to occur mid-play. Not only in the green-world comedies (the "green world" is the place they occur), but in the histories and tragedies as well: the Mousetrap -- and the graveyard--, the feast to which Banquo so unexpectedly returns, Pompey's feasting of the triumvirate (among many others in Antony and Cleopatra), drunkenness in Cyprus, the hovel scene in Lear, the various strange gatherings in Titus. Parties in Shakespeare generally include us: we're not watching for some underlying dynamic (James Bond avoiding the noose tightening around him as he plays Baccarat against his antagonists), but spending time with the play, which gives us, allows us to share, a "time which is our own," to quote Shelley in his great poem of suspension, the "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici."

Shakespeare's plays tend to follow the dynamic of the convergence of all surviving characters which Dan Decker describes so well in his great book Anatomy of a Screenplay. But the really interesting thing is the two-step rhythm of that convergence: first at a party mid-play (the Mousetrap, Cyprus, even the hovel, where the joint stool can't deny that it is Goneril), and then again at the end. The party is a false-ending, often (as it certainly is in the Mousetrap), but in another sense it's the other possible ending, the one came there for, the experience of the play and not of its resolution. The duration of that experience, in all genres, takes shape as a party.

These thoughts are partly inspired by listening, elegiacally, with just this sense of suspension, to Lou Reed's "Heroin," which is of course about what it's like to be moved to sing "Heroin." All true songs are about what it's liked to be moved to sing them: The old way you lived, relive it,* at least during the song: tomorrow is just some other time. What the song promises -- a promise it keeps in making it, and doesn't break by not keeping it in any other way -- is that you can always bring it with you, always sing it again tomorrow. Blanchot finds sublime the moment that Achilles offers Priam bread or death, hospitality or the end of things. Plays have to end, but no one so well as Shakespeare understood how to use them to offer the hospitality of time, the interim of friendship.
*Children, while you can, let some last flame
Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them.
--Merrill

Friday, August 30, 2013

Automatic ciphers

First something obvious, and then a meta-comment.

One thing I sometimes post are duh-moments: instances of the obvious that weren't obvious to me. Here's one from the other day. In Paradise Lost Adam describes to Raphael his first experience of experience, his finding himself in the world. There he was:
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name
Whate’er I saw. ‘Thou Sun,’ said I, ‘fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here! (8.270-77)
I'd long realized that Wordsworth ("And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Forbode not any severing of our loves!" and Shelley ("Show whence I came, and where I am, and why") must both be remembering this moment (and other resonating moments in Paradise Lost).

But what struck me the other day was the idea that this is perfectly autobiographical, that what Milton is describing here is poetic vocation, the combination of ease (of style) and wonder (about existence itself, including the fact of ease) that make a poet a poet. He can describe the world as he found it, including his own being in the world, and the fact that he can describe the world. Unlike Wittgenstein's self, his blank, Sartrean opacity is part of his world too: part of the world a poet thinks about (even when living a skeleton's life).

As I say, completely obvious, and yet I'd never realized this before, being too absorbed in the plot, and also perhaps in my own memories of my 1.75-lingual childhood: I remember one day noticing that I could understand Yugoslav, noticing, then, that it was a different language from English, and noticing therefore that I could understand English as well.

----

So my meta-comment is this: there's a way in which everything you see in a poem should be obvious when you see it, should be a duh!-moment. Even if you can't or didn't readily name it in your first or fifth or hundredth reading, that would have been a failure of attention, not of intelligence.

That's what Stanley Cavell means by "the ordinary," the things that escape notice because you just don't pay attention to them, because it's an essential, ordinary part of what they are that you don't pay attention to them.

One place that I think you can see this at work is in canonical titles, the way they become "automatic ciphers." Why, for example, Reservoir Dogs? Well that's easy: it's the name of Quentin Tarentino's movie. It's called Reservior Dogs. Before you see the movie, you assume you'll understand the title when you see it, so that's fine; and after you see the movie, you know what the title designates: that great, violent, grueling picture you've watched. But at no time does the meaning of the title explain itself. The title is always ordinary, in Cavell's sense: always just the perfect, obvious, transparent designation of the movie. Similarly, who's Hoon in Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"? His answer to Norman Holmes Pearson (I wonder if he knew that Pearson had been a leader in the O.S.S.):
You are right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon. He sounds like a Dutchman. I think the word is probably an automatic cipher for "the loneliest air", that is to say the expanse of sky and space.
For Cavell, the late Wittgenstein (and J.L. Austin) is like the Kant of the Third Critique in paying attention to the ordinary. One of Cavell's great insights is that aesthetic judgment shares with Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks (Bemerkungen, as he always calls them) the fact that you can't prove something beautiful or sublime (or whatever). There's no philosophical argument for beauty. It's something you have to see. In the same way, ordinary language, ordinary things, aren't amenable to an analysis that moves beyond the visible or apparent. The visible or apparent is all that counts, all that can count.

So all you can do is pay attention, and the idea is that if you do pay attention it might be obvious to you too. That's how reading should work, and how I think it does work in the great critics: they draw your attention to the automatic ciphers, which (as Kant says of the "pure reflective judgment" that is aesthetic experience, experience which isn't the application but the observation of a judgment) will then just decode themselves to you, and make you happy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Sudden lit crit

I am thinking of some of the greatest short moments of literary criticism I know. I would mention Twitter, but that would corrupt the idea, and besides you tend to need the quotation, the literary sample, before the remark. Herewith a few such moments:

A scrap from Dickinson, about Antony's great speech in Antony and Cleopatra:
                            Since Cleopatra died,
I have lived in such dishonour, that the gods
Detest my baseness.
He's heard the (false) report of her death only about ten lines earlier. Dickinson writes three words: that engulfing since.

Empson on Hamlet, an absolutely great essay:
What is reckless about the speech is that it makes Hamlet say..."I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it", destroying a sheer school of Hamlet Theories with each noun.

Blanchot on Kafka, who in his journals describes the necessity for a writer to devote oneself to writing all one's life. "Toute sa vie." Trois mots exigeants.

Blanchot again on The Iliad. Achilles, remembering his own father, whom he will never see again, allows Priam to take Hector's body. Then he seeks to feast Priam (as the laws of hospitality demand), but Priam refuses. Achilles tells Priam, in a tone of quiet menace (say I) that he had better eat, for fear that Achilles should forget himself and kill Priam if he doesn't. This is the most elemental of alternatives: ou la parole, ou la mort. Either you accept human connection (as Achilles has done) or all there is is death. This is the meaning of the laws of hospitality. Blanchot's two word judgment of Achilles's speech: Parole sublime.

Proust on Flaubert, long by these standards but worth it: un homme qui par l'usage entièrement nouveau et personnel qu'il a fait du passé défini, du passé indéfini, du participe présent, de certains pronoms et de certaines prépositions, a renouvelé presque autant notre vision des choses que Kant, avec ses Catégories, les théories de la Connaissance et de la Réalité du monde extérieur.

(This is all by way of celebration. The great negations are really all about The Excursion. Francis Jeffrey's This will never do. Mary Shelley after she and Percy read it aloud to each other: He is a slave.)

I think that in the twentieth century, a certain kind of novel learned to reflect on itself this way. Fitzgerald was particularly great at that, especially in Tender is the Night. This sort of self-reflection was arch in the nineteenth century (Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, for example), but became real literary criticism later on. Thus this moment from Tender is the Night:

The foregoing has the ring of a biography, without the satisfaction of knowing that the hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny. Moreover it is confusing to come across a youthful photograph of some one known in a rounded maturity and gaze with a shock upon a fiery, wiry, eagle-eyed stranger. Best to be reassuring--Dick Diver's moment now began.

Denis Johnson does something very similar in The Name of the World. Mike Reed, the narrator, reflects on his narration and what he should say next, in the subtlest but most lucid of ways. These were originally Johnson's own notes on his MS as he was writing, and their incorporation into the narrative intensifies its narrator's exploration of the strange, and literary, experience that is all that is left to him.

I think Virginia Woolf might have originated this, maybe in Jacob's Room? The third person narrator reflecting on her materials, on the situations and settings of her novel.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Choriambic observation

Iambic pentameter lines in English often begin with choriambs, in which the first two feet go:  / _ | _ /  [stress, no, | no, stress]. Thus in Keats's "To Autumn" "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" begins with a choriamb, as does the first line of Hyperion: "Deep in the shady sadness of a vale"; the first line of The Triumph of Life: "Swift as a spirit hastening to his task": and the first line of Book III of Paradise Lost: "Hail, holy light, offspring of Heaven first born." (Also Book IV: "O for a warning voice...") That's just what immediately comes to mind.

Anyhow, yesterday I was thinking about the phrase "smit with the love of sacred song," a little later in the Invocation to Book 3:

                                         Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song...

A student had read that to mean that Milton (or the Muses: the ambiguity is important because whichever of the the two the participle is modifying, each meaning entails the other: how the Muses feel is how Milton feels)--; I say (I revel in my own disgust for that Victorian, indeed Arnoldian pickup after a parenthesis)--; a student, I say, paraphrased that to mean that Milton had finally come to a place where song could be sacred. He's smit by the love of a certain kind of song, that kind of song we could call "sacred."

How was I to answer that student? The Derridean dodge is right: "song insofar as it is sacred," which just preserves the ambiguity. But later it occurred to me that it's the stresses that make it clear that sacred modifies the concept of song, rather than picking out some songs instead of others. As in Leonard Cohen's "holy game of poker": the game of poker is always holy.

Generally, in iambic pentameter, the five stresses can be ordered in intensity, and there are some loose but real rules as to which of the five can be stressed the most. The last stressed syllable is a candidate for strongest stress (it's often a summation, after all, which is what makes Byron's "Laureate"/"Tory at / Last" rhyme funny: the summative intensities of the stressed syllables in the rhyme don't match except through a readerly force of will or body English). So is the penultimate stress: "and all our woe"; "the ways of God to man." Bolded here means more stressed, if only slightly so, than the other stressed words (woe, ways, man). You may not agree, and maybe shouldn't but it's a plausible reading, because the stress in the fourth foot can be most prominent, as can the stress in the fifth foot, and indeed the stress in the first, especially in a choriamb:

                                         Mee of these
Nor skilld nor studious, higher Argument
Remaines, sufficient of it self to raise
That name, unless an age too late, or cold
Climat, or Years damp my intended wing    [45]
Deprest, and much they may, if all be mine,
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear.

Line 45 is amazing. Probably first syllable gets the most stress, though Years might as well. But unstressed damp seems more stressed to me than even Years does. The least stressed of the syllables in strong position is my, which only receives its official stress by contrast with the in (inintended) that it precedes.

Oh, once you start embarking on the description of metrical effects, there's no end to it, so I won't say anything more about this extraordinary passage. Let's return to "sacred song." The meter makes it virtually impossible, and certainly risible, to read the line so as to give sac more stress than Song. (The capitalizations are almost certainly not officially Milton's, but on the other hand they may well record how he recited the line to his amanuensis-daughters.) The choriambic start to the line gives its center a metrical topography in which the stresses have to go something like this, with 5 as the most stressed syllable, 1 as the least stressed:


  3                       5         1             4               2
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief...


Some interchange is possible, but I feel certain that sacred gets the least stress in the line. After the two unstressed syllables in the middle of the choriamb, love is particularly marked (it doesn't even need capitalization!), and so the instantaneous resources of our sobvocalizing capacity to stress what we're reading are momentarily depleted, depleted for a beat, until we get to Song and the pause, the semicolon, that contributes its own brief, summative finality to the stress. This is the rhythm of meter itself; I suspect it follows something like a pink noise pattern, a kind of miniature version of the rhythm of cinematic cuts, and perhaps of a wide range of phenomena. It seems (I continue to speculate wildly) related to hyperbolic discounting, to a temporal rhythm of attention to and desire for stimulus including that of stress and the cognitive information that stressed syllables tend to offer. It is part of what we call style, part of a great poet's style, to convey meaning through the rhythms of stress itself. That's what makes song sacred.

At any rate, that's why I think my student was wrong, and why even the songs in hell, therefore, are part of the sacred category of song, making hell grant what love did seek.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eros, Dantesque and Freudian

When I was younger, in college and grad school, I'd read that someone my current age had won the lottery, and it just seemed so pointless. What would they do with twenty years of money coming in that could possibly make their, or anyone's, life better? There they would be, beaming out of the front pages of the New York Post, their slovenly decrepitude accentuated by the big checks and grins so appropriately transfigured into the harsh half-tone dots of the giant photo.

This was part of a larger combination of fear and hope: fear for what I would be like at my current age, how I would cope with being this old, with having no prospects before me except the dead end one. Hope that by that time I would no longer be myself, but some other person, an older one, who could have nothing to do with the younger me. (Cf. Hazlitt's Essay on the Principles of Human Action.) That unimaginable person really didn't have to be imagined, since he'd be "one of them," those others who belonged to a different time, to a different attitude towards time. I could see that I wasn't one of them, part of that older generation.

At some point I really started liking, because it made life so much more luminous, books by the very old that were written in the voice of the young. In particular, as I've mentioned before, Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, one of the four or five greatest non-fiction books I have ever read. I mention it here, because I think that's when that category occurred to me. (I'd felt the same, I think, about Joseph Mitchell, though I didn't quite put it to myself that way. And of course that's the surprise in Proust: the extreme old age of the narrator, which we discover only at the end.)

I think this seemed luminous to me because it meant the possibility of communication on equal terms with people much older than I was -- it meant I could be friends with them. Those friendships, not many, but real friendships among equals, have mattered a great deal to me. Imperceptibly -- with the same imperceptibility of time passing -- I became aware that older generations were no different. They were neither more nor less insightful than we were. And I'd wanted them to be both.

What I had once imagined was that that difference would reside in a difference in what mattered to them. What matters to the old? Not the love that mattered to us. No: Cranky issues about health, money, rudeness, insult, etc., instead. That's what I thought. So I was not that person, and my fear of becoming that person (as I have said) also brought the reassurance that that person would no longer be me.

But it turns out that (I began to discover from my conversations with my old friends) and is turning out that what matters all the way through is love. ("Love of the real," the pretty old Stevens put it.) That was somehow Dante's insight, and if Freud said the poets were there before him (did he? That's for another post), then Dante did indeed anticipate Freud's most important insight: that our involvement in the world is always driven by, always troubled by, always channeled through love.

That is becoming more and more to me to seem an amazing insight of Freud's: the thing I could not bear to think -- that the relation of the old to the world is the same as that of the young -- turns out to be true. At this age, I'm glad it is; and it's the reason that I'm glad it is.

This probably sounds more sentimental than I meant it to: it's really Freud's insight that's been really striking me.  Dante's version of it can be seen in these lines, I think:


Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.
                                                      --Paradiso 17:55-60

You will abandon* all things whose delight
is dearest to you: this is the first arrow
that from the bow of exile takes its flight.

Thenceforth the taste of others' bread will harrow
your tongue with salt, and you will have to labor
on others' stairways, hard and steep and narrow.

[More literally: You will abandon* everything most dearly delightful: and this is that arrow which the bow of exile will first shoot. You will experience how salty is the savor of the bread of others, and how how hard a path is the descent and ascent on others' stairways.

-----


*"lascerai," as in "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate": "Abandon all hope, you who enter here," inscribed on the gates of hell. Hope, yes, but not love.]

This is almost the exact center of Paradiso. Dante's twelfth century ancestor Cacciaguida, is prophesying his life back down on the farm, even after he's seen Paradise. Now we know that love moves the sun and other stars in Dante, but the thing that's deepest, that always deepest, is not the love of God (everyone since Plotinus or Plato knows about that) but the love of matter (Philip Pullman) and the material world that represents something different from the love of God.

Where Dante seems to anticipate Freud is the idea that everything is driven by love. Love isn't one principle among others: it's the principle. And the wrong way to read this (the sentimental way I was trying to abjure), is as the apotheosis of love. (It occurs to me that this fits in with stuff I've written about the personification of love.) Love belongs to all: no less to those in the Inferno who love their sins than to those in the highest reaches of Paradise who love their inscrutable God. Yes, those in the Inferno love God too: the point is that even there, everywhere, everyone loves. Love's not an apotheosis because it makes no moral distinctions: the fact that you love isn't a saving feature about you.

Not in real life, anyhow. It is saving as a literary fact: Gatsby and Ugolino alike are great because they love. That's what I like about it: it's a literary virtue, a virtue in fiction. That's why it's not an apotheosis, as Dante and Freud both see. Cacciaguida's speech has always struck me as amazing because of the way it sends Dante back to real life: the exile in which he's writing this poem. Here he's been in Paradise, and he 's been promised that that's where he'll return.  But what presses upon him, more grim than any Purgatory, is exile in this world.  Even in a world with heaven to follow, maybe particularly in a world with heaven to follow, the stops are more poignant than endings.

In our lives, this world is all you get, and its vicissitudes, even terrible ones like exile, are just part of what life is. But in a universe with an eternal afterlife in prospect -- I think this is what's so amazing about Dante -- this life, this brief vigil of the senses -- is all the more precious, since all the rest of it won't be on this earth which is the only place for earthly love, the love that is not apotheosis but fictional (sub specie aeternitatis).  Love up there will be completely secure. But that won't be human experience any more.  The love that is human experience, the earthly love that is the totality of being human, for as long and only for as long as we are human: Earth's, if not the right, at least the only place for that. And Dante, like Freud, sees it as the totaliy of human experience.

The distinction I used to make, between my adolescent concerns for love and the old folks' different ways of being, becomes in Dante a distinction between the real and mortal love of this life, from first to last, young and old, and whatever transcends, and so fails to belong to, this life.  That other love, which moves the sun and other stars, will come when it comes.  But it makes our precarious and mortal love, our precarious and mortal relation to the world, all the more its own, all the more what it means to be in the world, all one's life. All one's life.

That other world is the Truth, and therefore can have nothing to do with the fictional, unreal, real world (whose substance is cathexis alone) which is the only world we live in, and which is utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth it does not belong to, as all fictions are utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth to which they do not belong.  The sublunary world we live in, our world, is only here, and being in it is being with what we can only love here, and what we do love here. That's how Dante anticipated Freud.



Friday, September 28, 2012

Set theory for poets / Poetry for set theorists

One modern incarnation of the debate between nominalism and realism is to be found in philosophical arguments about sets.  There are two ways of characterizing a set: intensionally, through description (e.g. the set of all inhabitants of London, to use an example of Russell's), and extensionally, which is just a list of the members of the set.

Quine, as nominalist as they come, objected to the "ontological excesses of set theory" when construed intensionally.  Is there really such an entity as "all the inhabitants of London"?  Yes, there are inhabitants, and we, or God, or Facebook could list them.  Each is an entity him- or herself (let's stipulate, because who wouldn't?)

The problem with extensional sets is that the vast, the utterly overwhelming majority of them would be utterly random, by our lights, like the contents of almost any book in Borges's "Library of Babel."  Those books are all (à très peu d'exceptions près) useless, and so too, more or less, would be thinking about things in sets.  The problem with intensional sets is that they may not exist (what is a set and where do I find one?), and even if some do exist, others might turn out to be impossible, despite seemingly innocuous descriptive criteria for membership.

Nevertheless, set theory is not only obviously useful: it's obviously a way that people think about the world and make sense of it (or it's a formalization of how we think and make sense of the world).  "Natural kinds" for example really do rely on a concept of nature not unlike the nature that we live in, that we evolved to survive in.  And it seems too that we find pleasure in finding sets, or figuring out what intensionally-characterized (or -characterizable) sets seemingly random extensional lists belong to.

Just to reiterate: intensional is more or less synonymous with interesting.  To characterize a set intensionally is to say that its members share some interesting property - interesting enough that you don't have to list them.

But here I want to focus on the converse idea as part of human literary or cultural play (as well as work): figuring out from a list what interesting set would embrace the items on that list.  It's true, of course, that a vast number of different interesting sets might embrace them, so we might want some further criteria of economy (this is also how Freud thinks about mental economy) for what the really interesting set is.  (That kind of economy is something like the criterion for a natural kind, and also for Wittgenstein's ideas about rule-following, which is for another post.)

The criteria would not necessarily be pure efficiency, but a balance between specificity and pith.  Pithy specificity is what we're looking for, and we'll know it when we see it.

Example:
{raven, writing desk}.
 Now we're not really asking about this set itself.  We're asking about the set it's a subset of, but we're still looking for a pretty small set.  So items whose names in English start with the phoneme /r/ won't cut it.  Nor, probably will nouns with the letter n, nor objects smaller than an elephant, nor things that don't taste like rhubarb. They both belong to those sets, yes, and to many others too, but still.

The two terms are, as every school child will remember, from a riddle by Lewis Carroll, which the Mad Hatter asks Alice.  He gives no answer, but later Carroll was prevailed upon to solve it.  He wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: 'Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

As originally invented, then, it was offered as pure extension.

Now other writers offered later answers.  Martin Gardner and The Straight Dope give some of the best, e.g., Poe wrote on both (Sam Loyd). (Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope also explains the misspelling nevar: it's a palindromic raven.)

So the pleasure of riddles, of this kind of riddle, is the sudden collapse of extension into intension.  Sometimes that will require a reconceptualization of the elements in the extension: not "What's black and white and red all over?" no, but "What's black and white and read all over?"  The extension turns out to be the following set of qualities, denotable by adjectives and adjectival phrases: {black, white, read all over}.

What does this have to do with poetry?  Well, in English, anyhow, rhymes are to be distinguished from inflections.  We don't (really) count unity and disunity as a rhyme; motion and emotion are too close to each other.  As Wimsatt argues, the best rhymes will tend to be different parts of speech, and, as Empson points out, the fact that singular verbs but plural nouns end with -s means that we can't generally or easily rhyme subjects with predicates.  So rhyming words tend to be arbitrarily connected.

Consider the set = {Mahatma Gandhi, the Coliseum, the time of the Derby winner, the melody from a symphony by Strauss, a Shakespeare sonnet, Garbo's salary, cellophane, Mickey Mouse, the Nile,..., Camembert}.  Extensionally there's nothing unusual about it, even if it is, as the kids say, "kind of random."  Not that random though: these all belong to a somewhat larger set of words that can be formed into subsets consisting of rhymed pairs, e.g. {the melody of a symphony by Strauss, Mickey Mouse}.  Rhyming with a member of some smaller set is the principle of inclusion in the somewhat larger set.

Or to put it another way, rhyming provides a principle of one-to-one correspondence between two sets of entities whose names have at least one rhyme.  That's not how I'm defining those sets: that's how I'm characterizing one of many facts about their members.  So the set R (whose membership I haven't fully listed) is the union of those two sets that are in one-to-one correspondence.

Now that principle, as we've seen, tends to be highly arbitrary in English.  The rhyming dictionary is disconcertingly senseless.  But what a poet does, like a riddler, is to find some intensional principle which defines a set given randomly and extensionally.  In this case that principle is that each member of the set R is a member of the set {things that are the top} (I am simplifying the song a little bit to make my point).

Now this distinction between intension and extension is also a distinction between use and mention.  The principle of membership of the two sets whose union forms R is first of all, that is to say, as a matter of poetic craft, a principle which mentions terms, i.e. selects them for the fact that they rhyme.  (The rhyming dictionary mentions words: it doesn't use them.)  But the job of the poet is to take these mentioned words and use them, which means to say something with them and therefore something about the things they signify or refer to.

The solution isn't just economical (as it is with a riddle), isn't just the sudden lifting of a burden through the sudden glory of an elegant summary of its components.  We shunt back and forth between use and mention, intension and extension, admiring at every moment how they fit together: look it rhymes! look, it's the top!

Studies (e.g. by Ray Jackendoff) of the neural handling of music suggest that different parts of the brain have different access to memory.  Some of the cerebral material we use to process music chunks and forgets immediately, so when a theme or motif is played again, it handles it as entirely new.  But other parts of the brain remember that motif or theme, and therefore experience a different relation to the novelty that is still being felt and processed.  That back and forth, that counterpoint, that complex and differently phased experience of music is the experience of music, or at least a large part of it.

I think the same is true about rhyming (and meter), especially since it appears that music actually recruits the cerebral material that processes sounds: vowels are much lower pitched than consonants, and we put words together from sounds much as we put musical experience together.  So I think that we go back and forth, sometimes putting together the longer-term, more coherent intensional sense of the set of rhymes we're given and sometimes testing the always novel extension of the list, and that the delight in doing so is how the abstract distinctions to be found in set theory play out in the pleasures of poetry, and of math.

(At least that's what struck me today.)