Quantum poetics (revised and expanded 2020)
2009 EDITOR’S NOTE. As is true in many cases, Catanzano’s poetics exists side-by-side with her poems in which the intersection between poetry and science plays itself out in a contemporary, even futuristic, form. The key work at present is her Multiversal (Fordham University Press, 2009), of which Michael Palmer writes by way of introduction:
Amy Catanzano offers us a poetic vision of multiple orders and multiple forms, of a fluid time set loose from linearity and an open space that is motile and multidimensional. The work exists at once in a future-past and in a variety of temporal modes. … In a time of displacement such as ours, she seems to say, in place of ‘universals’ we must imagine ‘multiversals,’ in place of the fixed, the metamorphic. … ‘A blaze within a tighter blaze, engulfed.’ ‘Earth pivots on a pearl.’
For a further take on the poetry-science connection as it first came into a radical poetics, check out the posting here on Goethe, Shelley, and others — a dissolution of boundaries that continues into the present. — Jerome Rothenberg
2020 EDITOR’S NOTE. Above is how I handled the presentation of Catanzano’s work a decade ago, not realizing the strides she would make in the intervening years — most notably through a series of interventions and residencies at major observatories and scientific research centers: among them, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University. From this came a further outflow of work and the composition of poems and poetics that went beyond metaphor to the investigative urgency of Olson’s dictum from Herodotus: “to find out for oneself … instead of depending on hearsay.”
Accordingly, then, along with her own projects, she is collaborating on literary-scientific projects with scientists at CERN and elsewhere and has prepared a revised and expanded edition of all of her essays, and “essay-poems,” on quantum poetics. These include those first published here between 2009 and 2012, accessible now in an updated edition presented by Poems and Poetics. Her author’s note and opening essay of this edition appear below. — Jerome Rothenberg
Amy Catanzano and Satya Gontcho A Gontcho in collaboration at the Entanglements Conference,
convened by Catanzano at Wake Forest University, 2019. Gontcho A Gontcho and Catanzano met at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, where Gontcho A Gontcho, an astrophysicist and Odissi dancer, was working, and Catanzano was conducting research on the Dark Energy Survey.
2020 AUTHOR’S NOTE. Since Jerome Rothenberg published my first essays in quantum poetics in Poems and Poetics, I have extended those investigations into an integrated theory-praxis where I develop literary projects in parallel to physics and cosmology, the philosophy of language, and the literary and artistic subcultures of the avant garde. Today, my work in quantum poetics progresses as part of each new project I undertake. While the term “quantum poetics” has been invoked by scholars and writers such as Daniel Albright to discuss modernist poets, Stephanie Strickland to discuss digital poetry, and Gwyneth Lewis to discuss poetic form, among others, what distinguishes my use of the phrase is its signification of an integrated literary theory and writing practice that is centered on quantum theory and related physics and informed by my research on cutting-edge science, my funded site visits to scientific research institutes, and my collaborations with scientists in addition to my independent projects.
Quantum poetics occurs within a long literary tradition of poets who have responded to science. My work departs from some of the conventions of this tradition in its speculative focus on the literal in relation to both the structure of matter in physics and the materiality of language in poetics. As a result of this focus, my work in quantum poetics aims to challenge normative notions of language, spacetime, and reality while expanding how modes such as ecopoetics, new materialisms, feminist poetics, ’pataphysics, Language writing, conceptual writing, and posthumanism — as well as scientific fields such as particle physics, quantum computing, and astrophysics — are theorized and conducted.
Though the notion of “the quantum” is now recognized as nearly ubiquitous in contemporary fiction and the arts, an issue examined by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber in The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty (2014) and others, and while references to quantum theory occur across social realms, my work in quantum poetics uniquely explores quantum theory and related physics through the literary art form of poetry, as well as in poetically expanded subgenres, such as investigative poetics, intergenre fiction, transdisciplinary texts, and transmedia literary art. In this multimodal literary practice, I experiment with literary and artistic form, content, methodology, and theory in direct relation to scientific experiments and theories in physics, such as quantum mechanics and quantum computing, relativity, the Standard Model of physics and beyond Standard Model phenomenology, high-energy particle physics, astrophysics, and more.
In addition to my essays and essay-poems in quantum poetics, my independent projects include two published books of poetry that evoke, in part, science and its philosophical dimensions, a published intergenre novella that combines poetry with fiction and uses scientific definitions of spacetime as a literary device, a published poem whose poetic form is based on a model of a topological quantum computer, an exhibited digital poem on wave-particle duality, and poems that explore other aspects of science. My current collaborative projects with scientists include a discussion project on ambiguity in poetry and physics, a proposed hybrid poetry-particle physics experiment, and a computational version of my quantum computer poem that is being developed with artificial intelligence programs and quantum script writing.
The 2020 edition of Quantum Poetics presents my early thinking with revisions and elaborations. I am grateful to Rothenberg for his support of this work, which came about from our participation in a panel on the topic of “wilderness” at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. In preliminary discussions, I suggested that the concept of wilderness should include ordinarily invisible environments such as subatomic and cosmological space. He shared his book of poetry, The Book of Concealments (Chax Press, 2004), a follow-up to A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2003), which suppresses the first-person pronoun toward an “intimation … of an imagined world embedded into the real one.” We considered his procedural literary constraint as an expression of dark matter and dark energy, which comprise about 97 percent of the known universe. When I shared my essays in quantum poetics that I had written a year or so before, he offered to publish them in Poems and Poetics. This support motivated me to maximize the creative and scholarly potential of my essays, which led to my development of quantum poetics as a larger critical-creative practice.
Since my intended readership for this work has always been situated across fields to include scientists, writers, artists, and scholars, in addition to enthusiasts of poetry, science, and the arts, I provide accessible information on these fields, which at times may appear common to experts but is necessary to those who are not. — Amy Catanzano
QUANTUM POETICS: WRITING THE SPEED OF LIGHT
2009–2012, revised and expanded 2020
The more I apply principles in physics to poetry, the more I question the spacetime of my own poems. I also have new questions of the poems I am reading: How does gravity behave? Where does the poem’s universe warp? Broader questions surface: Is poetry a form of space/time travel? What are the implications of using a causality-based language in a universe where, through telescopes, the farther we look into space the farther we are looking back into time? By this I mean: telescopes are time machines.
When we look into space from our relative position on Earth, we are looking back into time by viewing objects in space whose light reaches us as they existed in the past. Since these objects are viewed when their light arrives to us, we not only see these objects as they existed in the past, but the version of these objects we have yet to see is in our future. Since it takes about eight minutes for the light from the sun to reach our eyes, the sun is in our past by eight minutes. When we are seen by an observer, we are not only being observed as we were in our past, since this light takes time to reach others, but the version of ourselves that has yet to be observed, but which exists for us, is in the observer’s future, since light travels. Should we be seen by an observer in outer space, we would exist in that observer’s past, just as objects in space exist in our past. Each object in the known universe exists in both the future and the past of other objects but never quite in the myth of the present, which cannot independently exist due to the delay in light travel, which, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity, occurs throughout the known universe. Nothing, it is theorized, travels faster than light.
Despite the delay in light travel that makes everything we observe on Earth and in outer space a part of our past, we measure how far away objects are from one another on our planet with units like miles and meters that do not take into account how far away these objects are in time. We have separate measurements for time, using units such as minutes and seconds, that are disconnected from units of space. But when measuring objects in outer space, we acknowledge that space and time must be treated as one since spacetime, as defined in relativity, is a unified construct made of the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time, known as the fourth dimension.
The determination of how far away an object is from Earth is made by observing the object’s redshift, measured by the expansion of the known universe in relation to the object’s light spectrum. The unit of measurement that is used to describe the distance of objects from Earth, a unit of spacetime, is known as light-years, a word made by combining a unit of space (“light”) with a unit of time (“years”). In cosmology, light-years is the distance that measures how far light travels in one year in the vacuum of space. In quantum theory, an observer or apparatus of measurement affects the position and momentum of subatomic particles that are being measured. The future position and momentum of subatomic particles can only be predicted by physicists through probabilities and never known with certainty. In both relativity’s discovery of how spacetime behaves at cosmological scales and in quantum theory’s discovery of the principle of indeterminacy, known as the uncertainty principle, which describes how particles behave at subatomic scales, language plays a key but undervalued role.
Under these ambiguities of spacetime, matter, and measurement, can we describe what is happening? In Happily (2000) and The Fatalist (2003), Lyn Hejinian writes, “‘This is happening’” and “All that happened is what is happening,” perhaps intentionally or intuitively evoking the delay in light travel. Is it possible to write what is happening? This is a question about what defines the present and the parameters of language, spacetime, and reality. It is also a question about how what is happening is not only what is happening on Earth and what may appear to be happening through subjective, objective, and consensus perspectives.
According to the theory of the Big Bang as well as data from space probes and other evidence, the known universe has been expanding from a dimensionless point of extreme density and temperature for 13.8 billion years. Matter, gravity, and electromagnetic forces coalesced, introducing novel elements into the universe. Each novel configuration of matter, from subatomic particles to solar systems, marks an increase in spatial and temporal complexity as the universe expands, which it is doing at accelerating rates. Terence McKenna once proposed that the most novel form of matter in the universe is situated behind our eyes. If this is even somewhat accurate, the phenomenon of novelty is a trait and force of evolution. When novelty is expressed through the action of innovative language in poetry, which is an activity of perception, it becomes one way of understanding human consciousness and what is happening.
In his book, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (2001), Leonard Shlain explains how in geometry Euclid codified space into an abstract field of knowledge where abstract thought is conceived through diagrams. Space is organized as if its points could be connected by an imaginary web of straight lines that do not exist in the natural world. Whereas Euclid articulated linear space, Shlain points out, Aristotle articulated linear time. Just as imaginary lines in nature became the key to Euclidian space, concepts such as sequence, duration, past, present, and future became the key to Aristotelian time. Based on his notions of linear time and Euclid’s notions of linear space, Aristotle developed rules of logic and problem-solving techniques using syllogisms, if-then hypotheses. Aristotelian time and Euclidian space have greatly influenced Western civilization, including Newtonian physics, also known as classical mechanics, initiated by Isaac Newton and based on the scientific method, which requires hypotheses to be tested through experiment, measurement, observation, and analysis. Newtonian classical mechanics, like other mechanics in physics, attempts to systematically describe the natural world in mathematical relationships.
Shlain argues that breakthroughs in the natural sciences have often happened at the same time as similar breakthroughs in visual art in Western civilization. For example, when the development of perspective by the Renaissance painters through a single vanishing point gave the field of visual art the third dimension of depth, rejecting years of flat depictions of space and time that were common in the religious, medieval art of the Dark Ages, the scientific method arose from measuring nature through observations dependent on realistic perspectives. Similarly, Shlain examines, Einstein developed his theory of special relativity, which describes the relationship of space and time, within a few years of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developing cubism, the modernist visual art movement that experiments with space and time in paintings and other artforms.
Shlain notes that Einstein’s theories of relativity asked a new question, one that usurped thousands of years of Euclidian space and Aristotelian time by offering a new framework in which to understand space and time and how they interact. This radical question that Einstein’s theories asked is: How would the world look to someone sitting astride a beam of light?
while light travels
in a straight line
at the speed of light
a poem written
astride it would not
and while the world would no longer be
the world (and it never
at the speed
a piece of paper
from an edge
are no pre-
Shlain discusses how Picasso and Braque, through cubism, and Einstein, through relativity, imagined that all points in space along a path of observation simultaneously occupy the same location. In his theory of general relativity, Einstein explained how the world might look to someone with access to all perspectives at the same time, collapsing ordinary distinctions between and within time and space. In early cubist art such as Braque’s Pedestal Table (1911), objects can be viewed from multiple angles at the same time, fractured into visual fragments and rearranged so that the viewer does not have to move through space in time in order to view multiple angles of the objects in a linear sequence. While the viewer sees different angles or sides of the object at the same time on the canvas, they remain stationary, reversing a more typical experience with sculpture in three-dimensional space where a viewer must move around an object to see all or most of its angles or sides. In both cubism and relativity, space and time appear relative and inseparable, uniting in a new dimension, the fourth dimension, and leading to a new word for this dimension, “spacetime,” where Euclidian and Aristotelian notions of space and time — those of linearity, sequence, duration, and conventional logic — have no meaning. What Shlain does not acknowledge is that poets have made similar discoveries. In developing and responding to new conceptions of reality, poets create not only words but new units of measurement in novel configurations of language, known as poems: “All clocks are clouds.” “A and Not-A are the same.”
[Read “The Multiverse,” the next installment of Catanzano’s Quantum Poetics (2020) on Gertrude Stein and the fourth dimension, the relationship of quantum theory and relativity, string theory and poetic logic, and how poetry can uniquely explore physics, presented by Poems and Poetics here.]