Magical correspondences, part 1 of 6

Image by Andrew Joron of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zer
Image by Andrew Joron of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zeros and almost-zeros on nearby objects.

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. 

See also parts two, three, four, five, and six.

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Hi Amy,

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.

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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.