Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing's Abstract Expressionism: Yhw Ton Evah Emos Nuf Htiw Sdrow?

Recently I spent an afternoon with friends wandering through Manhattan's Whitney Museum, gazing at a wide variety of canvases by Frank Stella, Jackson Pollack, Joseph Albers, Mark Rothko, and many more. What unified the collection's variety was that, with a few exceptions by Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, the paintings were not pictures of the world: no portraits, no landscapes, no street scenes, no still lifes, no nudes, no horses, no trees. Instead, paint, colorful paint, was the point, whether applied with geometric precision or hurled with expressive emotion.

As we wandered, my skepticism (you call this art?) gave way to admiration (wow, abandoning pictures could be fun!), and to thinking: hey, we writers could do the same thing with words, not using them to paint pictures:

Dawson's Landing…was a snug collection of modest one- and two-story frame dwellings, whose whitewashed exteriors were almost concealed from sight by climbing tangles of rose vines, honeysuckles, and morning glories. Each of these pretty homes had a garden in front fenced with white palings and… when there was room on the ledge outside of the pots and boxes for a cat, the cat was there—in sunny weather—stretched at full length, asleep and blissful, with her furry belly to the sun and a paw curved over her nose.
— Mark Twain, Puddn'head Wilson

— but scattering them willy-nilly like Jackson Pollack's dribbles:

and boxes a for stretched each Landing snug front when room vines pretty Dawson's collection exteriors cat sunny concealed of of room story frame fenced was white vines blissful paw nose of homes garden asleep modest one glories the was on full weather over with ledge whose were whitewashed concealed and by at from…

Such gobbledygook could be but the bare beginning. We could put the words in backwards order, turning "It is time to eat dinner" into:

Dinner eat to time is it.

— or put the letters backward but the words in right order:

Ti si emit ot tae rennid.

— or the letters backwards in reverse word order:

Rennid tae ot emit si ti.

If we take the vowel letters out of "What is the matter, John?" we get "Wht s th mttr, Jhn?" Note that the remaining consonants give this quasi-sentence a skeletal structure on which our imaginations can, quite easily, fill out with the flesh of meaning. Whereas, if we take the consonants out, we're left with "A i e ae, o?", from which we can't guess the original meaning.

We can take a classic sentence structure like "The NOUN VERB the NOUN" (e.g., "The boy threw the ball"), and put random words in each slot:

The pig pretended the bicycle.

The mountain cooked the wall.

The clown sentenced the ankle.

Rearrange the words of any four-word sentence — "All humans are equal," for instance — and you'll soon find that there are 24 possible word orders. Amazingly, many of them will convey, oddly but accurately, the thought of the original order:

Equal are humans all.

Humans equal all are.

Are equal all humans.

We can make up words at will. If we use only consonants — vswtmpkkl — or only vowels — eeoaiua — they come out virtually unpronounceable, whereas we can get a word-like sound, even a sentence-like structure, out of nearly any mix of vowels and consonants:

Perdap gryub, nerflasser nop xenaz, twarn sig holtper.

Numerous writers of English have experimented with abstract expressionist prose and poetry. Laurence Sterne is the headmaster of this school of writing:

Let us go back to the ******** — in the last chapter. It is a singular stroke of eloquence …not to mention the name of a thing, when you had the thing about you in petto, ready to produce, pop, in the place you want it. A scar, an axe, a sword, a pinked doublet, a rusty helmet, a pound and a half of pot-ashes in an urn, or a three-halfpenny pickle pot…
Tristram Shandy

— with Lewis Carroll:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

— James Joyce:

Foot and mouth disease. Known as Koch's preparation. Serum and virus. Percentage of salted horses. Rinderpest. Emperor's horses at Murzsteg, lower Austria. Veterinary surgeons. Mr. Henry Blackwood Price. Courteous offer a fair trial. Dictates of common sense. Allimportant question. In every sense of the word take the bull by the horns. Thanking you for the hospitality of your columns.

— and John Lennon:

Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen
I am the walrus, goo goo g' joob goo goo g' joob
Goo goo g' joob goo goo g' joob
— "I Am The Walrus"

— his prize pupils.

Abstract expressionist writing offers undoubted attractions. After years of being drilled in the annoyingly precise rules of grammar — where or when to put the commas around a subordinate clause — many writers yearn for the "anything goes" attitude of jazz improvisation or lovers' babytalk. I had great fun writing a song about little green spacemen who bring to earth a chant for world peace:

Kuncee bungratcee cheena kuncee bungratcee cheen
Kuncee bungratcee cheena kuncee bungratcee cheen.

Yet I think the age-old authority of defined word meanings, the useful predictability of classic sentence structures, and the breathtaking beauty of the pictures that together they can create —

An evening wind uprose too, and the slighter branches cracked and rattled as they moved, in skeleton dances, to its moaning music. The withering leaves no longer quiet, hurried to and fro in search of shelter from its chill pursuit; the laborer unyoked his horses, and with head bent down, trudged briskly home beside them; and from the cottage windows lights began to lance and wink upon the darkening fields.
— Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

— will always keep expressionistic non sequiturs on writing's sidelines as amusing, challenging, or irritating gadflies. "Be be to to not or, Question the is that" will never replace "To be or not to be, that is the question."

On the other hand, yhw ton evah emos nuf htiw sdrow? Scribble-bibble-dibble with your pen to your hear-t's kontent. You can even go far as to say plandek solanger hignatter tocullis, silfad poder. And if that makes your baffled computer's spellcheck go up in smoke, so what? The fun you'll have will be worth the bother.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 30th 2015, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
It doesn't work because words have an inherent meaning whereas paint does not.
Monday November 30th 2015, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Colors have meaning: black has a meaning different from white, red is bolder than gray. Green suggests growth, spring. Navy blue evokes the sea, sky blue evokes the sky. Blended colors, pastels like lavender or mauve a subtlety lacked by primary colors. These meanings are not hard and fast, but neither are many word meanings.

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