Yuri Tarnopolsky

10. On Clouds and Elephants

poetry. Lego. mathematics. everything.

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            Essay 10. On Clouds and Elephants

There is Everything, and poetry is part of it. Poetry is a combinatorial game, like Lego. Poets combine the words. Nothing seems to be farther from science, engineering, business, and even Lego itself than poetry.  It is a long shot in the playfield of Everything.  Only by looking from a distance we can see the entire team.

A poet picks up words swarming in his head and connects them in a three-dimensional object: a poem.  The first dimension is the line.  The words follow each other, connected by sometimes distorted rules of grammar. The second dimension is vertical: stanzas or just lines form a sequence of statements or images, which follow the poet's imagination.  They build up the subject matter, if any. There might be none at all. Poetry can be representational and abstract, with everything in between.

Usually, in good representational poetry, there is a third dimension—the hidden, invisible statement which we derive or decode from the written text.

Here is an example from Emily Dickinson .

             I took my power in my hand
             And went against the world;
             'Twas not so much as David had,
             But I was twice as bold.

             I aimed my pebble, but myself
             Was all the one that fell.
             Was it Goliath was too large,
             Or only I too small?

In short, it is about the bitterness of failure.  Most of what is said in the above poem can be stated in plain language:

             I decided to do something that was
             apparently very challenging.
             I failed.  Was it because
             my task was too difficult or because
             I had not enough strength?

Note that the plain language interpretation will be different with different readers.  The best poetry is the one which people understand differently and argue about it.
The subject matter of the poem is something that most of us probably experienced at some time, and it is no such big deal in itself.  What is the difference between the prosaic statement and a poem?  Why do poets, wriggling like the circus contortionists, compose poetry?

Poetic language is something that we do not use in common life, even if we are poets. We do not hear it at work, in the street, in the speeches of politicians, and do not read in legal and business documents, unless poetry is deliberately included.  We hear poetry in lyrics, commercials, and from Charles Osgood  on Sunday Morning.

Poetry is everything but everyday language and prose.  It is a separate form of speech, not for the purpose of communication, but saturated with links to what is not explicitly said in the text itself but left out. To use the vocabulary of the Web, it is written in hypertext.

The function of the common language used for description and communication is to accurately represent (or misrepresent) certain facts, questions, or directives.  Poetry is a play, a game for one, like Lego, which creates a world of its own, having a limited similarity to the real world where the common language is used, but rooted in it, bonded to different areas of reality, author's personal unique experience, and even the reader's experience, not known to the author, of course.

Poetry raises more questions than it answers.

"I took my power in my hand..." Had the author been dominated by somebody before that?  Was her power in somebody else's hand?

"And went against the world..." Not really against the whole world?  What was it that the author challenged?  David was bold enough to fight Goliath.  To be twice as bold as he is an obvious hyperbola. Why could not the poet say simply "very much?"

"The pebble" does not mean really a small stone.  It is a metaphor, used only because the image of David had been already introduced and the poem displays against the Biblical episode.  The pebble, not a big stone is something a woman can throw.  Or the pebble means a small, timid act of defiance?

The author fell, although not literally, of course, but what happened to the stone?  Did it ever fell on the ground?  The author says that only she did fall, nobody and nothing else.  The final question does not make sense: if one object is too big in comparison with another, then the other one is too small.

Why did  not the author simply tell what happen?  What was the challenge and how she failed, and if she did, so what?

The world of poetry and art in general has many more degrees of freedom than the real world.  It is the world without no-no's. In the real world elephants stay in no direct contact with clouds, other than through intricate meteorological influence.  In poetry they can meet in the same line (Emily Dickinson):

             On this long storm the rainbow rose,
             On this late morn the sun;
             The clouds, like listless elephants,
             Horizons straggled down.

Art is defenseless against mockery but it has the power of time on its side.  It is easy but useless to criticize a poet for inconsistency, contradictions, violations of the laws of nature and standards of language, obscurity, extravagance, and bias.  We can criticize a poet for banality, smooth blandness,  photographic vision, being like everybody else, and having any quality a good secretary possesses.

There is a fourth dimension in poetry that connects separate poems written at different time and at different circumstances into a whole—the work of a particular poet.  For example, there is a link between the first poem about a failure (non-success) and the following two about success (non-failure):

 This is an early poem by Emily Dickinson:

             Success is counted sweetest
             By those who ne'er succeed.
             To comprehend a nectar
             Requires sorest need.

 This is a later one:

             A face devoid of love and grace,
             A bareful, hard, successful face,
             A face with which a stone
             Would feel as thoroughly at ease
             As were they old acquaintances,—
             First time together thrown.

We can compose a book from poems about success written by poets of different nations at different times.

William Butler Yeats put the subject matter of his short poem in its title To a Friend whose Work Has Come to Nothing:

             Now all the truth is out,
             Be secret and take defeat
             From any brazen throat,
             For how can you compete,
             Being honor bred, with one
             Who, were it proves he lies
             Were neither shamed in his own
             Nor in his neighbors' eyes?

The Russian poet Boris Pasternak, better known in America as the author of Doctor Zhivago, put a related idea in just two casually inserted lines:

         But you must not yourself
         tell  defeat from victory.

                [Some poems by Pasternak in English and Russian]

The fifth dimension of poetry is its links with human culture in general.  Here is an excerpt from Adrienne Rich, a modern poet.  This is a true example of poetic hypertext.

             Two handsome women, gripped in argument,
             each proud, acute, subtle, I hear scream
             across cut glass and majolica
             like Furies cornered from their pray:
             The argument ad feminam, all the old knives
             that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours,
             ma semblable, ma soeur!

Furies are goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology.  Ad feminam , "to woman," in Latin, is a paraphrase of logical term ad hominem, "to man," which means to appeal not to reason but to emotions and prejudices.  Ma semblable, ma soeur means "my likeness, my sister" in French and is a transformation (paraphrase) of Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère! which is the end of the poem To the Reader by French poet Charles Baudelaire and means "Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother."  It was also quoted by T. S. Eliot in Wasteland. What a maze of bonds and allusions spreading through time and space and compressed in a few lines!  But even if you do not know all that, you still can understand what the poem is about.  Like human brain, poetry can lose big chunks without losing its wits.  Sometimes, however, poets just show off.

Poetry is not an easy work.  It takes energy, time, failure, and despair.  Even a productive poet writes a limited volume of poetry during his life.  Emily Dickinson wrote 1,775 poems, but many of them were only short fragments.

Writing poetry is like walking on a tight rope.  As with any creativity, the chaotic world of the poetical Lego is ordered by harsh constraints that the poet creates for himself, partly following traditions, partly defying them.  In addition, the energy of the poet is spent on trying—like in science—to stay away from what anybody else can say, not to repeat what any other poet said before, and keep a delicate balance between reality and arbitrary combinatorics.  In rhymed poetry, the energy and time are spent also on the masochistic search for the combination of words that would satisfy many contradictory requirements.

The pronouns I and you in poetry are, actually, the x and y of mathematics.  Like mathematics, poetry invents its own world, but keeps an eye on the real one.  The elitist aura of both is a sign of being out of this world.  Unlike mathematics, however, poetry means more than it tells. Mathematics, according to Henri Poncaré, is a way to name many things with one name (x=2, 31, a, p...). Poetry insists on naming a single thing by many names (cloud = elephant, feather, stone, blob...) and it builds abundant bonds between objects having no connection in everyday life.  The bonds are not totally arbitrary.  This is why, although this is not its primary function, poetry is also a way to understand this world.

Here is a poem about clouds by  Henri Poncaré , a great French mathematician:

                        Ideas rose in clouds;
                        I felt them collide until pairs interlocked,
                        so to speak,
                        making a stable combination.

To make it look like a poem, all I had to do was to arrange the sentence in four lines.
Well, mon lecteur, mon frère (soeur), all I wanted  to say was that poetry and mathematics with some imagination could be two good neighbors of Everything, sharing some bones if not flesh.

 Essay 10 is a version of Chapter 8 of the manuscript:
        Yuri Tarnopolsky, The New and the Different.





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