From creative writers to creative readers: Why it takes two to build a “hydrogen jukebox”

Hydrogen jukeboxLinguistic creativity, like any other form of creativity, is not a solo activity. For every creative writer there must be, necessarily, at least one creative reader – someone to first recognise, and then to make sense of, their novel use of language, their striking metaphors, neologisms, wordplay, and so on.

Take Howl, for example, Allen Ginsberg’s famous hymn to the “Beat” generation of post-war America. It celebrates all those who:

“[…] sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoons in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,”

This line, like the rest of the poem, is full of language which at first feels complex and obtuse. It is certainly not language which is immediately understood. Granted, anyone who has seen The Hunt For Red October will understand what a “submarine light” looks like. And anyone who has had lunch in a London pub will get a sense of what a “stale beer afternoon” might be like. But what about “hydrogen jukebox”? What on earth is that?

Although we’ve all probably suspected it of poets at one time or another, Ginsberg is rare in actually admitting that he didn’t always know the meaning of what he was writing. In a 1966 interview with The Paris Review, Ginsberg likened the way he juxtaposes seemingly unrelated words in his poetry to the way Cézanne juxtaposed colours against each other in his canvases. He said of combinations of words like “hydrogen” and “jukebox” that, even if he – like Cézanne with his colours – wasn’t consciously aware of what he meant in putting them together his mind over time would eventually find a way to connect them:

“In the moment of composition I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it comes to mean something later, after a year or two, I realise that it meant something clear, unconsciously, which takes on meaning in time, like a photograph developing slowly. Because we’re not always conscious of the entire depths of our minds […]”

Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox” is an example of a compound noun – linguistic units in which a noun is paired up with another one to create a more complex noun phrase, some sort of hybrid of the two. As I have written about before, compound nouns are an example of creativity (defined in terms of novel combinations of concepts or things) in its purest form. They are also a pretty common phenomenon.

The metaphorical kennings of Old Norse epic poetry, for example, were commonly compound nouns (“whale road”, for example, meaning “sea”). In ancient India, compound nouns describing people (like “boy-king”, “man-fish” and “girlfriend”) were common enough for Sanskrit grammarians to gave them a special name: dvandva. And there are plenty of compound nouns in more modern languages too. German, for example, is full of colourful examples (like “hand shoes” for “gloves”). So too is Chinese. The Mandarin for “volcano”, for example, is literally “fire mountain”. And English is not short of a few compound nouns either: think of “workbench”, “calcium carbonate” and – fittingly – “compound noun”.

Compound nouns are also pretty common in literature. In his science fiction classic Dune, for example, Frank Herbert uses a number of them to coin new names for futuristic concepts like “stillsuit” and “filmbook”. And possibly because of his aversion to hyphens and other unnecessary forms of punctuation, compound nouns seem to be a marked feature of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. For example, in Blood Meridian, there is “dramhouse”, “gamingroom”, “walkboard”, “owlcries” “cookfire” and “riverrock”.

And compound nouns are a striking feature of Ginsberg’s poetry in particular. Elsewhere in Howl, Ginsberg coins the creative examples “negro streets”, “Blake-light tragedy”, “paint hotels”, “loveboys”, “madman dawn”, “goldhorn shadow” and “robot apartments”. In one line of the poem alone (not counting “traffic light”), I managed to find at least eleven examples of novel compound nouns:

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,”

But what do they all mean? As a reader, making sense of compound nouns like these is not a trivial thing. After all, what chance do we have if even the author of them isn’t sure what they’re on about?

Fortunately, just as when we read or hear any new word for the first time, we do usually have a few clues to work from. First of all, we can also look at the context for the compound noun in terms of the other words around it. For example, in making sense of “Peyote solidities”, “of halls” points us towards ornamental cacti in some building or other. And for compound nouns in particular, we can also look at their grammatical structure. Because of the way English grammar works, we understand the initial noun in the compound as being something that modifies the final noun, not the other way around. (It’s for this reason that a doctor’s “casebook” is not the same as a “bookcase”, even if one might be found inside another.) As such, we know at least that “ashcan ranting” is a type of verbal activity, and not a type of bin.

After that, figuring out the meaning of a novel compound noun involves connecting and associating its component nouns in new and novel ways. Wherever these concepts are semantically close to each other (for example, like “wine” and “drunkenness”) it’s pretty easy to figure out what is meant by their juxtaposition (“wine drunkenness”). For example, because “Joyride” and “neon” are related via the concept of cars and streets, it’s relatively easy to construct a mental image of “joyride neon”. But where the two concepts are semantically further apart things get more challenging. Because there’s no obvious semantic link between “sun” and “vibration”, it’s a bit harder to tell what a “sun vibration” is – or a “moon vibration” for that matter.

Understanding compound nouns like these, then, is itself an act of creativity. A poem like Howl, just like any piece of creative writing, doesn’t just require a creative writer – it also requires a creative reader.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, said in a 1969 interview with the BBC that the four most important things a reader should have is: memory, a dictionary, some artistic sense and – perhaps most importantly of all – an imagination. According to Nabokov, a creative reader is a re-reader – someone who will read and re-read a piece of writing in order to make sense of it, just like we might need to look at a Cézanne painting multiple times before we really feel we start to understand its meaning. He said:

“In reading a book we must first have time to acquaint ourselves with it […] at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.”

“Hydrogen” and “jukebox” are, on the face of it, as are far away from each other as concepts could be. When I first read Howl I had no idea what a “hydrogen jukebox” was. But after a while I did start to see some meaning in their juxtaposition. I began to see an allusion to the spectre of the post-war nuclear arms race: the threat of the atomic (“hydrogen”) bomb calling out over the (“jukebox”) radio. Of course, whether or not that’s what Ginsberg was thinking when he wrote it – subconsciously or otherwise – is another matter. But that at least is my creative reading of it.

The point is that, as we stare at a painting or re-read a passage of text in our minds, if we allow ourselves to be creative enough, we will eventually find its meaning. Or, at least, we will eventually find some meaning. Between even the most remote and unconnected concepts and ideas in our brains, we will eventually create new neural pathways that somehow connect them – even if, as Ginsberg says, it takes a year or two.

This creative act, the process of trying to find meaning in the seemingly obscure, is a big part of what makes linguistic creativity so much fun – for the reader, as much as for the writer.