Turning Awful Prose into Bad Poetry

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by Tim Widowfield

English: William McGonagall, scottish poet
William McGonagall, Scottish doggerel poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t expect to get much out of this post; I’m just letting off some steam.

This afternoon while we were channel-surfing among several games on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, I paused and asked my wife to listen to a sentence from a book I was reading. When I finally finished, she admitted she didn’t understand any of it and asked me if the author was a native English speaker.

Sadly, the sentence was not the product of a single foreign author, working hard to compose in an alien tongue, but of two authors — one from Canada, one from the U.S. — both with PhDs. You might think that having two educated minds working on the same essay would result in better prose, with the excesses of one writer being held in check by the other.

In this case it didn’t work out that way. If anything, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher appear to have been engaged in a competition to write the most obscure prose imaginable. As a result, reading their essay, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” (Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, pp. 25-42) is like watching random words splash over your brain. You recall the act of reading, but you have no memory of the content.

I then recalled ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s impenetrable prose, which when re-formed as poetry, somehow took on an almost zen-like quality.

The Unknown

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don’t know 
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing

So, I wondered if perhaps Kirk and Thatcher’s word-piles might fare equally well if given the same treatment. Here’s the versified sentence I read to my wife.

Semantically Fused Traditioning Epiphenomena

Applied to the problem
of the Gospel traditioning processes,
this approach argues
that Jesus was represented
through multiple acts of remembering
that semantically fused
the present situations
of the respective communities
with their memory of the past
as worked out in commemorative practices,
with neither factor swallowed up by,
or made epiphenomenal of,
the other.

Well, it still feels as if I stuck my head in a barrel of random words, but at least it looks nice. Let’s try another one.

Integrally Emerging Semantic Negotiation

The insight that Jesus traditions
integrally emerged
from the semantic negotiation
between salient pasts
and open-ended “presents”
in ever-changing contexts
of commemoration
has methodological implications 
for historical Jesus research.

Could somebody put that to music, please?

Finally, here’s one more. It’s short, but deep.

Apparent Typifications in Normative Dimensions of Commemoration

The apparent typification
of narrative scenes,
for example,
and their subordination
to sayings and pronouncements
in the Gospels
may reveal a heavy investment
in the normative dimension
of commemoration of Jesus.

If you say so.

Is it any wonder I’m having trouble plowing through this Jesus-Memory stuff?

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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9 thoughts on “Turning Awful Prose into Bad Poetry”

  1. Few historians write competently; fewer still display any real mastery of the language in which they publish their work. Most history books are hopelessly unreadable. For this situation, the dominance in the past thirty years of social-science models bears a heavy responsibility. Professional historians publish works that no sane person would attempt to read from beginning to end; works that are designed explicitly for reference rather than for reading. They usually lack the kind of literary ability that would make their work rival that of minor poets or novelists. If they had it, no doubt most of them would be writing poetry or fiction.

    There is no reason why historians’ works should not be subjected to literary and linguistic analysis. It can sharpen up our perceptions of their thought. Historical writings are so diverse that the styles in which they are written runs from the rebarbatively technical and formula-laden work of econometric or demographic historians at one extreme to the literary gems of practised communicators at the other.

    Evans, Richard J. (2012-11-01). In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 1298-1306). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

  2. I am guilty of self-indulgent verbosity, and I am not even an officially credentialed researcher.

    Here is the fundamental problem with academic thinkers and their publications:

    Self-perception and assumptions about how others see you are not usually in accordance
    with reality. Overly technical writing seems to stem from a deep seated itch. There might
    be a lack of academics who simply enjoy what they do for it’s own sake; the pressure to
    be a “great scholar” is a delusion which appears to come from institutional administrators
    and inside the scholar’s mind.

    Fear of not fitting in with one’s subculture is also a factor. Demonstrations of intelligence,
    command of the subject material, artful construction of grammar, and prose that appears
    to be from the mind of a “great one”, are all part of an upswelling vortex which is rooted
    in a delusion about how quasi-immortal thinkers of the ancient past are the template for
    success. If the subculture devalues the quiet researcher who humbly does the work, yet
    publically demands similar “authenticity” while really promoting brutal competitions framed
    in a pyramid scheme, then cognitive dissonance is going to be endemic to the general
    culture I call “the academic status quo”.

    I spent time investigating the requirements for a PhD in Philosophy, but then I discovered
    that it is better to learn the methods of logic itself, building arguments, and knowledge of
    fallacies, then “chewing styrofoam” by assuming that reading all the essential works in the
    specific canon will make me a competent thinker.

    If historians spend most of their early careers reading dense, complex prose found in
    the canonical works of their predecessors, then they might unconsciously assume, “I had
    better write like this so that other’s of my discipline will take me seriously”.

    1. @pete,

      As much as I get frustrated by the “leet-speak” of academics, I am a little more forgiving. I think the reason these people learned to speak in their own code is due, in some measure, to the possibility that speaking plainly could jeopardize their chances of continuing their work. I’ve seen the same kind of leet-speak (gamers say use 1337 to say “leet” or elite) in academic economics, biblical history and genetics. There seems to be a common denominator.

      Regardless, the division of intellectual labor has resulted in a number of linguistic disconnects as many disciplines use the same words to mean different things.


      1. @Scot,

        I am learning about various internet or techgeek subcultures.

        “1337 haxors” are a fascinating breed.

        Equivocation of terms is potentially dangerous in how it may create
        sectarian conflict in important authoritative cultures.

        Especially for regional utility management who may not agree on
        the terms “safe” and “levels” in regards to extensive power grids.

  3. “The insight that Jesus traditions
    integrally emerged
    from the semantic negotiation
    between salient pasts
    and open-ended “presents”
    in ever-changing contexts
    of commemoration
    has methodological implications
    for historical Jesus research.”

    Translated: ‘Examining the way that traditons formed we see that if what they read in previous texts didn’t support their view they ignored or altered the sense of it (‘semantic “negotiation”‘) depending on the way the wind blew (‘ever-changing contexts’), and only stressed the things in the texts which did prima facie support their view to produce an acceptable whole (‘integrally’)’.

    Notice how the first version can be read as exoneration, while the second has more dubious implications.

  4. I forgot to point out that ‘commemoration’ need not involve *actual memories*. Nobody today remembers WWI, but it’s frequently ‘commemorated’.

  5. If the authors are sociologists, I can understand the use of this kind of language. Sociology employs an obscure, highly codified language that is pretty much inaccessible to the uninitiated. It takes a while to learn.

    1. In almost every profession, people may speak and write using arcane language that outsiders find difficult to understand. In the best case, the incomprehensibility of writing by social studies experts stems from their desire to be extremely precise about what they’re arguing (and what they are not arguing).

      Sometimes we outsiders view the stuffy language of lawyers — “legalese” — as a deliberate attempt to obfuscate. However, in many cases, that stuffy language has the exact precision they require. To us outsiders, it sound like so much babble, but their goal is to reduce ambiguity.

      In the worst case, however, it’s little more than scholastic preening and strutting.

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