Thanks so much for reading my essays on quantum poetics and for your response. I wonder if Newtonian physics by way of the scientific method may have made lived experience less alienating (to the poet and to the scientist). Describing the natural world by means of observation might have encouraged connections between lived experience and theoretical inquiry, making nature less alienating and more comprehensible. One of the great challenges of quantum mechanics, as I see it, is that it is more alien than Newton’s physics, in that phenomenon does not behave at subatomic levels the way it behaves at eye level, and observation cannot be relied on for predicting the future. Also, quantum mechanics is a mechanics, but it changes the limitations of mechanics. For the poet, quantum mechanics could be an opportunity for a kind of reclamation toward alienation, since, to my imagination, it might be a physical expression of alienation—which I’ll tentatively characterize as the encounter with what is not known. In this way I feel that the innovations in physics of the last century present opportunities to reconcile the dark matter of poetry with the dark matter of reality.
There’s a part of me that is highly attracted to the Romantics’ protest against the reign of mechanism; I also feel repelled by it. I’m fascinated by how the physicists who were associated with quantum mechanics and other theoretical physics just before WWII were turning to Goethe. If I’m not misreading you, you seem to be describing this Romantic protest in highly romantic terms while also criticizing their anthropomorphizing tendencies. I agree, the pathetic fallacy that the Romantics commit and to which you refer and which you say is still being committed in so-called nature poetry even today gains currency with vague notions like Gaia theory. I am generally dissatisfied by contemporary nature poetry/eco-poetics because there is not enough questioning about what constitutes nature.
I want to learn more about how and if physicists are paying attention to poetry. Does Dr. Lisa Randall, a particle physicist from Harvard, have a Goethe? I have a Dr. Randall, for example: Dr. Randall. Others. I am just now learning more about which poets are paying attention to science. Here is a discussion project I was a part of with other poets on the subject of poetry and science.
Do you think that the reason that language is the farthest thing from “direct experience” is because it is abstract?
You articulate my thoughts accurately when you say that, “The argument of quantum poetics seems to be that the dilemmas (& delights) of textuality are present (in a different way, perhaps, but crucially, in some sense in the same way) also in physical phenomena. The post-Newtonian Book of Nature appears to be fashioned like a postmodern poem, where (for example) quantum indeterminacy within matter/energy mirrors semantic indeterminacy within language.” Is clinamen a force and form of physical reality like gravity? I did not consciously start out with this question, but it developed during my writing. While thinking through this exchange, I might say that, yes, quantum indeterminacy within matter/energy mirrors semantic indeterminacy within language, but like Borges’ mirror mirrors: it distorts. Michael Palmer, in his introduction to Multiversal, talks about representational poetry as holding the mirror up to nature, but, in less representational poetry, the poet goes through the looking glass. Is this surrealism? If the postmodern poem mirrors quantum processes and vice versa, the next question might be: what does not get translated in the distortion of the image?
The matrix, if we are to think about a matrix in the scientific sense, as a representation of concepts, is multiversal in that it uses multiple (novel?) forms to say what cannot be said in fewer (former?) forms. This is why I think poetry is a matrix mechanics of physics. Is postmodern poetry the language for Post-Newtonian physics? I think this question has been asked before, but in a less literal way. I’m interested in the literalness of my question. If this is the case, if that could even be determined, a follow-up question might be: how will physics learn poetry, and how will poetry learn physics? Translation theory becomes paramount.
In your response, you address the part of my thesis that is the most vulnerable when you say:
And here is where the difference in our approach to the science/poetry nexus comes clearly into view. (And I feel there’s nothing wrong with our having different approaches; in fact, in the name of multiplicity & poetic singularity, it’s all to the good!) I see it as a complementary difference, like the wave/particle duality. Whereas you bring the concerns & insights of postmodern textuality to a reading of science, I remain caught within the (high-modernist?) surrealist paradigm of the crisis of the object. We are looking at the same thing, but as if it were a Gestalt image, with one of us seeing the profile of a face, & the other a wine glass. Where you see a metaphorical similarity & correspondence between (for example) the works of Stein & Einstein (and I would support that insight), I see both works (and I'm sure you would not disagree) as historical-social constructs whose similarity has more to do with cultural developments than with the nature of the Real (whatever that may be). For me, as a surrealist, it’s only when our cultural constructs, and the correspondences between them, break down that the nature of the (sur-)Real can be glimpsed.
And when you say that “each instance of breakdown at the systemic level is also a moment of breakthrough, where the system undergoes a phase transition to a new state of being,” is this break-down/through novelty?
May we all be “scientist[s] of the strange”! In Multiversal there is a poem, “Notes on the Enclosure of Notes,” about falling up from the sea. I might say now that the form of that poem is too ordinary, but one idea I wanted to describe is that poetry can make the impossible happen. Or, to quote The Matrix, “there is no spoon.”
I’m wondering: what does this all mean for you, in terms of poetry’s revolutionizing force? It is a revolt, I feel it. Yet sometimes I feel disheartened, as though it is just another flag I want unstuck.
I think one thing you are saying is that the convergence between these disciplines—poetry and science—is not due to any essential “reality” of the physical world but, instead, to constructs we create: language being one of them. Is that right? I see how my modality is situated in metaphor. One challenge I face is that I can’t decide what my own predominant modalities are in my poetry or poetics: metaphor, metonymy. Maybe my poetics is a way of justifying the uncertainty of my poetry.
I didn’t know the word, “mesocosmic,” until you said, “While the constituents of nature appear fixed at the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels (i.e., no new objects are still being created at these levels: there are stars & nebulae at one extreme and the “basic building blocks” of matter/energy at the other), the universe is constantly emitting radically new objects at the mesocosmic (or middle) level: living things and thoughts among them.” The “mesocosmic” is what I would call scale at eye level. I imagine a subject position and a horizon line.
And when you say:
And here is where our respective approaches converge: poetry, as you propose, does indeed have the capacity to destroy—or do what amounts to the same thing: radically renovate—the universe. Every good poem should say: Welcome to the emergency of existence.
I hear a kind of Schrödinger homophone, then an equation:
Since we’ve been talking about disjunction, I’ll mention: I’ve always enjoyed the work of Henri Rousseau. I like his extreme foliage, his foregrounding. I also admire how he painted all of those locales without any direct experience of them; he never traveled to Tahiti, or anywhere beyond France, I think. He imagined those locales. Would he have painted such outrageous, opulent ferns if he had actually seen them? Maybe. But I wonder if it was his imagination that kept him from being a realist?
I think Rousseau was dismissed by Picasso & Stein as naïve, too outside.
I feel this way sometimes, with quantum poetics—
I embarked on these essays without fully studying my contexts and anticipating my outcomes. They are haphazard, rough. I feel naïve but alive. I am trusting of the process of poetics, and so that’s exciting. I learned that from poetry.
t = trust?
* * *
What follows is part one of six written exchanges between me and Andrew Joron about poetry and science in 2012. Joron’s creative and critical work have been highly influential to me. When I contacted him after The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog ran an article,“From the Golden Age of San Francisco Science-Fiction Poetry to the New Age of Quantum Poetics,”about our shared interest in poetry and science, he generously responded to my poetry and speculative essays on quantum poetics published by Jerome Rothenberg on his blog, Poems and Poetics. Joron and I have decided to present our conversation here for Jacket2.
* * *
Your four posts on Rothenberg’s blogs were a thrill for me to read, as you drew adventurous connections & correspondences between physics & poetry. There’s cause to celebrate the fact that physical theory looks & feels more poetic now than it did in the days of the clanking Newtonian world-machine. Poets just had to endure that 200-year interval (from the 17th to the 19th centuries) when the world of magical correspondences between microcosm & microcosm, between word & world, was destroyed & replaced by an alienating mechanical worldview. But now, with the advent of relativity & quantum mechanics, we can once again find correspondences & analogies between the way the world moves & the way our poetic words do. And that’s what I see happening in your writing on quantum poetics.
The Romantics, of course, protested mightily against the reign of mechanism during that 200-year interval, raising high the banner of organicism and pointing out that Newtonian physics could not explain living things (as Goethe asked, “where is the Newton of the grass-blade?”). They also projected the spotlights of their own souls against the sides of the soulless machine, in a move known today as “the pathetic fallacy.” I see this move still being committed in so-called nature poetry even today. As well, some idealistic interpreters of post-Newtonian physics—finding that such theories privilege the “observer” in some way—also commit this fallacy. But despite the persistent “two-culture” divide between science & humanities—a legacy of the rationalist/Romantic conflict of the Newtonian era—the spirit (if not the letter) of science seems finally to be drawing closer to that of poetry. And yet: I don’t know of many scientists who are paying attention to poetry, and there are only a few poets—such as you and me—who are paying attention to science. And for some reason, the rapprochement between science & humanities seems to be happening more quickly & decisively in the spheres of music & visual art than in poetry.
Is it because nature is accessed more directly in other arts than in poetry? We don’t need to know the Russian language to appreciate Russian music or painting, but we need to know it to appreciate a Russian poem. Of all the systems that mediate between the observer & the observed, language is the trickiest & most betraying. It is the farthest from “direct experience” (which may be why Plato banished poets, but not musicians or artists, from his utopia). In your work on quantum poetics, you address this difficulty by showing how nature itself, as seen through the lens of quantum physics & relativity, possesses the same tricky multiplicity and multivalence that language does. The tunnelings and entanglements of the quantum object, as well as the relativities that become manifest at light-speed, appear to mitigate against “closure” in a manner analogous to that of a poetic text. The argument of quantum poetics seems to be that the dilemmas (& delights) of textuality are present (in a different way, perhaps, but crucially, in some sense in the same way) also in physical phenomena. The post-Newtonian Book of Nature appears to be fashioned like a postmodern poem, where (for example) quantum indeterminacy within matter/energy mirrors semantic indeterminacy within language.
So much hinges, of course, on the word “like” in the previous sentence. The analogical or metaphorical way of relating physics & poetry now comes back into force. “As above, so below”: the analogies & systems of correspondence that pervaded the medieval & early Renaissance worldviews seem to live again in quantum poetics—with one crucial difference: the “matrix” is open (to novelty, among other things) rather than being closed, repetitive, and ultimately chained to “God” as the highest signifier in the series.
And here is where the difference in our approach to the science/poetry nexus comes clearly into view. (And I feel there’s nothing wrong with our having different approaches; in fact, in the name of multiplicity & poetic singularity, it’s all to the good!) I see it as a complementary difference, like the wave/particle duality.
Whereas you bring the concerns & insights of postmodern textuality to a reading of science, I remain caught within the (high-modernist?) surrealist paradigm of the crisis of the object. We are looking at the same thing, but as if it were a Gestalt image, with one of us seeing the profile of a face, & the other a wine glass. Where you see a metaphorical similarity & correspondence between (for example) the works of Stein & Einstein (and I would support that insight), I see both works (and I’m sure you would not disagree) as historical-social constructs whose similarity has more to do with cultural developments than with the nature of the Real (whatever that may be). For me, as a surrealist, it’s only when our cultural constructs, and the correspondences between them, break down that the nature of the (sur-)Real can be glimpsed.
I am interested in the way that not only our cultural constructs, but reality itself breaks down. Against the model of “as above, so below,” I would assert that the microcosm does not at all resemble the macrocosm, and that the universe evolves through a succession of broken symmetries. This breakdown occurs at successive levels of reality, from the physical to the chemical to the biological to the social and finally to the linguistic. Calling upon the theory of complex systems, I would argue that each level possesses its own laws & modes of interaction that are not reducible, and bear no similarity to, those of any other levels. Each instance of breakdown at the systemic level is also a moment of breakthrough, where the system undergoes a phase transition to a new state of being. (I’ve got a brief essay, using the example of water, on the theory of phase transitions, available online: to check it out, go here.)
I don’t deny there is an analogical or metaphorical resemblance between certain scientific theories and postmodern poetry—but I would say this resemblance results from cultural convergence along with a mode of reading both science & poetry that reveals that convergence. There’s some irony here, however, inasmuch as metaphor itself, compared to metonymy and other forms of disjunction, is no longer a major modality within postmodern poetry. One virtue of the theory of complex systems is that it is applicable to language & poetry directly, without the use of metaphor: language is not like a complex system, it is itself such a system, possessing all of the the propensities of complex system to undergo nonlinear dynamics (displaying a sensitivity to initial conditions that result in large-scale changes throughout the system: so that a single word such as “no” can change the dynamic of an entire system of words), self-organization (no one “invented” language), and emergence of novel properties from a set of interacting elements.
Seen in this way, poetry is the latest in a series of ontological ruptures initiated by the Big Bang. Our universe has the capacity to reinvent itself thanks to nonlinear non-equilibrium dynamics; moreover, each successive reinvention bears no resemblance to the elements that brought it forth (in the example of water, the coming-together of hydrogen & oxygen atoms brought forth “wetness,” though neither a hydrogen nor an oxygen atom possesses the property of wetness). While the constituents of nature appear fixed at the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels (i.e., no new objects are still being created at these levels: there are stars & nebulae at one extreme and the “basic building blocks” of matter/energy at the other), the universe is constantly emitting radically new objects at the mesocosmic (or middle) level: living things and thoughts among them. And here is where our respective approaches converge: poetry, as you propose, does indeed have the capacity to destroy—or do what amounts to the same thing: radically renovate—the universe. Every good poem should say: Welcome to the emergency of existence.
* * *
Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). Joron’s previous poetry collections include The Removes (Hard Press, 1999), Fathom (Black Square Editions, 2003), and The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions, 2008). The Cry at Zero, a selection of his prose poems and critical essays, was published by Counterpath Press in 2007. From the German, he has translated the Literary Essays of Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 1998) and The Perpetual Motion Machine by the proto-Dada fantasist Paul Scheerbart (Wakefield Press, 2011). Joron lives in Berkeley, California, where he theorizes using the theremin.
Tantra 49 and 1974 Olson Memorial Lectures at Buffalo
Last year City Lights published a new edition of McClure's 1964 Ghost Tantras. This early work of McClure's is composed in a partially invented vocabulary that he calls "best language" (guttaral, expressive), which brings to mind Khlebnikov's zaum "Incantation by Laughter" (McCure references Mayakovsky). McClure wanted to find a level of language that invoked our animality and the recordings he made with lions in 1964 and 1966 remain powerful poetic documents.
This mp3 is a 1964 reading of "Tantra" 49 from that book; the recording was made by Bruce Conner.
The better known video, also a reading of "Tantra" 49, is an excerpt from a 1966 episode of Richard O. Moore’s television series U.S.A. Poetry.
SILENCE THE EYES! BECALM THE SENSES!
Drive drooor from the frcsh repugnance, thou whole,
thou feeling creature. Live not for others but affect thyself
from thy enhanced interior - believing what thou carry.
Thy trillionic multitude of grahh, vhooshes, and silences.
Oh you are heavier and dimmer than you know
and more solid and full of pleasure.
Grahhr! Grahhhr! Ghrahhhrrr! Ghrahhr. Grahhrrr.
Grahhr-grahhhhrr! Grahhr. Gahrahhrr Ghrahhhrrrr.
Gharrrrr. Ghrahhr! Ghrarrrrr. Ghanrrr. Ghrahhhrr.
Ghrahhrr. Ghrahr. Grahhr. Grahharrr. Grahhrr.
Grahhhhr. Grahhhr. Gahar. Ghmhhr. Grahhr. Grahhr.
Ghrahhr. Grahhhr. Grahhr. Gratharrr! Grahhr.
Ghrahrr. Ghraaaaaaahrr. Grhar. Ghhrarrr! Grahhrr.
Ghrahrr. Gharr! Ghrahhhhr. Grahhrr. Ghraherrr.
Also new at McClure's PennSound page:
Third Lecture: "Into the Theater," March 25, 1980
Poetry Reading, March 27, 1980
& also, just saying ... this 2012 live recording, which is also available on Spotify. It's a state of the art jazz/poetry collaboraton and Manzarek (pianist for The Doors) plays beautifully.
PennSound has located a rare sound recording of Tom Weathelry, reading in Grand Valley Michigan in July of 1971.
Weatherly reads the complete serial poem "MAUMAU AMERICAN CANTOS" for the first ten minutes of the reading (text here); after that he reads various poems, including “Lady Fox” from Thumprint but nothing else from that book or MAUMAU.
Tom Weatherly -- full texs of these powerful, brilliant, often volatile (and distressingly unacknowledged) books at Eclipse:
MAUMAU AMERICAN CANTOS (Corinth Books, 1970, via Eclipse)
Thumbprint (Telgraph Books, 1971, via Eclpise)
His Short History of the Saxophone, poetry collection from 2006, from SPD.
note: Eclipse titles are indexed at the ECP Digital Library.
Further reading: see the very informative piece by Rosanne Wasserman.
The impulses that inspire poets to think through science span from investigative, speculative, conceptual, documentary, and more to impulses that use science as a form of address to and from the notion of the other. Lila Zemborain, in Mauve Sea-Orchids (Belladonna, 2007, trs. Rosa Alcalá and Mónica de la Torre), uses scientific diction as a “subhuman device” to document the sea, which, in Zemborain’s book, represents everything fluid, from eros to human consciousness:
when the flower opens its thoughts to the
restlessness of things a cellular language bursts
from the most distant portions of a chain of
sounds materialized in chemical processes that
in essence do not involve the brain but the
connection between the ends and the tissues;
emotion, like a cable charged in an evening
storm, emits dangerous sparks as the inanimate
suddenly becomes electric eel, phosphorescent
dragon in the cerulean night, whip of light; in that
synaptic process in which the spark renovates the
signals, the sounds of the inorganic fulfill their
reinvigorating function; honeysuckle, water-diviner,
planetary, molecular, entwined, cavernulous;
chains of sounds imprinting the miracle of the
conversion of one substance into another
When I teach Mauve Sea-Orchids, I also ask students to write a poem that attempts to document a subject using language from a discipline that is distinct from the subject. My goal in the assignment is for students to not only read poetry in translation but to simultaneously consider how poetry and scientific diction can function as novel forms of translation where the writer and reader are asked to perform what Jerome Rothenberg refers to in the context of ethnopoetics and oral poetry as “Total Translation,” bringing form to that which is ordinarily untranslatable.
Rothenberg’s chapbook, A Book of Concealments (Chax Press, 2004), a follow-up collection to A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2003) that suppresses the first-person singular pronoun, aims to be an “intimation…of an imagined world embedded into the real one.” I met Rothenberg in 2008 at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program when I was chairing a panel in which we both participated on the topic of “Environment.” We talked about going beyond the typical notion of environment as nature or wilderness by including subatomic and cosmological spacetime. During these discussions, we thought about his constraint of suppressing the first-person singular pronoun in A Book of Concealments as an expression of dark matter and dark energy, which comprises approximately 97 percent of the known universe. Like the known universe, humans are also comprised of dark matter and dark energy. So is our poetry, Rothenberg’s A Book of Concealments conceptually and procedurally argues.
Matthew Tierney seems to be illuminating the dark matter. In Tierney’s Probably Inevitable (Coach House Books, 2012), science casually merges with human ontological experience and epistemological questions through realism or what I think of as consensus reality:
Photons bank off the window frame, fool no one,
mere minutes on a zip line from the sun.
Slowed somewhat, it’s known,
by earth’s duo of nitrogen and oxygen.
Blue waves scatter—that’s the answer
to your offspring’s query; or the tub-thumper on pint four
fresh off of Gauloise and demanding.
‘Who says my green’s yours?’ [….]
Leigh Kotsilidis, in Hypotheticals (Coach House Books, 2011), uses science and science fiction not only as modes for thinking but as narrative settings. In “Orphans 1,” a play of speaking parts between Plato, Mulk Raj Anand, Herodotus, and Stephen Hawking, the setting is not Earth but instead:
Some poets are translating the intersections of poetry and science as a way to consider what emerges in the ordinarily untranslatable spaces. Here I think of the poetry of Marcella Durand, who often works from the subject position of science to create thought experiments about nature and language. In her series, “Apparent Orbits,” from Area (Belladonna, 2008), she writes poems to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. This is the introductory poem in the series, “The Apparent Orbit”:
When time has allowed the stars to drift apart,
a spectral type O reaches a lower temperature
and along the abscissa of the graph maintains
bursts along seams of circles.
If you think music is harmony of spheres
then absolutes placed in the upper left
please those instigated who set margins
measured in luminosity.
The intrinsic brightness does not represent
magnitude, and in your eyes
a telescope, and the same distance,
all their comparisons. If we journey
through the gates of matter correctly,
we enter through the gates of green familiar
and all composition lies open to us
in spectral constellation orbit, tonal.
Poet, visual artist, and musician Brian Lucas invokes what I think of as the outer limits of science in speculative dreamworlds of image, sound, and thought. This is his poem, “By Air,” from his book, Light House (Meeting Eyes Bindery, 2006):
Our summits are a tangle best approached from above. An exposition of light among what we hear in a branch sewn to the sky. The leaves cancel their ability to darn our love to gravity’s sharp center: an intentional science of ecstasy beyond decay.
Other poets use science as a framework for exploring questions that arise from shifting identity-based poetics and more. Lina Ramona Vitkauskas’ chapbook, Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star (Dancing Girl Press, 2005) can be interpreted as a total translation between poetry and science as well as a non-normative treatise for feminist/non/all-gendered spacefarers. The title poem of Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star invokes the brown dwarf star, 2M1207A, “a peculiar cool star,” and its companion exoplanet, 2M1207B. As an homage to this fascinating work, I used the star and its planet as the featured image for this commentary, which is also titled after the last line in Vitkauskas’ poem:
She, 2M1207A, uninspiring,
five times an absurd mass.
With hydrogen fins.
Weightless and washed,
brown dwarf lifts lithium
collapsing nebula lips.
The crow, the cup,
the snake in the sky.
At the head of Cancer,
emitting x-rays. Interior,
the same, yet no chemical
differentiation by depth.
Exoplanet attics dim
her for the release. Solar
bound. Cools and darkens
steadily over a lifetime. The peaking
cream-filled girl locates Hydra
in the vein orbs of her breasts.
Apollo still against her. Never to return
To the sea. A drink to the failed
star. A peculiar cool star.
Not like normal stars.