Poe and Poetic Discovery

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 1, 2015, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

If you spend enough time around poets, you’re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And it’s true, our favorite poems tend to be surprising, even to ourselves. There are prosaic explanations for this: The best poems give voice to the unvoiced; they provide words for thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, “I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is certainly a way in which words build a framework for understanding.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know? relates an anecdote that, when Columbus first came to America, the natives literally couldn’t see his ships, because they had no mental concept of a ship that large. As sure as I am that the story is apocryphal, the poet in me wants to believe it—I’ve felt it myself: Every poem I’ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didn’t quite grasp when I started writing it. What if there were some truth to this notion of poetic epiphany?

Everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe. But what you might not know Poe’s last work—which he considered to be his greatest—Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called the Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively low brightness of the night sky in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star—in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe—light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isn’t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

… one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided …

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again reform the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite series of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. He even acknowledges our impossibly small place within it: “Our Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate …”

Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didn’t know about Einstein’s cosmological constant, or dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation; there was no WMAP of galactic clusters. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only a term he himself coined: “ratiocination.”

For Poe, ratiocination—an idea introduced in his detective stories—was a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.

For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNA’s double helix were all discoveries said to have first appeared in sleep. But poets practice ratiocination every time we sit down in front of a blank page, often with only the faintest glimmerings of what we actually want to write about. Imaginative intuition is a daily practice.

So next time a poet tells you about some grand epiphany, consider (maybe) listening.

The Pathways of Clichés


Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 18, 2014, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, 50 English instructors will write the word “cliché” in red ink in the margins of a student paper. The admonition to “Avoid clichés!” has almost become a cliché—as much a cliché as the word “cliché” itself. And since clichés are meanings that have lost some of their meaning, it might be time for a reminder of what they really mean.

The word “cliché” comes from the 19th century French printing industry. In the days of movable type, each letter or symbol was set on an individual metal block, with each word and sentence painstakingly arranged block by block. To save time, printers would combine commonly used phrases into large blocks called “stereotypes” or “clichés” (presumably after the sound they made being set: cliquer, “to click”). Eventually this expression was used so often to refer to common phrases that it became a word of its own—a word so commonly used that we’ve mostly forgotten its original meaning. Cliché became a cliché.

A cliché is a kind of dead metaphor. It’s a connection between different concepts that has become so prominent in our minds that we no longer have to associate it with those original concepts to understand its meaning. When you hear the word cliché, you don’t think of the French printer or steel slugs of type. It’s not visceral in the least. It just is what it is, and you know what it is. A cliché.

Seen this way, a cliché can be an amazing thing: It’s an original, useful concept that’s hard to imagine ever having lived without. It’s the birth of an individual idea, a new discrete unit of thought that’s become an inherent part of how we see the world, who we are. But there, too, is the rub: Now the concept has already been born,  and it exists as a fully developed thing. There’s nowhere else for it to grow.

In neuroscience, Hebbian theory is summarized as, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The more often a neural pathway between two concepts is fired, the easier it is for that pathway to fire the next time—which makes it fire more often, which makes it fire more easily, and so on, until that pathway is firing in the same pattern every time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak. The dominance of that pathway becomes a part of the architecture of the brain, and overwhelms the possibility for any new connections between those original concepts. This process is how an entire ant colony can find your puddle of spilled syrup, or how human highways and cities form.

Imagine two towns separated by countless miles of dense jungle. The townsfolk to the west think they’re alone in the universe. Until one day a brave adventurer hacks her way through the vegetation and miraculously discovers the town to the east. A new connection. When she returns home, she tells her friends of the wonders of the town to the east and the amazing sights she encountered along the way. And her friends, being young and adventurous themselves, want to see those wonders, too. They could, of course, hack their own paths east, but why bother, when a path has already been hacked?

As they travel, the larger group, by its very nature, widens the path, their footsteps trampling the earth. The wider path is more enticing, an easier trek, and those who were once disinclined to risk decide it’s worth the journey.

The path becomes wider still, now wide enough for a wagon. A well is dug halfway between the towns, so that the horses have water. The towns begin to trade goods, which means more wagons on the road. An entrepreneur opens an inn next to the well. Now the road is cobblestone. Now pavement. It’s still a scenic drive—look at the waterfalls, the flora, the fauna, but look from the road—which becomes a highway, four lanes, then six, then eight. Eventually the trip is a daily commute that the townsfolk make without a thought, a most convenient connection between east and west, and no one bothers to notice the scenery blurring by—they couldn’t get out and touch it if they wanted to, at the speed the traffic flows. They’re thankful for the road, it takes them efficiently from one town to the other, but they no longer experience the journey. They build a freeway wall. They listen to the radio while they drive. Nothing changes. The road is the road and it works.

Until another adventurer appears, a writer, who says, “Has anyone looked out there north of the road?”

The joy of reading is that we can follow. That we can grab an ax and smell the earth and feel the grass as the writer hacks ahead, stimulating new paths (and maybe, eventually, new clichés) through the jungles of our minds.

Wet Asphalt Presents: WaLS

There was a great post yesterday on Wet Asphalt by J.F. Quackenbush, a former Rattle contributor, about the latest pox on literature, which he calls Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome (WaLS).  Symptoms include valuing the artist over the art, referring to all publishers as “markets,” and seeing publication as the only means of legitimization.

Wet Asphalt has always been one of my favorite literary blogs, even though they tend to talk more about SF than poetry, because of the curmudgeonly way they present cold hard truths, both entertainingly and honestly, and yesterday’s post is no exception.  WaLS has been spreading across the writing community for decades, and can be seen most acutely anywhere academics congregate — MFA programs and AWP conferences — maybe it’s all those shaking hands.

I’ve written about it before, without knowing the proper diagnosis, and first encountered its most virulent strain a few years ago, at a small conference put on by PEN West.  There were scantly attended panels and readings throughout the day, featuring some great poets no one seemed to care about.  Later that afternoon I was on a panel about how to get your poetry published, and suddenly it was standing-room-only — people were piling up on the floor, hanging from the heating ducts, and leaning in through the open windows — all in search of the secret to being published.  I have no idea where they came from, but I was surrounded.  I kept saying things like, if you want to be published, write good poems, you know, read a lot, and learn what poetry can do…  Then they’d raise their hands and ask another question about how to format their cover letter.  Should they staple their poems together or use a paperclip?

It’s everywhere you go.  People care more about publishing than they care about poetry.  Every editor says the same thing — just look at the numbers.  10,000 annual submitters, to a magazine with a press run of less than 5,000.   Obviously they aren’t all reading us. It’s particularly apparent when we receive fiction submissions — you’re telling me you can’t even bother to read the subtitle?

Quackenbush can only speculate about where the disease came from, suggesting that “it originated from wonkish industry watcher types interbreeding with the sorts of poseurs and dilettante’s that are to be found in and around the fringes of all creative endeavors.”  While this is probably true, I think we can get a little more specific.  One of the main symptoms is the use of the word “market,” which can easily be traced back to the Writer’s Market, the annual resource book for writers that’s been publishing continuously since 1921.  As Quackenbush points out, calling magazines a “market” doesn’t even make sense — while the magazines might be “buyers” of your writing, they’re not places where writing is bought and sold — but the Writer’s Market is.  As a collection of consumers, a kind of literary yellow pages, it’s named appropriately.  So it’s likely that the word “market” mutated for the WaLS-afflicted from this source.

What’s more, having a book like the Writer’s Market, as it was originally intended, makes sense.  The book listed paying markets for freelance writers trying to make a living — if you write an article on new trends in seafood recipes, it’s nice to be able to find a magazine that might want to buy it.  The problem is, Writer’s Market saw there was a niche for this kind of thing, and split it into nine different books, including Poet’s Market.  But poetry isn’t a career, it’s a fine art — no one’s ever been able to make a living selling poems.  If you became the staff poet of The New Yorker, and they published nothing but your two poems in every issue, you’d still qualify for food stamps (your annual salary would be about $15,000, I think).

So there’s this reward-based infrastructures set up, with no reward to give.  People think, I want to be a writer, and this is what writers do, they go to the library and write down addresses from the Writer’s Market, and they send in their submissions and wait for a response.  Stripped of its original reward, the publication itself becomes the reward, and the WaLS-afflicted poets are able to continue the ritual.

This is what it really is: Fetishism.  In every sense of the word.  A whole subset of writers today have fetishized publication — they’ve ascribed value to an object where no such value inherently exists.  As with a sexual fetish, they receive gratification from the artificial object as a replacement for the gratification that normally comes directly from the sex.   By pursuing publication, they become writers by proxy.  That’s why it doesn’t matter how obscure a publication credit is — it doesn’t matter if no one ever reads the magazine, as long as you can list it on your resume.  Think about it.  If what really mattered for a poet was just the audience, there would be no need for Poet’s Market at all — no one would care about publishing in magazines they’ve never heard of, because the unheard-of magazines have no relevant audience.  Poets would only send poems to magazines they like to read, in hopes of providing enjoyment to others with similar tastes.

Once you see WaLS for what it is, not so much a disease as a fetish, it becomes harder to get so worked up about it.  A sexual fetish is only considered a disorder when it causes psychological or physical discomfort for the person afflicted.  People all over the world simply embrace their fetishes, and moreover, find happiness and fulfillment in their lives because of them.  Do I really care if some guy happens to have a shoe fetish, and a whole closet full of hooker boots, if it makes him happy?  No, not at all.  And besides, aren’t I just a shoe saleman, in the end?  Don’t I do more business because of him?

Of course the writing would be better if they payed as much attention to crafting poems as they did cover letters, but at least they’re writing.

Back to the Future

I just noticed again that the opening poem to my book, “The Body,” contains the phrase, “back east,” which I remember struck me as odd, even as I typed it out on the page. The poem was written in 2003, a full year before I would unexpectedly move from New York to California to start working on Rattle. Having spent my whole life on the east coast, there was no such thing as “back east,” but for some completely unknown, spontaneous reason, the tourist trap I was referring to felt “back east,” and I plopped that phrase down on the page.

Five years later, it makes complete sense — in fact, the reference might seem weird to me now if I hadn’t used that kind of geography. And yet, there’s no way I could have guessed that I’d be moving west, and I had no desire to do so. Is it just a coincidence that the phrase found its way into the poem?

This subject has vexed me for a long time. Because it seems to me that, whether reading or writing, there’s some interaction going on in poetry that more broad than the individual mind. It’s like a poem is tapping into a Jungian collective unconscious, as these phrases appear of their own volition, as if we’re the conduit of creation rather than the creator. When we write a poem, we access things we didn’t know we knew. But something must have known, it seems.

When I’m feeling mystical, I’ll call it the linguistic collective. It’s like there’s this river of words, that all have so many intertwined connotations that when you pluck one you pull up a string, and each subsequent word has a string of its own, until you harness the whole world.

When I’m not feeling mystical, that’s a load of hooey. The unconscious mind has its own language, it’s own syntax forever swirling below the surface. Mystery is just a lack of information. Our failure to understand the mind doesn’t make it more than meat.

But what about that “tourist trap back east”? Maybe I just liked the sound of the phrase, the assonance, all those t’s and st’s. Is enjoying a sound enough to make it true?

On the way home tonight, The Wallflowers came on the radio — “We can make it home/ with one headlight.” It always strikes me that the analogy in that chorus doesn’t really work: It’s set up as if it were a challenge to drive with a headlight out. They can get the relationship back on track even if it might be difficult. But the fact is, a lot of times when a headlight goes out you don’t even notice until the policeman rights you a ticket. A better analogy would be, “We can make it home with no 4th gear” (or maybe no 1st, like in Little Miss Sunshine). Now that would be a challenge, I tell Megan. But it wouldn’t sound good, she says. And she’s right.

More often than we’d like to admit, the sound of a phrase trumps its meaning. How many times have you heard an aphorism that sounds good, but doesn’t make any sense once you think about it?

So maybe it was just the sound of the phrase that made me write it, and it’s just coincidence that 4 years later it came to make sense.

Or maybe when we write, we enter a timeless, meditative state, in which there is no past or future, and everything that ever was is happening at once. And maybe that’s why we’re rewarded with leaps of imagination and startling conclusions — because all causes have already become their effects. There’s room in cosmology for imaginary, and even illusory time. Maybe “The Body” reaches forward into the always present.

Wow, what a load of hooey.

AdSense Literary Experiment

BACKGROUND

For just over a year, we’ve been using a secret Gmail account to read and track submissions. It’s pretty simple: People email me submissions, I forward them to Gmail, and all the editors have the infinite storage and ultimate searchability at their fingertips. We can then use the labels to keep track of submissions as they move along the editorial food chain.

Google makes $4.2 billion a year, and a lot of that revenue comes through AdSense. If you ever Google anything — and I’m sure you do — you’ll notice the small classified-like ads in a column to the right. Those ads are targeted to the words you search for, so in theory, the ads are relevant to something you’re interested in. Advertisers get to pick their own target words, and pay a few cents per click. Rattle is actually one of those advertisers, though I’m still in the trial stage of deciding whether or not it makes “sense” for us.

These little ads appear next to all messages read in Gmail, and so every single submission we read at Rattle comes with its own set of targeted advertising (though I seriously doubt either of us have ever clicked). Furthermore, since most of the text in a poetry submission is the poems themselves, you might say the ads are targeted to the poetry.

HYPOTHESIS

I’ve always wondered if we could save some time and read the 20-word Google ads instead of the much longer poems. (Hypothetically, of course — we’re always going to read every word of every submission we get!.) But as an editor, I can’t help but wonder if the Google ad bots might be decent poetry editors themselves. Glancing at the ads every once in awhile, I actually think they can.

EXPERIMENT

The largest Rattle Gmail label is “Rejected.” I like to say the submissions are “returned”, which sounds a lot better in the spin room, but whatever you call it, that’s the label you don’t want. I won’t say how many submissions have landed there, but it’s thousands. The best you can hope for as a submitter is “Printed”, which means that after Megan and I have each read the submission, we both felt like it was worth printing out in hardcopy and talking about amongst ourselves and with Alan. It’s less than 5% of email submissions that wind up with the “Printed” label.

I’m going to collect a random sample of 5 submissions from each of these groups, and record the top Google Ad that appears next to it. If we can see a pattern emerge to distinguish between the two groups, we’ll know AdSense is on to something. The test is whether or not you can place a randomly selected submission, based solely on the ad.

At first I’ll make this a double-blind experiment for those following at home, and keep the labels a secret.

DATA

GROUP A:

Handcrafted Garage Doors / Custom finishes and accessories / Free quote. Guaranteed quality.

Eco Structural Technology / Green PreFab Steel Systems LEED / Cert- Commercial Residential

M+B Gallery / Contemporary Art Gallery / Specialized in Photography

Cheap Cowboy Boots / Cowboy Boots Sale Top Brands / Up to 50% off Justin Ropers

Teach Children thru Books / Children’s books that teach life lessons / Teasing,Peer Pressure,etc.

GROUP B:

Publish your book / at a price you can afford from $335, / + editing & marketing

John Wayne Ringtones / Ringtones, Screensavers, Wallpapers / in 30 Seconds to Your Cell Phone.

Book Printing in Asia / Self-publish high-quality fine art, / photography and large format books.

Publish Your Poetry Free / Get Your Poetry Published Online. / Join Helium’s Poetry Community Now!

Publish Your Poetry Free / Get Your Poetry Published Online. / Join Helium’s Poetry Community Now!

[Not a misprint, the last two of the randomly selected ads really were the same.]

ISOLATED X:

Reading Worksheets / Get Printable Daily Lesson Plans. / Find Free Worksheets & Resources.

ANALYSIS

Do you have a reasonable guess as to which group ad X belongs in? If you do, the hypothesis is confirmed.

It might be obvious already that Group A was submissions from the “Printed” label. Group B was “Rejected.” Ad X is another “Rejected.”

“Printed” ads seem to be more specific and unique, from prefab steel to cowboy boots. The only ad that might be considered bland and mass-marketed is the one for teaching books, but even that includes the specificity of children.

“Rejected” ads seem much more generic, and even lean a bit toward scams and spam. The only interesting subject in the group is “John Wayne”, but even that is a pop-icon, trying to sell a ringtone. It’s also the only one of the five that doesn’t contain the word “publish.”

CONCLUSION

Why do the ads for the better poems look so much more worth looking at? Why do the lesser poems generate bland ads? Even though this experiment confirms my assumption going in, I’m still surprised at the clarity of the results — five plot-points is such a small sample to be discerning a recognizable trend. Could the Google ad bots really have developed AI and an ear for poetry?

I don’t think so. The truth is, good poems have something to say — they’re about something interesting. The better poems contain a more unusual and precise vocabulary, and so they trigger the targets of advertisers who are more unique. The lesser poems tend to speak in generalities, and so there’s no linguistic content unusual enough to overcome the vocabulary of their standardized cover letters. Almost everyone mentions where they’ve been “published” or thanks us for considering their poems for “publication” — but with the weaker submissions, that’s all the little robots have to pick up on.

It’s going to be a long time before a robot takes my job — and you could always just Google Bomb your submission like a true spammer — but this little experiment should be an important lesson in one of the basic components of memorable poetry. Substance is key.