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?”.
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.