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Last time I wrote about poetry I took a scientist’s view of the matter. This time I’m starting in math. Clearly, I understand what all this poetry stuff is about. Do y’all remember what a fractal is? It’s a pattern that repeats itself all the way down.
Imagine, if you will, that those white triangles are islands in a sea of black. You have a continent in the middle, a couple isles nearby, and more and more islands and islets the further away you get from that central continent. It’s bad water for navigating in because there’s an infinite number of rocks, pebbles, and even smaller navigation hazards poking up out of the surface of the water. Maybe it’s more of a swamp than an ocean. Okay, now zoom in. Let’s say you’re small enough that you live on one of the islands. You can deduce the pattern; you know that just over thataways there’s a bigger island. Is there another, larger one beyond it, or are we looking at the top of the pattern?
Your world consists of a chain of islands. There are ones you can know and observe exactly, these are small enough to see. There are ones you can deduce and infer things about; these are too small to see but you know they must be there if the pattern continues. And indeed, let’s say you have a microscope on this island, you can check a couple more iterations of the pattern that you can’t see with your naked eye. You also know that there are bigger islands, but can you tell if the pattern keeps going? Is it an infinite series of larger and larger islands, or just one, or two, or two dozen? You can see one right next to you, but you can’t see everything about it. You can send an intrepid explorer to trek across the continent next door, and he comes back and tells you that indeed there is an even larger one on the other side. Do you triple his provisions and ask him to make another expedition to see if there’s one beyond that? And wasn’t this post supposed to be about poetry?
Right. Well, I went through this whole description as a metaphor for a truth fractal. The truth we know is the island upon which we live. We can directly observe the smaller islands that spread off from it, we can use logic and deduction to observe further down the fractal, and we can even apply logic to make deductions about the larger island, but we can’t see it ourselves laid out like the smaller islands. To borrow from the title of my linked post, we can map it, we can model it, but we can’t know the territory.
Truth, the really important truths, lurk in the center of reality like the black hole in the center of our galaxy. We can’t see it directly, but we can see the way light bends around it, we can feel the gravity that pulls us and curves the course of all the heavenly bodies. Much like a black hole or the inside of an atom, we can try to observe Truth, test it, make inferences about it by throwing particles at it and seeing which way they bounce. Poetry, therefore, is the explorer’s expedition, the alpha particle we toss into an atom, the photon we sling by a black hole in order to deduce what’s there.
On all sides, bearded and moustachioed pirates (I assume they were pirates, they had the look) were running around in circles, trying desperately to get away. Several lay writhing on the ground, keening in agony, or else feigning unconsciousness. I had to brace myself not to be knocked over by the rush as they fled, pushing past me to the narrow opening in the cliff walls, dragging fallen comrades as they went.
‘Arr! This be no fair! I grews the beard fer the ladies, and the ladies show me no appreciation!’
That poor, poor pirate. It’s a sad day in any pirate’s life when he realized there’s more to winning a fair maiden’s heart than growing a really spectacular beard. To go back to my fractal archipelago, the island we’re standing on is what we know about dealing with the opposite sex. We know that there’s a larger island right next to us, the island of relationships, and beyond that a continent which bears the imposing name The Human Condition. The pirate with the beard is an expedition we’ve mounted to chart those strange lands, a particle we’ve pinged off a nucleus, giving us a vital clue about the sum nature of truths we can’t know directly.
Also, it’s funny.
Our next example of poetry comes from Ricochet member @KirkianWanderer . If you haven’t been reading her stuff you’re doing yourself a disservice. I recommend the Borscht Report, wherein she drops occasional updates on the state of politics in Russia. (Short version: It’s a depressing time to be a Russian. It’s always a depressing time to be a Russian.)
This bit comes from the preface of a political thriller she attempted to write in the 8th grade. You might think that’s a touch young, and you’d be right; she thought so too and so she offered an explanation.
[M]y life and consequently my ideas are but fleeting doves in an endless sky so I had not time to hesitate
Much like the pirate and his nonfunctional beard I find this line endlessly amusing. Laughed about it every time I thought of it. Repeated it a couple times to other Rhodys (some weird ones, some less weird ones), and… the joke fell flat. Nobody else thought it was nearly as funny as I did. Matter of fact, I didn’t quite get why it was funny myself, but I knew it was.
The thing about it is that it’s a true statement. It speaks to a fundamental fact of life, and it says it in such a manner as only a thirteen-year-old girl could do. And it’s also a microcosm of teenage angst, what it’s like when no one in the world understands you. It is perfectly what kind of a thing it should be, which leads me to a laughter born of joy, not of scorn.
I could expound the exact same sentiment about the fleeting nature of life to you right now and all you’d hear is “probably in the throes of a midlife crisis” (with some justification). I couldn’t use those exact words; there’s no taking a man seriously if he says that. That’s another clue to why poetry works; it expresses truths that are otherwise inexpressable.
Our final example was introduced to me by @TheRightNurse . Her stuff… Look, I’m going to level with you; I didn’t read her “Your Penis is Probably Normal” series. I’m scared to, doubly so if she included pictures. Her posts though are generally well worth reading. Probably even the ones hidden inside Pandora’s box; I don’t know. This line isn’t hers, it’s a lyric to a song to which she introduced me.
Wasting words on lowercases and capitals.
Words are always composed only of lowercases and capitals. Ink spilled on a page; pixels flashing light and dark on a screen. The song is a song of regret, of longing to say the things which can no longer be said, but it’s also a paean of frustration at being unable to say all the things which must be said but we can’t.
In a reductionist, materialist sense, words are only ever lowercases and capitals. But we know there’s more there. You tell a girl “I love you” then you’re not imparting any new information to her about the sound waves that make up that particular sequence of vocalizations. But you’re telling her everything. And not nearly enough; truth — truth composed of infinite fractals where we can only observe part of it — is inherently impossible to communicate in its fullness. But these truths are too important not to communicate, and so we try, knowing that the attempt is doomed, trying anyway because we must. Wasting words on lowercases and capitals.
Truth, the really important truths, lurk at the center of our reality like the island in the center of that fractal archipelago. Perhaps we have the wisdom or the luck to glimpse them, but then how can you possibly communicate that which you can’t truly know to another? Poetry is the tool we can use to try.Published in