Magical correspondences, part 2 of 6

Image by Andrew Joron of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zer
Image by Andrew Joron (with alterations by Amy Catanzano) of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zeros and almost-zeros on nearby objects.

What follows is part two 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 one, three, four, five, and six.

* * *

Hi Andrew,

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:

 emergen/t/cy

            -

emergen/cy

            =

            t

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?

or, tryst!

-

st

therefore =

*try*

* * *

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.