The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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“Liking” poems

It’s taken me some effort to learn how to appreciate poetry. I can make broad statements about liking books and music without having to like all books or all music, but with poetry–for whatever reason–it’s been more difficult.

However, as someone who would also say he likes math, opening a book of poems and seeing this has immediate appeal:


This is from R. D. Liang’s Knots, a book of poems about “the patterns of human bondage.” I like this. It gives me that “this looks crazy and I want to understand it” feeling.

That feeling is everywhere in math, though it has nothing to do with liking numbers or concepts: It’s a love for the notation itself, the joy of getting to move towards increasingly strange symbology as you understand more.

And reading Knots feels much the same — up to a point. My fascination thus far is wholly with its notation (e.g. the cryptic use of brackets, the strings of random numbers) and the structures in the book itself (e.g. its syntax — the “knots”). Try this one, for example:

Jack sees that
    Jill does not know
    Jack does not know what
    Jill thinks
    Jack knows.
But Jack can’t see
    why Jill does not know
    that Jack does not know
    what Jill thinks
    he knows.

I’ve been reading these poems for the last few nights and I’ve still yet to get much closer to appreciating the subtleties of what Liang has to say about human psychology. (To me, the poem fragment above is not so much about “knowing what others know” as it is about learning how to parse the sentence to read it.) In some sense, I’m hung up solely on the way it’s presented rather than on what it means.

So I’m curious: When is it okay to not want to understand? (Or is it always okay?) Is “understanding” a poem something different from understanding other things?


Also, sometimes you can’t understand (because there’s no decoder):

“Love for the notation itself” — this rings true. I think you could say the same thing for many programming languages, e.g. this one.

There are real pleasures here… not only in notation but also jargon, etc. I think it’s because these are languages that can be learned and even mastered in “clock time” as opposed to the “generation time” it takes to become proficient at French, Korean, etc.

And they can be invented, too. This week I attended two events in connection with the Oulipo, a decades-old society of writers, poets, and mathematicians who write under weird constraints. It was clear to me, listening to the oulipans, that they are motivated mostly by the opportunity to design these constraints — to invent new forms, not just write sonnets, sonnets & more sonnets. They do read and discuss the work that results, but the real delight is in the rules, the structures.

Yes, I had not even thought of Oulipo! (Nor did I realize there was a modern community for it, which is awesome.)

And then Urbit…wow. I’m imagining it would be so much fun to be able to read one of those paragraphs out loud without checking the translation table. “luslus dec sigfas cen dec bartis…”

Sharat Buddhavarapu says…

I’ve read Oulipo’s N+7 poems/experiments. The rule is that you substitute every noun in an already written poem with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. And while I enjoy thinking about media, and specifically tailoring stories to media, I think Oulipo and many other modern poets lose themselves to the experiment too much. For me, art is an attempt to create an object that conveys an idea or set of ideas. These ideas need to be embedded in the world of the object, or as Tolkien tells us “[anyone] inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun,” but the “rare achievement of Art” is “to make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding secondary belief, will probably require labor and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” And this is the work that I feel is missing in pure medium experiements and keeps it from being Art. It remains, however, an important experiment. I’m just a bit iffy on packaging it in the same way as a complete art object.

The early Oulipeans included mathematicians, and that was no accident. Ditto the Russian futurists.

And remember, mathematics and poetry (and software code) are two places where structure is king. Where you can relax (or tighten) whatever assumptions you want, where the point of constraints is to generate new kinds of freedom.

You don’t need literal sense in poetry in the same way you don’t need conformity to the physical universe in mathematics. “That’s physics you’re thinking of. That’s the realist novel. Here we are about our symbols and the rules they circumscribe alone.”

As Roland Barthes wrote in “The Death of the Author,” “everything is to be disentangled, nothing is to be deciphered.”

(This entire post and thread is so Tim-optimized I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to comment on it.)

Robin, having read your comment, it now occurs to me that Oulipo is something like the Nomic of poetry.

Brooklyn Snarkmatrix, the Writhing Society meets on Wednesdays at 7pm.

Ahhhh! This is great!

Here’s what it makes me think: lately, I’ve been constantly coming back to the idea that if we are interested in “representing reality” – no matter how problematic that idea is – the way to inch closer to doing it “accurately” (insert numerous caveats here) is to suspend contradictory statements in relation to each other and leave them unresolved.

You could, if you wanted, apply that ideal to huge questions like “the end of capitalism” i.e. capitalism subsumes everything into a logic of economics vs. it is spaces that cannot be subsumed into economics that will generate the end of capitalism. But to me the “truth of contradiction” is perhaps best expressed in those inarticulable moments of human emotion — I love you but we cannot be together; or, there’s so much I have to say to you, but let’s just sit here together in silence.

That in-between-ness is what your second example elicits in me. One of the things literary theorist Homi Bhabha suggested is that the conspicuous ambivalence of meaning — the fact that the association of words and the objects they refer to is almost entirely arbitrary — helps to highlight the possibility of an alternative. He thought that was great, because it meant you could “think your way out” of dominant systems. But the flipside is that, if we as humans seek out a kind of certainty, each emotional assertion we make — this is what I want, yes this is whom I love etc — generates its alternative too, always leaving us in a state of indeterminacy.

So Jack and Jill attempt (or Jack and Jack, or Jill and Jill) attempt to find some certainty with each other — but they remain like blank spaces to each other, as each person constantly recedes into possibility, that feeling that no matter how certain one feels, you never know what another person “truly” thinks. To me, that was the biggest revelation about being in love: you are so close to this person, but fundamentally, they still remain a mystery.

And perhaps that’s why poetry “works”: it suspends impossibility or the impossible-to-say in front of us through an aesthetic frame, without ever actually saying it — instead only ever gesturing to the fact that, as you say, for life there is no decoder.

Do you have any suggestions for something to read related to what you’re saying about Homi Bhabha–the “ambivalence of meaning” giving rise to “thinking your way out”?

Knots, if I understand you correctly, seems to share that perspective: That to think your way out reveals the knot, the mess of contradictions.

On the other hand, this idea seems opposed to your “There’s so much I have to say to you, but let’s just sit here together in silence” example, which I really love…The moments where there’s power in not articulating anything at all, and to speak is to destroy their significance. (That being said, I’m personally unable to stop myself from talking anyway.)

Nav says…

I guess the “ambivalence of meaning” thing is basically just deconstruction – which you could read about forever. Or there’s just Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders” essay in Location of Culture, which unfortunately is full of academic jargon. And I realize now that, in my excitement (it happens), what I should have said instead of “thinking your way out of things” is something more akin to “thinking your way through the new, albeit temporary spaces opened up by ambivalence” – i.e. that there’s no way “out” as such, only an acknowledgement of how stuck in the knot we are.

But I reeaaallly like that idea of ‘representing the knot’, which in a way seems to capture something about both the attempt to speak and the decision to be silent – i.e. we can say “oh look, here are the impossible contradictions of mutual understanding with another human” but also know that expressing those contradictions circles around (circumlocutes?) something that can’t actually be said.

The other place you can go — more accessible than deconstruction, with fewer of the Big Philosophical Implications, but with many of the same kinds of aesthetic, logical, and rhetorical sensitivities, is to old-school New Criticism, like Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry,, or The Well-Wrought Urn, all extremely concerned with reconciling formal structures and identifying interplay between ironies and ambiguities. A lot of what passed for Anglo-American “deconstruction” was really just New Criticism in metaphysical drag.

This is super fascinating!

Did anyone read Sideways Stories From Wayside School growing up? There was a spinoff of math and logic riddles called Sideways Arithmetic From Wayside School, which this reminded me of. I still remember the feeling of staring into a black abyss, feeling crazy and not understanding.

This makes me wonder how you define understanding. What connections are important? How deep do we have to go to say we understand the written word? Does a piece ever have a singular, correct understanding?

Maybe you understand the rhythm of a poem or the structure of it—but can’t quite follow the logic or fantasy or use of language, especially if it’s a tricky puzzle of poetic devices. For me, poetry is about understanding the poet’s breath. Feeling the knot they’re grappling with and getting closer to that somehow. Being able to hear them speaking onto the page.

Exactly! I do wonder how deep you have to go before you can feel connected. But with poems more so than with other art–at least in my experience–my interpretation of what a poem is “about” (if such an idea exists) can shift drastically almost every time I return to it. (Unlike a song, for example, where any shifts in perception usually occur within the first thirty seconds or so of listening.) It seems like “understanding” as applied to a poem might be a more flexible word than it normally is in other circumstances.

p.s. Snarkmarket comments always make me feel like every other word needs “quotation marks.”

Maybe I should develop a feature that causes any word in quotation marks to sort of sparkle… like a shifting, prismatic concept trapped in glass 🙂

Robin, Ahh! That is such an exciting idea!

Dancing words, anyone? But I warn you, I do not claim that this is a beautiful solution.

Maybe Allen can make a sibling to his Audition Text, one in which the alternate words (randomly?) appear, dissolve, and reappear as another. Or in which they are randomly chosen each time the page is loaded, delivering one version of the text that is possibly unique to the reader. Perhaps “unstable and shifty words” are more honest than static words. (See also “In Balance and Imbalance.”)

I seriously want to do this.

Oh, I am late to this conversation, but shifting words that disappear and change as you look at them! Look at my friend Alan Galey’s experiments on Visualizing Variations in the animated variants section. Snarkmarket needs this.

This is too cool Sarah! It took me to a while to notice what was even happening. It’s kinda like watching someone edit themselves in a Google Doc!

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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