Setting rules and imposing rigor is antithetical to the way I normally work. I think that’s why I write fiction, where I can send a character careening off a cliff for the sake of a plot point and then turn them into a cloud of dragonflies - because fiction lets you break rules that way.
So this week’s challenge has been particularly interesting. Ben and I had discussed ways in which to have language mirror thought processes and settled upon an experiment to illustrate how young male zebra finches learn songs from their fathers. To that end, we decided to work on some experimental poetry based on the sound pattern of the finches’ song—the idea being that setting a meter and rhythm to the words would evoke what happens as the juvenile finches experiment and elaborate and settle upon a song structure of their own.
I’ve been tasked with writing a poem based on this initial birdsong structure: Tan-Tan Tan-Tan Tan. There are a whole bunch of other rules (perhaps Ben will share them in his blog post), but my challenge right now is to follow the pattern pre-set for me. I’m instinctively resistant to that. What’s funny is that I imagine this is kind of how the juvenile finch’s brain might work subconsciously. Everything goes according to routine, which is a kind of comfort, and then a random instruction pops into the head to try something new and wild. The brain needs to resettle, to decide whether or not to accept the random insertion*.
I got started on writing a poem based on these rules but can’t share it yet because Ben’s playing the random input generator to my stereotypic poem-writing. I could be composing an ode to crocodiles right now, and he could ask me to use the word “xylophonic” in the midst of that. By this time next week you might see the fruits of this experimental process and some reflection on whether it works or not!
*It just occurs to me to ask Ben whether selecting the insertion is based on the finches’ version of aesthetic choices. If it sounds good, keep it, if not, go back to the base pattern? Obviously, aesthetics matter when writing a poem, but birdsong that’s used for courtship must indicate fitness in the form of creativity or originality or something else analogous to aesthetics, yes? Does a juvenile finch think about the prettiness of its song?
Geetha and I are running a test of a new procedure for writing a poem. The procedure is modeled after aspects of how songbirds learn to sing (Tchernichovski et al. 2001). We made a list of rules that govern how the words and rhythm of the poem can be changed. The interesting wrinkle we added is that each change the author makes to a word has a chance of making an additional random change to the poem. This was an attempt to capture the random noise fluctuations that occur in young birds’ songs (Ölveczky, et al. 2005).
Geetha is currently writing the first poem based on this procedure and I am eager to read the results. I expect that we may have to tweak the procedure based on her experience. The amount of random noise and content of the noise are key variables that we need to explore. Two inspirations I am currently researching are the disorganized speech characteristic of some mental illnesses (Kuperberg 2010), and text produced by statistical models of communication (Shannon 1948). To be continued….
Kuperberg, G.R., 2010. Language in schizophrenia part 1: an introduction. Language and linguistics compass, 4(8), pp.576-589.
Ölveczky, B.P., Andalman, A.S. and Fee, M.S., 2005. Vocal experimentation in the juvenile songbird requires a basal ganglia circuit. PLoS biology, 3(5), p.e153.
Shannon, C.E., 1948. A mathematical theory of communication. Bell system technical journal, 27(3), pp.379-423.
Tchernichovski, O., Mitra, P.P., Lints, T. and Nottebohm, F., 2001. Dynamics of the vocal imitation process: how a zebra finch learns its song. Science, 291(5513), pp.2564-2569.