National Poetry Month has rolled around again, and sophomores enrolled in the Poetry classes are trying to interpret poems. Somewhere along the line, people in the USA acquired the notion that teachers ought to make things simple to understand so that students can learn the material. What about diving into the material in order to learn about it? Asking it questions? Having a heart-to-heart conversation with it? Those are alternate approaches to reaching an understanding.

Truly, one aspect of teaching that frustrates me is that the majority of human beings want everything to be simple. “Simple” has become a click-bait word, an advertising slogan. Even the American embrace of mindfulness largely bases its premise on the idea that mindfulness is simplicity itself, when anyone who has seriously attempted meditation and mindful living can attest that the theory sounds simple enough but the practice is more complex than it seems.

Now, I have nothing against simplicity–I yearn for simpler ways of living in the world, myself. Nevertheless, a person does not reach her fifties without a clear recognition of how complicated life is; and no one can deny complexity has considerable value. We would not be human beings, capable of speech and abstract thought and deep love and senses of humor, if it were not for the incredibly intricate operations of neurons and synapses, nerves and hormones, rods and cones, DNA and all the rest that somehow connects us inside our physical corpus.


blood vessels=fractals=complicated

All of these contribute to our conflicting emotional states, to our individual and, because we are group-dwelling creatures, our communal (cultural) psychologies, morphing into social structures of vast networks and multiple influences. Nothing about any of this is simple.

In an effort to assure my students that they can, indeed, become better writers, I endeavor to simplify the writing process as to structure and foundational principles as much as I can. I refuse, however, to suggest that written expression can be simple–because human expression is not simple. We desire and feel and experience in ways that are complicated, layered, multifaceted–hence not easy to put into spoken words, let alone written ones. Writing is work that requires complicated approaches to thinking and reflecting. That doesn’t necessarily make writing hard, but it does not make it simple.

Writing requires inquisitiveness, which seems to come easily to little children but which doesn’t mean inquiry is simple. One of the things my students struggle with most is asking questions. When I say, “Ask some questions about this text,” they look at me as though I have three heads. Students assigned philosophy papers feel gobsmacked by Socrates–he seems so surface-value simple, but he never answers any questions! And now their professor requires them to ask further questions, rather than asking them for the right answer to a simple question.

Oh, my darlings, if there were truly simple answers we would not have developed art or dance or music or poetry.


cloud formations (Von Karman vortices) seen from space*

In other words, if everything were simple, we could say what we need to say and all other people would understand everything they needed to know about us without nuance or subtext or background or socio-cultural context, or whether we are secretly embarrassed by our slight lisp, or grouchy because we had a spat with our spouse the previous night. That sounds pleasant and easy, but that’s not how things evolved among human beings.

I would tell my students I’m sorry about all this, but I’m not. Complexity: I revel in it.





Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.


Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”


In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”


He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.