I lead a seminar last night on the subject of intonation. As usual, I had to relate it to poetry and metrics. But the theories from Haliday and Brazil advanced in the textbook, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis by Mathew Coulthard, put an all new spin on how, and why, poetry works.

Brazil proposes that there are four options which we control when we speak: prominence, tone, key, and termination. Sounds like music, doesn’t it? Well, it is. These things are dependent on a notion of common ground where speakers of a language agree to interpret the meaning, for example, of a rising tone to be a question, rather than a statement. The words are the same, but the meaning is held in the music.

The woman who presented before me was a native Russian, and she spoke about the dialect of one province that used an exaggerated intonation to such an extent that she couldn’t understand what the people were saying— it sounded more like singing than speech. As I scanned the lines of some poetry, I noticed how the metrics determine these factors, and in really good poetry they act to narrow the range of interpretation for the line, making the meaning clearer. Sometimes, bending to the conventions of speech dictates the sort of metrical variations that keep poetry from being meaningless adherence to strict form, which makes it more natural and lifelike. It’s really cool stuff.

But here’s the strangeness of my mind at work. I’ve got to write a flippin’ essay about nature. I’m not a nature guy. So, I was thinking about how it took me forever to “get” Wordsworth, and how I only got it by reading it outdoors. Set and setting, as the old LSD maxim goes. Since Wordsworth’s poetry is kind of hallucinogenic anyhow, I figured I’d lead with the acid thing, and run at the essay from there. But I started thinking: what is set and setting ? Maybe it’s another way of describing a common ground, a group of assumptions that allow us to extract the message from a communication. Language. It’s a wonderful thing.

Of course, that isn’t what the person who coined the phrase had in mind. Or was it? Since I need to attribute the phrase in order to use it appropriately, I tracked down what was originally meant. Big surprise, I found it in the book Drug, Set, and Setting by Norman E. Zinberg:

The two related hypotheses underlying this project were far more controversial in 1973 than they would be today, although they are still not generally accepted. I contended, first, that in order to understand what impels someone to use an illicit drug and how that drug affects the user, three determinants must be considered: drug (the pharmacologic action of the substance itself), set (the attitude of the person at the time of use, including his personality structure), and setting (the influence of the physical and social setting within which the use occurs) (Weil 1972; Zinberg & Robertson 1972; Zinberg, Harding & Winkeller 1981). Of these three determinants, setting had received the least attention and recognition; therefore, it was made the focus of the investigation (Zinberg & DeLong 1974; Zinberg & Jacobson 1975). Thus the second hypothesis, a derivative of the first, was that it is the social setting, through the development of sanctions and rituals, that brings the use of illicit drugs under control.

So, maybe I’m not that far off. It’s the common ground that determines the result, in speaking, reading, or doing drugs. Now that’s weird.