IMPROMPTU #29: Beth Ayer

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We cease to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else…

(Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost)

I used to work as the web editor for the American Mathematical Society. When I would tell people where I worked, they reacted with a kind of reverence. That reverence was misplaced, as I was by no means working in mathematics let alone a mathematician myself. Of course, this sort of reaction is not specific to math; it happens with poetry too, for those who don’t read and write it.

Subjects that are outside of our own experience  our realm of knowledge  constitute the unknown. I think it comes down to language. We look at the equation, or the description of a mathematical concept, or a scientific model, or a poem – and if we lack a reference for what we are seeing, it comes across as a foreign language (and sometimes it is). But when what we are reading is written in our own spoken language (that is, we can identify words and phrases and understand them as such) we automatically attempt to interpret a message.

Reading the Inexplicable

Reading about subjects I lack experience with, like an article in a math journal, has always stirred strange poetry in me. A word or phrase can spawn a poem despite a thorough (and sometimes gleeful) misunderstanding of its true meaning.

It is not always easy to cease looking for the intended message behind a sign though – language is for communication, right? But as street signs and driving directions don’t tell us all there is to know about our surroundings, language also contains more than an intended message. A definition gives us a little bit of information, but as a fact it only represents a portion of understanding.

In her essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” Rebecca Solnit explores darkness, the unknown, and negative capability (defined by Keats: when one is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”). Her essay comes to mind when I think of the fear that unknown subjects can stir in us – be they math, science, or poetry. Solnit:

Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

As purveyors of language, poets are able to move beyond the limits of knowledge and fact towards a greater understanding or truth. It is, I think, the reason poetry exists. After a recent reading, the poet Jericho Brown was asked a question about meaning in his poems. As part of his response, he said that we probably all have trees that we walk past as part of an average day. Sometimes we even stop and admire those trees. But we never stand before them and ask “what does this tree mean?”.

The Prompt

In the spirit of heading into darkness after all things unseeable and obscure, write a poem using a text that is inexplicable to you. Could be quantum physics, thermodynamics, mathematics, aeronautical engineering – or something else altogether that to you speaks in incomprehensible language. Choose a text or texts and begin selecting words and phrases as they spark associations. Write a poem using the collected words and phrases. Let your imagination fire, and don’t worry about what these terms mean in their original context.


Beth Ayer is the senior poetry editor for the Found Poetry Review. Her poems have appeared in places including Apartment Poetry, jubilat, Otis Nebula, and Divine Magnet. She lives in Easthampton, MA.

40 Comments

  • I work with scientists and their vocabulary often sounds magical to me.
    Coming from scientific data, I had to make a Fibonacci poem: http://spacedlaw.dreamwidth.org/157588.html

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Great formatting to your poem Nathalie! Clever work!

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Misky

      A wonderful collection of colourful words, Nathalie.

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Mark Staniforth

    I love the short lines. Also, this is a great example of how the inexplicable takes on a new meaning – I love the sounds and shapes of these words.

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Mark Staniforth

    Here is mine – it’s from Osborne’s ludicrous Brexit equation. It’s called “EMU POP BORDER” https://staniforthmark.wordpress.com/impromptu/

    • Fun! What was your source?
      (I love your Purple Rain calligraphy too)

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Interesting work Mark! I liked the colony-border line! :)

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Misky

      Fun! They should make pasta shapes like those to put into vegetable soup for kids!

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Vinita Agrawal

    Nice prompt Beth! I chose a Brittanica text on smelting/metallurgy.
    https://vinitawords.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/metallurgy-of-a-relationship/

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Misky

      Your poem has a molten feel about it. Loved it.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Mark Staniforth

      I love the title – it should be a novel! And especially the last two lines – the juxtaposition of scientific terms with “slag-heaps””

      • Reply April 29, 2016

        Vinita Agrawal

        Thanks a lot Mark! Don’t know if I could ever turn it into a novel though! :)

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Misky

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Misky

      Your poem has a molten feel about it. Loved it.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Wonderful poem Misky! Loved your play on the word density!

      • Reply April 29, 2016

        Misky

        Thanks! Funny how a few words can change the direction of piece.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Mark Staniforth

      It’s really interesting with all these examples how words you’d never consider poetic in their usual context suddenly become incredibly evocative when repositioned as poems.

      • Reply April 29, 2016

        Misky

        I’m apt to keep this prompt in mind for that very reason; adds a whole new level of language to poetry.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      complete gorgeousity. i love the idea of writing an imaginary biography from a source text, especially one with language one isn’t familiar with. this could be a character.

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Amanda Earl

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Nice poem Amanda…threpitition gives the poem a tight intensity

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Mark Staniforth

      Great, I love your source (!) and how you’ve sort-of piled up the words: it makes the shape and sound of them all so delicious: it doesn’t have “sense” in the conventional way, but produces a whole new meaning of its own… and I too like the repetition in particular.

      • Reply April 29, 2016

        Amanda Earl

        thanks, Mark. i always have this battle with surface meaning & wish that people read poems for other types of sense, including the kind that is evoked by technique & sound. thanks for noticing.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Misky

      I love how this is based in the mystical but hardly a hint of it comes through in your piece. It like a whole new animal has been born!

      • Reply April 29, 2016

        Amanda Earl

        thanks, Misky. it’s fun to create new animals, isn’t it? :)

  • […] “Failures prompt” QuillsEdge Press’ “Deity Senses prompt” Found Poetry’s “Inexplicable text prompt” Apparatus Mag’s “Exploring Song prompt” Indiana Humanities’ “Ars […]

  • […] ***** Today’s prompt courtesy of Beth Ayer on Found Poetry Review: […]

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    Carol A. Stephen

    Unfortunately too many chores on a trip into the city today, and I cannot get focused, so tomorrow will be a two-fer day for me. This post reminded me though of a road trip from Cancun to Chichen Itza, four of us in a rented car, none of us particularly fluent (if at all) in Spanish. So I undertook to translate the road signs, doing it by sight and imagined sound. I remember one sign that seemed to be rules for fishing, tis on a two lane road with no bodies of water, little traffic, lots of overgrown vegetation, few settlements. We laughed a lot that day.

    • Reply April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      It’s odd Carol because I’ve made the trip from Cancun to Chichen Itza too ???? Except that I was in a bus and we had a Spanish translator on board. By the time we returned, it was night and I distinctly remember the moon following my journey at the bus window. Wrote a poem about it afterwards.

      • Reply April 30, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        Well, we were just a bunch of jokers that trip. No translator till we got to the site itself.

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    A. Garnett Weiss

    An odd assignment which turned out better than I had expected. Here’s the link: http://jcsulzenko.com/beth-ayers-april-29-impromptu-prompt-to-write-a-poem-from-an-unintelligible-text-in-your-own-language/

  • Reply April 29, 2016

    james w. moore

    dark matter and Sesame Street: “Crime Scene Investigation” http://bit.ly/1QGkm7T

  • […] a prompt from the fabulous Beth Ayer who asks that we write a poem using “a text that is inexplicable […]

  • […] In the spirit of heading into darkness after all things unseeable and obscure, write a poem using a text that is inexplicable to you. Could be quantum physics, thermodynamics, mathematics, aeronautical engineering – or something else altogether that to you speaks in incomprehensible language. Choose a text or texts and begin selecting words and phrases as they spark associations. Write a poem using the collected words and phrases. Let your imagination fire, and don’t worry about what these terms mean in their original context.  You can read the entire post and find links to other poet’s poems here:http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/blog/impromptu-29-beth-ayer/ […]

  • Reply April 30, 2016

    S.E. Ingraham

    I apologise for going MIA mid-month … Edmonton’s Poetry Fest was fun, lengthy, and exhausting for the volunteers (but I wouldn’t have changed a minute) – am back and going to try and get caught up with some of these.

    ALL O’ TROPE
    (not necessarily Irish …)

    She wonders about the fever to split it
    —the atom
    And all that came after, that which
    doesn’t bear remembering
    And that which does

    What do they do when they gather like
    tribes – she wonders if there’s a collective
    noun for them: atoms
    She knows if they’re small enough—
    sub-atomic for instance—a group
    is called a minuscule
    So much power amassed—the collective
    energy of which—well, the moniker
    does not seem fitting.

    She discovers that if atoms are grouped
    differently from that which forms their
    original element,
    they become an allotrope; hence the
    ability for many elements to exist in more
    than one physical form
    All because their atoms or groups of same
    can be rearranged.
    Carbon is one such element—appearing
    as a soft, black substance—graphite
    Diamond is another—very hard and
    crystalline.

    She is surprised by how drawn she
    is to these allotropes.
    Science is not her strong suit.
    But there is something poetic about
    this arranging and rearranging of atoms
    This smallest particle that cannot be
    reduced, but can, it seems, be reorganised
    ad infinitum.

    This was a fun prompt. I used material from an old(ish) copy of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia of Science (1986) – Volume 1, P.49 – re “Allotropes” about which I knew nothing, and now, I know a bit more.

  • Reply May 2, 2016

    JM Scott

  • […] 29: Beth Ayer Reference: Noah Eli […]

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