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Post details: What is a Word's Worth

What is a Word's Worth

Prose is solid, poetry is liquid.

Although the distinction is not always readable, prose is more bound by the principles of causality, which gives it a nearly crystalline structure. It is also more rigid and tightly wrapped in grammar. Poetry, on the other hand, behaves like a fluid. It is much freer in its motion and more flexible. In fact, I claim that you can randomly rearrange its lines and you'll still end up with a pretty coherent piece of art.

As an example let me reshuffle Wordsworth's poem "By The Sea".

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder -everlastingly.

Dear child! dear girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Now we'll randomly permute (reorder) the lines.

You can do that either by hand, or better, by deploying a short script like this one which will do it for you.

#!/usr/bin/perl
# a random poem generator
while ( <> ) {
  chomp;
  push (@poem,$_);
}
$n = @poem;
@ary = (1..$n);
for ($i=0;$i < $n;$i++) {
  $ran = int(rand($n-$i));
  ($ary[0],$ary[$ran]) = ($ary[$ran],$ary[0]);
  $line = -1 + shift @ary;
  print "$poem[$line]\n";
}

OK. Here is the perturbed version. Note that the lines below are really the same as the ones above.

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,

Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
The holy time is quiet as a nun
The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
God being with thee when we know it not.

A sound like thunder -everlastingly.
Dear child! dear girl! that walkest with me here,
And doth with his eternal motion make

Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

So there. Poetry is like a kaleidoscope. You tilt it a bit, the pieces tumble around and you see yet another beautiful image. Prose is much more linear and thus less amenable to such chicanery. Just take a chapter from your favorite novel and read the sentences out of their natural order. See?

And the variation above is not the only possibility. Do you know in how many ways you can permute 14 lines? You better sit down for this one. In 87,178,291,200 ways. Yeah, that's right, upwards of 87 billion, courtesy of Mr. Factorial. Think of every human being on the planet composing 14 poems. And that includes infants, your cynical boss and all the professional wrestlers.

Take that William Wordsworth!

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