Physics, poetry, notes

In a discussion among some of my poetry-reading friends, two readers said they feel “stopped” when they encounter unfamiliar words or terms in a poem. They feel poets should avoid writing work that uses specialized knowledge as metaphor, in imagery, or to establish the poem’s context. Their argument is that when a reader feels stopped by anything in the poem–from an unusual line break or stanza structure to an unfamiliar word–a kind of alienation occurs between reader and text, and that when poets choose to employ the unfamiliar they need to explain somehow/somewhere (notes? prose headings?) to guide the reader. But then they added that referring to notes is, in poetry, distracting.

“Some vocabulary and allusions just make me feel inferior,” one friend says. I don’t think they’ve spent much time with Ezra Pound’s later work but imagine this statement by Sam O’Dell applies: “Now, whether or not Ezra Pound intended to make others feel less intelligent while pulling obscure outside references into his poems and essays is up for debate. The guy seems the type who may have enjoyed making sure others knew he was smarter than they were.” (Read the rest here).

Nerdy autodidact that I am, I rather like those stop-the-reader moments in poems–if there’s a payoff. If I learn something new, and if that thing I have learned enriches the poem’s meaning and also enriches me, then I don’t mind feeling surprised or puzzled or even interrupted. Some poems take more work to read than others, and that’s ok. Some novels prove less easy to read than others, and some movies make the audience-experience fraught, unnerving, or strange. For me, the essential work that artistic endeavor does is open new perspectives, present puzzles, invite inquiry. Make me curious!

Example: Recently I re-encountered the work of poet Daniel Tobin, whose collection From Nothing speculatively examines the life–the interior, intellectual, and spiritual life–of the Belgian priest and cosmological physicist Georges Lemaître. In the process, this series of poems covers war, genocide, the atomic bomb, physics. I haven’t read anything by Tobin since his book The Narrows (2005), and the Lemaître poems take considerably more work to comprehend. That work on the part of the reader is rewarded, I should add, especially a reader with more than a passing interest in cosmology and the cosmos itself. A reader who doesn’t mind a bit of theology or physics or history and quite lengthy notes at the end of the book, and who will actually read said notes. And then refer to her books on the expanding universe theory and Hubble Effect and look up more about Lemaître. [That reader would be me; but Tobin has many readers with all kinds of interests and expectations about poetry.]

In Tobin’s lovely poem “(Origin),” I found the word marver, and while looking up the definition learned that when molten glass is poured onto a slab for cooling, the process is called gathering the glass–and I love that use of the word gather. Maybe it will make its way into one of my poems someday. Even if it does not, I feel happier knowing that little fact.

But most of From Nothing contains allusions to cosmology, to Einstein and Planck, to World War II and conflicts of many other kinds, internal as well as external. I kept being wowed by Tobin’s research into Lemaître and by the poet’s imagination as he plumbs his subject’s complicated world of math, motion, and a conceptual physical universe that could also have room for God. I mostly remembered his earlier work that was so tightly crafted, often rhyming (or employing surprising and delightful assonance). In this collection, I didn’t notice the craft aspect until I went back and did some re-reading. I was too caught up in the complexities of physics and the momentum of the subject’s life-as-scientist/life-as-priest. The lines each have six strong beats, the stanzas are tercets, and there are eight stanzas in each poem. There’s more to the craft than that, but what I like is that–unlike some of Tobin’s earlier work–the craft takes a backseat to the narrative (though I think that’s also true in The Narrows, to some extent.)

Maybe this “difficult” book appeals to me because I like difficult books. Maybe it appeals because it reminds me of my father, a person invested in the world of reason and fascinated by science…who yet believed there can be faith, that god exists. Here’s an excerpt of Tobin’s “(Cinema)”:

You, who chose two ways equally at once, circuit 
the conferences, meetings fueled by enigma, mixing 
with the eminent and their sidereal regard,   

your morning Masses before library and lab.


My dad was not a Catholic, but the balance between faith and reason was one he wrestled with, too.



We do not always have words.

Even if language assists in the emergence of consciousness-as-we-know-it, even if the naming of things as sign or metaphor is, as most human beings believe, “uniquely human,” there are the inexpressibles. The things semiotics does not quite register.

Perhaps this obstacle–the obstacle of words themselves–is what made reading David Hinton’s China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen so difficult for me.


Vincent Van Gogh, “Tree Roots” Van Gogh Museum:


The core practice of Tao seems simple enough, except that our self-identity-based brains do not want to work in that way: not to think of self as “I” at all, but to live in the real world as emergent and ever-changing cosmos watching itself, absent while present, non-being while being, receptive to all change as part of how the cosmos operates, experiencing the hinge of Tao, everything and no-thing. No you or I.

Can I put the concept into words? No. Can David Hinton? Well, sort of (while repeatedly telling his readers that it isn’t possible to put Ch’an into words).

Hinton takes an approach that is partly etymological–based on early and later Han characters in their logograph forms–and partly cultural, namely the influence that Indian Buddhism exerted on existing Tao concepts as Buddhism moved into China during the later Han dynasty. Thus, he divides the text into chapters, each illustrating a significant Ch’an component, practice, or idea.

The logic makes sense, and I have gained a lot of background on culture and Chinese characters in the process; but I cannot call this book an easy read. The blurb says it is “thoroughly gripping” and cites the author’s elegance and clarity. The blurb writer is, however, a Roshi, and thus much more familiar with Zen and writings on Zen than I am. I love the metaphor of the root for many reasons, and that aspect of the book works for me.


Another part of the book that resonates with me is the chapter “Rivers-and-Mountains.” After reading Hinton’s explication of the calligraphy and painting meditation practice of long-ago Chinese artists and intellectuals, I have a fuller understanding of Zen as landscape, Zen as poetry, at least as [Hinton theorizes] it was practiced in ancient China. I have always felt drawn into such artworks, and now I have better insight as to why that is.


I will have to re-read China Root again and again if I am to understand it, though. Or perhaps just work with more ordinary diligence on landscape meditation made present through poetry.

Even though enlightened awareness–among other things–cannot really be expressed in words. 😉

Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry


I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.


Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]