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Rhyme Before Reason

By Aurash Z. Vatan, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

What’s so important about rhyme? Why does it have a stranglehold on so much of humanity’s collective creative output? It has aesthetic power: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky.” It flaunts wit: Lin-Manuel Miranda rhyming “jettison” with “debt is in.” And some artists show how much they value these qualities when they reach a little too far for a rhyme: “Don’t ever fix your lips like collagen / And say something when you gon’ end up apologin.” Well done, Kanye.

But rhyming is not just aesthetic. It establishes a constraint that can jumpstart the creative process. More than that, it prompts us to connect words that we otherwise wouldn’t, simply because they rhyme. Words have semantic properties — their definitions and connotations — and syntactic ones, which we’ll broaden a bit to just mean not semantic.

When we force ourselves to rhyme, words are brought together because of purely syntactic similarities, which allows us to discover semantic similarities — similarities in meaning — that we might have missed. The power of syntactic reasoning might be obvious in rhyme, but it’s incredible in its far-reaching utility.

Stanford mathematician Ravi D. Vakil tells his graduate students not to despair when they go to academic talks that mostly fly over their heads. Over time, they’ll keep hearing the same words, though they may not hammer down their definitions at first. Eventually, they’ll “be able to make sentences using those words; [they] won’t know what the words mean, but [they’ll] know the sentence is correct.” Not only that, but they’ll be able to formulate mathematically interesting questions using those words. Without knowing what they mean!

And when a mathematician actually knows what all the words mean, the rhyming principle can play out in spectacular ways.

Case Western mathematician Mark W. Meckes tells the story of how he once read a paper whose acknowledgments included the line, “Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Mark Meckes, whose talk in Marseille in May of this year provided the final insight I needed to completely answer Kuperberg's Conjecture.” Professor Meckes had never heard of Kuperberg’s Conjecture. And after reading the relevant paper, he still couldn’t figure out how anything he’d ever done could possibly have contributed to this solution.

Mathematical concepts brought together by Professor Meckes for one reason inspired another academic to draw entirely different connections between those same concepts. In rhyme, a syntactic juxtaposition allows us to find unrelated semantic similarities. In this case, one set of semantic juxtapositions allowed academics to find unrelated semantic similarities.

We can observe a similar dynamic in literature. Critic Harold Bloom staked his literary theory in large part on “poetic misreading.” He argued that poets, faced with an all-encompassing literary canon, cannot escape it. But at the same time, they can’t engage with it faithfully without sacrificing some originality. Instead, poets draw on the richness of the canon — the countless juxtapositions made with whatever justification — and misinterpret those juxtapositions, discovering new justifications and so creating new ideas.

This idea of creative misinterpretation affects even everyday conversation. We’re used to treating speech as a direct transmission of information when in reality, any audience will miss far too much of the context in our head. We are constantly being misunderstood in subtle ways we might not even realize. Words enter minds faintly altered, and often instead of even trying to choose the interpretation that best approximates intent, we slide into the one that’s easiest for us.

This is a persistent problem for journalists. In an interview, misinterpretations are an unfortunate inevitability. Journalism, after all, is about real discovery — striving for an accurate record of reality. But for a columnist — well, good conversation, like math and literature, is often less about approximating a particular instance of reality than creating an interesting idea.

Ultimately, creative misinterpretation is useful because of how much harder it is to create than to discover. Anytime we read or listen to someone, we have to do some work to find justification for the ideas they have juxtaposed. Because we can’t get inside their head, there is a chance we will come up with new justifications that don’t match theirs. This is creation by way of discovery.

Periodically, when I see a Harvard billing statement or hear a tired platitude about the value of a liberal arts education, I wonder why I’m not sitting in a library going through OpenCourseware videos with a couple of friends. A cynical answer is that I’m signaling to employers. A depressing answer is that I’m paying my professor to embarrass me into doing problem sets. A cliched answer is that a liberal arts education teaches me how to think.

But an answer that appeals to me is the constant opportunity for creative misinterpretation. We are surrounded by smart people thinking about wildly different things in wildly different ways. We are surrounded by countless juxtapositions, bombarded daily with miscommunication. And we get to misinterpret it all however we want.

Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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