Chomsky, redux

11 07 2013

In 1957, Noam Chomsky published “Syntactic Structures”, in which he provided the following example of a sentence that is both grammatically correct and semantically nonsensical at every level: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Although green cannot be colourless, ideas can neither be green nor sleep, and one cannot sleep furiously, the line possesses a certain poetic charm. As such, in 1985, Stanford University held a competition: participants had to compose, in no more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse, a text that would contain this line and give it actual meaning.

By way of an example, C.M. Street wrote a short piece about planting in the autumn, in which he observed that, “While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Neither he nor Bryan O. Wright won the competition, but the latter’s contribution is beautiful and deserves to be read in full:

Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.
- Bryan O. Wright

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4 responses

11 07 2013
Annelise

Oh… Simon, that’s a beautiful post… thanks! It’s a good experience to take the line as a clever example of perfect nonsense and then to see it come alive in what is also a vivid concept like this. Wright’s poem is beautiful, in that.

I feel that he struggled to let the rest of the poem rise as high as the line that it raises in its context. Maybe I’m influenced less by an older school of poetry that he truly has handled with subtlety and beauty. But I love this part-
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber,
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal.
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Are there things in the parts around it that you think are good? If so I would like to hear how you read them.

11 07 2013
Annelise

Actually, it’s amazing that even outside the verbalisation of that vision, the single nonsense phrase already holds the poetic impact of exactly what it can come to make sense as. The way we hold experiences, patterns, senses, feelings, values, and words?

11 07 2013
Annelise

One more thing. What I love most about Wright’s poem is how he uses consonant sounds and vowel length… it’s a very rich sound, yet feels natural as well.

11 07 2013
Stephen Scholem

Good stuff.

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