On the Why of Poetry

 

A Sierpinski sieve. Thanks to the magic of Ricochet this one is even more fractal than it looks; there’s a sixth level of the pattern hidden in the image resizing.
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.

Let’s take an example quick. This is a quote from @AndrewMiller ‘s story Once Upon a Spinning Whee(and if you haven’t read it I recommend you change that. Start here.)

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 Religion & Philosophy
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 13 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Thank you, Hank. That was fun.

    I like my poetry to speak simple truth in simple verse, because I’m not very good at teasing out subtle meaning. Oh, and I like it to rhyme.

    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Sierpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    • #1
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Serpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    I can dig it. But I can’t say I understand the Mandelbrot set nearly as well.

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Serpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    I can dig it. But I can’t say I understand the Mandelbrot set nearly as well.

    Paisley all the way down.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Serpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    I can dig it. But I can’t say I understand the Mandelbrot set nearly as well.

    Paisley all the way down.

    Autumn 1966, eh? I dug that Paisley. Also, the girls’ dresses had that big “I dare you” ring on the front zipper. 

    But what if it turns out to be Rev. Ian Paisley? Not good for Catholics. Hmmm…have to think this one over a little. 

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    If you enjoyed this post as much as I did, keep an eye out for e.e. cummings’ upcoming post on the use of tunneling electron microscopes in the manufacturing arena. Nobody nails the details like e.e.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Here are the Truths:

    1. You can’t push a rope.
    2. Everything that comes in goes out unless it stays there. (Otherwise known as the Law of Conservation of the Inconvenient.)
    3. The sum of the forces equals zero – eventually.
    • #6
  7. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    have to think this one over a little. 

    Or have to overthink this one a little. Could go either way….

    • #7
  8. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    If you enjoyed this post as much as I did, keep an eye out for e.e. cummings’ upcoming post on the use of tunneling electron microscopes in the manufacturing arena. Nobody nails the details like e.e.

    They didn’t call him “double-e cummings” for nothing. His poetry was published in Spectrum, back in the vacuum tube era.

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    At the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, there was a pavilion called Sermons From Science. It was just about what it sounds like, a set of staged demonstrations of scientific principles to an auditorium full of curious, open minded people who appreciated an authoritative voice making a connection between observable phenomena and clues to an omniscient Creator. 

    That’s what Hank Rhody does for us. 

    Wait, I just made a serious remark. Sorry, folks. But it’s true. 

    • #9
  10. Living High and Wide Member
    Living High and Wide
    @OldDanRhody

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: 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.

    Rev. Eric Law (Anglican priest, originally from Hong Kong) likened the human mind to an iceberg, where the visible part above the surface represents the portion we are aware of. Strong emotions, like large waves, can momentarily give information from a little of the hidden, subsurface, part. Clues to what lies concealed deeper down may be revealed by myths and poetry – just as the line from @kirkianwanderer that you quoted speaks to you at a deeper level than would a textbook or a newspaper.

    Here’s an example from the Psalms (Psalm 36:1):

    Transgression speaks to the ungodly in his heart;
    There is no fear of God before his eyes.

    Here transgression (or iniquity, or sin) is portrayed as though it were a person who speaks to the godless person in his heart (inner person) rather than in his mind. Temptation speaks to the inner person before the conscious thought, or word, or action emerges, just as Jesus said (Mark 7:16-23) in His explanation of the statement, “…there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile him.”

    • #10
  11. Andrew Miller Member
    Andrew Miller
    @AndrewMiller

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Serpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    I can dig it. But I can’t say I understand the Mandelbrot set nearly as well.

    Paisley all the way down.

    One morning I met a turtle in my pajamas. What he was doing wearing my pajamas, I don’t know. 

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Andrew Miller (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    But when it comes to landscapes of fractional dimension, I prefer the romantic mystery of Mandelbrot to the Swiss watch of Serpinski. Of the two, only the first captures that walking-on-the-beach-wondering-what-might-wash-ashore quality.

    I can dig it. But I can’t say I understand the Mandelbrot set nearly as well.

    Paisley all the way down.

    One morning I met a turtle in my pajamas. What he was doing wearing my pajamas, I don’t know.

    I don’t see what the problem is, as long as the turtle wasn’t wearing them at the same time you were. 

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I don’t see what the problem is, as long as the turtle wasn’t wearing them at the same time you were. 

    Are you sure?

    • #13