Eureka!: Poetic Discovery and Poe: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

As someone who likes to pretend he used to be a scientist — I majored in biochemistry, had a work study at an mRNA lab, and so on — I can’t help but wonder what life might have been like if I hadn’t jumped-ship for the po-biz. I say “pretend” because it was only three years as an undergraduate; my name appears on the tail-end of a few papers, but only as a glorified proofreader. Still, I had a nice toe-hold on a career path in pharmacology or virology, and my alumni newsletter tells me that the woman who took my place in the lab just received her PhD. What if that were me? What would it be like to come to work in a white coat and goggles instead of my boxers and a cup of coffee? I can’t even imagine…

I still subscribe to science journals and watch shows like Nova, and it has to be more than a coincidence that I find myself on a softball team of molecular biologists. After the games they sit around drinking beer, talking in a jargon I vaguely remember, and I can’t tell if it’s simple nostalgia or something more akin to regret that I feel.

But there’s solace in the fact that not all understanding comes from a lab. Real leaps of discovery is the stuff of poetry. It was Einstein’s thought experiments that changed the world. The structure of DNA came to Watson in a dream. Critical analysis followed for each, but the “aha!” didn’t come from inside a beaker or at a blackboard.

Which brings me to the roundabout point of this post. I was reading Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds a few weeks ago, and came across a story that I’d somehow never heard. Apparently, Edgar Allen 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 plausible solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called that 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 — therefore 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. (Interestingly, another solution, which doesn’t require a finite “big bang” model involves a fractal distribution of stars…)

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 form the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite serious of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. Sound familiar?

Of course, Poe didn’t know about the red shift, about dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation. In fact, he didn’t know much about the details of science at all. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only his famed “ratiocination” — and poetry.

Ginsberg's "America" vs. C.K.'s "United States"

I want to have lived through the 60s. Or even better — careful with your wishes — I want the 60s to have lived through me. I’ve always felt like a displaced flower-child; I love the music, I love the fashion (or lack thereof), I love the politics, the people in the streets. The coming Age of Aquarius. Marc Smith’s “hippy-dippy revolution.”

I finally went to San Francisco last summer and ate a burger at Red Robin. What the hell happened?

In the 60s, the times where a-changing, and Bob Dylan was spitting out so much hope it makes me cry. Now he’s doing Victoria Secret commercials; he used to care, but things have changed.

So what has changed, exactly? I could turn this into a long essay, but the answer is too obvious. First re-read Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” Then read, if you haven’t already, C.K. Williams’ “United States.”

Ginsberg’s America is angry, then sad, then funny (“[Russia] needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our / auto plants in Siberia”); it’s nothing if not passionate. Despite what he says, you can’t avoid the sense that America does have a chinamen’s chance. “America when will you be angelic?” implies the possibility that it some day might be. What makes Ginsberg’s poem so powerful and lasting is its love for the country; America is a sick and silly child worth caring for.

Forty years later we have Williams, who spends half his time in France. The United States is a “rusting, decomposing hulk.” All that’s left is the memory of the monster it was, and “its pocking, / once pure paint.” Like Ginsberg, Williams enters his own poem, but here he’s just a ghost, as silent as he is sea-sick. All hope has been replaced by one of the most dreary final stanzas I’ve ever read:

“America’s mighty flagship” waits here,
to be auctioned, I suppose, stripped of anything
it might still have of worth, and towed away
and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh.

Don’t get me wrong — I love C.K.; he’s merely reflecting the temper of the times, which is one of poetry’s great responsibilities. I just wish these were different times.

Man, I feel like I’m bad-mouthing some sap at his funeral.

Anyway, happy birthday to one of the must beautiful and influential documents in human history. And God bless that poet, Thomas Jefferson.

Features of a Good Poem: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

One of the most common questions we seem to get is, “What do you look for in a poem?” Given the number of submissions we read, and the relatively few number of poems we’re able to accept, it’s not a bad question.

There are a lot of answers, but none of them are very specific. We look for poems that move us, that make us laugh or cry. We look for poems we’ve never seen before. We look for poems that we’ll remember in a week, a month, a year — a truly memorable poem might be the ultimate goal.

As honest as those answers are, they’re not very helpful. Recently I’ve been trying to think of a way to better quantify the way we read. At editorial meetings, I’ve been paying more attention to the way we talk about the poems we’re considering, looking for patterns in why poems succeed or ultimately fall short. Often we’ll say things like, “This poem is technically great, but what’s at stake?” Or, “I love the idea behind the poem, but it just sits flat and prose-like on the page.”

So I came up with the three main features above, and subsequently made this silly little pie chart, which is, of course, a gross over-generalization. These do seem like the three main levels on which poems operate, though — and if you have all three working, you really do have a memorable poem. A poem can be successful working on two features if they’re very strong, but one is almost never enough.

Lyrical: Is the poem fun to read out loud? Does it sing? While the overall impression is somewhat subjective and intangible, all of the usual lyrical criteria apply — alliteration, rhyme, internal rhyme, meter (regular or irregular), pacing, etc. For example, these lines from Alan Fox’s “Silk Woman“:

am I the moth inside
her mouth where words
form, silk cocoon dark skin

The “moth inside / her mouth” dances on the tongue like…well, like a moth inside your mouth, only perhaps less disgusting. Not only does lyricism make a poem fun to read, but it also serves as the muscle-memory — beautiful lines become a part of your body.

Intellectual: Does the poem present an original idea? Interesting facts? Can you learn something just by reading? A great example of this is “Alan Greenspan” by Tony Trigilio. What could be more boring than a poem about the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, right? Wrong. Did you know that he was a saxophone player? Intimately involved with Ayn Rand? Just reading this poem changes the way you look at the world, the way you see this man we keep seeing “on 7 televisions all at once.”

But like any good intellectual poem, it’s not just about those interesting facts — there’s also a great cognitive leap in the final line, that transforms it into an important statement about the absurdity of where we are in history: “Things are like they are now, like never before.”

Emotional: Does the poem evoke a visceral response? It’s not easy to write a few lines that make others burst out laughing, or feel like a punch in the gut. Even more difficult to parse out how those lines achieve their effect. Often emotional poems deal with subjects of gravity. A great example is Cheryl Gatling’s poem of longing and loss, “Even the Nails in the Sheetrock Missed Her“, which I can’t help but post in its entirety:

Cheryl Gatling


When she entered a room, the room paid attention.
When she entered his house,
the leather couches plumped up and shone,
the hardwood floors were giddy with tapping
against the soles of her small black shoes,
the books on the shelves jostled each other
for a better view of the waves of her hair.

When she didn’t come, the walls held their breath,
straining to hear her voice, her laugh.
When she still didn’t come, that crying noise wasn’t him.
The white gauze curtains hung keening,
as they remembered the stroke of her fingers.
And at night, when he turned and turned,
it was only because the bed prodded him continually,
as the pillows pleaded in his ear, “Bring her back.”
And when he sat up, his hand on his chest,
how could he breathe,
when all the air had gone out into the street
calling her name?

Poems that are lyrical, intellectual, and emotional are the ones that endure. They’re what we like to read, what we’d like to write, and therefore what we’d like to publish.

If anyone can think of a better way to break down a good poem — other categories, blind spots in this one, or a completely different rubric — please share. I’m curious what you think.

The Accidental Plagiarist

As I was taking out the trash just now I realized that I had another poetry dream last night, so maybe I should write about it.

In the dream I was the contemporary Tim, but placed backward in time about fifteen years to a friend’s garage where we used to hang out. A group of us were watching Napoleon Dynamite, grainy on one of those old-fashioned projectors, and I realized that part of the dialogue was the first half of my poem “Cheers,” which I’d just read at some event. Everyone turned to look at me with such disappointment — I was a plagiarist.

That’s all I remember from the dream, and there’s still a lingering feeling of guilt, as if it’s really true. I’m tempted to run to the video store just to check.

This has actually happened to me once before, in real life. I wrote a piece about Megan leaving again for school after our first summer together, that ends with the main character holding the “simple resistance of a pillow to his chest.” I submitted the poem to Crab Creek Review before I happened to reread Jane Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt, only to realize that I stole that line. I hadn’t meant to steal the line, of course — it had probably been a year or two since I’d read it, but the little neuron bundles for each of those words had been linked in my brain, and they just sounded right together.

So I was embarrassed. But magnify that embarrassment fifty-fold a few weeks later, when CCR accepts the poem, and the editor jots down “loved the last line.”

A million thoughts ran through my head: What should I do? Should I tell them and change the line? Pretend I hadn’t noticed? Did the editor know already? Was he messing with me, referencing that line? Was this punishment? Was this proof of divine will? Karma? And then of course — if the best line in the poem was stolen, does that mean I really suck as a writer? Are all of my decent lines stolen from someone else??

I ended up confessing, and changed the last line to “cool insistence,” which I also have to confess, isn’t nearly as good.*

It reminds me of a great essay by my friend Erik Campbell, that appears in the current issue of VQR, “The Accidental Plagiarist: The Trouble With Originality.” I was hoping they’d provide full text online, but apparently you have to subscribe to read it. So subscribe. Or try not to spill your coffee on it at Barnes & Noble.

Erik describes the frustrating experience of thinking you have an original thought, that you’ve written something no one else has, only to find out that, nope, you weren’t original after all. The more you read, the more you realize it’s all been written before. Is it possible to write anything that isn’t just paraphrasing someone else’s brilliance?

The difference here, I think, is that both of my situations — the pillow, the dream — are physiological, rather than epistemic. The way our brains organize information, words are naturally bundled together. “Fire together, wire together.” Songs and phrases and little snatches of dialogue are always getting stuck in our heads — it’s the very root process for acquiring language. When we hear a group of words strung together, it’s easier recognize that same group the next time.

Incidentally, this is the major downfall of cliche — cliches are already so wired into our brains that they cease to invoke any relevant neurological response, becoming mere place-holders for information that’s already been organized.

What I’m getting at, I guess, is that I’m not surprised that this kind of micro-level accidental plagiarism occurs — I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Or maybe it does, and we just haven’t noticed yet.


*The poem in question, “The Memory of Water,” appeared in CCR almost two years ago, which is plenty of time for me to feel comfortable reposting it here. Come back in a day or two and I’ll put it up.

Poetry in Dreams

Fitful dreams for me are rare. Most assume a kind of simple wish-fulfillment that might make Freud wonder if I had a superego at all — I’m either playing baseball or getting laid. No analysis necessary. So when a dream comes that has some kind of negative emotion attached to it, I pay attention.

Occasionally, dreams will be built from a certain kind of obsession. The earliest example I can think of was when I was about 12 years old. I’d rented The Secret of Mana from the our local supermarket — the first time they’d started renting out video games along with the VHS tapes; how exciting! It was the weekend, a three day rental, and I played non-stop, except for bathroom breaks. I ate Tyson Chicken Patties while I played. Sunday night I was up until 2am and fell asleep with the controller in my hand. (This was also the year I basically had no parents.) The fever dream that ensued put me inside the game itself, my hands turning into blocky 16-bit graphics in front of my face. It lasted eons; I couldn’t find a way out. It also made me sick enough to stay home from school the next day and keep playing, chilled and fevered, the tips of my little thumbs rubbed raw.

The other night I had a dream that felt similar, but about poetry. I has giving a reading at a cafe that was also, somehow, a school classroom. Burnt espresso and fluorescent lights. In reading a specific poem, “Cutlery,” I struggled through an array of interruptions — fire drills, a fight outside, dinner being served. Each time the audience encouraged me to start over from the beginning, which I did, growing increasingly frustrated.

The whole time, at a small metal desk at the back of the room, Woody Allen was hitting on my girlfriend. Squinting through the lights I could see that self-effacing humor was his shtick. He’d say something and adjust his glasses, she’d touch his arm and say, Oh no, Woody… He’d spill coffee on himself, then slip in it. In his pocket a pen exploded.

Like the video dream, I couldn’t leave. I had to finish my poem, but the dream wouldn’t let me, the poem ultimately turning into a Mobius strip with the penultimate line reading into the first.

Finally I woke up cold and sweaty and confused. Why Woody Allen? I haven’t really liked any of his movies since Annie Hall, but I haven’t disliked any either. I don’t follow celebrity gossip and only know about that adoption/affair “scandal” in passing, and don’t really care.

And then I realized — Woody Allen was standing in for Noam Chomsky. Before going to bed I mentioned to Megan that Chomsky is starting to get on my nerves, and she couldn’t believe it. “How can you not like Noam Chomsky?” (If anyone cares to know, ask and maybe I’ll explain in the comments.)

What interests me here are two things. First, this relationship between Allen and Chomsky is one I’d never thought of directly, but obviously my subconscious has, and the similarities are likewise obvious — old Jewish intellectuals, and they even look a bit alike. I think this is maybe a poor example, but still a useful example, of how poetry operates. A poem, like a dream, highlights certain relationships that have been lurking beneath the surface of consciousness. Those relationships have always been there, but it’s that process of pulling it up from the muck that elicits the “Aha!” experience of a good poem. Perhaps it’s even the physicality of those neurons linking — “fire together, wire together” — that we enjoy. “Aha, that wasn’t Woody, it was Noam!”

But of course a good poem isn’t that easy. I might find this Woody/Noam relationship surprising, and it might be imbued with emotion within the context of myself and my dream — but none of you reading this care. If a poem wants an audience, if it wants to be read again and again and still be enjoyed, it needs to have a universal Aha. A fresh, insightful relationship pulled up not from the individual muck of the subconscious, but the inexhaustible detritus of the collective unconscious. The two figures in question must be universally disparate before they click perfectly together. That’s what makes good poems so hard to find, but that’s also what makes them so worth seeking.

At least that’s what I’m thinking about as I type this.

The other thing that interests me is the appearance of poetry itself. It occurs to me now how rarely that happens. Why is that? I spend more time around poetry than around anything else. If I love it so much, why does poetry only appear as an anxious fever-dream? Why not wish-fulfillment? I should be dreaming flying strips of magnetic poetry once a week, a cascade of words like water, like baseballs into a well-oiled mitt. What gives?

Does anyone out there dream poetry? Are you at a reading, all the lines whitewashed from your book, and you can’t remember what word comes next? Have you ever written a great poem in a dream, and tried frantically to remember it after you woke? Did you? Was it any good? I’m curious.