what the hell has happened thus?
June 18, 2009 4:42 AM   Subscribe

"My air is flung with souls" -- is there a linguistic explanation of this use of the verb "to fling"?

From John Berryman's 127th Dream Song:

...
All souls converge upon a hopeless mote
tonight, as though

the throngs of souls in hopeless pain rise up
to say they cannot care, to say they abide
whatever is to come.
My air is flung with souls which will not stop
and among them hangs a soul that has not died
and refuses to come home.

My basic puzzlement is that I feel that this feels to me like a new sense of the word "to fling", and yet I also feel that to understand it you don't need to go outside the ordinary sense of "to fling".

If "my air is flung with souls" is possible, then "to fling the air with souls" should also be possible. But normally the direct object of fling would be the thing thrown and not the medium in which it is thrown. Is there some standard account of this kind of shift?

But I also kind of feel like something is missing from the active translation "to fling the air with souls". I want to say "to befling the air" might capture this sense of flung better. I don't know. I also feel like maybe the "is flung" usage suggests "is hung". I don't know. If I could formulate my question any clearer I'd look up the answer myself. A google search for "flung with souls" seems to show that souls get flung around quite a good lot -- is there some history of the word that I'm not quite fully aware of?

My question is -- what's up with this? That's the clearest I can really formulate my question.
posted by creasy boy to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I should have said: the whole poem is here.
posted by creasy boy at 4:47 AM on June 18, 2009


Poetic license.
posted by lucidium at 4:51 AM on June 18, 2009


A word that would work in the same context is 'strewn'.
'To strew the air with souls' is similarly possible.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:54 AM on June 18, 2009


Allright so that's my question: the word fling doesn't normally mean strew, but here it seems to take on the meaning of strew while also retaining the ordinary meaning of fling. If this is what's happening, how does he do this? Just through a jarring syntax that forces us to attribute the meaning of strew to it? How is this better than just using the word strew? And is this part of an officially classified linguistic phenomenon of some kind, or a one-off trick? (Please don't say "poetic license" -- license to do what exactly?)
posted by creasy boy at 5:38 AM on June 18, 2009


Please don't say "poetic license" -- license to do what exactly?

To use words in a way that they wouldn't be normally, because it sounds better.
posted by smackfu at 6:03 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmm...this is a tricky one. The OED is not terribly helpful here and doesn't seem to recognize "fling with" so that is unique to Berryman. The passive construction of the line would make me wonder who is doing the flinging, and maybe that's why it's so jarring, because that's the mystery behind the line -- how did all these souls get flung out into his air? There's also the sense that the souls have been thrown out into the air and then are stuck in stasis (which the next line confirms - "hangs a soul"). It feels very Miltonic.

Just a guess on my part.
posted by pised at 6:17 AM on June 18, 2009


I would call it an example of estrangement .
posted by Verdant at 6:25 AM on June 18, 2009


I don't know how familiar you are with Berryman, but looking for a satisfying "linguistic explanation" of his usage is barking up the wrong tree. He loves twisting and straining language to the breaking point, and this is a pretty mild example. Dream Song 57 starts "In a state of chortle sin"; Dream Song 39 includes "not for you who went straight/ But for the lorn. Our roof is lefted off" and "I figure you with love,/ lifey, deathy, but I have a little sense/ the rest of us are fired/ or fired"; and Dream Song 2 famously starts "The jane is zoned!" I think he would get a drunken chuckle out of your quest for rational classification here.
posted by languagehat at 6:47 AM on June 18, 2009


But I think Verdant is on the right track with "estrangement" (or defamiliarization).
posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2009


I am very familiar with Berryman -- all of your examples are early Dream Songs. As they go on the language gets more ... well ... not tamer, but more settled on conveying meaning rather than associative noise. That's not right either, but you know what I mean. I also know that my asking for an explanation risks being a non-question along the lines of "hey isn't that strange?" But is it crazy to ask what sort of shift in meaning is accomplished here with flung and how it's done? Honestly I was hoping that you Mr. hat of all people would help me out more. But if the answer is really just "hey, poetry's wacky" then so be it, the fault lies with my question. Thank you to all the assembled for your answers thus far.
posted by creasy boy at 7:05 AM on June 18, 2009


Oh, on not previewing, I missed your second answer. ... I don't see how estrangement/defamiliarization applies to flung here other than in that Berryman's language is always strange and thus sharpens our attention to words. In the flung example, it's true that my attention to flung is heightened from its jarring context, but I also feel like he actually accomplishes a shift in its meaning somehow which takes it beyond estrangement. Or is there more to "estrangement" than I'm seeing? Anyhow, thank you all for your patience thus far with my ill-sped question.
posted by creasy boy at 7:11 AM on June 18, 2009


This looks like a job for lexical semantics! Let's see if this helps.

As la morte de bea points out, there are verbs in English that can normally do what Berryman's doing with "fling." Here's some more examples:
  • The boxes were loaded on the truck. / The truck was loaded with boxes.
  • The butter was spread on the bread. / The bread was spread with butter.
  • The seeds are planted in the field. / The field is planted with seeds.
When you can choose like this between two word orders with the same meaning, linguists call it an alternation. This one's called the locative alternation, because it involves the name of a location (the truck, the bread, the field) trading places with the name of the thing you put there (the boxes, the butter, the seeds).

In English, some verbs participate in the locative alternation and some don't. "Strew," "load," "spread" and "plant" do, like we saw up above. But "splash," "drop," "spoon" and "install," for instance, don't:
  • The water was dribbled on the floor. / The floor was dribbled with water.
  • The boxes are dumped in the closet. / The closet is dumped with boxes.
  • The honey was spooned on the biscuit. / The biscuit was spooned with honey.
  • The bookmarks are tucked in the book. / The book is tucked with bookmarks.
 

Good so far? Good. So here's what Berryman's up to. "Fling" doesn't normally participate in the locative alternation:
  • The souls were flung in the air. / The air was flung with souls.
But for the sake of a vivid image, Berryman's using it as if it does.

Now, this doesn't explain why Berryman's chosen to abuse the English language in that way. I agree with the esteemed Mr. Hat that you're probably not gonna find an explanation there, other than "it sounds good" and "it sounds strange." But hopefully it helps you understand how he's abusing the English language, and why the result sounds wrong-but-almost-right. A lot of linguistic jokes — "The plural of spouse should be spice," "Verbing weirds language," etc. — depend on this same trick of applying a rule where normally nobody applies it, and there seems to be something tantalizingly brain-stretching and disorienting about it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nebula Windphone that answer is 100% of what I was looking for. I knew Berryman had to be using some sort of available pattern. That is exactly what I wanted. I have never had a more best answer to any question I've asked here. I kept thinking: somehow it makes sense, but I don't see how it could. Now I see. He makes fling work the way spread works! If I had known it was "lexical semantics" I needed I would've asked my question a lot better. I also hadn't seen what richness lay in bea arthur's suggestion.

I am 100% satisfied.
posted by creasy boy at 8:26 AM on June 18, 2009


Although actually, now that I think about it, a mystery remains. Because if you tried to use throw with locative alternation it simply wouldn't produce any meaning:

the air was thrown with souls

So it's still not clear to me how Berryman gives fling the kind of meaning such that it could participate in locative alternation.
posted by creasy boy at 8:32 AM on June 18, 2009


I'm not on board with nebulawindphone's explanation because basically, some of the examples there proves that the answer to this question is: "poetic license".

To wit: the floor was dribbled with water. This is a perfectly precise, poetic image. Maybe it is not grammatically correct, but it is a great image and poetic. Same argument for the biscuit and the honey.

So, ""Fling" doesn't normally participate in the locative alternation" also explains why I like 'the floor was dribbled with water'. If I were trying to either write a poem or make my writing interesting, I would use either of those constructions, regardless of grammar.

I just don't see how there is any other answer here besides 'the whole point of poetry is to create imagery and song'. Poems by their nature, like songs or boundary pushing fiction, do not comply with grammar.
posted by spicynuts at 8:43 AM on June 18, 2009


I guess there's a very fundamental disconnect here, because I definitely understand very well that poets have special license and poetry works by doing funny and weird things, "creating imagery and song" etc. but still feel that this doesn't preclude my question, which I think operates at a different level. You say you like "he dribbled the floor with water" rather than "he dribbled water on the floor" because it's weird, and nebulawindphone explains the weirdness: dribble doesn't normally partake of locative alternation. Yet it can, somehow, and this is how your sentence has a weird-sounding meaning rather than being weird-sounding nonsense or just something else entirely.

But it seems to me, now, when I think about it, that not every verb can meaningfully be forced into locative alternation. I ate cereal on the couch/I ate the couch with cereal doesn't work the way I loaded the boxes onto the truck/I loaded the truck with boxes does, because somehow the verb ate doesn't have that sort of flexibility. If fling is a synonym for throw, then it should also lack that kind of flexibility -- my air is thrown with souls doesn't produce any meaning. It's meaningless rather than just jarring and weird. So it seems Berryman must still have attached some kind of extra meaning to fling. Maybe it blends together with the nearby hang, or maybe we read it as "fling full of" or "fling up with" or something. You can't just attach other meanings to words at will -- there has to be some way it comes naturally, some way it fits into existing patterns, etc.
posted by creasy boy at 9:08 AM on June 18, 2009


My sense is you hit it with "My air is strewn with souls which will not stop". Just as nebulawindsong explains, this is a perfectly decent and normal English phrase. Maybe it is even exactly the one Berryman started with.

However "strewn" is a fairly passive sort of word, sort of "la-la-la, we are prancing around the field in our fairy costumes gently strewing rose petals through the air, la-la-la!"

So my sense its Berryman wanted that sort of randomly strewn around through the air idea but combined with something much more forceful and active than the rather passive and calm "strew". So a simple substitution of "flung" does the trick, combining the grammar associated with "strewn" and all the other meanings and connotations of "flung".

"Thrown" doesn't work simply because it has very different connotations, mostly the fact that it is very direction whereas the whole idea of "strew" is that they are sort of randomly tossed about, not really directional.



My air is flung with souls which will not stop
posted by flug at 12:07 PM on June 18, 2009


I just don't see how there is any other answer here besides 'the whole point of poetry is to create imagery and song'. Poems by their nature, like songs or boundary pushing fiction, do not comply with grammar.

I agree! And I agree too, FWIW, that "the biscuit was spooned with honey," or any of my other crossed-out sentences, could make awesome poetry.

My feeling is that grammar isn't a Book Of Laws, it's a set of tools. Berryman isn't Breaking The Law here, he's using his tools in unusual ways — doing the verbal equivalent of dancing on stilts, painting with ketchup or reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings. But you can admire the creative uses of the tool and still discuss its everyday, ordinary uses.

But it seems to me, now, when I think about it, that not every verb can meaningfully be forced into locative alternation. I ate cereal on the couch/I ate the couch with cereal doesn't work the way I loaded the boxes onto the truck/I loaded the truck with boxes does, because somehow the verb ate doesn't have that sort of flexibility. If fling is a synonym for throw, then it should also lack that kind of flexibility -- my air is thrown with souls doesn't produce any meaning. It's meaningless rather than just jarring and weird. So it seems Berryman must still have attached some kind of extra meaning to fling. Maybe it blends together with the nearby hang, or maybe we read it as "fling full of" or "fling up with" or something. You can't just attach other meanings to words at will -- there has to be some way it comes naturally, some way it fits into existing patterns, etc.

Yeah, all good points. And, I mean, if you could just slap this stuff together at random, or generate it with a set of rules, it wouldn't be such impressive poetry. What Berryman's doing is definitely art and not linguistics.


My air is flung with souls which will not stop
posted by flug at 3:07 PM on June 18


EpoTyponisterical?

posted by nebulawindphone at 12:27 PM on June 18, 2009


Also--the linguists can step in here and clarify with all the proper technical terms, in but English a phrase like "is flung" is a bit ambiguous grammatically.

"Is flung" could be a verb phrase and in that case it is probably some kind of passive construction.

But you can also interpret "is" as the sole verb and then whatever follows it ("flung") is simply an adjective--and it could be replaced by *any* sensible adjective. For example:

The air is dark with soot.
The air is heavy with mist.
The air is grey with smoke.

Since any adjective can fit into that spot, you can also place a participial adjective there:

The air is filled with oxygen.
The air is speckled with flying insects.
The air is dirtied with pollution.

Also, more to the point:

The wall was flung with mud and filth.

So a phrase like "My air is flung" sort of lives in that ambiguous grammatical world where it could be one thing and it could be the other, and as you think about it sort of shifts back and forth between the two meanings--which are both similar and yet subtly different--and I think that is what gives the phrase some of its richness and interest.

So, to more directly answer your question, grammatically speaking you could potentially put any adjective in the spot filled by "flung". Of course not every adjective makes sense there and not every adjective can be used with the preposition "with".

But, for example:

My air is sprayed with souls
My air is peppered with souls
My air is filled with souls
My air is dark with souls
My air is layered with souls
My air is crammed with souls
My air is wild with souls
My air is bursting with souls
My air is warm with souls
My air is noisy with souls


On a slightly different tack: To my ear, a construction like "is flung" has a slightly archaic or religious ring to it ("He is risen"), so even if it doesn't quite sound idiomatic in modern English it has that sense that, maybe it was idiomatic back in Elizabethan times or something.

[BTW sorry for the end of the previous comment--hit "submit" before I meant to.]
posted by flug at 12:47 PM on June 18, 2009


Excellent.

I think I am starting to get an inkling of why fling somehow produces meaning in the locative alternation when throw doesn't.

I have a picture in my head, when I read the poem, of things getting thrown into the air and sticking there. Honestly for some reason I keep coming back to flinging wet spaghetti against the wall and seeing it stick. You could also fling paint onto a canvas, right?

Locative alternation only works when the verb entails some change in both the object and in the medium/location. For example: loading boxes into the truck entails changing the boxes' position and changing the truck's state. That's why the truck can be made direct object and it produces meaning: because the verb signifies a change in the truck, i.e. loading the truck with boxes.

With throwing souls into the air, no real change about the air is signified, which is why throw the air with souls or my air is thrown with souls don't really signify anything -- we don't know how to interpret the medium (location) becoming the direct object. Same with eat cereal on the couch -- this says nothing about any change in the couch, so couch can't be made direct object because there's simply no information to give sense to that sort of relation: eat the couch with cereal.

In our case of fling souls into the air Berryman makes fling into a verb that effects a change in the air -- that's why I think of the souls sticking there, even before I get to the next line where it says that they hang there. This still isn't a complete explanation, but I think that's the shape an explanation would take.

Or have I made some error?
posted by creasy boy at 1:08 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Coming back to this thread a little belatedly — this is still an active area of research in linguistics, and I don't think anyone's agreed on The Right Answer. But yeah, consensus is that there seems to be some sort of connection between the locative alternation and how strongly affected the location is. And I agree that "flung with souls" makes it sound like the air is changed by the souls — so I'd say you're onto something there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:26 PM on October 11, 2009


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