If you spend enough time around poets, youâ€™re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And itâ€™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 hadnâ€™t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, â€œI donâ€™t know. I havenâ€™t written about it yet.â€ 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 couldnâ€™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 itâ€”Iâ€™ve felt it myself: Every poem Iâ€™ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didnâ€™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 Poeâ€™s last workâ€”which he considered to be his greatestâ€”Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution toÂ Olbersâ€™ 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 starâ€”in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. InÂ EurekaÂ (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 Galaxyâ€”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 universeâ€”light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isnâ€™t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a â€œprimordial particleâ€:
â€¦ one particleâ€”a particle of one kindâ€”of one characterâ€”of one natureâ€”of one sizeâ€”of one formâ€”a particle, therefore, â€œwithout form and voidâ€â€”a particle positively a particle at all pointsâ€”a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided â€¦
The particle then expands outward by â€œdivine volition,â€ a repulsive force thatâ€™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: â€œOur Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate â€¦â€
Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didnâ€™t know about Einsteinâ€™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: â€œratiocination.â€
For Poe, ratiocinationâ€”an idea introduced in his detective storiesâ€”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. Itâ€™s a counterfactual logic thatâ€™s able to reveal deeper truth.
For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNAâ€™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.