Interviews - March 2012

Disciplinary pertinence; required expertise

Inside the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (image courtesy of CERN PhotoLab).

Which scientific discipline(s) do you find particularly helpful or urgent at the present time & why? How versed in the relevant expertise do you have to be to earn the right to use it (them) in a poem?

Armantrout: It seems to me that there are two main ways to approach the use of science in poetry. The first is empirical, the way of the specimen collector. A poet with this tendency might learn the precise names of the flora of a region and the facts about its distribution and reproduction. Or she/he might study the types of minerals and use their names and characteristics in poems. The second way is more theoretical and abstract.  I am of the second type — though I often envy the first and imagine joining that group. But I find myself interested by what happens at the boundaries of knowledge; I’m attracted to things glimpsed and only provisionally understood. So I’m drawn to theoretical physics, astrophysics, and cognitive science. I guess I like to have my mind boggled! Obviously, I’m not an expert in any of these subjects. As I said in my last answer, math is the language of physics and, regrettably, it’s a foreign language to me. I do, however, read articles in scientific journals and such books as physicists (or neurologists) write for a lay audience. Sometimes I use the language I find in such sources against itself in my work. But, even then, one doesn’t want to be an ignorant skeptic. I’ve been accused once, by someone writing in the comment stream on Silliman’s Blog, of combining angst with a “rudimentary knowledge of science” in my poems. I could say that I know of no one who is both a physicist and a poet. And if I did demonstrate an expert’s grasp of the subject, what would that look like in a poem? As Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.” But that doesn’t mean I want to be a dumb bunny either. I too  get annoyed when people use some widely known term of quantum mechanics, like, say, “the uncertainly principle,” to justify some New Age fantasy. So how well do we need to know a scientific discipline to invoke it in our poems? I’m not sure. I do know that it’s fun, for me at least, to try to understand difficult things, even if I fail. If any of you out there who know more than I do see a place where I’ve got it quite wrong, please send me an email.

Durand: Thanks for your emails. I too have gotten the “don’t write of what you don’t know of” critique when writing in and about science. BUT I very seriously disagree with this attitude. I think it’s essential to bring creativity into the realm of science. Science has become so very specialized and rigorous, with specific languages, codes, codes of behavior, rules for each specific medium, sub-medium, sub-sub-sub medium, that they risk becoming completely atomized and discrete, with no percolation, cross-pollination, or communication. There’s so much paradigm-shifting work going on in science that is not being “translated” into the common realm. While poets may not be seen as the ideal conduit for funneling scientific discoveries into general culture, in some ways, as I’ve argued before, we actually are, b/c as overlooked and under-the-radar creative practitioners, we can “play” — experimenting with juxtaposing outré (or what seems outré) scientific terms/ideas — to see what happens when placed in a poem. A poet may be the first person to use creatively a term like neutrino, and thus break it into more general usage. Quantum physics maybe especially does not have the language to fit it — maybe we poets can help with that! I’m also interested in unacknowledged creativity within the scientific community. For instance, I’ve written about “false-color views” produced by astronomers. Basically, they take streams of data — mathematical  — and “translate” them into visual images, which they then color, highlight, manipulate to indicate, say, the different kinds of gases in a star (this also happens with images of sub-particles). During some interviews I did for an essay on this, I got the impression that scientists are very hesitant to reveal there’s anything creative about this process for fear of not being taken seriously. But I found it amazing that our images of most natural phenomena are mediated in this way. (One scientist said that the data streams could be rendered as music, too, but that people most easily absorb visual representation.)

Anyway, LOTS more to say …

Armantrout: Dear Marcella,

I’ve thought about those astronomical images too. It would be wonderful to hear them rendered as music. 

Harvey: Clearly there should be no barrier to using scientific knowledge in poetry but accuracy of use has great advantages because it gives the vocabulary used greater substantiation and coherence on a wider plain. Once understood the science can then be stretched almost to breaking point or even beyond creating fantasies.

Backing up scientific models with the aural, visual and rhetorical effects, exaggeration, juxtaposition and metaphor etc. in the poem can increase the feeling of substantiality of the words and meanings (as John Cayley expressed so well with (im)materiality of language [in “Science-Informed Readings”]).

It is dealing with contents as it would behave in reality that makes using science in poetry so interesting where the same limits don’t apply. Learning about the limits of the laws of nature for the first time whilst writing a poem (and then maybe even ignoring them but being aware of them) often brings very interesting results as both are explored with their different tensions at the same time. But also fluency in a scientific discipline might bring just as interesting results when in poetry, maybe more so, and science is always exploring new concepts.

The last paragraph I wrote at the end of Question One about ‘emergence’ was rushed and needs further explication, for me at least, while it still remains poetic. Ian Stewart in “Life’s Other Secret” says “Emergence is not the absence of causality; rather, it is a web of causality so intricate that the human mind can’t grasp it.” The feeling of this for me in Apollinaire’s “little car” in the poem, is due in a large extent to the overlapping of the writing and picture on paper where the complexity of connection and influence can’t be apprehended.

The mind often ‘grasps’ things without establishing them, maybe refining an original understanding with further research, maybe not. This ‘grasping’ of the mind is closer to Goethe’s approach to science than to Bacon’s empirical approach. (I certainly would not wish to be without Goethe.) Keeping an open mind to the effects (an empirical approach) can have distinct advantages in poetry, for example when using collage.

I am most interested in Biological sciences. This is what I studied as a degree. I think it has the advantage of being of living systems. The appearance of life, in both senses, as complexity increases, limits to self-sufficiency of organisms, and how genes work with the environment, internal and external, from gravity and chemistry to predators are a few examples of what I find fascinating.

PS I’m sorry for my straying from one question to another when answering each question.

Armantrout: I’m about to go have lunch with a real astrophysicist. If I am fool enough, I will ask him two or three questions. Gilbert suggested I wear a wire, but I don’t think I’m up to that.


Well, I talked to astrophysicist Brian Keating yesterday. I left feeling a bit more confused than when I came — which I guess I should have expected. I’ve been trying to understand the concept of “branes” in string theory. Anyway, my discussion with him caused me to change a couple of lines in a poem I was writing. I guess that’s all I can expect. I sent him some follow-up questions. If he writes back anything interesting and intelligible, I’ll quote it here.

Dr. Lisa Randall visits the ATLAS experiment at CERN, 2007 (image courtesy of CERN PhotoLab).

Catanzano: Rae, thanks for your comments on my poems. Funny, I’ve been doing research on “branes” for the last few years. In 2008 I attended a lecture by Dr. Lisa Randall, a Harvard particle physicist who had just returned from CERN. She helped coin the term “brane.” From what I gathered, “brane” is short for “membrane” and describes the borders between universes; I think it also refers to the open and closed strings in the multiverse proposed by string theory. I have been playing with the homophonic possibilities of the term, the brain also being a membrane, perhaps a nonlinear border that joins rather than divides consciousness to imagination, as well as an organ that helps manage electricity within the human body. I wondered what would happen if Dr. Randall was attentive to the term as a homophone in her investigations of how branes interact with gravity and electromagnetism. In her presentation on string theory she used crude, two dimensional graphs of wiggly strings to depict eleven-dimensional concepts, asking us to “use our imaginations” to get it. I was thinking how much clearer her ideas would have been if she had, say, shown a Picasso painting to illustrate simultaneity, a Chagall painting to depict the difference between a high-gravity universe and a low-gravity universe, and Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” to illuminate how a particle might be shot around and around a high-energy accelerator …


Louis Zukofsky, photo © 1997 Elsa Dorfman at the Electronic Poetry Center.

Is there anything you want to say about poem 12 from Anew?

Adair: I’ve just re-listened to the PoemTalk program #22  that started this off, and was struck by the prominence of references to quantum physics and relativity as informing what Charles calls “the doubleness of different things” that is pervasive in the poem. I should make clear why — directly related to that — I think it’s worth looking up the meanings of the scientific term “condenser,” which my Collins dictionary at the time informed me had the following meanings:

1. an apparatus for reducing gases to liquid or solid form by abstracting (removing) heat, as in refrigerator unit;
2. a lens for concentrating light into a small area;
3. a device for accumulating an electric charge via two conducting surfaces separated by a dialectric (a nonconducting substance or insulator).

So here are devices functioning at our own molecular level, visible with the naked eye, which resonate in multiple ways with themes of the poem: gas/liquid transformations, focal perception, things that conduct force but wear down (a glimpse of entropy, which in 1944 Zukofsky could parallel with the unusable depths of the ocean floor). But I should also stress that these are definitions I can seem to understand as long as the conversation would not stray too far outside them — at which point I’d be found lacking in some basic points of knowledge.

I think that for many of us, the same could be said for quantum physics and special and general relativity; and that this poem could usefully be thot of in terms of knowledge we seem to have (inc re relativity and q.m.), that sufficiently buoys us up in limited areas. Zukofsky himself allows that as the theories become more difficult to fathom, he at once sees a plurality of things “Or nothing” — or perhaps and nothing. If he is trying to locate himself and his family in the unseeable massiveness of modern America, that is certainly relevant. I would suggest, then, that twentieth-century physics gives him a way, based in what he and we take to be reality — not religion, not anything inviting a mystical response — to be true to his own cultural experience, but that it also fascinates him in and of itself; to be able to explore what is both invisible and substantially pervasive, even as one discovers everywhere post-Newtonian metamorphoses, without straying into mysticism (or worse, the mystificatory), is in my opinion, a valuable thing.

Middleton: Although I hadn’t had time to respond to the discussion here about Louis Zukofsky’s poem, nor to listen to the talk that sparked this off, I thought I knew where I stood. It did make sense to look up the meaning of the word condenser if you were not aware of its various scientific usages especially as an earlier term for capacitor, one of the staples of almost any electronic circuit, but the poem quickly moved past issues of definition. And it probably made as much sense to have in mind the condenser homonymically almost present in Pound’s aphorism “dichten = condensare,” or the line describing the poet’s workshop as a “condensery” written by Lorine Niedecker, a close friend and correspondent of Zukofsky, as the dictionary definitions. But then as chance would have it I picked up a book published in 1940, Why Smash Atoms? by A. K. Solomon (and later reprinted in Pelican) from a charity bookstall in what remains of the cloister at Winchester Cathedral, and realized that there is a whole chapter on condensers and their crucial role in the development of “atom smashers.” We are told endearingly that “a simple glass fruit-jar coated on the bottom and halfway up the inside and out with tinfoil makes a serviceable Leyden jar, a condenser,” as if we might be considering our kitchen table cyclotron. And reading the chapter I grasped that condensers were exciting things back in the early 1940s when Zukofsky composed his poem, and that the small condensers that smooth electric currents and act as gateways in radio and amplifier circuits to pass alternating currents and stop direct currents, are distant relations to the large condensers that step up voltages across their spark gaps to create the two million volt discharges used to study nuclei. These large condensers apparently created laboratory environments that looked “like a Hollywood director’s idea of the world of tomorrow.” I don’t know if Zukofsky read this particular book (it’s more likely he read Rutherford’s The Newer Alchemy), but finding it, and reading it alongside Zukofsky re-emphasised for me the importance of understanding the changing history of sciences that have influenced poets. So I think we do need (someone) to look up condenser, not only in a dictionary, but also in the sciences of his time.

I had also previously written a couple of paragraphs on Zukofsky’s poem for my book on science and poetry. It’s a poem that I love for its unusual combination of scrupulous attention to an accurate rendition of the complexities of physics, and avoidance of simply appropriating the metaphors for one’s own expressive purposes, with a willingness to admit to one’s own limitations that include the tendency to substitute easier images for the obscurities, and to be tempted into other sorts of physics envy. This is some of what I wrote. (It seems inadequate in the face of the waves of certainty and uncertainty in the poem, and I haven’t tried to mitigate the expository tone. Apologies!)

Zukofsky’s theme in this brilliant poem is the experience of trying hard to learn more about the new physics and its wave/particle hypothesis, and realizing that this science demands a continual relearning of what you thought you had understood. In the first part of the poem he adopts the tone of a patient expositor speaking from a position of knowledge. As someone familiar with electronics and the workings of capacitors or condensers, a writer of technical manuals, he feels confident at first that he can extrapolate his understanding of the new science of wave/particle fields. So he takes an image familiar to everyone, the wave motion of the sea, and links it to the more technical but still reasonably familiar idea of the condenser that works with the wave motions of electrons. How strange that light can have waves like the sea and yet can also be studied as material particles, invisible motes. Then he reflects on what it is like to engage with this science by comparing the awkwardness of the poet and nonscientist to the difficulty anyone encounters when gathering the blossoms of a tiny weed that falls off the stem as you try and pick it. The poem’s clever use of such traditional poetic metaphors in this new context underlines the sense of strain involved in trying to understand quantum mechanics. Zukofsky’s poem addresses the problem that Daniel Tiffany calls “the crisis of the equation of materialism and realism” made acute by the new physics: “as long as quantum mechanics failed to provide pictures of an invisible material world, it failed to constitute a new reality.” (Toy Medium, 268) Atoms were difficult enough to visualize; quantum effects resist modeling altogether. In the final lines of the poem Zukofsky folds the poem back on its author, the poet attempting not to be surprised into ignorance by the dilemma of a theory about the supersensible that exceeds the capacity of even the skill of poetry to find a cognitive diagram. The new science reduces him to the wonderment of a child when he realizes that there is “nothing” to see, a feeling of helplessness compounded by the need to keep learning afresh because the rapid growth of scientific knowledge constantly overturns previous facts and certainties. Knowledge of this kind appears to offer no more than a speculative “perhaps.” For Zukofsky, sciences like the new physics challenge the poet because they can carelessly undermine the bonds between sensory experience and understanding. One task for poets is therefore to rethink poetry’s relation to knowledge.

Armantrout: I wonder, was Zukofsky one of the first poets to struggle to understand the quantum world using images? I’m moved by the poem’s earnestness and modesty, the way he tries very sincerely to understand — and then recognizes defeat. It’s natural that he tries to conceive of what he’s reading about quantum mechanics in terms of what he already knows about science, about waves, about electricity, etc. But can an electric charge or “stress” be “worn down” like a common physical object? In lines 25–34 he stops trying to understand the new physics in the terms of whatever science he’s learned previously, and he moves farther afield to the image of the weed with its many, tiny seeds, impossible to count, easily “shed to the touch.” This is an image of the quantum (I suppose) before which he surrenders. The rest of the poem is about realizing that he’s faced with something he can’t grasp. That experience feels strange to him.

We, on the other hand, come prepared for the bizarre. We’re pre-defeated and ready to enjoy our quandary. Maybe we’re too ready to embrace what we don’t get as some version of “mystery.” As for me, I really do try to follow the latest version of string theory, say, but I know that bafflement is waiting around the next corner. When I write poetry in response to my bafflement which I do, I will sometimes turn to the absurd at that point, or the ludic, let the poem take a pratfall, make myself the butt of a cosmic joke, if that’s how it’s got to be.

Harvey: Looking up and trying to understand the science in Anew 12, although not needed to a great depth for a basic understanding of the poem, can play a part in the experiencing of the poem. The waves, particles and condensers etc. are held together by the language with enough flexibility for more detailed understanding of the parts to be acknowledged, and the poem still work/conduct/cohere.

But there comes a point, implied with the delicacy of the flowers on one stalk metaphor, where a limit is being reached, all this might be lost. This might be a limit of the following: of the reader’s understanding, experiencing the poem and trying to understand the science; of Zukofsky’s recall and personal understanding at the time of writing; of scientists’ understanding so far; of the tractability of the science, that can’t be put into words, or all these at once.

And these can also paradoxically be acknowledged by this poem.

The fragile flowers on one stalk metaphor brings to mind dendritic growth. The plant growing hitting a point in its own structure and the outside environment where its symmetry is broken, but if it carries on growing becomes a more complicated structure.

The mind of the artist and the scientist come together at this point: with how far do they understand the system they are looking at at one time? Do they understand what they are looking at well enough to move the parts around in respect to each other, their symmetry, well enough to form a model that includes all the parts that will stay in the mind long enough to be recorded? How much can they lose, or want to lose, and the system, however loose or limited, still cohere?

To reiterate what I wrote in my earlier response to question one, by quoting Eric Mottram — and I have had to reconsider much taking part in this forum which I thank everyone for — that scientists do more than measure they also design.

Catanzano: Gilbert asked me to discuss the tesseract image in my borealis, and I will, but first:

Rae’s earlier comments about the turn in Zukofsky’s poem, when the discussion of the science dissolves through the image of the innumerable seeds of the weed — when the unfamiliar experience isn’t understood — Rae points out our acceptance of bafflement and how this can turn her toward the absurd. I think about Alfred Jarry, as I often do!, and how his exposition of absurdity branches the fantastical to the point that I no longer expect bafflement but ease into “learning” his language of infinite combinations, which changes my relationship to the unknown, in the poem and in life, because I am no longer measuring what I don’t understand against the flower’s hard stem. The innumerable seeds introduce a novel approach to understanding that can’t be, like the child at the end of Zukofsky’s poem, stared at by ordinary means. Absurdity, a playful acceptance of the unknown, becomes an eye for learning, and it might also be why poems grow and die like Zukofsky’s “nothing / Which is a forever,” why Rae makes herself “the butt of a cosmic joke, if that’s how it’s got to be,” because by surrendering to “nothing,” which is a “forever,” to the space (“nothing”) time (“forever”) of physical reality — to the spacetime of physics — we can be time machines, we can turn the “pages back.” If we are lucky, if we are like Zukofsky in his poem, we don’t have to turn to the “last” page as if it were a precipice. The absurdity of the book keeps us gathering somewhere/nowhere in the middle (defined broadly as between the first and last page) until we see that the book is more like a “sea” than a perfect-bound (or saddle-stitched or duct-taped or hand-sewn or digitally-mastered) “speck.” This might make us simultaneously shipwrecked (via Oppen) while sailing to the dangerous ocean’s “edge” (via “Columbus”) until we get there, of course, because we are poets. The horizon keeps on bending. If we are more than lucky, if we are “… like another, and another, who has finished learning / and just begun to learn,” we feel the strength of the salt air …

I struggle with how to “teach” this to my students. The writing exercises, the readings, the thought experiments, the programs, the politics: how do they account for Zukofsky’s nothingforever?

My question about teaching relates to my discovery of the tesseract as a cipher for one of the writers in my borealis. Gilbert asked me to write to our group about my tesseract, but it’s personal, so I must cipher my comments about the cipher. You know.

A tesseract is a 4-D analogue of a cube. Think Salvador Dali’s hybercube christ or Doctor Who’s police box, which is bigger on the inside than the outside. The idea of a tesseract has always been important to me, because poems can be bigger on the inside than the outside. They can alter what I call the “spacetime of the page” in ways that subvert the page as a 2-D context by becoming hyperdimensional. I suspect poems can also affect spacetime, not just the spacetime of the page. This might account for my recent interest in experimenting outside of the page. Which is to say I think poems affect physical reality, hence my interest in physics. So, for me, the tesseract is a metaphor for the poem on one scale, and it’s also a simile, which can approximate physical reality but cannot fully describe it. As such, the tesseract operates at the parameters of perception. The writer I selected to be represented by the tesseract in my borealis also performs his poetry like a line of demarcation. I have a poem titled, “Borealis: Working Notes,” which describes my relationship to the tesseract more than these notes can attempt. Maybe I’ll post it [see the “Poetry Supplement” for the poem].

Retallack: I’ve enjoyed and benefited from reading the five responses to Anew 12. (Are there others? I’ve had difficulties — not only temporal — getting around this website and feel sure there’s much I’ve missed.) A reply to Amy’s pedagogical question — I think a good way to start with this poem in a class — after reading it many times over and discussing and writing “first thoughts” and a “need to know” list — would be to direct students to these responses.

I hereby throw a speculative response into the cauldron.

Puzzling over 12 in conjunction with these readings reminds me how much the work of productive attention — interpretive/associative/researched — requires trust in the author. If one considers 12 an investigative or exploratory poem and, so to speak, takes the poet at his word — then one notices a poet who is wondering in a state of partial knowledge about quantum mechanics as though in a constrained thought experiment, locked in a room without access to books or a friendly physicist eager to explain.

One way to construe this is that the poet is conducting an experimental wager: I will try to understand as much as I can about quantum physics by way of my present fund of poetic knowledge and poetic praxis, nothing more or less. Could this be an enactment of the radical question whether one can come to know certain things by means of poetry alone? Where poetic language is believed to be so funded with intuition, so coherent with the collective consciousness of the times, so intimate with the harmonics of nature, that the following, akin to a Pythagorean system of progressive relations among numbers, can occur: The lettristic first line where “see” and “sea” are permutative variations analogous to the visual presence of “sea” being physiologically dependent on “see” situates the mind itself as a kind of condenser, with its reception and selection processes of all (sound and light waves) the air brings its way. From this position of the mind’s acute receptivity — e.g., to the flowers further along — any instance (mote) radiates limitless possibily.

Specks and motes, of course are metaphors in this context, they don’t behave like particles in complementarity with quantum mechanical waves which are particles just as particles are waves. I’ve come to feel that Zukofsky is not really seeking after the technical terms or the technical knowledge they point to in descriptions of how quantum mechanics works. It seems, if this is a thought experiment of the sort I’ve suggested (and it may not be), Zukofsky doesn’t care if it fails. Or perhaps wants it to fail. He seems to exit the pressures of theoretical physics with a kind of poetic abandon, even a touch of the romantic, bypassing (lower limit?) science for (upper limit?) poetry. He knows his experimental (applied) physics — that of condensers. He knows that frequencies (radio waves) become sound that’s more pleasing with the assistance of condensers. It’s the music he cares about; quantum mechanics may explain something about the action of “phonons,” and “photons” but it doesn’t explain the beauty of the sound, nor does it help with the experience of the “sea” that “see” can become in the transit of light to the retina; nor the experience of the delicious splitting of the homophones see/sea which implies the separation of the presence that is seen from the presence that is heard. We know from physicists that one sees the sea before one hears it. The explanation for that scientific fact doesn’t seem to interest LZ. It’s a speed differential that one can’t register on an experiential level as one can register one’s (and one’s loved one’s) response to a field of flowers. The science in that, as presented in 12, is entirely metaphorical.

More Qs: What is Zukofsky’s (or his persona’s) position with respect to the state of his knowledge as temporally bracketed in this poem? The things he suggests he does and doesn’t know don’t necessarily point to the facts of physics — applied or classical or quantum. On the evidence of Anew 12, I somehow don’t really think Zukofsky wants to learn quantum physics. “Waves of a speck of sea” isn’t quantum physics. Everything about that line, including “or what,” strikes me as humor. What meaning does the poet wish to turn to? It seems he has turned to an observable aesthetics, away from theory by the end of the poem. Though there is that final “Perhaps.” The puzzle doesn’t end, perhaps the thought experiment goes on and it is called poetry of a certain kind, whose relation to science is in question.

Note: before writing this, I went to Mark Scroggins’s Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Could find nothing about Anew 12, condensers, quantum physics, science … Next went to a clunky book I’ve had for almost forty years — The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology — to review the many kinds of condensers and their pretty diagrams. Next I went to an article on the web on condensers in radio transmission and, after a bit more muddling about, to the excerpt I’ve pasted below. All the while more and more aware of the fact that LZ (or his persona) could have done the equivalent of this kind of search, but clearly chose not to.

Electromagnetic waves and sound waves have an obvious resemblance, and the concepts and techniques used in optics are often brought into the acoustic domain and vice versa. One can immediately think of the obvious correspondences between acoustic and optical microscopes, between radar and sonar, and such concepts as electrical and acoustic impedances, all of which highlight this “son et lumière” similarity. Using the language of classical physics, this similarity is a consequence of the fact that the same wave equation governs oscillations of atoms, ions, and molecules in a sound wave and the oscillation of electrical and magnetic fields in an optical wave. And in the language of modern quantum physics the basic quanta of light (photons) and sound (phonons) obey the same rules describing all bosons — particles with integer spin. The most striking consequence of the quantum nature of light is the ability of matter to emit coherent photons of identical frequencies and phases, a process predicted in 1917 by Albert Einstein, who called it “stimulated emission.” (Jacob B. Khurgin, “Phonon Lasers Gain a Sound Foundation,” American Physical Society, February 22, 2010)

Definition of basics

Nick Montfort with the code for his "PPG-256-1 (Perl Poetry Generator in 256 characters)."

Cayley: Although not writing in ignorance of the questions that have been addressed to us and some of the responses, forgive me if, for a further contribution, I continue with a second part to the prose I began in my last posting, while nonetheless using Gilbert’s “Do you find that words are sufficient … ?” as a particular stimulus. In some sense, after all, I’m here to represent writing [in/of/for] digital[/other] media.

When I wrote, previously, that “language is the medium of poetry,” there might seem to be an implication that words are sufficient. They are. Poetry is, chiefly, aesthetic symbolic practice played out in the specific human-cultural domain of language. Many linguistics will say, with Chao Yuen Ren, that “Language is linear. It is one-dimensional.”[1] Language is, in my own interpretation of this claim, linear at the temporally moving instants of both production and reception. It would be a little more accurate to say that, at these moments, it is two-dimensional, having one of extension and one of time. I agree that this quality is fundamental to language, and that any nonlinearity or extra-dimensionality of syntactic constructs (like this one) is a matter of pre- and post-production and that, more fundamentally, extra dimensions of language are both indeterminate and divorced from any materiality of language that is proper to it, at least in the sense that a linguist (a type of scientist) would acknowledge. However this ‘proper’ materiality of language is purely historical and most linguists would agree with me unreservedly when I wrote that “any relationship between language and media is arbitrary.” I did mean any relation including the culturally (conventionally) recognized association of words with particular significance and affect. The linguist studies an arbitrary, indeterminate but historically inscribed materiality, while bracketing extra-arbitrary, extra-indeterminate dimensions of language that are also conventional (dependent on human discursive agreements) but which are generated at multiple indeterminate and arbitrary points of production and reception. Words are sufficient, but anything can be a word, in any number of dimensions.

There has to be a (back)ground against which the traces of these other dimensions can be remarked. I’m already going deeper than I wanted, and so I will desist from further amateur philosophy (philosophy=science? linguistic philosophy=science?) by asserting that the ground we need consists in those “operations of our subjectivities … typically … deemed to be private or internal.” “The trick of being alive is something about having an outside which can be witnessed, and an inside that can’t.”[2] I do seem to be claiming that science-as-technological-mediation engages with poetry at precisely the point where science-as-affectless-denial-of-an-inside is least capable of bearing witness to any potential blossomings of virtuality and aesthetics.

(Self-)sufficient words generate extra-dimensionalities of language. Moreover, just as ‘mere’ convention establishes particular natural languages as uncontested objects of scientific study, there is an extra sufficiency of habitual literary practice that allows other dimensions of texts to be distinctly appreciable — to criticism, if not to science. Singularly, traditionally, these dimensions remain ‘beyond’ the words themselves, emergent as a function of humanistic interpretation. Such phenomena exist, virtually. New media may, arbitrarily, materialize virtual dimensions of poetic practice, and this is what we have seen taking place — selectively, arbitrarily — since programmable machines became accessible to writers. To take an obvious example: the screen-based temporal presentation of textual events materializes a virtual performativity of graphic writing practices, both remediating and recalling actual performances of orality, and restoring a restructured time-based dimension to language, one that is at least ostensibly or potentially more complex than the apparently resolved or resolvable linearity of print. In general, this restructuring, in language, of the human culture of time is, in my opinion, one of the few recent developments in aesthetic language practices that requires a fundamental rethinking of the object of literary criticism — of those that are enabled by programmable media, that is. More and more (poetic) writing will be, literally, materially, time-based, and it will be inappropriate if not impossible to address many literary objects/processes as established texts, or as texts in a ‘before,’ ‘after,’ or any other state.

But even this vital, inalienable, if until recently ‘stunned,’ dimension of written language was always, I would claim, virtually present and available to all language practice, regardless of media. This is equally true of the familiar varieties of simultaneous relationship between linguistic items, such as those described as metaphoric. They are ever-present effervescent lexical and allusive tori, haloing the syntagmatic flow. Despite and apart from any technological ‘affordances,’ the flow remains capable of generating a bewildering and uncharted variety of significant and affective dimensions. This makes it difficult for any particular technology to gain an established status. For me, recently, one proof of this strange state of affairs has been revealed in the disregard or, perhaps, misdirected regard that writers have for typography as a productive dimension of writing. Typographic sensitivity is taken as evidence for attention to the graphic materiality of language (a problematic concept: is the materiality graphic or linguistic?); whereas I believe that the typographic is an established, but insufficiently acknowledged dimension of linguistic practice, a structured field in which syntagmatic flow has long been seen and felt to exist, and which allows it to generate and elaborate significant and affective relations precisely in a typographic dimension that is oblique to both time and syntactic extension. Further proof that this historically established practice is not sufficiently appreciated is demonstrated by the common practice of ditching established typographic principles as soon as other new technologies become available; I mean technologies that may be seen to serve the relational purposes typography once served, or that highlight other ‘newer’ or more fashionable textual relations. The situation may be improving, but think of the standard unschooled typographic engagement of animated, kinetic textuality — more concerned with concrete poetic figures (language-as-graphics miming animate, kinetic objects) than with poetics per se (assuming poetics represents thinking through aesthetic linguistic practice from a comprehensive and open perspective).

Thus, a recent long-term collaboration, with Daniel C. Howe, still in its initial stages, The Readers Project, is, in some measure, a poetic exploration and visualization of the typographic dimension of selected linguistic practices. However, more importantly for the present discussion, other aspects of this project exemplify certain ways in which programmable media, accessing indexed language on the Internet, enable different modes of engagement with poetic process. It’s conceivable to me that these generative modes can be characterized in terms of what we currently recognize as practices of science.

Procedure is well established as an aspect of innovative poetic practice and in so far as procedure is an externalization and objectification of compositional artifice — the fabrication of poetic automata — it may share the pretended affectlessness of science, although at the risk of literary inconsequence, unless, for example, a demonstrable mastery of arbitrary formal constraint redeems a ludic gesture as high art. Think OuLiPo. But arguably, and arguably only recently, digitally mediated access to language in the sense of an implicitly comprehensive (all of the Net) indexed corpus allows a significant shift in the relationship between procedure and language as such. Rather than seeing procedural poetry as a literalization of the “machine made of words” we might think of certain procedures or processes as poetically, aesthetically inclined instruments for observing and manipulating language, ways of working with the external world of language that allows us to see differently. Here I mean instrument in the sense of scientific instrument, rather than musical; not something you play in order to be able to make or recite a distinct piece of art in performance, but a construction that alters our perception of whatever is presented to us, in this case language, allowing us to perceive and experience what is already there and to know it differently, if not necessarily ‘better.’

Is it the case that one of those things that the indexed Internet allows us to do is to have a sense of an ‘all of language’ in the manner that we have a sense of the all of nature? Those instruments of science that have been developed during and since the enlightenment have only relatively recently given us a generative sense of “all of our (spherical) earth,” orbiting a star, in a galaxy, in an expanding universe, (im)possibly one of innumerable multiverses. Now, although what is visible language — like visible matter — is only a tiny faction of the dark words that must surely be everywhere, nonetheless our perspective has been shifted radically by the existence of the Net and by the instruments at our near-free disposal which index and structure this universe.

And does this now entail our being able to see language as more like nature than we had previously? Perhaps even more at one with nature than we had considered? I mean this not in terms of any spurious human/natural dichotomy, but in terms of what the Chinese have called ziran, the “self-so,” phenomena which simply are what they are, lacking any concern for the human or whatever-might-be-opposed-to-it, for the outside-inside subjective dialectics of any particular living species.

I find myself implicitly making great claims for what, in terms of actual poetic production are still only tiny gestures. I’m appending a few texts made using very simple programs. There is an explicit intention here, inspired in part by Nick Montfort’s more OuLiPian ppg256 project, to keep the engineered artifice of the machine itself as compact and as simple as possible, allowing structures in language itself to be revealed by these instruments, like lenses that simply magnify the images passing through them; always assuming there is present a complementary perceptual system — an eye or a poetic sensibility — to further appreciate the resulting anamorphic retinal impressions.

Or, if I could, I would make a programmatic instrument that was like the naturally articulated granite outcrop of a small lakeland island, where light, breeze-formed waves of language would ebb and flow in chaotically braided coils, through faults and channels in the long-worn rock. Watching and listening to this moving water: Is this science? Or poetry? What is the knowledge or aesthetics that such processes enfold?

Zero-Count Stitcher 1 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 7 • 8

knuckles graze bare
me here hung
empty water yet
reaches out hung
knowledge — halyard
alone to seagulls
hovers over island
bare island shallows
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged

edge by expectant
knowledge — halyard
alone to seagulls
hovers over island
bare island shallows
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged

imagined ochres later
reach this wondering
wondering in lost
other happy grasp
he falls pilgrim
until he misspelt
words drifting only
reached her top-sail
to entropy child
sinking and pitched
that gives hovers
his hand mouthful
until he misspelt
words drifting why
until he misspelt
words drifting pictures

Neurath’s pilgrim choking
her first selves
selves and landings
though unfocused pulled
turning the cushion-shaped
stone which textuality
that gives hovers
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
rock from lacing
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged

circling turning hold
overboard and body
pulled back entropy
just below tracing
his hand mouthful
out then islanded
knowledge — halyard
through empty circling
just below tracing
her first selves
breaks the asked
wondering in lost
words drifting only
near her granite
her first selves
reaches out hung
another father expected
misunderstanding and texts
another father expected
her first selves
breaks the asked
her waist halyard
breaks the asked
pulled back entropy
just below tracing
that gives hovers
hovers over pine
rock from lacing
until he misspelt
her first selves
overboard and islanded

words drifting corpse
out then islanded
knowledge — halyard
turns in misunderstanding
words drifting darkness
he falls pilgrim
wondering in lost
reach that pilgrim
reached her circling
hand hovers selves
knowledge — halyard
swim his ledge
a choking pine
he falls pilgrim
just below tracing
me here hung
her waist halyard
until he misspelt
words drifting darkness
reached it sloping
edge by expectant

Thousands of specially constructed three-word phrases, named in the course of our developing practice digrams, were generated from John Cayley’s prose poem “Misspelt Landings” by combining all of this text’s two-word syntagms with every unique word in the text. (“ — ” was at this point treated as a ‘word.’) These were then searched-for programmatically, double-quoted, in Google Books (shamelessly defying certain “terms of use”*) and the counts were collected. (This was originally done to give a simple ‘skewed-Markov’ statistical ‘intelligence’ to autonomous readers that were being made in the context of a larger project.) All of the three-word digrams that make up the lines of the above poems (poems?) were selected, manually, from amongst zero-count digrams, i.e. those not (yet) found in the Google-indexed ‘corpus.’ The total number of selected, potential zero-count lines was (for this experiment) only two hundred. (Early days.) A simple program, the Zero-Count Stitcher, first picks one of these at random and then iteratively hunts through the remainder for a next line for which the count of {line n, word 2 + word 3 + line n+1, word 1} or {line n, word 3 + line n+1, word 1 + word 2}, searched-for programmatically in Google, is above a certain threshold (3 or 5 in these cases), i.e. the programs hunts for an attested ‘natural language’ enjambment. Numbers in the title are the serial numbers of the Stitcher’s runs. In later runs ‘stanza’ breaks are generated whenever it took the Stitcher more than thirty searches to find a line with suitable enjambment.

Poetics or science? I can see it as placing simple but craftily fashioned obstacles into natural flows of language — as garnered from Google using instruments of linguistic=scientific observation — and producing, arguably, an uncannily aesthetic turbulence.

*This is a work of the Natural Language Liberation Front (NLLF). These texts were collected with instruments made, at the point of immediate production, by John Cayley, but as a spin off from his major collaboration with Daniel C. Howe, The Readers Project, and fundamentally dependent on Howe’s extraordinary RiTa libraries for Processing.

Adair: Hi John —

It may reflect no more than my ignorance of the field of computer poetry, but I find interesting in the poems you’ve sent the types of constraints built in: specifying, for example, parts of speech that are to be brought into conjunction; requiring the programs to apply various natural language criteria; setting a limit on the amount of failed searches before a cut-off point is reached, producing thus both stanzas & entire poems. Such constraints throw limits at (to quote your first essay) the infinity of “flow [which] remains capable of generating a bewildering & uncharted variety of significant & affective dimensions,” with a degree of micro-management unfamiliar to me from, say, the most complex aleatoric methodologies of Cage, which often seem to be after conditions that will encourage maximal strangeness; thus in Etudes Boreales — thinking (me, not Cage) of Amy — he uses separate operations to determine, as cellist Frances-Marie Utti puts it, “exact pitch, duration, articulation, color & dynamic … for each sound,” making where any piece will go after the present note impossible to anticipate on a number of levels at once. Likewise the natural language constraints of “Zero Count Stitcher” preclude the radical kind of word-to-word disjunctions & intricate musicality found in, for example, Coolidge’s The Maintains (1974) (I don’t know what Coolidge’s method was here); & your use of Google Books notwithstanding, your methods, not least the linear word-counts, rule out any hint of flarfiness — tho’ there are surrealist (presurrealist?) glimpses aplenty: “he falls pilgrim / sailing to bloated / a choking pine / just below tracing / your hand rose-tinged” (“ZCS”) — Baudelaire’s Cythera in the screen of some electronic glow? — obviously signifier precedes signified here, meanings in search of flitting referents that adjacent lines may quasi-stabilize —

These poems offer me several focuses: the linear consistencies and cut-off points that give units; the generative system that adapts itself to the effectively infinite flow — what happens to imports of a line or stanza or poem when its beginning was in “thousands of specially constructed three-word phrases”? More emphatically than the other poems you send, “ZCS” undercuts any fantasy of uniqueness/individuality of line or subject position by its structure of repetitions/rearrangements, most powerfully in the first two stanzas given, where so full-throated a repetition seems to drain the lines of meaning; or perhaps more accurately, it’s hard the second time to work up the same degree of enthusiasm for what had the first time appeared as intriguingly evocative lines; so that if Joyce was right that there were more languages to begin with than were absolutely necessary, there were also never nearly as many as were needed. But then there’s a third reading, preferably some time later, when the lines can be productively recontemplated (something that with poems otherwise structured can usually be done on the second reading, no matter how soon after the first) —

The poems also offer the focus of vocabulary, of what kinds of words are being used, & that opens up more variances & nuances than I can indicate here. But it always intrigued me that in “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” about to launch into The Cantos, Pound judged that “certain facts give one a sudden insight into circumjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence & law …. These facts are hard to find. They are swift & easy of transmission. They govern knowledge as the switchboard governs the electric circuit.” The epic would then be “a poem including history,” as opposed to “about history,” by coalescing around these “luminous details,” the nodal lightnings where history’s complexities got things done. Other sciences besides electrical engineering, & for their own ends — the need to get a handle on discontinuous processes (turbulence in aerodynamics) or heterogeneous mixtures (alloys) — had also been shifting the notion of ‘information’ away from referential models toward something like clutches of differential quantities, directly performative in the process in question. This makes it fairly easy to link information & the Second Law (“to entropy child,” “ZCS”). Cybernetics, coupling communications with control, got going in the 40s; Austin theorized “performative utterances” — thinking of Joan (ditto caveat) — in How to Do Things with Words (1962). Not that such utterances hadn’t, to nearly all intents & purposes, previously functioned — the point was that now they were discernible, definable, & thus evocable as they hadn’t been before. Negentropy.

But there’s also a parallel to this often fairly macho stuff in the resolutely ordinary, superficially unlearned vocabularies with which Stein did such extraordinary things. Multiple influences could be proposed here: domestic space, the vaunted democratic sociality back across the Atlantic & the place (Bob’s investigation) of genius within it, anti-Wagnerian tendencies, Cezanne obviously, a perceptible distribution of certain technologies … but hard to rule out extraordinary hypotheses about a novel autonomy of the impossibly small coming from quantum mechanics, or even the self-sufficiency of local fittedness coming from Darwin — which themselves fed into whatever provoked the assertion of Eric Mottram cited by James near the beginning of this thing, that “most concrete poetry abjures the grip of sentence as a main basis of design, and design is a term which art and science have in common.” Obviously such hypotheses of influence can’t interlock with any click, only radiate more or less grazing. But both Stein and (before her) concrete poetry introduced a baldness of the word, or the letter, unknown before, a baring of each mundane unit to tensile & active vulnerability, requiring for each a scrutiny that could turn to marveling (or not), given the odds against such prominence in a literary text. This seems to me a more compelling aesthetic reason for the abjuring of uppercase letters than the affectation hostile critics so often put it down to (tho’ “i” I do now think is an affectation). The words without preamble, yet also appearing in clutches of formal consistency both visual (the look of the page) & audial (the rough length of poems in a series, for instance) which we could count as waves or locales. Andrews, Inman, gender, frame. But with Coolidge’s caveat from “The Case of the Surrealist Bundling” in Odes of Roba: “Apollinaire’s belief held that snacks are a mystery. / How could countless certainties be settling right now?”

I should add I don’t want to give the impression of thinking that form is there to ward off or mask actual infinity, even if various aesthetics have had an eye to the problem of some variant of infinity for a century or more. I think form is there to make function. Perhaps someone could take odds with the intolerable generality of this.  


“There has to be a (back)ground against which the traces of these other dimensions can be remarked. I’m already going deeper than I wanted, and so I will desist from further amateur philosophy (philosophy=science? linguistic philosophy=science?) by asserting that the ground we need consists in those ‘operations of our subjectivities … typically … deemed to be private or internal.’”

I see this claim for private and internal subjectivities in relation to my borealis project …

“The trick of being alive is something about having an outside which can be witnessed, and an inside that can’t.”

Can the inside do this outside witnessing?

“I do seem to be claiming that science-as-technological-mediation engages with poetry at precisely the point where science-as-affectless-denial-of-an-inside is least capable of bearing witness to any potential blossomings of virtuality and aesthetics.

“(Self-)sufficient words generate extra-dimensionalities of language. Moreover, just as ‘mere’ convention establishes particular natural languages as uncontested objects of scientific study, there is an extra sufficiency of habitual literary practice that allows other dimensions of texts to be distinctly appreciable — to criticism, if not to science. Singularly, traditionally, these dimensions remain ‘beyond’ the words themselves, emergent as a function of humanistic interpretation. Such phenomena exist, virtually. New media may, arbitrarily, materialize virtual dimensions of poetic practice, and this is what we have seen taking place — selectively, arbitrarily — since programmable machines became accessible to writers. To take an obvious example: the screen-based temporal presentation of textual events materializes a virtual performativity of graphic writing practices, both remediating and recalling actual performances of orality, and restoring a restructured time-based dimension to language, one that is at least ostensibly or potentially more complex than the apparently resolved or resolvable linearity of print. In general, this restructuring, in language, of the human culture of time is, in my opinion, one of the few recent developments in aesthetic language practices that requires a fundamental rethinking of the object of literary criticism — of those that are enabled by programmable media, that is. More and more (poetic) writing will be, literally, materially, time-based, and it will be inappropriate if not impossible to address many literary objects/processes as established texts, or as texts in a ‘before,’ ‘after,’ or any other state.”

Another way to think of it, based on your idea that the text can’t be in any state, is that writing deforms time. But this may be an Adamitic approach to language.

“But even this vital, inalienable, if until recently ‘stunned,’ dimension of written language was always, I would claim, virtually present and available to all language practice, regardless of media. This is equally true of the familiar varieties of simultaneous relationship between linguistic items, such as those described as metaphoric. They are ever-present effervescent lexical and allusive tori, haloing the syntagmatic flow. Despite and apart from any technological ‘affordances,’ the flow remains capable of generating a bewildering and uncharted variety of significant and affective dimensions. This makes it difficult for any particular technology to gain an established status. For me, recently, one proof of this strange state of affairs has been revealed in the disregard or, perhaps, misdirected regard that writers have for typography as a productive dimension of writing. Typographic sensitivity is taken as evidence for attention to the graphic materiality of language (a problematic concept: is the materiality graphic or linguistic?); whereas I believe that the typographic is an established, but insufficiently acknowledged dimension of linguistic practice, a structured field in which syntagmatic flow has long been seen and felt to exist, and which allows it to generate and elaborate significant and affective relations precisely in a typographic dimension that is oblique to both time and syntactic extension. Further proof that this historically established practice is not sufficiently appreciated is demonstrated by the common practice of ditching established typographic principles as soon as other new technologies become available; I mean technologies that may be seen to serve the relational purposes typography once served, or that highlight other ‘newer’ or more fashionable textual relations. The situation may be improving, but think of the standard unschooled typographic engagement of animated, kinetic textuality — more concerned with concrete poetic figures (language-as-graphics miming animate, kinetic objects) than with poetics per se (assuming poetics represents thinking through aesthetic linguistic practice from a comprehensive and open perspective).”

I wonder if this notion of typography as materiality could be extended to any imagistic representation of language. When does the poem become a picture, and is it still a poem? I always say “yes.”

“Thus, a recent long-term collaboration, with Daniel C. Howe, still in its initial stages, The Readers Project, is, in some measure, a poetic exploration and visualization of the typographic dimension of selected linguistic practices. However, more importantly for the present discussion, other aspects of this project exemplify certain ways in which programmable media, accessing indexed language on the internet, enable different modes of engagement with poetic process. It’s conceivable to me that these generative modes can be characterized in terms of what we currently recognize as practices of science.” […]

“Is it the case that one of those things that the indexed internet allows us to do is to have a sense of an ‘all of language’ in the manner that we have a sense of the all of nature? Those instruments of science that have been developed during and since the enlightenment have only relatively recently given us a generative sense of ‘all of our (spherical) earth,’ orbiting a star, in a galaxy, in an expanding universe, (im)possibly one of innumerable multiverses. Now, although what is visible language — like visible matter — is only a tiny faction of the dark words that must surely be everywhere, nonetheless our perspective has been shifted radically by the existence of the Net and by the instruments at our near-free disposal which index and structure this universe.”

I have a poem called “Objects of the Visible Language.” One of my primary concerns is the difference between the invisible universe of dark matter and the visible language of utility. I might argue that in both cases there is no “all,” only innumerable.

“And does this now entail our being able to see language as more like nature than we had previously?”

In this the “all of nature view” you reference above?

“Perhaps even more at one with nature than we had considered? I mean this not in terms of any spurious human/natural dichotomy, but in terms of what the Chinese have called ziran, the ‘self-so,’ phenomena which simply are what they are, lacking any concern for the human or whatever-might-be-opposed-to-it, for the outside-inside subjective dialectics of any particular living species.”

Fascinating! Regarding this “self-so,” isn’t the self also a construct of nature, which might be called physical reality (in physics, anyway)?

“I find myself implicitly making great claims for what, in terms of actual poetic production are still only tiny gestures.”

Curious: isn’t the “great claim” also the poem to some extent?

“I’m appending a few texts made using very simple programs. There is an explicit intention here, inspired in part by Nick Montfort’s more OuLiPian ppg256 project, to keep the engineered artifice of the machine itself as compact and as simple as possible, allowing structures in language itself to be revealed by these instruments, like lenses that simply magnify the images passing through them; always assuming there is present a complementary perceptual system — an eye or a poetic sensibility — to further appreciate the resulting anamorphic retinal impressions.

“Or, if I could, I would make a programmatic instrument that was like the naturally articulated granite outcrop of a small lakeland island, where light, breeze-formed waves of language would ebb and flow in chaotically braided coils, through faults and channels in the long-worn rock.”

By writing this have you made such an instrument?

“Watching and listening to this moving water: Is this science? Or poetry? What is the knowledge or aesthetics that such processes enfold?”

My instinct to your question is that the redefinition of science and poetry is needed to perceive the water moving through such braided coils, otherwise we lose “sight” of the “lakeland” island, forgetting we are simultaneously on both “lake” and “land.”



1. Yuen Ren Chao, Language and Symbolic Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 3.

2.Thalia Field, Bird Lovers, Backyard (New York: New Directions, 2010), 72.

Metaphor or more?

Amy Catanzano, "Borealis Timeline (Hyperdimensional)" (detail).

Could you provide a brief statement on why (if you do) you think that science/scientific discourse should be incorporated by poets not simply as a source of metaphor but as an independent discipline or set of disciplines? (If you’ve already addressed this in print in some detail, feel free to indicate where that can be found.) 

Rae Armantrout: I wouldn’t say that scientific discourse “should be” incorporated into poetry, but, clearly, I think it can be. I tend to incorporate various discourses into my work — anything from popular song lyrics to descriptions of quantum mechanics. I do this as a way of mulling over and interrogating what I hear/read. We all get our view of the world and the universe partly from what we’re told about science. I tend to bring in various things that contribute to the way we construe reality: creation myths, political “news,” and scientific information. (It’s interesting that, even during my adult life, astrophysics and cosmology, in particular, have told us quite a variety of things about the universe. Sometimes their descriptions remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all. They change their story as more information or different information becomes available. It’s the people who stick to their story that you have to watch out for.)

I have two answers to the question about metaphor. First, metaphor is “always already” embedded in the language of science. The language of physics, in particular, is math. When a physicist tries to tell us about quantum mechanics, he/she has to use metaphor. What does it mean, for instance, to say that an electron has “spin?” It doesn’t mean that an electron is very like a top. I think one can question the metaphors used by scientists without necessarily doubting that they are describing something real. I think my poems — and here comes a cheesy metaphor — tend to pick at metaphor as one might pick at a scab. Scientific metaphors are certainly fair game. Second, I tend to use metaphor in an unconventional way. My metaphors are seldom proper metaphors at all. I tend to juxtapose two images or two types of discourse and see what sparks fly (metaphor) or what resonance the two parts have between them (metaphor). In a conventional metaphor, there are the “tenor,” i.e. what you’re really talking about and the “vehicle,” i.e. the image or phrase you use to make the tenor more vivid. For instance, when I said that I picked at metaphor as one might pick at a scab, I was really interested in metaphor. The poor scab was a mere vehicle. I wouldn’t use words that way in a poem — or, if I did, it would be deliberately comic. Generally, when I juxtapose two images (discourses, whatever) in a poem, I’m equally interested in both of them; both sides of the metaphorical equation are real for me.

Joan Retallack: Why would one seek poetries that activate permeable borders across disciplines, genres, concepts, and vocabularies of many kinds, including (and of first consideration for our forum) those from sciences, geometries, and other forms of mathematics? I think of the fact that we increasingly know how limited our sensory and cognitive apparatus is. Our species lives on a planet surrounded by other animals that can sense many things we can’t. To go about in this world partly blind, deaf, insensate in innumerable ways to — in all probability — most of what exists in space-time is part of the condition of being human.

Through ingenious artifice, built into procedural methods and technologies (including inventions of specialized vocabularies), our species has been able to extend awareness in extraordinary and surprising ways. I’ll not broach questions of epistemology, e.g., what exactly do we know when we think we know things via experimental and theoretical sciences or math? Whatever the matches (or lack thereof) among our ontologies and epistemologies, the incorporation of science and mathematics into contemporary poetics results in a kind of pop-up dimensionality that I find both essential and delightful. (The same is true, of course, when one draws from other kinds of disciplines — e.g., spiritual, philosophical, historical, and those connected with the other arts.)

When I try to get some perspective on how I’ve used science and math in my work, there seem, so far, to be three main approaches which I’ll briefly comment on.

1. Ecological. This has to do with the sense of one’s embeddedness (in full cognizance of reciprocal alterity) with all those “others” in conditions — global and eco-niched — subject to the same laws of nature, sharing the same pattern-bounded indeterminacy along with trees, streams, oceans, coral, clouds, dolphins, beetles … This means that we are equally subject to chaotic (in the technical sense developed by the sciences of complexity) dynamic equilibria of order and disorder where human agency is a particularly delicate matter. This has led me to think in terms of “poethical wagers” and also to attempt composing language in such a way that I am literally collaborating with principles of chance/order in various degrees of patterning and local unpredictability. I think of the poetry in which I’ve done this as loosely analogous to models of chaos developed by Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot, et al. I’m using “analogy” as it is deployed in biology — where “analogous” structures may manifest out of very different evolutionary processes of natural selection (e.g. wings of insects v. wings of birds). Examples of this “ecological” approach are my poem “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” and my “Afterrimages” series in which I used procedural operations to transmute language above a visibility line into chance determined fragments below.

The concept of ecopoetics (as playing out in Jonathan Skinner’s journal of that name and elsewhere) has been enormously important in its implicit invitation to experiment with a poetics that acknowledges and enacts ecological embeddedness and its attendant vulnerabilities.

2. Geometries of attention. Every form of geometry — Euclidean, Archimedean Mechanics, Topological, Fractal, etc. draws attention to spatial relations of figures which may be conceptual idealizations, or configurations that actually occur in nature, e.g., “the fractal geometry of nature,” or that address new possibilities among cosmological realities as in the geometries of string theory. I’ve been interested in all of the above but, for our purposes, submitted my poem “Archimedes’ New Light: Geometries of Excitable Species” because it’s language is working through the intimacy (spatial and emotional relations) of bodies caught in schemata of love and war. I happen to find the language of Archimedes — who designed war machines — quite erotic in its attention to intersections of bodies. The war machines conceived by Archimedes did of course observe all the “abstract” principles articulated in his geometry with of course the real consequences all abstractions (counter to their popular reputation) engender. To me, this language becomes more and more imbued with a very strange (perhaps even perverse) emotionality as it becomes its own QED for the fate of the body, for instance: “”



Because I wanted to bring the eros (music) I experienced in this language (even in translation) into the foreground, I used the medieval practice of separating words with puncta, in order to invoke manuscripts used by choirs singing Gregorian Chants; a form in which terror can turn to ecstasy and vice versa. The language of Archimedes, the geometry of war machines, is very beautiful when sung. The poem could be performed as an oratorio.

3. Numbers: numerical mysticism, numerology, mathematical puzzles, enumeration, etc. Moving outside the scope of words (thinking right now about the question posed by Gilbert: Do you find that words are sufficient for the poetic response/input?) I’ve wanted to explore beyond the vanishing points of language — visual graphics, certainly, but also numbers. The presence of numbers can open up a kind of wormhole to other dimensions. With this in mind, I’ve at times played with words metamorphosing into numbers or algebraic functions. The numbers in “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” on the other hand, are there to count and recount the temporal inexorability of unchecked viral infection. Recently numbers come into short poetic proses that are part of a series I’m calling “The Bosch Notebooks.” I’ve included two of these pieces for our collection, “The Magic Rule of Nine” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma.”

The Magic Rule of Nine

Your sonic suit may not be a perfect fit. You’ll learn to
get by. Just don’t assume that all art is all about victory
over death all the time. Not to say one shouldn’t enjoy
not being dead. In the swell of many a meantime,
many have been known to divert themselves with great
success viz. civilizations’ greatest hits. Take the
discovery of  “The Magic Rule of Nine.” That the
sums of all the numbers within the sums of all the
multiplicands of 9 up to and including 9 equal 9 is
numerically melodious (bird singing in tree) to the
species that longs for more to it than a first glance
affords. Someone will say if you really think this is
magic you don’t properly understand the decimal
system (bird falls out of tree). Who among us doesn’t
long for magic. Who among us understands the
decimal system.

The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma

Birdsong entered our words and left with migratory
echoes insufficiently dispersed. We weren’t designed
to perceive most of what surrounds us or to fully
understand the rest. Maybe it’s true that differential
equations drove the teenager off the road. The self-
propagating slope remains unhindered in its x-y axis.
It’s really difficult to find the language to say these
things rigorously. Sound waves break on the shore and
make one feel unwelcome. And too, there’s that
conspicuous absence of real metaphors in nature.
Sorry, meant to say, there’s that conspicuous absence
of real nature in metaphors. Someone will always
claim night flew into a tree. The placement of (those)
words in a line.

James Harvey: There’s a poem on the underground in London at the moment “Proud Songsters” by Thomas Hardy, which begins “The thrushes sing as the sun is going / And the finches whistle in ones and pairs …” etc., and ends “Which a year ago, or less than twain, / No finches were, nor nightingales, / Nor thrushes, But only particles of grain, / And earth, and air, and rain.”

This poem for me illustrates the power of science in poetry to dismantle existing structures, and then put them back together again, build them up ‘mechanically’ while at the same time each level of complexity is acted upon equally through ‘the forces of nature,’ questioning the integrity of the structure. At the same time ‘time’ can be played with. In the poem here, the “particles of grain” etc. are what are making the singing birds.

Science offers many opportunities of strangeness in scale and time before resorting to the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. Following on from time, science offers an opportunity of moving the ingredients of a poem around in a space in interesting ways. Eric Mottram in Towards Design in Poetry wrote “Certainly, most concrete poetry abjures the grip of sentence as a main basis of design, and design is a term which art and science have in common.” At first recourse, the two concrete poems that always spring to mind are Christian Morgenstern’s “Fish’s Night Song” and Apollinaire’s “The Little Car.” With freedom of movement, scientific equations when placed inside poems can be a set of instructions and at the same time material that is instructed by that very equation. In the real world this could bring about emergent properties. In a poem, self reference can make a concrete poem, as in the two concrete poems above.

Evelyn Reilly: For me, it’s not so much a matter of “using” or “incorporating” science as having a way of thinking/using language that is formed by science — for example by a sense of perspective that comes from thinking of humans within the context of cosmological space or geological time. I once thought I was going to be a research biologist and in some ways the older I get and the more that planetary disaster parallels my life span, the less distinction I see between biology and poetry, or biology and anything for that matter. I think of the relationship between science and poetry more as a necessary merging of ways of connecting to the world than something so specific (or general) as a source for metaphor. Sometimes I like to merge language drawn from different cultural sources just to see what happens. Lately I’ve been interested in mixing cliches about “identity” with language drawn from genetics and molecular biology in an effort to write a new kind of “personal poetry,” but you could invert this idea and say it’s an effort to find a different kind of “genetic language” as well. Generally I just find it very pleasurable to introduce specialized vocabularies into writing as a means to escape the “poetic,” by which I mean escape my own habits regarding what is means to write “poetry.” Scientific vocabularies, applied science lingos, anything like that helps me get of my rut and makes me more excited about language again. But this applies equally to other vocabularies such as legal vocabularies, architectural and design language, almost anything. For a while I had on my desk an article pointed out to me by Laura Elrick called “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity.” Just glancing at the first page, not even really reading it, made me overexcited in the same way that a poem by Emily Dickinson can. I keep meaning to read this article, but am almost afraid of its potency.

Amy Catanzano: Hello everyone: I recently read Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy (1958), where he acknowledges that quantum theory doesn’t have an adequate language beyond mathematics to describe it. He then immediately quotes from Goethe’s Faust, where Mephistopheles says that while formal education instructs that logic braces the mind “in Spanish boots so tightly laced,” and that even spontaneous acts require a sequential process (“one, two, three!”), in truth, “the subtle web of thought / Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought, / One treadle moves a thousand lines, / Swift dart the shuttles to and fro, / Unseen the threads unnumber’d flow, / A thousand knots one stroke combines.” Heisenberg is arguing, of course, that science must be as attentive to imagination as to logic, but he also seems to be suggesting something extraordinary: that novel sciences must have novel languages beyond mathematics that can be used to describe them. To my mind, art/poetry have the ability to not only describe novel theories and expressions of physical reality but invent them as well. Since the primary concern in theoretical physics today is reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity through proposals such as string theory, aspects of which are being tested by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, I tend to think of poetry as an experiment in physics (the study of physical reality), and experimental physics as a field test for poetry. But that might be my romanticism coming through. Regarding Rae’s comment that she knows of no one who is both a physicist and a poet: I only know of one person who is concurrently practicing poetry and applied science; it looks like he’s been invited to this discussion, so maybe at some point we’ll hear more about how these disciplines get redefined when simultaneously shot through the high-energy particle accelerator …

Catanzano [in response to Rae] [click images to enlarge]:


Peter Middleton: A belated hello. I’ve found the discussion fascinating and would have joined in sooner if I could. What has made it all the more engrossing is that I’m writing a book on American science and poetry since 1945, and taking a long time over it. My ignorance grows and grows the more I read about it. Although the book is still going slowly, several articles have emerged from my early attempts to summarise things. Here is an extract from an essay called “Strips: Scientific Language in Poetry” that appeared in the December 2009 issue of Textual Practice 23, no. 6 (pages 947–958), an essay which explores some of the issues that have been raised here. This is a collage of passages.

You are reading a poem and there it is, a torn strip of language peeling at one edge stuck on the surface of the poem like imitation wood paper in a Cubist painting. Seen from one inner perspective it merges with the aesthetic medium; from another it breaks out at right angles to the plane of the art. Once you start looking it is not difficult to find these strips of scientific language in the work of a number of poets. They radiate intransigence from many poems that J. H. Prynne published in the middle seventies, such as these four lines from “Pigment Depôt” in Wound Response: “We apply for rebate on the form provided / injected with vanillic acid diethylamide / our displacement is fused / by parody.” And here is a large strip in “Again in the Black Cloud”: “Damage makes perfect: / ‘reduced cerebral blood flow and oxygen utilisation / are manifested by an increase in slow frequency waves, / a decrease in alpha-wave activity, an increase in / beta-waves, the appearance of paroxysmal potentials.’” Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has increasingly written biologicals into her poems as in these three lines from the book Endocrinology: “What is physical light inside the body / A white cloth in a gold and marble tomb, to focus the expression of the tomb. / Shortly after phagocytosing material, leucocytes increase their oxygen consumption and chemically produce light.” Poets flypost the walls of poetry, moving from Cybernetics to particle physics, then recombinant DNA cloning and the autogenetic neologising of molecular biology: the call to the public goes on.

The articles and textbooks from where these strips have been torn are not usually identified, the source is not the point, the reliability is not the point, you either know or you don’t, and the poet isn’t teaching biochemistry for experimental victims. Scientific knowledge is always changing, constantly revised by new research, new experiments and new models of material reality. The plum pudding model of the atom gives way to the planetary model and that eventually disperses into even less easily visualised models of indeterminate energy states, decoherence and quarks for what William Burroughs would probably call the ‘marks.’ Genetic material turns out not to be made of proteins after all. Safe materials, mercury, asbestos, become homicidal.

We might have expected much more reference to science and technology than we actually find in poetry. Our bodies are reshaped by medical and recreational drugs, by innumerable pollutants in the manufactured substances around us and in the air, water and food we eat, food that had already been genetically modified by intensive breeding long before however careful we are as consumers. Our five senses upgrade to new processors and polyamides, boosted by increased electron flow. If we believe that social being precedes individual consciousness, then we must acknowledge that our senses of self are increasingly modified by the communication technologies we use to sustain our relations in work and in our personal lives. Surely this flowering of science and technology ought to be fully acknowledged in poetry. More amino acids, more fundamental particles, more language, alphabets of new objects and processes that continue to appear in our world like litter from an advanced civilization: Abaxial, Beringia, Contig, Deskewed, Epitopes, Ferrodoxin, Glycosylation, Homeotic, Inter-genome, Jejunum, Kinesin, Lensing, Metabolome, Nucleotide, Orthologue, Palaeointensity, Quantumteleportation, Remanence, Subtelomeric, Transposon, Urease, Vanilloid, Wnt, Younger Dryas, Zeolite.

The science strip worn by the poem is more disruptive of its workings than many other types of citation: popular culture, our dear departed literary lions, the landscapes of moor and peak, friends and names that drop with a splash of celebrity. The truth status of these scientific terms, facts, and knowledges is itself a complex production controlled by the institutions of science, and unpredictably changes depending on where (and when) it is situated. Its authoritative presentation requires for its warranted presentation a bona-fide scientist who is recognised by peers to have the understanding to affirm one of these facts. By the time that a poet cites such material it has been largely disconnected from the networks of legitimation on which the distributed production of knowledge in science depends. The strip of science language is inert and its significance attenuated. This attenuation results from the rapid half-life of scientific documents and the knowledge they present, or as scientists say, the citation lifetime of most natural science publication is brief, because scientific fact is always changing, and this means that almost any allusion to scientific knowledge is likely to be out of date within a few years. The strip in the poem may look much more faded than the rest of the language around it, like yellowing newspaper consumed by its acids that has been pasted onto a canvas that continues to be milky with white primer.

Marcella Durand: This discussion of the inarticulation of science, and of poetry, strikes at some certain core of the disjunct between the two fields, with that inarticulation extending beyond language to how exterior world is apprehended or not via all senses (thinking of, again, Mordecai-Mark Mac Low talking about how streams of outer-space mathematical data is best understood visually). So in that inarticulation, how does form begin? For me, the form of a scientifically based poem (and I agree with Peter that all of my poems are based in science, or ARE science, b/c, right, how can you extract yourself from that sea of science/technology/communication?) is a struggle — how do you find the shape about which is the poem within which is the science? I thought of this reading Amy’s poem, because she’s doing some radical reshaping to accommodate the “subject” of her poem (And Amy, could you maybe talk about that a bit more?), for instance, incorporating timelines as a way to convey (as in conveyor belt?) words along in non-linear progression (thus form works reverse to content, reminding me of Francis Ponge’s — hi Tina! — bird flying counter to the direction of the line).

So thinking about form, and speaking of writing upon a subject of which one knows nothing, I was commissioned to write a poem in honor of L. L. Langstroth, “the Father of American Bee-Keeping,” who invented a hive with movable frames and who discovered “bee space.” I’d thus judge this poem have a scientific base, even though nineteenth century so, and maybe more industrial, but have been having trouble with the inarticulation falling between form and intent. So far, I’ve got an acrostic form, following LLLANGSTROTH, which has twelve letters, divided into couplets, to reflect the six-sided cells of bee combs, with a rhyme scheme going ab/cd/dc/ba/ab/cd. (I added the rhyme scheme b/c the poem is going to be read aloud, not by me, to all sorts of agricultural folks, including the Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture, so I wanted some sort of sonic doorway.) So, in a forced, awkward, public way, it’s going to be a confluence between poet/scientist or at least agriculturalist. I began writing directly about bees, but then suspected the bee-savvy audience would immediately find mistakes in my bee-knowledge (which is basically that they sting and make honey), so now I’ve veered off into the more comfortable territory of using language as a sort of investigative tool into this unknown pool of knowledge. Anyway, I’ll post it when it’s done, but here’s another poem about bugs, where I think content affected form (and I also got critiqued by an apparent “expert” for not pronouncing the Latin correctly during a reading):

“on a distant mesa, surrounded by desert”
walking stick and enclosed in amber mecoptera on isolated
mesa surrounded by desert phthiraptera barren what does it
live on small armored dermaptera half one thing and half
another orthoptera external hard encased siphonaptera listening
what distance stripped strepsiptera one wondering what it or
it could be one heteroptera wingless and vicious sweet mantodea
no name for one’s own listening neuroptera if each was
discovered a radio’s long wave lepidoptera the beetles and
the termites biting embioptera such visibility no major sources
of light pollution urban just eroded spire psire eir raphidioptera no
food source and no water ancient pine trees and resin rock slick
psocoptera found within itself others a ravishing trichoptera thrips
and book lice coleoptera small clouds and visible evaporation scent
megaloptera faults folded thrust ersion rosion sliding isoptera
dobsonflies and webspinners phasmatodea not one name and another
ephemeroptera dust devils invasive shrubs miles such armor homoptera
and what is one and another in mesa in mineral odonata silverfish and
jumping bristletails most are plant-eating hymenoptera inside one self
eroding salt intrusions slow flexing blattodea landscape one and visibility
another rock one you and not what one is, armored thysanoptera within
one self another you and rock in mesa surrounded no pollution ution
lusion pol polis plecoptera stoneflies, webspinners and mantids,
earwigs, angel wings, cicadas blattodea when one thinking they were
gone and in amber discovered one zoraptera the gladiator, armored
one who eats others, a carnivore, predator grylloblattodea but without
bt wtht to one without wtht a name no name unnamed diptera only
the name of others inside one armored the predator others zygentoma
archeaognatha on such mesa surrounded by miles long wave radios
listening for pollution, plltn, erosion, rsn, elision, pollus, erode, the
bug listening there on top of the mesa, encased and armored the exo-
skeleton, the fossil, ecout rsion, sliding the name the names
of others inside one and does it live the mantis-walkingstick
grasshopper predator, carnivore, waiting and ravishment such bare
sand, rock, slick, the mantosphasmatodea, gladiator, armored, going in.

Retallack: Dear Q-1ers,

Here is a second post stimulated by just having read all of yours.

Poetries in their many forms and hybridities, sciences in their many forms and hybridities are most importantly for me means of exploring the worlds in which I/we live. I come to an interest in science in two main ways: through being exposed to my electrical engineer father’s experiments and inventions (which I took — and still do — as a form of play) as a young child; and later, through my interest in philosophy of language, ethics, and science — all of which became interrelated in my explorations. Since I’ve been particularly interested in investigating otherness and the possibilities of being human in the state of grace I like to think of as “reciprocal alterity,” I think methods and models of science — along with the kinds of thought experiments beloved by philosophers — have informed a lot of my work as a poet. Maybe they are imaginative prosthetics of some sort (and in that way akin to metaphor) reaching toward alterity. Poetry, more than the sciences, allows for questions involving the positioning of human subjectivities to be an intimate part of all this. And so it all circles round to the primacy of the kinds of things one is trying to explore by means of language, but I don’t think it (the relation of science to poetry) all resolves into questions of vocabularies or discourses alone.

I think a lot has been said already about the way the scientific entries and interventions that are labeled metaphors (and Rae is right: all lang. including scientific is importantly metaphorical, in part) have been part of poetry for millennia. I don’t think it’s a problem at all that scientific findings (and thus the language in which they are framed) are constantly changing. The larger paradigms (conceptual frameworks) within which scientists work actually change relatively infrequently. (a tidily mechanistic world view was only supplanted by the very messy 2nd law of thermodynamics (entropy, etc.) in the nineteenth century; simplicity and elegance, by complexity and chaos in the twentieth century; Newtonian physics by relativity, quantum dynamics, incompleteness and uncertainty principles likewise in the twentieth. And any historian of science will tell you that all those “supplanted” paradigms are still in use in specifically designated ways as is Euclidean geometry. Still, in the purview of what shows up in the New York Times science section, what does or doesn’t count as a legitimate contribution to a given paradigm is subject to rapid changes and reversal. Not, however, the criteria by which the nature of the questions and what counts as evidence is determined.

The real question is — to put it crudely — So what if it turns out in the new cosmological physics that there really aren’t any black holes, leaving all those thousands (millions?) of poems with their black hole metaphors embarrassingly intact. Is this decade’s science true? … false? for a while, for all time? Is that really the key question? Universal and eternal truth value certainly isn’t. But the poethical question of what kinds of knowledge and understanding are necessary for the poet who feels a need to be an inquisitive, responsible part of her/his contemporary moment is key. Gertrude Stein — who was certainly interested in and influenced by the scientific developments of her era (at least as reported in the Herald Tribune) said that it’s the business of artists to be part of their contemporary world. If one agrees with this, as I do, it’s hard to imagine science in some form or another not informing what one is doing as a poet. The big question is of course the one that Rae, James, Evelyn, Peter, and Marcella have been addressing, How?

I’ll sketch some thoughts on that in another post. For now, I just want to say that what interests me in the way of a challenge even more than vocabularies, references, allusions, etc. (all of which can bring fascinating dimensions and perspectives to the poetics of a text) is how texts can literally (lettristically, for instance) enact the dynamic principles that a scientific model has been developed to understand. E.g., enacting rather than referring to our latest (scientific) definition of chaos — modeled as “pattern bounded indeterminacy.” Enactment means that the “dynamic of order and disorder” is actually happening in the language of the poem, is a moving principle. This can be on a lettristic, phonemic, syntactic, grammatical level, not merely a matter of bringing in some technical terms. I think some of Stein’s texts — in their syntactical dynamics — work this way and I’ve written about that, particularly in the essays on Stein in my book, The Poetical Wager. (I can post an excerpt, once I figure out how to do that!)

I think Amy’s “Borealis Time Signatures” may be working with the dynamics of scientific modeling rather than reference alone. I hope she’ll/you’ll say something about how you composed this work. (And, Marcella, I’m curious how you composed your poem as well.) There are many (though not enough perhaps) examples of this dynamical, literal incorporation of scientific understanding into textual composition that — insofar as it is a poetics of exploration — is taking that understanding into the realm of questions of subjectivities. (A few poets who come immediately to mind in relation to this kind of work are Tina, of course, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, and John Cayley with his digital poetics. But, this is not about creating word robots. (Though that could be an investigation of the “post human.”) It, again, always has to do with subjectivities gathered and dispersed among the complexities of our contemporary (further complication of history). I will attempt to post my lettristic infection, A I D /I/ S A P P E A R A N C E as an example of something I’ve done that sets viral dynamics in motion in the functioning alphabet of the poem.

Gilbert Adair: Marcella, the reading of this must’ve been a tour de force, the pronunciation carper notwithstanding. (As a final effort to get a mathematician to appreciate literature, a friend once convinced him to read merely the whole of Crime and Punishment. “So, what did you think?” “Well, in one passage Raskolnikov leaves the house at 8 pm and returns at 6 pm the same evening.” “Hmm — but apart from that?” “There was more?”)

Anyway, given that my interest in all this began in the question of whether or not one shld look up the meanings of scientific terms, my initial response to your piece was that here at least that wld be superfluous: it’s already doing a marvelous job of conveying the unimaginable profusion of insect life; we have only to sit back and be stunned — and enjoy, in my opinion, some very nice comedic effects: the siphonaptera are probably squirting soda into whiskies, the neuroptera are obviously highly strung, the homoptera are gay, etc. (Something like Rae’s recent and wonderful remark [in “Zukofsky”] re quantum physics, transferred to mini-life on earth: “We … come prepared for the bizarre. We’re pre-defeated and ready to enjoy our quandary. Maybe we’re too ready to embrace what we don’t get as some version of ‘mystery.’”) But then I thot, well, why not give it a try? And the poem at once became much more participatory.

There follows a version of the definitions, using and other web resources. I should note that the printing of the poem in Area (2008) italicizes the technical terms; the printing here [i.e. on the Google Group website] doesn’t because the site doesn’t allow it; but this I’m inclined to prefer.

an order of carnivorous insects usually with long membranous wings and long beaklike heads with chewing mouths at the tip.
wingless external parasites of birds and mammals, divided by some into biting lice (Mallophaga) and sucking lice (Anoplura).
Dermaptera: earwigs and a few related forms.
small insects with rudimentary anterior, and large and membranous posterior wings; parasitic in the larval state on bees, wasps, and the like. Also called Rhipiptera.
“true bugs”
or mantises (talking of Zukofsky); an order of insects that contains approximately 2,200 species in nine families worldwide in temperate and tropical habitats.
an order of insects having two pairs of large, membranous, net-veined wings. They feed upon other insects, and undergo a complete metamorphosis into, e.g., the ant-lion (hellgamite) and lacewing fly (told you: highly strung).
“insects with four scaly wings,” the classification that includes butterflies, moths, and skippers, coined 1735 by Linnaeus from Gk. lepis “(fish) scale” (related to lepein “to peel”) + pteron “wing, feather”; in the larval state, caterpillars.
lit. “lively wings,” a name that has not been considered particularly descriptive for the group. The common name “webspinner” comes from the insects’ ability to spin silk from structures on their front legs, which they use to make a web-like pouch or gallery in which they live.
a.k.a. snakeflies, consisting of about 210 extant species. Together with the Megaloptera they were formerly placed within the Neuroptera. Predatory both as adults and larvae, they can be quite common throughout temperate Europe and Asia, but in North America occur exclusively in the Rocky Mountains and westward, including the southwestern deserts.
includes booklice and bark-lice.
Trichoptera: or caddisfly; a variety of small, freshwater insects having two pairs of wings covered with hairs, and often hair on the head and thorax.
“sheath-winged”; the term used by Aristotle in describing beetles.
Megaloptera: alderflies; dobsonflies; snake flies. They dream of world domination. Sorry, I’m getting giddy here.
Isoptera: lit. “same-winged”; the group of *eusocial insects commonly known as termites. *used for the highest level of social organization in a hierarchical classification.
stick insects; leaf insects (sometimes considered a suborder of Orthoptera).
mayflies; see David Ives’s short cutesy play, Time Flies.
a large suborder of Hemiptera comprising cicadas, lantern flies, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, treehoppers, aphids, psyllas, whiteflies, and scale insects which have a small prothorax and sucking mouthparts in a jointed beak, and undergo (unlike heteroptera) incomplete metamorphosis.
dragonflies and damselflies.
the order of insects that includes ants, wasps, bees, ichneumon flies, sawflies, gall wasps, and related forms, that often associate in large colonies with complex social organization, and have usually four membranous (“hymen” as we all know=membrane) wings and the abdomen borne on a slender pedicel (ultimate division of a common peduncle).
cockroaches; in some classifications considered an order.
the thrips (thysan: tassel or fringe).
stoneflies (think helicopters).
an order containing a single family, the Zorotypidae, which in turn contains one extant genus (Zorotypus) with 34 species, as well as 9 extinct species.
insects combining “gryll” (cricket)- and “blatta” (cockroach)-like traits; with only 25 species described worldwide, the second smallest order of insects.
“two-winged”; a large order of insects (housefly, tsetse fly, sandfly, mosquitoes, midges, and gnats) that have the anterior wings usually functional and the posterior wings reduced to small club-shaped structures functioning as sensory flight stabilizers; and a segmented larva often without a head.
Sygentoma Archaeognatha:     
did not match with any Web results.
an order of insect identified in 2002 in a 45-million-year-old piece of amber from the Baltic region.


Archimedes’ New Light
Geometries of Excitable Species

Mortals are immortals and immortals mortals; the one
living the other’s death and dying the other’s life.
— Heraclitus

bodies cleave space of        all the triangles in the prism :

one glimpse of cornered sky in        all the triangles in the sphere :

fleeing over cardboard mountain with        all the segments in the parabola :

grey morning blank aluminum        all the parabolas in the sphere :

their own cold love song breached        all the circles of the sphere :

abrupt start of rain        all the vertices of the prism :

clacking sticks
night barks
window blank



Reason is a daemon in its own right.



another song whose bird I do not know
around them in us we were very they
what comes to mind in this five second cove
lacking usage equal to the noun she chose
all different before he heft laughed defiled gravity lost again
interior angles exposed collapsed into each each
the terrible demonstration of fluid dynamics beginning again
areas of distortion the burning vector fields


more mathematics of the unexpected:
the total curvature of all spheres
is exactly the same regardless of radius



Lacking experience equal to the adjective she chose
scratch abstract sky shape
hoping for more


struggle to flee her altered nativity
repeat story of stilt accident
no the drama has not abated

exhausted boy soldier reads book numb
rag head taken by stiff light
fig one triumph of the we’re


empty listen ridge cold whistle
unison whipped wide awake
box of spook salt

not a coast but a horizon not a coast
blank seas soak grain senses demented
sense of thigh once now not yet juked



may deter may bruise
bequeath before death
green countdown bluebook



she said now that she thought about it
she thought it must have had something
to do with that feeling of self possession in
the moment after the apostrophe took hold


a stock image
a rhetorical device
a dubious gesture
an obsolete hope


quadrant spoke motion
a prod to come to life
meddlesome meaning meaning tangent


sordid alignment of slippery parts
please hold that place stretch the we
jelly throat made good hold that note






no such five illusions
no vowel exit mutters fruit
my no flute war
torque valley breath
gun cold air cont’d
night barks windows blank
grey morning’s blank aluminum
its own long cold burst that kills
a look cornered sky


geometry of the tragic spectrum
eye caught in grid
this thought empties itself in false déjà vu
the echo seen but not heard
the absence of x had been distracting all along





Rationalism born of terror turns to ecstasy



Note: This poem includes language from Geometrical Solutions Derived From Mechanics: A Treatise of Archimedes, Recently Discovered And Translated From The Greek By Dr. J. L. Heiberg, Professor of Classical Philology At The University of Copenhagen. La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1942 (Copyright 1909).

Aurora Borealis as seen from the International Space Station, 2005 (image courtesy of NASA).

Catanzano: I began my borealis project by gathering books from my library, focusing exclusively on those that had profound impacts on me and letting go of those I felt I should be including for xyz or which were close but no cigar. That alone was a significant exercise, because it made me examine what I was using for criteria. I was pleased that I had twenty-three books by the time I was done, as that is a useful number for me in my numerology pantheon that sometimes rears its mane in my poetry.

Then I created the cipher for the borealis, the twenty-three writers, by selecting a word that emblematically represented that writer in my imagination. There is also the tesseract, which developed because I felt one writer needed a concept rather than a word. I ordered the borealis in a linear, Newtonian manner, so that the first ciphered writer is the first writer that captured my imagination, and the last ciphered writer is the most recent writer that captured me, though that writer lived in the nineteenth century. But I only recently felt captured by her. In the two relativity time signatures (special and general) that I included in my selection, I placed the ciphered writer after each word that related best to that writer in my imagination.

This was the experiment in those time signatures: how does Alfred Jarry and my cipher of him, “present” (as in his “imaginary present,” which I see as playing on a seesaw with Stein’s “continuous present”), relate to the time signatures, which are exploring special relativity and general relativity? I placed him next to the word, “time,” because his phrase “the imaginary present” comes from his essay “How to Build a Time Machine.” I’ve always thought of poems as time machines and his writing in particular as redefining time. Jarry is also “deciphered” in my sidereal time signature, since he is like a distant star for me, the space in spacetime. That depiction of Jarry becomes the “constant” in which the rest of the borealis — “the observers” in the relativity thought experiments — are either moving from or toward, depending on whether it’s special relativity or general relativity. In my planck time signature, not included in the selection I shared, I decipher Walt Whitman by creating a fractal pattern with his name that I generated by just copying and pasting his name on a page to create an image … a simple process that made an interesting pattern, one that happens to have the words “hi” and “Walt” center stage. I ended up loving that, because it looks like the poem is saying hi to Walt Whitman, so it’s a little funny and slightly sentient. I also made a Newtonian timeline that had phrases from my borealis, but since it is easy to decipher, I decided to scrap it and make the algorithmic and hyperdimensional timelines instead, distilling and then rearranging words from the writers.

On a conceptual level I am interested in what Rae said, how my subjective poetic lineage can interact with theories of time and how poems interact with spacetime, on the page, in physical reality, and in consciousness. The final time signature — also not included in the selection I shared — is my deciphered borealis that takes the visual form of a spine. But I want to complicate its deciphering by writing it in invisible ink. I got that idea from the person I am seeing who wrote a book that has a page written in lemon juice, which is a natural invisible ink. He handmade each book, so maybe I’ll have to do that, too. But this borealis project is just a twenty-page section within a manuscript of other projects, so I don’t know how feasible it would be to make the whole thing myself. I’m trying not to worry about production as I don’t want to self-censor myself just because there might be challenges. I also plan on having a statement about the idea and composition of the project in the book, as I feel the concept, process and procedure are as important and maybe more important than the poems, or at least indistinguishable. I could use this convoluted explanation as a starting point! Anyway, I don’t mean to be so self-centered here. I’m looking forward to responding to the ideas everyone is bringing up. But since Marcella and Joan asked me about my project’s form and composition, I used this response as an opportunity to think through it more. So thanks!

Gilbert [to Joan]:


“Archimedes’ New Light”

He is unworthy of the name of man who is ignorant of the fact that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side.


A prism, that in optics means a transparent solid, often with triangular bases, used to disperse light into a spectrum, means in Euclid (midway in time between Plato & Archimedes) “a solid having bases or ends that are parallel, congruent polygons and sides that are parallelograms” ( Parallelograms have 4 sides, polygons indeterminately more than 2; a prism is therefore a mix of the symmetrical & asymmetrical — as are most strikingly both the visual design of your poem’s p 3 and its last line, “green countdown bluebook,” where color calls to color bracketing “countdown” but “countdown” at the same time takes its compound-word place with “bluebook,” & the nicely intricate patterning seems to make meaning imminent —

Which is perhaps where to note that the poem’s p 2, beginning “another song whose bird I do not know /,” has caused me an interesting disquiet. All its lines are of normative syntax, but unpunctuated lines pretty much (but not entirely) alternate w/ ones every one of whose words is hedged by periods. This sets up a music so jangled & insistent, with possible irregular variations, as to overwhelm incipient comprehension of what waves to us in passing as being of definite & underwritten meaning, bye! Now that is hardly uncommon in the experience of linguistically innovative poetry. But here the anxiety niggled. How might this relate to what has haunted me since early in this project, John’s proposition (see “Science-Informed Readings”) that the identity scientific discourse is generally assumed to claim to share with objective reality, & the consequent authority of pretended affectlessness, “implies a powerful system of affect.” To say that this affect wld broadly differ depending on whether you are w/in or w/out a scientific discipline is to risk proposing a “2-cultures” scenario. But I want to know where we can here go with it —

In Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, a 1983 translation of writings by Michel Serres, a number of pieces address the origin of geometry, given as the passage “from one language to another, from one type of writing to another, from the language reputed to be natural and its alphabetic notation to the rigorous and systematic language of numbers, measures, axioms, and formal arguments” (125). In fact, philosophy & mathematics share the requirement to exclude noise, which already gives them some common ground. Something else in common: both evoke & perform operations on abstract forms thro’ symbols whose accidental variations of graphology, of expression, etc., can largely be dismissed. The elimination or disregard of noise is thus “the condition of the apprehension of the abstract form” (68). Here then is a 1st accounting for my reaction to p 2: its jangled & insistent music threatens to drown out, makes no more than disquietingly noticeable, multiple verbal signs of abstract mathematical rigor — precisely that which by its very definition shouldn’t admit such distraction.

Equipped with that, I return to your poem. Already it was clear that it sets in interplay the abstract & the sensual, the transient & the eternal. The page design, & not inappropriately, evokes Williams’s Kora, Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley / Explanatory Notes,” & your own Afterrimages: fact & comment, substance & gloss, extension & condensation, syntactic-semantic clashes if not opacities & some promised/teasing illumination — hang on, I’m replacing present instance by past models; the former multi-replicates the dualism it designedly largely models (with variations) page by page, in each page’s dualism’s units. I seem to get as plausible “all the parabolas in the sphere” (from p 1) until I get to “all the circles of the sphere.” Could those even be counted? & hang on again: what is a circle’s “center of gravity” (p 2) anyway? Or: before I can notice these lines in this way, I have to have (re)learned from Serres that the origin of geometry in Greece had much to do with a famous crisis in mathematics caused by the advent of irrational numbers (“relearned”? — I had totally forgotten). An irrational number is one that within the given system, can’t be stabilized, whether because its position in a problem makes possible two incommensurable values for it, or because, like pi, it can’t stop proliferating. But where in arithmetic pi is a conceptual threat, in geometry it is a condition of being. The crisis of Pythagorean arithmetic (the beans having been spilled, according to Euclid, by one Theaetetus) was solved by the geometrical theorem ascribed to Pythagoras, working happily with irrational numbers. The cover-up, the durable triumph of (eventually) Euclidean geometry, requires a sacrifice or assassinations.

Seriously now back to your poem & its interplay of the abstract (rational abstract & irrational abstract) & the sensual, where “bodies cleave space of       all the triangles in the prism” & the poem becomes a model of the human located within a field of abstract, regulatory calculations, trapped & shaped by them, yet there’s no point-for-point touching: crossings indeed from one language to another. The poem’s source text seems to be something else I hadn’t been aware of, a thirteenth-century text known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, 1st translated into English in the early twentieth century & now available online in digital form. Here, among other things, Archimedes apparently reveals his method for calculating unknown areas & volumes by reference to corresponding figures. Now the poem’s p 2 indeed ends with a glimpse of the possibility of measurement of certain figures whose symmetry holds across different scales: “more mathematics of the unexpected: / the total curvature of all spheres / is exactly the same regardless of radius.” Before that, however, the apparently largely dispassionate lines (whether the words are between periods or not) seem to me on rereading to afford another glimpse, here of a suicide: “all different before he heft laughed defiled gravity lost again”; at any rate, once this interpretation takes shape, the remaining lines seem to confirm some kind of defensestration or roof-jump, activating a certain logic of geometric relations in the space of gravity (a very Newtonian death) & entry into “areas of [corporeal?] distortion the burning vector fields.” After that, the poem only grows darker. On the right side of p 3, sets gone wild in terms of what contains what; on the left, lines that are increasingly & tantalizingly emotive: most clearly, the boy soldier is presented as a technologically erased casualty of our collective will (“fig one triumph of the we’re”) in, presumably, Afghanistan (“rag head taken by stiff light”) — in, precisely, a war about which very few of ‘us’ give a fig or find even remotely rational. The last line of p 4, given as the 1st epigraph to this response, precedes the drawn horizontal line, there’s no coda, & not least because of that, makes the page abruptly seem remorseless; “the” is power’s endlessly reiterated decree of its own rationality, say what you or anyone else might: indeed many are killed to sustain a claim to systemic logic in public discourse, & indeed, almost everyone knows better. This effect seems confirmed by p 5, which likewise lacks a coda — an x, even a teasing resolution (as in Williams, Spicer, etc.): “this thought empties itself in false déjà vu / the echo seen but not heard / the absence of an x had been distracting all along.”

The last page brings its title, “Rationalism born of terror turns to ecstasy,” together with the coda from p 1, “Reason is a daemon in its own right”; the cold little poem that goes with this, exclusively focused on geometrical terms & relations, seems now to indict the irrationality raging in a techno-war whose perpetrators feel their own lack of convincing motive or shaping scenario. It’s as if, thro’ your patient formal manipulation of materials that initially don’t seem too promising, the “affect” of purportedly affectless discourse to which John pointed — an affect that I suppose often has much to do with the masochistic pleasures of being excluded by the sternly inhuman but ingeniously & importantly effective — dissolves, just melts away, to reveal something not only routinely invisible but also normally inaccessible thro’ such vocabulary, & for which the poem sits somewhere between synecdoche & analogy: the terrifying non-face of technologically rationalized aggressive operations, in conformity with calculable laws of physics which are obviously of much wider (even universal) application.

Mantophasma zephyra, © 2002 P.E. Bragg.

Durand: Gilbert — I’m floored! And feeling that your effort demands a sort of sequel. The term “eusocial” alone … and Siphonaptera for fleas (applies also to mosquitoes and bedbugs I’d say). So would the Mantophasmatodea then be the smallest order of insect? (After the Grylloblattodea, which I’ll reveal here was my favorite moniker out of an obviously competitive field.) I’m happily perplexed by the Sygentoma Archaeognatha imposter, which seems a little too fantastic for me to have made up. Disturbing as well the “complete metamorphosis” of the heteroptera and the “incomplete metamorphosis” of the homoptera (and are the non heteros then “false” bugs?). Once again, can we call objectivity into question, please? The quote from Rae is very appropriate — I did indeed arrive at this poem pre-defeated and very ready to enjoy the quandary of it. I would say that’s generally *my* state in writing poetry from science.

I do have to also apologize for being offline. I was away for two weeks, and by away, I mean I was away from Internet, TV, and cell phone. I will catch up on all the very meaty responses in the next week. However, while being away, I found a book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology and was wondering what other people’s opinions were on it. I visited fully expecting to love it, but instead was left uneasy at what seemed an uncomfortable art-science relationship/creation, perhaps overly contextual or self-commenting or predigested, so much as not to leave room for much more creative generation? Wonder if this is cautionary?

Tina Darragh:

“Metaphor-Mongers and the Nuclear Snowcone”

On October 20, 1999, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson proclaimed that 1,000 acres within the Los Alamos National Laboratory would be designated a wildlife preserve, “an able bearer of New Mexico’s legacy of enchantment.” As part of a DOE project designed to give the agency an environmentally friendly image, buffer zones around nuclear sites were promoted for their “biodiversity” rather than for their “nuclear toxicity.” Perhaps Richardson was thinking of Emerson’s “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” when he transformed “pollution” to “preservation.”

perfectly intact

something regarded
the great joy
as a stand-alone

gather images
mountains, earthquakes
layers to another

scientific minute
or minute circumstance
a word from the proper
taken for a hard
wrap up


Crackerneck Wildlife Management Area and Ecological Reserve: radioactive alligators and bass

Sagebrush Steppe Ecosystem Reserve: big-eared bats carry radionuclides to nearby territories

Hanford Reach National Monument: Russian thistle flowers break off to become radioactive tumbleweed


Mutations are not metaphors, but they’re very good guides.
“Exposure” now a combination of “undefined dose” and “brought to light.”
Green “pass through” shift Deeper thirled.


Whenever it would snow, my mother would make us snowcones with cherry syrup. It made her happy to take something that was natural and turn it into a treat. Then one snowy day Mom was crying instead of laughing. She’d read an article that said there was nuclear fallout in snow, and children shouldn’t play in it let alone EAT it. She was sure that we were all going to die. But we just became mutants, like everyone else.


metaphor: circulation in the production of norms
mutation: an instance of change
mutation metaphor: circulating change is the norm


I’m a nuclear mutant and I’m proud
to core a metaphoric shroud
revealing who profits from the cloud
over history — let’s sing aloud
“we can’t be owned when we’re the crowd”

Tina Darragh


On October 20, 1999 …

Joseph Masco, “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico,” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 4 (November 2004): 517–550. A BIG THANKS to Diane Ward for sending me this article.

metaphor: circulation in the production of norms …

Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Adair [to Amy]:

It is worth noting that the Machine has two Pasts: the past anterior to our own present, what we might call the real past; and the past created by the Machine when it returns to our Present and which is in effect the reversibility of the Future.

Likewise, since the Machine can reach the real Past only after having passed through the Future, it must go through a point symmetrical to our Present, a dead center between future and past, and which can be designated precisely as the Imaginary Present.

… Without the Machine an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat. — Jarry, “How to Build a Time Machine” (1899)

A premise of Jarry’s essay is that time is already all there, that it simultaneously & forever flows, & that while we are where we momentarily are in it, it can be visited at any point if we are inside a machine that isolates us from, even as it makes us virtually porous to time’s flow, allowing that “to pass through us without modifying or displacing us.” Comparably the poem in “Files” that constitutes the “Working Notes” for your borealis project seems to me a delightful & tough-minded love poem putting the “jewel” of spatial durability (associated by proximity with an increasingly polarized public domain, “its sides evolv[ing] feral”) in interplay with the “rainbow” of temporal passage — a demand we all at some point make for amorous permanence, in interplay with the experience of love changing in time; while the tesseract, the 4D spacetime cube, is the figure charged with uniting these aspects —

In the poems for your project extracted for this forum, that — as we learn from your supplementary comments — are (otherwise relatively covertly) “heartshaped,” pervaded by affections for a range of writers/works, “jarry” is the only name appearing in the text (three times), in a spatial arrangement of letters that may evoke a constellation moving clockwise. In other words, the project presents itself as composed almost purely of ciphers, the personal aspect of the generative of it almost as invisible as any personal in a science project —

In this your work differs, but perhaps only trivially so, from Jarry’s “science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” It’s worth comparing methods here. Jarry moves with immediate logic from the three physical requirements of a time machine — first among them that it be at once “absolutely rigid” and “absolutely elastic” — to a partial model in the “luminiferous ether,” thence to a meeting of all requirements in an arrangement of three gyroscopes. Yes indeed. Familiar analogies help soften us to outrageous propositions: “the stationary spectator of a panorama,” after all, “has the illusion of a swift voyage through a series of landscapes”; why can’t we, then, be traversed by time “as a projectile passes through an empty window frame without damaging it, or as ice re-forms after being cut by a wire, or as an organism shows no lesion after being punctured by a sterile needle.” The delight is in the thoroughness & panache with which he pulls it off; the element of rule-bound game in trying to spot the cracks in a text that couples an inbuilt tongue in cheek with an invitation to critical thot (the “luminiferous ether” was jettisoned by Einstein in 1905, two years before Jarry’s death, but physicists still have fun speculating on the possibilities of time travel) —

Your poems aren’t traveling in time considered as a linear flow but rather in post-Einsteinian spacetime. The methods, at least in the extract posted, involve geometrical & syntactic/semantic variations on an initial list of words — variations that in page by page including feeds for the page that follows, eventually leave the initial list behind. The poems establish conventions to realize what may be hypothesized but could never be seen; Duncan’s remark in his Preface/Introduction to Bending the Bow (1968) — actually in reference to Olson’s (another poet for whom spatial layout was key) “Letter, May 2, 1959” — that “the boundary lines [paced off] in the poem belong in the poem and not to the town,” could be applied to your texts & Jarry’s essay alike —

The words as arranged in the initial list come across as (often) concrete & visualizable yet vulnerable in the work their arrangement is requiring them to do, even out of their depth: straining to cross the conceptual & dimensional gaps lodged in their single-space separations (“continuous / worlds / present / skin / distantly / mirrored …”); the tesseract figure coming between “eyeholes” & “demur.” On the page meanwhile, the shape indicates a simultaneity, some kind of body (not necessarily human) standing there in defiance of time. Following this, scientific concepts seem to provide the prods for geometrical-syntactic-semantic gambits. In “SPECIAL RELATIVISTIC TIME DILATION: AN EXPERIMENT IN RECIPROCITY,” the list doubles & faces off, with wider spaces between the letters, making the words prominently elements of design; the arrows drawn between & either side of the lists evoke, again but differently, both a 2D surface & two-way coilings in spacetime; in the prose passage below, the list-words are jumbled & variably repeated, the vertical order in which they have thrice appeared now distributed to play sometimes mildly comic, sometimes dimensionally lurching interference thro’ what seems mainly a directly quoted passage from a physics textbook (“In special relativistic time dilation, based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, each observer moving away from a nearby gravitational mass perceives the other as moving slower; as such, the time dilation effect is reciprocal,” etc.) — until the last sentence. In fact, the last 2 sentences are worth parsing into their components & quoting separately:

calibrated / amplitude / distantly / air / happening / air / skin / urge / exactly

Counterintuitively this [that what is at stake are different relatively velocities] presumes the relative motion of both observers is uniform; the observers do not accelerate with respect to one another during their observations. Click my symbol for your equation.

Huh?! Even as “the heartless voids and immensities” (Melville, “The Whiteness of the Whale”) — & intangibilities — “of the universe” prompt a need for intimate connection, we shift from a textbook not only to internet (granted, the bulk of the para cld have come from some wikipedia article) but to some unexpected salesperson’s oily assurance of instant gratification. & the tesseract becomes established not as what the words are modeling but as the mathematical figure necessarily posited to connect them while they model other things.

Now we can move relatively quickly (“Pun intended,” as President Obama quickly told Jon Stewart following his “heckuva job” Summers/Brown gaffe). Shifting to general relativity, the next page posits intimacy of connection, physical as well as emotional/imaginative, at both human & cosmic levels. After that, the “logarithmic” timeline — logarithms the exponents of powers in tables I cld manipulate at school with invariable success but never understand — disperses the list-words ever more thinly in making it to the “feral” political world glimpsed at the beginning of the “Working Notes” (in the schema below, “—” = “new”):

         skin / — / tear
— / words / mirrored

— / — [one-off feed for next page] / — [primary feed for next page]
— / [tesseract figure] / —

         — / — / words
— / — / air [2ndary feed for next page]

         — / — / —
— / — / —

Common to both cosmic & political dimensions of the poem, on the dubious assumption they can be so cleanly separated, is a familiar avant-garde/linguistically-innovative-poetic tenet memorably articulated by Allen Fisher in “Banda,” the first of the Gravity poems: “The quantum leap / between some lines / so wide / it hurts.” The last borealis page posted initially hints at, then, it seems to me, confirms its geometric model as one of asymptotes, lines which forever converge but never meet, & key destabilizers of Euclidean geometry once they were posited in the Russian/Hungarian 1820s (Jarry mentions one of the mathematicians involved, Nikolai Lobatschewsky, in whipping thro’ various accounts of what space might be). “Imaginary Present,” okay.

I am suddenly aware that phrases happen

Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House, February 22, 2005

Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, 2005: at left, with a student
Lyn Hejinian visits the Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, 2005: at left, with a student, and at right, with Al Filreis. Photos © Blake Martin.

Editorial note: Lyn Hejinian (b. 1941) is a poet, editor, and professor in the English department at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), My Life (1980, 1987, 2002), Happily (2000), and The Fatalist (2003). Her most recent book, The Book of a Thousand Eyes, is forthcoming in April 2012. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Language of Inquiry (2000). She edited Tuumba Press from 1976 to 1984, coedited Poetics Journal with Barrett Watten from 1981 to 1999, and currently coedits Atelos with Travis Ortiz. In 2005, Lyn Hejinian was a Writers House fellow. An audio recording of Hejinian’s reading and discussion while in residence can be found at PennSound. What follows is a transcription of a discussion held at the Kelly Writers House on February 22, 2005. It was originally transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability. — Katie L. Price

Al Filreis: Lyn, the reading last night was terrific. How many of you were at the reading last night?

Am I right that it was terrific?


And the session with the students was fantastic. So let’s see if we can continue where we left off. Thank you for doing this.

Lyn Hejinian: It’s my pleasure. This is the oddest situation I’ve ever been in as a poet.

Filreis: Never done a live webcast?

Hejinian: I’ve never seen a live webcast.

Filreis: We had a strange situation once where we had Carl Rakosi, who was live from his home in San Francisco on an audiocast. So we were hearing him over the telephone and there we fifty of us in the room, and people called in from wherever they were. People called in from everywhere. And people called in from San Francisco who lived down the street from Carl, who hadn’t heard or seen him because he’s an old guy at that point, ninety-nine. They called here so that we could hear them talk to Carl, who lived down the street.


Hejinian: He was old when he died. He had passed his hundredth birthday. I took one of my graduate students to his 100th anniversary poetry reading. She was writing her PhD dissertation on the Objectivist poets, and of course he was one of the five major figures of that movement, such as it was. They all denied it was a movement, but that’s how we think of it now. He had named a number of poets who he wanted to come to the celebration to read their own work. He wanted it to be a celebration of poetry, not of him, which was very typical of Carl Rakosi, a very modest man. But anyway, I brought my student Ruth Jennison to this poetry reading. I introduced her to him, and then he nimbly walked up the flight of stairs to the room where the event was going to take place, and she said, “But he stands up!”


And he did. He went record shopping once a week to a record store in San Francisco, buying classical music mostly, but everything.

Filreis: A wonderful man. He was a joy. He read his poems and they are available: we have a recording of them. And they are really wonderful.

I wanted to ask you about The Fatalist.

Hejinian: Okay.

Filreis: It’s a double question. One is a general question: I was hoping you would tell us how this thing came about, how it was organized. But a little more specifically: in the first movement of the thing, you say, or the speaker says, this wonderful thing: “People talk about the ineluctable character of the ‘lyric moment’ / but it seems to me that it is an astonishingly sturdy and detailed moment.” And if there were a period or a breath there, it would be a complicated enough statement, but it goes on to say it is in fact not ineluctable, but “astonishingly sturdy and detailed … passing through the world as well as through dreams.”

So my first question is: can you tell us how this thing got written? And second, why is it that — I don’t know if Lyn Hejinian agrees with what the speaker is saying there, but insofar as Lyn Hejinian does — why is the lyric moment in fact sturdy in detail, and how detailed?

Hejinian: Alright, to answer the first part of the question I’ll be as brief as I can. The book is in my voice. Over the course of exactly one year, I saved (in a single computer file) everything that I wrote to anybody: notes to students about their writing, or comments on dissertation chapters, letters to friends, e-messages. No matter how trivial, I saved it. And then about eight months into the saving I went back and, starting at the top of that file with the earliest material, I began sculpting away stuff that just wasn’t going to make anything useful as poetry.Cover image of Lyn Hejinian's "The Fatalist" (Omnidawn, 2003)

Talking to some of you yesterday, I talked about it like a work of … Imagine a sculpture with a block of marble, and that was my text file. And then the sculptor chips away until the sculptor gets her piece of sculpture, whatever it is that she’s after. So I was sculpting away and the raw material was everything that I had written to people.

It’s called The Fatalist because I wanted to make the case that fate is not something that is going to happen, but is all that already has happened. That whatever has happened will never not have happened. Which is reassuring in some instances; for example, when one is regretting the death of somebody. It can never be said that that person never lived. That person always has lived, and always will have lived. And, of course, it’s terrifying if there are things that you don’t want to have happen; the irrevocable interests me, too.

I worked as an assistant to a private detective for a few years, working on murder cases, and I got really obsessed with the moment in which a murder happened: it could never unhappen and everybody was trapped in it having happened. But I can’t believe it was preordained — fated in that sense. That said, it was our job as private investigators to attempt to persuade the court that it was inevitable, in some sense, by virtue of “mitigating circumstances” (the murderer’s having been abused, or being mentally ill, or brain-damaged, etc.). We were working for the defense attorneys; it was, at base, anti-death penalty work. But I am digressing a bit, although some of that material, because I had written to somebody about a little of it, seeps into the book. So I guess that’s fair to mention.

Anyway, if it’s a record of everything that happened, or at least everything that I spoke of having happened over the course of a year, then it becomes a work of fate, or a record of what occurs to a fatalist, as I am characterizing fate, tautologically and retrospectively, as that which has happened.

As for “the lyric moment.” That comes from a comment, actually an e-message, to a group of grad students who were working on the question of the lyric. I was arguing against the notion of the lyric moment, or of lyric poetry as always having to be transcendental in its trajectory, and arguing in favor of its being possible to imagine a lyric poetry that was local and detailed and not ineluctable, but … what’s the right word?

Filreis: Sturdy and detailed.

Hejinian: Sturdy and detailed, yes —

Filreis: Those were the words.


Hejinian: But I am trying not to repeat myself.

Filreis: How kind of you.

Hejinian: Alright, I’ll leave it at that: sturdy and detailed.

And as detailed as one wants to have it.

Filreis: Who’s taught you that? We were talking about Rakosi before. Is that something the Objectivists taught you: lyric, but detailed?

Hejinian: Absolutely.

Filreis: Absolutely. Who else?

Hejinian: Zukofsky. Oppen.

Filreis: More recently, your colleagues? Who reminds you every day when you read him or her?

Hejinian: Ron Silliman, then.

Filreis: Why so?

Hejinian: His work is built entirely out of details, of sturdy details, observed and experienced and contemplated in an active way, not through passive contemplation, but through resolute attention to detail, precisely.

Filreis: And daily.

Hejinian: And daily, yeah.

Filreis: Not quotidian daily. Well, sometimes quotidian daily, but daily. And this has a dailyness to it, too, partly. It has a feel of that because —

Hejinian: You write something every day and it all went into there.

Filreis: And it all went in there. So it’s part of the structure of it.

I want to ask you one more question about The Fatalist and then, earlier than usual, we’ll open it up for questions.

But one more question. I really love this book, Lyn.

Hejinian: Thanks.

Filreis: And one more question is: this beautiful passage in which you get to say something that may or may not have to do with your My Life project — you notice I didn’t say may or may not have to do with “your life” —

Hejinian: That would be confusing for all of us.


Filreis: Your My Life project.

I’m missing the context of the whole when I quote this, but we can go back to it if we need to.

Isn’t every explanation like every autobiography (in which the author shows how everything in life ultimately holds together or how everything in life’s ultimately holding together is the life) sentimental?

So isn’t every explanation like every autobiography — parentheses sentimental? And then: For that I want a large format and I don’t want my face anywhere on it.

Hejinian: You got that right.


Filreis: I don’t want my face anywhere on it. It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through.

So, I have two questions about that fantastic passage. And we know better than to ask of a Lyn Hejinian piece of writing that uses newish sentences and juxtaposes things — especially given the context, you know, the way you composed this thing — then to jam those two things together, but in a way that is my question.

The last comment is: It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through, which rhetorically implies it is a political catastrophe, but there are other catastrophes. So my question is: Beyond the political catastrophe we are living through, what other catastrophes are we living through? And what, if anything, does that have to do with this problem of explanation and autobiography in the desire to have your picture on the book My Life?

How’s that for a question?

Hejinian: That’s a very good question, and almost impossible to answer adequately.

I was using the term political in a relatively narrow sense when writing that comment. In some ways, I think, one can use the term political to describe anything that affects humans, anything that affects living creatures. The ecological disaster that is underway now, I think, is a political disaster of a kind.

It certainly is being furthered by politicians. For example, those who won’t sign the Kyoto Accords, which is just the tiny beginning of acknowledging that there is a disaster underway.

But I also think there is a link to the word “sentimental” in that. I was playing on two sides of the term sentimental. One is the pejorative sense of “sentimental,” which I think informs the current climate that is always suggesting that what humans most want when they’re troubled is closure. That closure is going to resolve things. That we get over things once we have closure. And I am resentful of, and deeply troubled by, the impulse or the notion that we should all be getting over everything instead of actually living through it and maintaining ourselves in relationship to it.

So, in that sense it’s merely sentimental to try and get everything to cohere and then “have closure,” whereby everything is neatly fixed and fits together: the jigsaw puzzle is squared up, no pieces are missing, and you can put it back in the box and achieve closure.

But on the other side, I think that the term “sentimental” or “sentimentality,” in the eighteenth-century usage, is extremely interesting and dynamic and actually appears in what ends up as postmodern irony. Think, for example, of the work of Laurence Sterne — that would be maybe the most familiar writer, although if you are crazy about Diderot, you can look at some of Diderot’s writings also. It is very fragmentary and witty at the very point where lots of gaps occur, in, for example, Sterne’s novella or novel, A Sentimental Journey. That title, by the way, has been used repeatedly by modernist and then postmodern writers as an homage to Laurence Sterne, and precisely, I think, because of how sentiment works in it. For example, Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist poet, wrote a book called A Sentimental Journey and the Bay-area Language School poet Kit Robinson wrote a long work called A Sentimental Journey, just to name two instances. In A Sentimental Journey, whenever anything occurs in which it is impossible to say anything about it, Sterne breaks off, and he breaks off often for very hilarious reasons: an orgasmic moment, or at the glimpse of an ankle, or the thought of a glass of wine! The ruptures or disjunctions are markers of feelings which are beyond speech, and markers of strong sensibility or sentimentality therefore, but not in a maudlin or easy way.

Another example is Langston Hughes’s two-volume autobiographical work: The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. As you know if you are familiar with those books, they are written in vignettes, and very short vignettes. And between those vignettes is where the sentiment lies, where the deep emotion lies. He never speaks of homophobia, of racism, or of the difficulties of his life as a left-wing African American gay poet, but you feel it in the book, in those gaps. And they are also very ironic gaps. Irony arises when you say one thing and mean another, which is to say that you don’t say something — and it’s the not saying that is sentimental in the positive sense.

So, I am not sure how I said that in that sentence.

Filreis: No, it’s fantastic. So, the larger catastrophe is our failure to understand the latter sense of sentiment —

Hejinian: And to keep filling in the gaps with blather, drivel that is sentimental in the vulgar sense —

Filreis: So the picture on the faux-autobiography, on the autobiography, is a way of trying to do a “been there, done that, got it” thing.

So, do you remember to whom you were addressing or who is the addressee of that statement?

Hejinian: I don’t remember.

Filreis: Okay.

Hejinian: I really don’t. I’m not hedging here.

Filreis: No, no, no. That’s perfectly good.

Okay. So, we want to take some questions from you.

Kerry Sherin Wright: Ms. Hejinian, I just want to thank you for your reading last night, and for the whole experience yesterday. It was great. My question is: During your reading last night of My Life in the Nineties, you mentioned a phrase, I believe it was “where there are words, there is barbarism” or something about that. And that really sort of got me thinking. I went back and read your “Barbarism” essay from The Language of Inquiry to get a better sense of it. You mention in your barbarism essay that the poet is a barbarian, and your view that the poet is a barbarian, is a foreigner in some way. And I was just wondering the extent to which you think that’s necessary or a sort of a requisite for a poet to be in this sort of foreign space? Is that a function of an activist poet, or poetry in general? Is it a requirement of a poet to have this barbaric quality, this foreign quality? Sorry, I don’t have the exact page, but you mention “taking a creative, analytic and often oppositional stance, occupying [] foreignness — by the barbarism of strangeness.” Is that a requisite?

Hejinian: I would hesitate to make a rule that is either definitive of what it would be to be a poet or of the requirements for being a poet. But in my own experience, I advocate to myself, I ask myself to try to … The line that you are asking about is “wherever there are borders, there is barbarism.” It’s actually partly in reference to Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry, and the notion that poets are on the margins of society. I wanted to suggest that instead of calling it a margin, one might call it a border, which sounds like a synonym for margin but isn’t. And then one can move that border to where it really exists, which is between things — like the border between Germany and France, or the border zone between Al Filreis and myself sitting at this table. Then, yet again, one might recast that notion of the border as a zone of encounter. And if it’s a zone of encounter along a border, everybody is a foreigner there.

So there’s all this negotiation to be undertaken, and you have to rethink your currency, either literally or metaphorically, and you’ve got to rethink your relationships. You’ve got to rethink your language because they might speak a different language at the border, or the people you meet might not understand your language, et cetera. And, of course, a kind of anti-nationalist position is implicit in one’s espousal of inhabiting border zones, a form of refusal of global capitalism: border zones instead of something that homogenizes everything. So, “barbarism” is actually a positive, affirmative concept.

I actually found instances … Edith Sitwell wrote a little essay about Gertrude Stein, saying there had never been a finer barbarian. And I can’t remember the other instances, but many appeared around the period of the First World War. There were a lot of Surrealists who spoke favorably about barbarians. I thought maybe we should recover that.

Lyn Hejinian with Al Filreis in 2005. Photo by Blake Martin.
Lyn Hejinian with Al Filreis in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.

Filreis: And also enable poetry after Auschwitz, rather than no poetry after Auschwitz.

Hejinian: Right.

Filreis: Thank you, Kerry. Jennifer has a question right here.

Jennifer Snead: I wanted to get back to what Al had asked about The Fatalist and your reply about the sturdy details as a detailed poetry: local, detailed, sturdy. And you mentioned Ron Silliman’s work, for you, as a place where details are observed, experienced, and contemplated in a non-passive way. I am really curious how that might relate, or maybe not, to what you say in “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem,” where you talk about a “western way of knowing,” and description and the scientific method as being related. You mention Francis Bacon and the Novum Organum and The Advancement of Learning.

I’m interested more generally in description and where you think it does belong in contemporary poetics. And how does this description, as part of the scientific method, have anything to do with this sturdy detail as an answer to the lyric, or as a better way of thinking about lyric? Anyway, description, right? Question.

Hejinian: Yeah, that raises another example of a lyric poet of the sturdy detail, Lorine Niedecker. Many of her poems were intentionally, almost haiku-like descriptions with no commentary. And George Oppen, when writing Discrete Series, had attempted to write a poem without commentary. The only commentary in the poem is in the very first one, which is a prefatory poem, because it’s the second poem that’s numbered “1” of the series.

Okay, now I digress. What was the —


Oh, yes, the scientific —

Snead: About the western scientific method, about western modes of epistemology, and how description … because you seem to be a little less approving of that type of, or maybe more —

Hejinian: I am wary of it because I am so attracted to it.

Snead: Okay.

Hejinian: And the western scientific method has had — as I say in that, I hope, comically titled essay “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem” — rapacious effects, of course: the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, et cetera, ultimately led to imperialism and colonialism, and exploitation of the planet.

So, it’s important to be extremely cautious of one’s enthusiasm for it. But I will say that I have an enormous fascination with the annals of exploration and discovery, and admiration and appreciation for experimental science even today. I think that description, for a good scientist as for a good writer, is as much hermeneutic as narrative. That is, using language as a medium for exploring — you know, The Language of Inquiry is the name of the essay book. You don’t know what’s there until you start trying to describe it.

Another excellent example would be Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), who is exploring the nature of realityby attempting to find words that speak in and around whatever it is she’s looking at.

Filreis: And the earlier reference was to George Oppen’s first book Discrete Series, which you can get in the collected Oppen.

Hejinian: The new collected, I recommend. The New Directions New Collected Poems.

Filreis: Tom, we have an email question?

Thomas Devaney: This question is from Kenneth Sherwood, assistant professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Hejinian: Splendid.

Devaney [reads]: Lyn, I’m curious about your ongoing My Life project. From the first, it’s been a kind of process work, but its readers received it in book-length instalments. For almost two years we’ve been able to follow the poem emerging on your blog. What is your interest in allowing readers to access it a sentence at a time? And does this also represent a shift in your compositional practice? Or, do you have ten sentences in reserve, which you will be posting over the rest of the week?


Hejinian: This is a splendid question. This is not my blog. Somebody else out there is putting a work of mine on the Internet, one sentence at a time.

It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being stalked.


I find it unnerving, but not reprehensible. It’s a published work, and one sentence at a time … I probably would have legal grounds to sue or something, but I have no intention of doing something so childish as that. But I am happy that this is a webcast because I want to tell everybody who is listening: That is not my blog; Lyn Hejinian does not have a blog.

Filreis: This blog was not approved by Lyn Hejinian.


Hejinian: Well, it’s not approved by me at all.

Filreis: Well, thank you, Ken, for affording Lyn the opportunity to disclaim that blog.

We have a question in the back.

CAConrad: Hello. I saw you a few years ago at Villanova University. You gave a talk and a reading. Afterwards we were standing around this table eating carrots or something, and the discussion turned to politics at one point, and you seemed dismayed about younger poets and where they were politically. I disagreed with a lot of what you were saying back then, but that isn’t what I want to talk about or ask. I want to ask where you’re at in 2005: how do you feel about younger poets with their political center?

Hejinian: Did I? Those must have been poisonous carrots.


Filreis: They were sturdy and detailed carrots.

Hejinian: I don’t remember even feeling dismay over the younger poets.

It’s possible that poetry scenes, in given locales, have slumps and rises and slumps again, and I was witnessing what either was a slump in the poetry scene in the Bay area, or a slump in my interest in it. And in retrospect, probably the latter.

But in any case, maybe you know there was an issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter in which the then editors took a sentence of mine, a published comment, and a published comment of Ron Silliman’s and sent them to a number of poets. They were taken out of context in both cases. The way the editors phrased the question, it appeared that Ron Silliman and I felt that young poets were inadequately addressing the contemporary political climate. In fact, my comment in its original context, had nothing to do with younger poets or the political climate. It was on an entirely different subject. A number of young poets responded to this, and very shortly thereafter the attack on the World Trade Center towers occurred, and those younger poets proved not only that they were highly astute politically, but had already been thinking on a number of issues, which now had to be spoken, and people would listen to them. And I have nothing but respect for, you know, not every younger poet, nor every older poet, but I think something’s really happening. I think it’s hot right now. And really interesting. Lots of energy and courage.

Filreis: Thank you. Thanks for the question, Conrad.

Nick Montfort: I wanted to ask about the relationship between poetry and ordinary language, if that’s a good term for it. If it’s not, you can escort it out and bring in another one.

But one idea about the composition process of The Fatalist is that by this sort of panning for gold — this sifting through language for the particular things that are poetry in it — that therefore what merges from that process may not have a lot to say to the rest of language, to things that aren’t sturdy and detailed, as we like to say. That’s not at all the impression I get from reading your My Life. I think that there’s a rich relationship between other texts that we encounter in the world, other uses of language in poetry. But I wanted to ask you about how you would address their relationship.

Hejinian: That’s a difficult question to answer.

Your sense is — and I think rightly, but let me just make sure I understand the question correctly — that by virtue of the nature of the original, what I call the raw material from which The Fatalist was sculpted, that it was in ordinary language. And what have I done to make it unordinary?

To some degree, that work is built of phrases and composed at the level of phrase. The dynamism and energy comes from the juxtaposition of phrases either in the original, if I was clever that day and wrote a good letter or note or message and there was a long stretch that I kept, or by taking the beginning of something I wrote to one person and finding a phrase somewhere in something I wrote to another person and saw where their conjunction could bring out the texture of whatever was going on at that point.

In The Fatalist I was looking at the language of communication, the materiality of communication. There are other really terrific projects such as Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy or Ed Freedman’s The Telephone Book, in which originally communicative language gets —

Filreis: And Nick Montfort has offered some alternatives himself.

Kathy Lou Schultz: I’m very interested in the terminology that is used and could be used in writing contemporary literary history, and some of the terms would be “Language” and “post-Language” poetry, also “experimental” and “innovative” are often used. And I’m wondering if you feel that those terms are useful and descriptive, and how we can begin to trace some of those lineages with the terminology that we use?

Hejinian: Well, I think that post-Language is particularly problematic because it anchors poets younger than my generation to only one area, when actually they have tendrils and roots in all kinds of other things, and not just poetry. I think that such labels are useful in conversation, or as a literary-critical or literary-historical marker. But I think they should be defined, and all kinds of definitions are out there to be used. In terms of literary history, I think much, much larger histories have to be described and much more complicated lineages have to be drawn.

In teaching, I have, a number of times, taught some version of a course that gets called something like “Recent and Contemporary Innovations in American Poetry.” I start further and further back each time, and not only pull from the Harlem Renaissance, but the experimental African American writers like Melvin Tolson, who I know you are interested in, and Julia Pritchard, another figure who people don’t study — writers who have gotten lost from maps like they are sunk into a reservoir or something.

I think the history of the last thirty years in poetry has not even been touched. It’s really complicated and far richer than the abbreviated, reductive attempts at history have suggested.

The terms “innovative” and “experimental,” and then the third one, “avant-garde” —

Filreis: Which Kathy Lou didn’t mention I don’t think.

Hejinian: Yeah, she didn’t, but that’s also one that gets thrown out.

I do find them useful. They can point to or remind us of the impulse and intention behind the composition, and also something of the character of the communities from which, and to which, the work is written.

Actually I find far more awkward the alternative: if X is innovative or experimental, and Y isn’t, what is Y?

[Disruption in recording.]

Filreis: Can I ask about another divider as a follow-up? You wrote some time ago, or said in an interview, that the Language movement, that Language writing is rigorously social, and in that sense set up against the romance of the solitary individualist poet. And that’s also roughly, sometimes very crudely, but sometimes a useful way of dividing contemporary poets. What is the opposite of rigorously social? I mean, a poetry or a poetics that’s set up against or distinct from that rigorously social way of preceding is very different and stands very differently, and can’t easily be reconciled. How would we describe that latter group: the group, or the poetics that’s against the rigorously social aspect of the Language movement?

Is there a way of characterizing that view — and it’s a strong view — or poets in that group?

Hejinian: I can’t think of any terms that aren’t negative. The self-commodifying poet? The star poet?

Filreis: If I were one of those, what would you say to me about my way of preceding? Because you disagree: you think that poetic communities need to be rigorously social, I think.

Hejinian: I’d tell you to start a magazine.


Filreis: And you mean that, you mean that seriously?

Hejinian: Yeah.

Filreis: You said that of you and your colleagues: so many people edited, and editing is a generous thing to be doing. So that wasn’t a laugh line. She meant it.

Devaney [reads]: From Jeffrey Julich. Miss Hejinian, in Barrett Watten’s recent book The Constructivist Moment, he reviews a 1999 Electronic Poetry Center discussion on your Writing as an Aid to Memory. That discussion centered on the truncated words that appeared throughout the book, and especially the word “deen”. D-E-E-N. Can you please say something about your use of truncated words and especially the significance of the word “deen”?

Hejinian: To those of you who don’t know about this conversation, in an early work of mine called Writing Is an Aid to Memory, it’s complicated, but among the phonemes or word-units that occur in it are a number of units that end up as either prefixes or, much more frequently, suffixes or word endings. As, for example, you would find if your computer hyphenates something, so that you get “tion” at the beginning of the next line. And there was a conversation on the Buffalo poetics list about one such word that appears in the work: D-E-E-N. Nobody could figure out what that was, what word that would be the end of. And I don’t know either.


I don’t remember how I came up with that word. I used these, what Jeffrey Julich is calling truncated words, because I wanted to give — you know, “writing as an aid to memory” — some sense of a level of language in which memory or the meaning is retroactive always. You know, things come along, and then you discover what they mean. So I wanted to show things coming into memory, or coming into meaning. So words not yet formed into their wholes. And that was the reason I used the truncated words.

Filreis: Thank you. Thank you, Jeffrey, for asking the question.

Jim Carpenter: Yeah, this is the left-field question. I have an interest in assessing the quality of computer programs, and am trying to develop a hypothesis that the problem with computer programming arises from the fact that we use engineering practices to construct them. They’re really compositional entities and we ought to be using literary practices. My question actually sprung from Nick’s question here, using poetic practice to engage natural language in ways to extract from that language, if I understand your response correctly, insights that the nature of that language obscures. You alluded to some tactical approaches there: rearranging words, extracting words, and so on. What I’m wondering, and I don’t expect you to be an expert in computer programming —

Hejinian: That’s good.


Carpenter: But it seems to me that there might be a generalization that one could make there, that in approaching different kinds of texts, and trying to make those texts give up their essence that they are trying to obscure, that there might be some general principles in poetic practice that one would use to engage texts that in other senses are unapproachable. So, is there, in your view, a set of resources there, or in poetic practice, that are generally valuable in engaging other kinds of literary practice?

Does my question make any sense from left field?

Lyn Hejinian at the Kelly Writers House in 2005. Photo by Blake Martin.
Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.

Hejinian: Well, I like the question a lot. I model my compositional methods on what I think of as thought-methods, how thinking occurs.

Poetic language, how thinking in language occurs, in particular, and the logics that are operative in thought-language, whether it’s waking or sleeping thought — if dreams are thoughts of any kind, and I suppose they must be — the logics are numerous and not only linear or cause-and-effect logics, but all kinds of other logics, and all of them available, immanent in language. There are sound logics, montage logics, collage logics, et cetera. Associative logics, metonymic logics, metaphoric logics, and crazy illogics, which is a kind of logic.

I am virtually technophobic, but you know, I think bridges must think in some way, or be thoughtful constructs. Not to anthropomorphize bridges, but when I think of engineering, I think of bridges, probably because there is scandal going on about the San Francisco Bay Bridge, ever since the earthquake. They can’t seem to build a replacement that’s going to be earthquake-proof.

This isn’t helpful, but I’m just thinking. I can’t help you, I guess.


Devaney: Lyn, you’ve talked about encouraging Al and other young poets to start a magazine, and you’ve published people and have been published by your friends. When you edited the Best American Poetry this past year, did you feel that was kind of a gesture in that way?

Filreis: Was it rigorously social?

Hejinian: It was rigorously educational.

And yeah, I agreed to guest-edit that anthology in order to make sure that, you know … Best American Poetry is marketed to the general public, and the general public buys those volumes. I think the principle reason I agreed to edit the Best American Poetry 2004 was because I had a couple of my very best undergraduates say that one of those volumes had been their very first book of poetry. There are problems with any kind of “best” series, and I tried to address some of those problems in the introduction that I wrote for the one that I edited in particular. I wanted to celebrate the writing of poetry in the current political milieu, and I wanted a volume that read as a really terrific book full of challenges and liveliness and risk-taking and daring and vivacity. I thought I could do such a thing, and I think I did it. I really like that book. I thought I would be embarrassed when it was revealed that I was editing such a mainstream publication, but I’m really glad I did it. I’m sure there are many faults with it, and many people can find fault with me for doing it, but I’m glad I did it. And I think there’s a lot of really terrific poetry in there. And it’s not all the “best” poetry that was written in a given year. I didn’t even read all the poetry that was published in a given year. But I read a lot of it. And the works I selected struck me as together making an interesting book. So yeah, I don’t know if it was rigorously social, but it was certainly in line with what I’ve tried to do as an editor of Poetics Journal and Tuumba Press and Atelos, and what I try to do even in a syllabus for a course.

Filreis: How widely distributed has the book been? How many copies were sold?

Hejinian: I don’t know. I think something like 20,000 gets sold in a typical year.

Filreis: And a Tuumba Press book sells how many?

Hejinian: Well, Tuumba Press is just for special projects right now. But Atelos, there are two books that have gone into second printings, so they sold out a thousand copies. One is Pamela Lu’s book called Pamela: A Novel and the other is Barrett Watten’s Bad History. Both have been adopted for courses, which is the secret to selling books in large numbers. Yeah, like My Life, you know, everybody says, “Oh, we got that in freshman year.”

But a typical Atelos book sells around 300 copies.

Filreis: So 20,000 is an awful lot?

Hejinian: It’s a lot. Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems I think sold 10,000.

So, when you think of the per capita percentage of buyers of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, it’s tiny.

Speaker: My question is kind of murky, but hopefully it will muddle around in there.

At the reading last night, you were reading from that piece“Scheherazade,” or the thousand-eyes pieces. I was just noticing — maybe this relates to the other question, too, in terms of the way you were talking about The Fatalist as a phrase-based work very much in the realm of the sentence — how much My Life or even Happily has a lot of, say, aphorism or punning or work in homonyms, different things like that, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of highlight. For example, a lot of it is about how the syntax is juxtaposing the work in there. There was something noticeable about how much rhyme play was happening, how much word play in a lot of those “Scheherazade” pieces that seemed like this really was the highlight: this kind of intense word play that was taking place.

So I was wondering if there is a different work with language that is happening in that one, for you, that moves away from the sentence. I don’t know what the split would be, I just wondered if you could speak to that work particularly and what that has offered, et cetera.

Hejinian: You know that the Arabian Nights stories are all things told at night, and initially I wanted to write a work of a thousand poems, or a work of a thousand pieces (although a poem could be one word long). And I wanted it to be night, somehow related to night by being the kinds of things that want, okay, night language. So it could be insomniac, fretting. Or I talk a lot in my head at night and say things that I have no idea where they came from, just phrases. I am suddenly aware that phrases happen. But also lullabies, nursery rhymes, little fairy tales, et cetera. I had just been inventing all of those.

I read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, which is a lesser known work, and there are some amazing, intelligent, hilarious poems in that. The structures are really funny. I appropriated quite a lot of the rhythms of it. There’s one: “I thought I saw a da da da,” but it turned out to be something completely different. Once you get going on those, you can hardly stop. I thought I saw a tender child eating a warm waffle. Then I saw it was a rat shitting something awful. You could just go on and on.

The book includes works that are like little essays, as if thinking through something at night. But basically I think that night thoughts occur much more in phrases than in sentences. Or perhaps they are sentences that just run on and on and on and on and keep changing subject manner.

[Short gap in recording.]

Kim Lasky: I was also reading your essay on barbarism this morning —

Filreis: Barbarism first thing in the morning?

Lasky: I know, yeah. Well, I couldn’t sleep, so I was awake early.

One of the things you say in that is that one of the impulses for the so-called Language movement was the idea that poetry and practice aren’t antithetical. Practice and theory, sorry, are not antithetical. I was just wondering if you can say something about what you think poetry has to offer to critical thinking and to critical language, and also vice versa? How the two can kind of work together in shared space maybe?

Hejinian: Good critical or literary theoretical writing, at its very best, works around what I would call synthetic moments, when a connection is made between one thing and another. That moment of connection is a moment of incredibly powerful insight or luminosity, and it casts lights on all kinds of other things.

Barrett Watten’s A Constructivist Moment is a compendium of synthetic moments. I mean he’s just a brilliant thinker, and a brilliant critical writer. He puts together in the essays, or the chapters of that book, the most unlikely things. Zizek is another person who uses the most unlikely examples to elucidate some very difficult, say Lacanian, term. I think that is exemplary of what poetic writing does. Poetry is both resilient and revelatory precisely because of linkages: the way the linkages are made, the kinds of things that are linked together.

At Berkeley, where I teach, there is no MFA program, but there are a number of poets among the students, grad students and undergrads both. We pretty much all feel that it is extremely beneficial that the two activities are interdependent, and that the kinds of originality and inventiveness that are required by poetry are also required by good scholarship. And the kind of rigorousness that’s necessary for good scholarship is absolutely necessary for good poetry.

Poetry, to my mind, is not anti-intellectual sloppiness. It’s really hard thinking. Maybe that’s why it’s sturdy and detailed. I mean, I think of Al, whose work has been an inspiration to me. And he does unbelievably meticulous archival research and comes up with plethoras of detail. When you put them together, you have this enormous cultural map, or a portrait of a cultural moment, and with perspectival lines running through it, and counter-perspectives. It’s really rich.

Filreis: We’re selling copies of my book …


Lyn, this is the perfect set-up for a question that I’ve had. We talked a little about it yesterday. We were imagining an annotated Zukofsky, and, of course, people over the years have done a great job of really figuring out that sturdy, detailed, contextual associativeness with The Cantos of Ezra Pound. And half-jokingly, but maybe not so jokingly, one imagines an annotated My Life. Those of you who have read My Life know that it’s not as densely allusive as The Cantos, but there are quotes that could be found. This is sort of along the lines of the researcher/scholar/sleuth that was your response to Kim’s question. Being the scholar you just described, as I was reading about your babysitting for Susanne Langer’s children, I got my old copy of Philosophy in a New Key out, a 1942 book that Lyn must have. I assume, you must have encountered it, either in that time you were babysitting the kids —

Hejinian: It was actually their grandchildren.

Filreis: The grandchildren. And then you moved to a reference of a book I had never heard of: Charles William Beebe’s book about going down several miles under the ocean in a bathysphere called Half Mile Down. I think we said it was two miles down, but a half mile is still long. And she refers to the book, does anybody remember it in My Life? “As when I read” — I love sentences in My Life that begin with that — “As when I read in Charles William Beebe’s account of his descent a half-mile down deep in a bathysphere the transcribed rapture, the rapture of units — and phrases are units.” So I went and read this book. This is the library’s only copy of it, and, indeed, I found language in it that is so rapturous. Partly because, I guess, when you go far enough down in a bathysphereyou begin writing like a Language poet. This guy was no Language poet, but there’s a picture of, ripped unfortunately, a picture of a bluefish darting around by the bathysphere, and this is a scientific work, a descriptive work, the line is: “The green water rained blue parrotfish.” Very poetic.

So, I felt, maybe stupidly, very gratified. I felt like I was doing a scholar’s work reading this book. So I guess my silly setup question is, assuming that was a good thing to do, because I have now read a book that you read —

Hejinian: And now you’ve spoken about it in a webcast.

Filreis: It’s now part of the record.

Hejinian: I believe there’s just been a revival of interest in the work of Charles William Beebe. And I believe that this book is being reprinted, and I think maybe by the New York Times

Filreis: That’s hard to believe —

Hejinian: I mean, by the New York Review of Books.

Off-Mic: That series they do on lost classics?

Hejinian: I think that this is an upcoming volume in that series. I could be wrong.

Filreis: But aside from that fact, that now not more than two people have read the book, and maybe others will read it, is this a worthwhile — thinking of Kim’s question — thing for somebody to be doing? A reader, a scholar? Is this at all helpful — I can’t think of a better word than helpful — in understanding My Life? Do I have a little something now I can say about, other than the ridiculous annotation, is this something that the allusiveness suggests? It doesn’t demand it, it doesn’t require it, but is this good, is it okay, is it helpful? Should we all be following the leads of a great book like this? And that was a bad way to end a series of questions.

Hejinian: I don’t think it’s required. I hope it’s not necessary. It had never occurred to me that anyone would undertake it, but why not?


But don’t ask me for help. No, I’m only joking.

Filreis: I know you are.

Hejinian: I think the result of that kind of research is a fascinating document of cultural studies. There’s another essay in The Language of Inquiry called “Reason,” it’s about reasoning the logics of poetic language, but also reason in the sense of why you do something. So, it’s about motivation and strategy, let’s say. But I hope with more resonance than that. That sounded a little bit reductive.

Anyway, it’s very difficult for me to write essays, and I fret a lot in the course, working on them, and the phrase “[a]long comes something — launched in context” came into my weary brain. It set off a long trajectory. I actually am still using that “along comes” phrase in various ways, because it happens all the time. You know, along comes a dog. It came from somewhere. It’s got its doggy business on its mind. It’s got its context. It’s launched out of a context, it’s into yours, it’s going on to another one, and all of that stuff totally interests me. And I feel it really is kind of the rich fabric of experience. It’s all the stuff that is coming along. And it’s happening. And you want to, I’ve said this before, but you don’t want to go through life not being aware that this is happening.

So, in a sense, all the stuff that is happening and that those sentences erupt from, or point to, or instigate … maybe a project would be totally great that would —

Filreis: This is the happiness of Happily in a way.

Hejinian: Right.

Filreis: Fantastic.

Dan Blanchard: This is a very pointed question because I’m a —

Filreis: Poignant or pointed?

Blanchard: Pointed.

Towards the end of My Life, there are two lines, the first is: “Many versions of aspiration … like Russia.” And the second is: “I had returned from Russia banal with shock-value. Tak. And borrowed a phrase to say that the mechanics of perception turn psychology into aesthetics.”

First, I just really love how you used “tak” there. I’ve taken Russian, and the “so much” versus “the pause of a thought.” And then second, I was wondering why you chose Russia, and what about your experience there made it important enough to speak to it in this kind of setting? Is it the contrast between the western thought process, like what Jen was talking about earlier, and Russia being a kind of eastern orthodox different way of looking at it, or — ?

Hejinian: All of those things.

It was the political other. It was the enemy. The first time I went there it was a very cold time of the Cold War, 1983. And I went back repeatedly. Also, the absolute randomness of my going there in the first place. There is nothing to suggest any trajectory in my past that would send me to Russia. But my husband, who is a musician, received a fan letter from what claimed to be the Leningrad Contemporary Music Society, and they said they had voted him the number one musician of the twentieth century.


Filreis: No kidding?

Hejinian: Well, there were only three members, as we discovered when we got there. They had gone out and bought a recording of his on the black market, and they had drunk a lot of vodka, and they had a vote and it was unanimous.


And they wrote him a fan letter. He wrote back and said he would try to raise money. They wanted him to come there to give a lecture, and he didn’t want to do that, but said he would bring the quartet that he plays with, Rova Saxophone Quartet. It took two years to raise the money because he thought Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola would give money because, you know, youth culture. Those companies didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So, it took two years to raise the travel money through benefit concerts and borrowing money from family and various ways. And he organized a group to travel with Rova, a few people who would pay their way plus a little bit more. They all knew they were paying a little bit more, but for the benefit of going to Russia in a context in which they would actually meet people and see the underground cultural scene, and so forth. They were happy to do so. Stephen Rodefer was on that trip, as was George and Lucy Mattingly, two video artists, a music critic and composer named Charles Shere, and me. The context had nothing to do with me, but there I was, thrown into the middle of the avant-garde underground, bohemian underground with refusenik mathematicians, and painters, and linguists working on shamanistic practices in Karelia, which is the vast region of marshlands above Leningrad (or, now, St. Petersburg). It was just totally amazing. I fell madly in love with it. And why does anyone fall in love with something, who knows?

Then I learned Russian and did a lot of translations. It was a vibrant part of my intellectual, cultural, and emotional life for a long time, and remains so, although now in a much muted sense. But the poet whose work I translated, Arkady Dragomoshchenko, still lives in Saint Petersburg, and I’m still in touch with him and his wife quite regularly and passionately I guess I would say.

Filreis: Lyn, I wonder if we could conclude by asking you to read a passage from The Fatalist?

Hejinian: Of course.

Filreis: We were all, the students and I, were struck by this. This is the section about a person you name R, and R writes letters, which is interesting because the book is all about you writing. Here’s a person who herself writes and she seems to write to talk to those who survive her. And it’s a section on the bottom of 23, through 24.

So, here’s Lyn Hejinian reading from The Fatalist.

[Hejinian reads.]

Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, thank you very much.