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Transformation & Divination: Maggie O’Sullivan’s In the House of the Shaman

‘To stress the idea of transformation and of substance. This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development; his nature is therapeutic.’

Maggie O’Sullivan uses this quote from Joseph Beuys as an epigraph to the second section of her book In the House of the Shaman (1993).

The book is titled after an assemblage O’Sullivan made in 1987 and alludes to a series of Beuys’ works in the 1960s which also refer to ‘Houses of the Shaman’. Beuys often adopted the role of shaman in his works and O’Sullivan’s references to Beuys highlight the shamanic qualities of her poetry too. The shaman, through trance rituals, is able to practise divination and healing, both practices of change and transformation. Scott Thurston discusses O’Sullivan’s connections to shamanism in his essay ‘Maggie O’Sullivan: Transformation and Substance’.


Maggie O’Sullivan, In the House of the Shaman (1987)

In what ways might poetry and shamanism be connected as processes of transformation? I was interested in the way Dorian Greenbaum, in the essay ‘Arrows, Aiming and Divination: Astrology as a Stochastic Art’ (in Patrick Curry, ed., Divination: Perspectives for a New Millennium), links divination to poetry as a stochastic art, drawing on the Greek etymology of ‘stochastic’ meaning to aim at, conjecture or guess. Like an archer shooting an arrow, the astrologer aims for an accurate prediction but cannot know for certain if she will make a ‘hit’. In fact, Greenbaum suggests stochastic arts tend to be more successful if one ‘aims without aiming’, not trying to get a hit. She goes on to connect divination to poetry in the function of metaphor: the making contiguous of two things that are sequent but not consequent. Astrology, she says, makes contiguous celestial pattern and terrestrial occurrence, bringing them together in a way similar to a poet bringing together two things in a metaphor.

The therapeutic aspects of poetic transformation were highlighted by Tamara Dellutri and Nia Davies in their seminar ‘Forcing Change: Disruption, Transformation and the Poetic‘ at Glasfryn, Llangattock (12/11/16). Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis they discussed how transformation brings about a change in the analysand. Like the shaman, the analyst aims to bring about change and development; her nature is therapeutic. Homing in on language as the materiality of jouissance, she uses disruptive techniques to generate disorientation in the subject in order to effect some shift at the level of the body. This may be similar to the effect of a poet’s transformations through language, making it therapeutic like shamanism is said to be by Beuys.


In ‘Social Resonance through the work of Joseph Beuys’ (collected in Imperfect Fit), Allen Fisher makes clear the metaphoric nature of Beuys’ transformations: ‘Beuys’s worldview can be simplified as a concern to present transformations and begin the process of transforming those involved… In the first place, his materials are chosen with a view to metaphoric ramifications… In the second place, the arrangement of his material transforms his complex range of explorations… Yet, like the materials themselves, his displays also carry both metonymic and metaphoric resonances…’

Fisher highlights Beuys’ use of metaphor as his transformative method. Beuys takes materials and transforms them metaphorically and symbolically, so that they become or stand for something else. He made repeated use of certain materials, such as fat and felt, which had symbolic resonance for him.

Fisher stresses that the symbolic transformation often occurs through the arrangement and combination of the different materials in Beuys’ sculptures. He offers as one example the felt squares partly covering the ash tree in ‘Snowfall’. In this sense it is akin to astrology’s bringing together of two or more things that are sequent but not consequent.

Joseph Beuys, Snowfall (1965)

Fisher also points out that transformation takes place in the viewer. Shamanism, astrology and other forms of divination aim for some transformative change or healing and likewise an artwork can change the way we look at things and the way we live. ‘The interpretive component, and therefore the interpreter,’ Greenbaum states, ‘is essential’. She stresses the ‘unique interplay between astrologer and client which involves a dance between the needs of the client and the intuition and skill of the astrologer.’

Likewise Beuys’ artwork is produced partly through the interpretative participation of the viewer. As in Greenbaum’s account of astrological divination, Beuys’ approach could be called stochastic; in his art he shoots an arrow and he does not know if it will hit because, as in divination, it depends on its reception with the viewer.

For this reason it is never easy to isolate exactly what a single work by Beuys represents symbolically. ‘His use of fat, for instance,’ Fisher explains, ‘can mean warmth and healing power; it can mean softness and the mammalian; fat is chaotic and in flux as its grease penetrates a wall or a page.’ This seems indicative of the way in which metaphor functions in O’Sullivan’s poetry as well. She does not tend to be described as a typical metaphor poet and in reading her poems I don’t usually feel directed towards symbolic interpretations.

As an example, here is the poem ‘To Our Own Day’ from In the House of the Shaman:

Mean owl face to the bone of a blue winged
it made shine dully molten
Singz Iz Heard
Toyz Iz Uz magician
Uz lutely tongeth
breaks in rock,
Uz ill’s horn
paw mouthing
innards on stick
leathern stoop
in passage –
Prised linings, Great Milks occur/
Blood. Blizzard Multiples
Blazed, Blades (flown)
cloaka Bones,
a branding math-smudge,
a common stuff, big broke dialleries on

There are clearly metaphoric resonances at work here. The abstract noun ‘filth’ is metaphorically given bones and blue wings. ‘Shine’ also seems to be treated as a noun here rather than a verb and is described as being made ‘dully molten’. To describe a shine as ‘molten’ is also metaphoric, rendering light as liquid.

Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what comparison is made; it is difficult to pin down what is figure and what is ground. How then does metaphor operate in this poetry and what might it tell us about language and astrology?

Greenbaum provides a definition of metaphor as a specific form of analogy that melds two things together. She cites the literal meaning of metaphor: to carry across, transfer, translate. Metaphor is an image carried across from one thing to another.

She suggests that this is also how astrology and other forms of divination operate. The astrologer makes a connection between the physical configurations of the stars and human events, a metaphor between celestial pattern and terrestrial occurrence.

Metaphor works on the ability to see an image that makes contiguous two things that are not, two things that are sequent but not consequent. Because of her ability to move quickly, to be ‘metabletic’ (able to be transported) the poet/diviner is able to put contiguous and similar instantly together, no matter what their actual (chronological or spatial) distance. Ricoeur reminds us that ‘to transfer is to ap-proximate, to suppress distance’ (Rule of Metaphor).

This is the kind of metaphor described by Pierre Reverdy when he comments that ‘The image is a pure creation of the spirit. It cannot be born of a comparison but of the bringing together of two realities which are more or less remote. The more distant and just the relationship of these two realities, the stronger the image – the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have.’ (Nord-Sud, March 1918, quoted in Waldberg, Surrealism)

The strongest metaphors are the most distant, not comparisons but collisions of realities. O’Sullivan’s method is to magnetise semantically distant words together. Her taut, minimal lines draw words into each other to maximise resonances of shock and surprise between them. A kind of electricity sparks in such incongruous phrases as ‘paw mouthing’, ‘Great Milks occur/ing’, ‘Blizzard Multiples’, ‘trappings / strode’. Sometimes words collide in hyphenated compounds such as ‘math-smudge’ or decimalled together by full stops like ‘’; sometimes it’s phonemes that collide to form neologisms like ‘lutely’ and ‘cloaka’. The combination and arrangement of these disparate materials transforms them, as in a Beuys sculpture, and in a similar way the transformation takes place with the reader.

This is evident in Jackie Pigeaud’s observation that metaphor ‘actualises a landscape with two objects, and a spectator who […] may be the author of the metaphor himself, or the reader. We may even think that there are, so to speak, quiet metaphors, waiting eternally for somebody to wake them up, for his own pleasure’ (Pigeaud, ‘“To Shape into One”: Aristotle’s Poetics and the Poet as Melancholic’).

Greenbaum comments on the ‘quiet metaphor’ of the last sentence evoking the idea of astrological symbolism lying quiescent until the questions posed by the client or astrologer bring its metaphorical power into consciousness. It takes both the astrologer and the client (or the poet and the reader) to activate the metaphor. The same might be said of O’Sullivan’s poetry; how the gap between figure and ground is bridged depends on the interpretative input of the reader.


As well as transformation, the Beuys quote in In the House of the Shaman also stresses substance.

In his essay ‘The Two Poetries’, Ken Edwards quotes a voiceover comment in a Channel 4 documentary on Beuys stating that his ‘objects are material and metaphor’. That is, in their metaphoric, symbolic resonances his artworks transform the materials, while at the same time drawing attention to the very substance of the materials themselves.

Edwards comments that in most conventional use of metaphor in mainstream poetry ‘there is no sense of that unity of material and metaphor’, instead ‘the language merely carries the metaphors’. In Beuys’ use of metaphor by contrast, the materials ‘are palpable presences in themselves and as themselves’. It is this that makes it difficult to pin down his metaphors and which leaves a space open for the viewer to participate in their activation.

O’Sullivan’s poetry also stresses transformation and substance: the transformation of words through unusual semantic combinations and the substance of the word as a sonic cluster of phonemes and physical object on the page. The combinations of words generate multiple metaphoric possibilities of meaning, while the sonic materiality returns us to the indeterminacy of the word as irreducibly what it is. In an essay on her poetics, ‘riverrunning (realizations’ (Palace of Reptiles, 2003), O’Sullivan describes her poetry as ‘Materiality of language: its actual contractions and expansions… sculptural qualities within the physical.’ It is a physical, sculptural engagement with the rhythms and sounds of the phonemes.

In ‘To Our Own Day’, for example, the initial trochaic thump of ‘mean owl’ breaks into the skipping dactyls of ‘face to the bone of a’, continuing the trochaic (‘blue winged’) and dactylic (‘filth / it made’, ‘shine dully’) rhythm back to the trochee on ‘molten’. The pounding metre is augmented by frequent consonance, for example in these first lines of b’s (blue, bone) and l’s (owl, blue, filth), which are picked up later in ‘Blood’, ‘Blizzard’, ‘Blazed’ and ‘Blades’ (these latter also chiming on the z’s and d’s, as well as their assonant vowels), and again in ‘big broke’. There are also phonetic dialect spellings ‘Singz’, ‘Iz’, ‘Toyz’, ‘Uz’, as well as the archaism ‘tongeth’. The substance of the text homes in on the charged jouissance of particular words and phonemes with a disruptive syntax of severed noun phrases and single words.

The language is bodily. As Rimbaud said, ‘I meant what I said, literally and in every sense’ (quoted in Marjorie Perloff, Poetics of Indeterminacy). Like the objects in Beuys’ sculptures, the words in O’Sullivan’s poems are not merely vehicles to carry the metaphors; they are also highly material, irreducibly literal and physical substances in themselves.

This bodily substance of O’Sullivan’s writing brings us back to Dellutri and Davies’ comments on how Lacanian psychoanalysis seeks to bring about a shift at the level of the body. The analyst listens to the materiality of the language and how it links to the body – the fractures and slips of the tongue, the repetitions and circlings, which point to a morbid satisfaction that has a space in the body.

Structures imprinted in the phonemes are brought out in the musicality of the language – the materiality of jouissance. Some words are more charged than others, indicating where the jouissance is located. Jouissance guides where to disturb, to localise and disrupt these circular entropic movements around a hole in language, a traumatic hole in meaning, in order to effect an unconscious shift, to write something new or unknot something old, and open a new pathway.

The bodily materiality of O’Sullivan’s writing evidently plays on this connection of language to the body. This is highlighted in the visceral imagery of bones, blood, innards and milk, but is also enacted physiologically by the reader in mouthing, even silently, the rhythms and sound patterns of the language. The jouissance of the clashing phonemes, colliding in incongruous combinations, works to disrupt and disturb the syntactic structures embedded in our language routines.

Enwrapping & hollowing

Notes from ‘Radical Landscape / Romantic Consciousness’ seminar given by Peter Larkin and Allen Fisher: Glasfryn, 23 April 2016

‘If I say I am I then the subject and the object are not unified in such a way that no separation can be undertaken without infringing on the essence of the I. On the contrary, the I is only possible via this separation.’ (Holderlin, Being, Judgement, Possibility)

To represent the I by saying ‘I am I’, the I must be both subject and object. In apparently representing identity, the I in fact becomes divided.

This splitting is relational: in order to be aware of itself, the I must reflect itself. Self-consciousness is only possible through separation into the I as subject and the I as object – a relationship where the terms are relative.

That might entail that we are perpetually divided, as Schelling states: ‘Man is eternally a fragment’ (System of Transcendental Idealism). But Larkin suggests that does not necessarily mean that the I is just a pure particle, isolated in itself. It can be better envisaged as a broken ligature, branching and joining, he says: a particle takes part.

The I does not exist entirely alone and separate in itself; its being includes the objects with which it interacts, is made up of the relation between the I and the not-I. Larkin suggests that the sphere that encompasses the I and the not-I, and makes their relation possible – mediates their relationship, perhaps – is like Wordsworth’s ‘unfathered vapour that enwraps’ (The Prelude, Book Six) – it enwraps the I and the not-I, and in turn cannot be presented directly, only evoked indirectly through an aesthetic production.

He drew our attention to such an aesthetic engagement with the not-I in Wordsworth’s ‘Incipient Madness’ (1797), where the speaker, having walked across a moor and into a ruined hut, is attracted to a shard of glass.

‘A broken pane which glittered in the moon

And seemed akin to life.’

Here the inanimate seems to exhibit a strange animation, as if it is a living being, and in this way it seems to offer up a relation: the object, as demonstrated in the broken pane, is a fragment, a broken ligature, offering a join to the subject. The I forms a relationship with a found object, engaging with it to reflect on itself.

‘grief … fastening on all things

That promise food, doth like a sucking babe

Create it where it is not.’

The I fastens onto the object, projecting its feelings onto it. As Novalis says, ‘Feeling cannot feel itself. Feeling cannot be represented to itself because it is prior to reflection. It is the very basis of philosophy, yet it cannot be represented. If it could be, there would be no philosophy.’ (Fichte Studies)

The feeling itself cannot be reflected upon because it precedes reflection, but the desire to grasp the feeling is what drives the speaker to engage with the object, fastening upon it like a baby looking for food. While it cannot present feeling directly, the aesthetic engagement of the poem enwraps it by evoking the relation between subject and object.

The choice of object, in this case, emphasises the aesthetic act in that the object itself is reflective – it too seems to enwrap other things and interact relationally with them.

‘That speck of glass was dearer to my soul

Than was the moon in heaven.’

The pane’s glitter, which endows it with a sense of life, is derived from the moon, and the moon appears a second time here in the comparative simile, conjoined with and defined in relation to the speck of glass. The moon here is what Larkin calls ‘an emerging image’, not fully revealed, still always part of what it emerged from. The broken pane – eternally fragment, always incomplete – forms relations with other things, other fragments, which join like broken ligatures. As it interacts relationally with the moon, so it offers up a relationship to the I, to become the counterpart in its soul or being.

Looking at the speck of glass is also metonymic for reading a poem or looking at a painting. The broken pane creates a frame, like the technique of hollowing used in Romantic painting, where darker brushstrokes enwrap a portion of light to create a frame within the frame of the picture. Fisher demonstrated how this technique can be seen in many of Turner’s paintings, for example his storm scenes, such as Fishermen at Sea (1796). Here an egg-like basin is scooped out of the ocean, while a break in the stormclouds reveals a tiny disk of moon, the hollowing in the sea reflecting the hollowing in the sky. In the framing hollow of clouds, the moon is enwrapped as it is in Wordsworth’s broken pane. A relation is formed in the isomorphism between sky-hollow and sea-hollow which evokes what Novalis calls ‘the mirror of the strange play of relations among things’.

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

As the moon is enwrapped by the clouds, the tiny figures of the fishermen and the tilting mast diagonals are almost enwrapped by the womb-like hollow of the waves. The tragic scene seems to enact Holderlin’s comments on tragedy:

‘In the tragic, the sign is in itself meaningless, without power, but that which is original is openly revealed. For really the original can only appear in its weakness, but insofar as the sign in itself is posited as meaningless, it equals zero [i.e. nothing] but the original, the hidden ground of everything in nature can represent itself. If nature genuinely represents itself in its strongest gift, the sign again equals zero [i.e. everything].’ (Significance of Tragedy)

In tragedy, human figures appear in weakness to amplify the strength of natural forces. Above the fishermen, Turner’s hollowing frames an image of the cosmos, an awe-struck vortex that pulls the viewer into the painting as the fishermen are pulled into the sea. The tragic enacts our own attempt to grasp the infinite.

The moon appears small and distant, presented in its ‘weakest gift’, as Holderlin puts it, not in its ‘original’ form, but framed as a representation, a sign, the glitter. As we have seen, the whole of nature or being cannot be depicted directly, in its ‘original strength’, so Turner, like Wordsworth with his speck of glass, uses the miniature to evoke the vast. The original can never be attained, it divides into object and subject as we attempt to enclose it, but it can be enwrapped as a glitter on the pane in the relational reflection of the I.

The painting and the poem as aesthetic production allow us to gain an insight into being as relational. Painting and poem are also themselves objects in the world, offering a relation to the subject through which being can be expressed.

This is what Novalis suggests when he comments that words constitute ‘a world in themselves’. ‘Their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror of the strange play of relations among things.’ (Fichte Studies)

Fisher distinguishes between the contemplative, where you are taken away from yourself, and the meditative, where you are sent back to yourself. The poem and the painting seem to offer both contemplative and meditative engagements. We can be pulled out of ourselves into the framed perspective of the painting and the narrative scene of the poem, and we can be thrown back onto ourselves by the surface glitter of brushstroke colours and the relational play of language.

Poetry and art are always incomplete and imperfect because they are driven by a striving for the unattainable and unrepresentable, which by its very nature can never be attained and represented or it would not exist. They too are broken panes, fragmentary ligatures branching, asking to be completed in the engagement of the viewing subject.

Breaking Margins in Allen Fisher’s SPUTTOR and Rhys Trimble’s Hexerisk

‘I do not believe in things, I believe only in their relationship.’ – Georges Braque

‘It is not things that matter, but the relations between them.’ – E.T. Bell

I was reading Allen Fisher’s essay ‘Breaks Margin’ when his recent poetry book SPUTTOR arrived, so I began reading the book with those ideas in mind. ‘Breaks Margin’ was published in two parts: part as ‘Post-Modernism as Package’ in Poetics Journal 7, Berkley, 1987, and part as a discussion of the work of Harry Thubron and Ulli McCarthy in First Offence 8, Kent, 1993.

In the essay, Fisher questions whether relative and arbitrary are congruent terms, taking dispute with George Steiner’s comment that ‘The relativity, the arbitrariness of all aesthetic propositions, of all value-judgements is inherent in human consciousness and in human speech.’ Fisher argues that aesthetic propositions are not arbitrary, that relativity is in fact a ‘site of non-arbitrariness’.

Arbitrariness for Ferdinand de Saussure means that meaning is not intrinsic but relational. Signs are not essences, but a network of relations. The elements within a system are themselves arbitrary, but their relations are not. A sign is arbitrary if not for its relativity – it’s the relativity that gives it meaning and this is not intrinsic and can be changed.

The link between relativity in linguistics and relativity in physics is identified by Roman Jakobson, beginning with the concept of invariance:

‘The problem of invariance, according to Bell and other mathematicians, became particularly important in the 1870s. Simultaneously, Baudouin de Courtenay arrived at the concept of the phoneme, discovering that to operate scientifically with variations, we must establish the invariants… As we read in the history of mathematics, the full import of invariance was perceived only after the discovery of the principle of relativity, after 1916, with the book of Einstein on the general theory of relativity. The same may be said about linguistics, where precisely in 1916 the posthumous Cours de linguistique generale by Ferdinand de Saussure appeared, defining the basic entities of linguistics as relative and oppositive, and presenting the problem of relativity as fundamental for linguistics.’ (‘Pattern in Linguistics’, in Word and Language)

Invariance refers to elements which are left unchanged by transformation. Relativity shows that what is invariant is not the things in isolation but the relation between them. Linguists, like mathematicians, would identify and study relational invariants from a flux of variables. Topology would become the study of those qualitative properties which are invariant under isomorphic transformations. In Fisher’s essay, isomorphisms are similarities of shape, echoed recurrences: ‘Rather in the way that memory works, perhaps, a piece can be criss-crossed with connections and correspondences’ (Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music).

Fisher draws on Jan Mukarovsky’s proposition that aesthetic function is dominant in art and that it requires the audience’s engagement to produce it. To this he adds Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s suggestion that ‘The discourse of emancipation was, to a great extent, born within the discourse of aesthetics.’ These patterning processes found in art and emancipation are, as Gregory Bateson suggests, the same patterns of connectedness that constitute consciousness. Fisher proposes that this relational patterning preempts and transforms the arbitrary:

  • ‘practice where the aesthetic function dominates transforms part of the arbitrary into the specifically connected or implicitly repatterned.’
  • ‘Relativity becomes a metaphor for the potential patterning processes that preempt the arbitrary.’

Fisher’s idea that both the aesthetic function and consciousness result from patterns of connectedness is comparable to Roger Penrose’s suggestion that consciousness is the result of the collapse of the quantum wave function, when one particular pattern is chosen out of a multiplicity of superposed potential states.

Penrose offers a suggestion of what these superposed states may be. Following Einstein’s theory of relativity and gravity, where mass is a curvature of space-time, Penrose treats each superposed particle as a minute and evanescent change in the curvature of space-time.

However, Penrose’s model of ‘objective reduction’ (OR) differs from Fisher’s use of ‘decoherence’: OR is ‘self-collapse’, while Fisher’s favoured quantum model, decoherence, is caused by the interaction of the quantum superposition with the macroscopic environment.

In the quantum world, wave function is a superposition of multiple potentialities or realities, and decoherence is the process of collapsing this to a single choice or reality. Fisher’s treatment of decoherence is the opposite: for him, decoherence refers to a confidence in the necessity for a range of choices; it is a state of superposition, which offers multiple potentialities or realities. In the quantum world, in contrast, coherence means multiplicity – the coherent superposition of multiple possibilities – and decoherence is a kind of friction or dissipation which collapses this superposed multiplicity to a particular pattern.

While both objective reduction and decoherence are not induced by human observation or measurement, Fisher retains Heisenberg’s idea of the observer-dependent collapse. For Fisher, patterns of connectedness initiate a process of production in the reader. The wave function collapses as the reader collapses the multiple potential meanings of the text to a particular reading by making connections. Many texts try to limit the number of potential interpretations, but Fisher’s poetry seems to suspend it at the point of collapse, so that the reader becomes aware of their role in the process.

Unstable centres: SPUTTOR

Ideas of intrinsic, fixed properties and meanings are connected to notions of stable centres. In ‘Breaks Margin’, Fisher takes issue with an observation registered (but not endorsed by) Gayatri Spivak: ‘Humankind’s common desire for a stable centre, and for the assurance of mastery – through knowing or possessing’. Fisher says that this generalised aspiration for a stable centre misrepresents the asymmetry of the human form’s proprioceptors and organs. In Sputtor, he takes this stable centre as a space to disrupt through the breaking of margins. As Rudolph Arnheim says, ‘The boundary indicates what belongs and what does not…’ (The Power of the Centre). Frame and margin are elements that can be used to produce relational and gravitational force and dynamics.

In visual art, facturing margins and then breaking those margins is a method for creating tensions, lines of force, varying weights and dynamic geometries: objects are partially cut off by the frame, a head crosses an inner border, an arm leans over another.

In a poem, the page is a field framed by its edge. Stable centres and idealised margins can be employed in order to display their breakage. Various methods can be used to stabilise meaning and make it appear more or less fixed and intrinsic: punctuation, stanzas, line lengths, consistencies of font and presentation. These offer a potential for exactness, and opportunities to resist it.

In Sputtor, Fisher plays with ideas of centre and margin using techniques similar to those of visual artist Harry Thubron whose work is described in ‘Breaks Margin’. In fact, the layout of some of pages of Sputtor, particularly in the images of stacked housing and shed doors, remind me of Thubron paintings.

thubron fisher

Like Thubron’s paintings, Sputtor uses collage to investigate the gravitational forces of the page, heightening our proprioceptive sense of weight in the reading experience as lines leap across tears and gaps and launch across page edges. Like Thubron’s layering of various papers, cardboard, wood, fabric and other found materials to create an asymmetrical dynamic within the frame of the work, Sputtor juxtaposes and overlays strips and blocks of text and image, combining cut and torn edges, as textured planes that break and interrupt the margins of the page.

Fisher takes a found text, Andrew Wilson’s Space Shuttle Story (1986), and uses it as a scrapbook, physically pasting papers into the book. He works with the grid page layout of the shuttle book as a stable centre in which to improvise, while the ‘Human Poems’ that are pasted into the book make use of the sonnet form. There is no more stable centre in English poetry than the sonnet form and Fisher’s improvisations and transformations of the 14-line shape here are nothing less than a sonnet sequence for the human species at the end of the anthropocene.

Both page grid and sonnet form act as idealised margins which Fisher disrupts in a variety of ways to explore the gravitational forces of the page. Minimal punctuation (often none at all) and syntactical glitches encourage the reader to read across breaks, leaps across page tears, enjambments across stanza breaks. Phrases bleed into one another not bounded by punctuation. Lines break page margins encroaching onto next page. Font size squeezes and stretches to fit the page and sonnet shape. In ‘Human Conditions’, for example, the sonnet is interrupted by a strip of text from the Shuttle Story beneath. The page is cut on an enjambed line-break: ‘a long range reaction that acts / as personal enhancement in a long scream’. In the gap between stanzas we see a fragment of The Space Shuttle Story beneath: ‘black of space, and the pilot could see the curvature of the Earth and experience a few seconds of weightlessness’. This aptly evokes the proprioceptive effect for the reader as the leap across the gap induces a feeling of weightlessness. This is given ethical force later on by quotations from Mayer Hillman’s How We Can Save the Planet about ‘weightless’ forms of economic activity, which place no burden on the environment. It emphasises what Fisher says in ‘Breaks Margin’ about aesthetics being linked to emancipation and art being for survival, combating entropy through the initiation of patterning processes in the reader.

The sonnet form, such a recognisable structure, allows such breakages of the stable form to be more visible. We read the detached fragments of text as stanzas. We can see where a poem has been broken across pages, as in ‘Human Health’, where the octave discusses the evolution of perception in chreods (the sixth and seventh lines of the stanza printed on a separate strip of paper which cuts across the page) before leaping across to the opposite page for the sestet, which begins with a quatrain on the disposal of nuclear waste then jumps back in time in the couplet to prehistoric use of stone to scrape flesh from animals. On the subsequent double-page spread, elements of the same poem are repeated, but this time pushed to the margins at the bottom left and top right, with the majority of the rest of the page-spread taken up by a handwritten note on lined paper. This isomorphic transformation draws attention to the relational properties of the poem, the shifts in significance as centre becomes margin.

The leaps in context in ‘Human Health’ demonstrate how Sputtor takes place over vast stretches of time and enormous distances in space, from the cosmic to the subatomic over periods of millions of years. One text fragment clipped from Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men describes the approach: ‘Clearly we cannot walk at leisure through such a tract… We must fly… [but] we must also punctuate our flight with many descents.’ Fragments from this 1930s book throughout the text have the haunting effect of commenting on our present situation from an imagined future written in the past. The Stapledon quotation accurately captures the poetry’s disorientating zooms from an intricate pedestrian perspective to the wider horizons.

Fisher transforms dry textbook fragments into lyric moments. They are re-narrated as if the poet is observing and experiencing these things and use of first person plural and second person pronouns encourages an identification of perspective in the reader. Transposition of formal theoretical prose into the page-arrangements, stanza-shapes and line breaks associated with poetry is an isomorphism that reveals the relational variants and invariants of the text in the change of context. Reading these poems heightens the awareness of the body, the organs and proprioceptors, the environment, the cosmos and the subatomic, and the social and ethical issues in play – the complexity of living in the world – while the reading experience itself heightens awareness of gravitational pull of the page and at times jolts us to encourage proprioceptive orientation.

Further isomorphic transformations occur at times in the sonnet sequence when Fisher makes use of his system of rhyming transformations familiar from the Gravity as a consequence of shape project. For example, in ‘Human Anticipation’, the first three lines rhyme with lines 6-8 and lines 4-5 rhyme with 9-10. This also occurs between poems, as in the rhyming of the line ‘moulding into the hassle of a ham string Didley saffron’ in ‘Human Enterprise’ with the line ‘holding onto the tassel in an Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire’ in ‘Human Substance’. The rhyming phonemes are relational invariants in the poem’s flux of variables, criss-crossing connections between different sections of the book.

These textual isomorphisms are paralleled by correspondences of shape in the images used in the collages: on page 33 rocket tanks are placed next to images of insect larvae evoking similarities in shape, and on pages 26-7, rocket engines and thrusters are juxtaposed with images of bells, also echoed at another level in the text extract from Walter Benjamin quoting a passage of Baudelaire about bells. The horizontal lines of the poems rhyme with repeated images of venetian blinds. On page 14, above the found heading ‘The Shuttle Takes Shape’, the ideal shape of the shuttle is echoed in the rough folds of a crumpled page of memopad. The accompanying text on the subsequent page quotes Galileo seemingly describing the poetry’s horizontal motion compounded by accelerated vertical motion as the reading takes flight, lifting from the syntagmatic plane to the paradigmatic through a series of transformations.

Tears as paths: Hexerisk

Fisher’s aesthetic of breaking margins, exemplified in his practice in Sputtor, chimes for me with the energetic messiness of Rhys Trimble’s work, which I’ve been reading at the same time. In Trimble’s Hexerisk, six sheep tracks in a Bethesda field are isomorphic with the six sections of the book. Future polis overlaid on farm tracks: animal path and ley corridor autobahn.

In a blurb on his website, Trimble writes, ‘Hexerisk is about a six-point star-shaped intersection in the middle of the village I live in. The area is a filled-in slate mining quarry pit which is unsafe for building, and so allowed to remain a green area. Its criss-crossed crudely cut paths create a number of star-shaped intersections. One night I found myself looking up at the full moon standing directly on the point where six paths intersected. The sequences are based around a numerological topological concept of 3 major and 3 minor paths.’

The mystical relevance of the six paths (or three paths) recalls the sacred geometry of Alfred Watkins and Guy Underwood, drawn upon in Fisher’s early work, particularly Place. Situating himself at the centre of the star shape beneath the full moon, Trimble acts as a vertical conductor rod, tapping into a belief system, a lunar effect, invoking a connection with the natural world, as he did in Mynydd when he spent the night on the summit of Cadair Idris, an activity traditionally believed to induce either madness or a knack for poetry. The moon is also associated with madness, physical and psychological transformations.

In a text message to me he writes, ‘there are sort of arguments running through those sequences. Resurrection men is welsh wales stuff and the anti tesco one vaguely marxian. The smaller cut-ups are meant to complement the open field bits! Also 6-star metaphor for the whole macro-sequence.’

I look at a Bethesda satellite map on Google and you can see the six tracks cutting across the field and intersecting in a star-shape.


The town stretches and splays eastward and northward of the A5 (High Street) the main road winding from the A470 at Betws-y-Coed to Bangor. In the middle of the town there is a filled-in slate mining quarry declared unfit for building and allowed to remain a green area. Follow the path east across the hillside from the top of Bryntirion towards Cefnfaes Street. You will find the hexerisk to the left of the path where three crudely cut tracks intersect in the shape of a six-sided asterisk.

The word ‘asterisk’ comes from the Greek word ‘asteriskos’, a diminutive of ‘aster’, meaning small star. The suffix ‘iskos’ relates to the English ‘-ish’ (from the Old English ‘-isc’). Hex means six, so hexerisk might meaning little six, or little sixer. Or maybe, hex deriving from the German for hag or witch, a little hexer is a spell caster. Join the asterisk’s opposing tips and you get a Seal of Solomon, the occult six-star, two intersecting triangles, used to symbolise the hermetic principle of correspondence, ‘as above so below’, as described in the grimoire of spells known as the Key of Solomon. These idealised geometries are stabilising structures, like the sonnet form in Sputtor, used to give the text form as six sections, but within these stable centres Trimble improvises to destabilise any sense of ideal margins.

The asterisk is one of the various soundless typographical symbols Trimble dots his pages with (even back in ‘afanc’ in his first published collection, Keinc). In Swansea Automatic, a book published, and perhaps written, roughly alongside Hexerisk, Trimble discusses the uses of the asterisk.

‘now I know what star is for…

*=not recording

*=not writing

*   *   *

=sexual encounter

(tastefully elided)’

Asterisks denote gaps, jumps, breaks. Hexerisk’s book cover illustrates this with an overhead image of Bethesda torn into six pieces along the lines of the six paths. The torn edges evoking the ragged margins of the poems: if the six-shape is a stabilising structure, it is a rough, ragged stability. The paths for Trimble are tears; as connections, they are also fissures. As well as denoting habitual activities, they are unofficial routes cut into the land: shortcuts across fields, making unsanctioned connections between Bryntirion and Gray Street, Pantdreinog Industrial Estate and Cefnfaes Street.

The tracks work as metaphors for the intersection of thought-processes in the poems. As in Skine, the notebook is used as a form and structure, a stabilising containing device in which words and phrases are gathered from various places and times, as Trimble’s journeying from place to place creates a set of paths, overlapping trains of thought. Field-tracks document durational performances – Richard Long walking back and forth in a straight line in a field in 1967 – recording a passage of time in space. Hexerisk scores a relational action for the reader in inviting us to trace these thought-tracks like tears through the map. In our patterning activity, we make tracks through the poem like feet wear paths into the field: walking as damage.

The prose cut-ups work as lenses through which to read the open field sections. They suggest routes, though there are no definite links. These lenses provide another stabilising structure, and they are supplemented, as in Sputtor, by a bibliography offering secondary reading as maps for the reader to use if they wish in their navigation of the text. The open field presentation of the poems leaves the reader to make patterns of connection and suspends the wave-function collapse in a diffuse word-cloud to allow for multiple interpretations. Each line is a miniature vocab-cluster, a cryptic notebook shorthand. You need a few good dictionaries, or a search engine, to navigate the text, with words such as protasis, roşie, albastro, perochiate, epitasis. A Welsh dictionary is also handy. And some words I couldn’t find anywhere – presumably Trimble’s own neologisms: radikalenerlass, dest, sussur, vrest-uh. Looking up the words sends the reader on a trail, a dérive of denotation.

Camilla Nelson comments that in these poems ‘You can’t find a language to stand up in steadily’. A proprioceptive, gravitational connection is felt here between language and standing. This feeling of being flattened by the planet’s gravity could equally be described as weightlessness. Relativity equates inertial motion with free-fall: staying still we are falling through the universe, an effect described in Fisher’s ‘Human Cosmos’ poem in Sputtor – what is stationary is relative to the observer. Nelson goes on to comment, ‘once words may have meant something simple, something more akin to the apparently smooth surface of the page, a table top or something that had some clear sense of direction like a flight of stairs.’ The page’s stable centre is the smooth surface of a table; the text’s is the linear syntactic directions of a staircase – but such stabilities are refused in Hexerisk. Asyntactic, paratactic juxtaposition of words highlights their relational potentials.

The opening poem, ‘Redizblue’, condemns Labour and Tory as the same thing (‘same old / blueprint redprint’), comparing them to the graphical displays (red-blue plots) used to study and measure population density – a perhaps homogenising mapping that is challenged in the heterogeneous spatial patterning of Trimble’s text. In the corresponding cut-up prose, ‘Tesco Ovipositor’, it is the red and blue of the Tesco logo, against which Trimble enacts an act of occult resistance by reversing it to the hex ‘ocset’, an echo of redrum/murder. Combining vocabularies of commerce and biology, Tesco becomes an ovipositor, an organ for laying eggs. In a surreal juxtapositional method akin to Fisher’s visual collaging of rocket tanks with insect larvae, the supermarket chain becomes a fused hybrid creature (‘we two … & we like parts’), itself composed of segments like the collage text. Through relational play between juxtaposed vocabularies, body and finance merge, progeneration and economic growth, natural forms with commerce, to create an insect capital, laying its red-blue homogenising clusters across the socio-political map.

‘Blacklittle taffBodies’ traces the etymological evolution of the surname Cumberbatch (cymru bach – little Wales), commenting on how a name attempts to maintain a stable sense of belonging at a time when boundaries are being redrawn. The identity rooted in placenames is juxtaposed with references to ‘Resurrection Men’: graverobbers and body-snatchers. Corpses stolen for medical experiments become analogous to the excavated etymologies of Trimble’s frankenstein neologisms. Words glitch and flicker as other words and fragments of words burst out of their middles: fAcialellow, signifWaicance, inhabzophitants, immediitionallately, redrawnyddon, demonstrablyaidd. The poem critiques the disproportionate use of illegally exhumed African-American bodies in nineteenth-century medical research, implicitly comparing it to the tracing of isomorphic invariants through etymological chains to regain some imagined original, stable form, yet finding only a relational flux of language particles, transitional forms, plurilingual mutations midway between English, Welsh and other languages.

Sputtor and Hexerisk demonstrate the varied ways in which poetry, where the aesthetic function dominates, transforms the arbitrary into the connected. Fisher’s and Trimble’s aesthetic propositions are not, as Steiner might suggest, arbitrary. Their aesthetic challenges to cultural norms are not an arbitrary choice. Their aesthetic practice challenges and counters the arbitrary by inciting the reader to make patterns and connections. Their decision to embrace this relativity is not arbitrary – it is not interchangeable with a non-relative approach – because it is a resistance to notions of intrinsic value and stable centre. They show that aesthetics and consciousness are patterns of connectedness, structures for ethical, moral and social understanding, which change and can be changed, through the renewing capacity of patterning.

Process Writing

I was thinking about diaries as a lesson for my creative writing class and remembered Bernadette Mayer’s list of journal ideas, as well as the journal task by the Goat Island performance group.

Made me think of conceptual/performance art works that emphasise duration and process: e.g. Tehching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performance (Time Clock Piece)’ where for a whole year he punched a time clock every hour on the hour and each time he punched the clock he took a picture of himself.

Also the work of On Kawara – particularly the postcard pieces ‘I Went and I Met’ and ‘I Got Up At’.
on kawara

So I was reading about processual writing/poetry and came across Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris where he sits in a café in Saint-Sulpice square for a weekend noting down everything that he sees. He said, ‘My goal has been to describe what others have missed. What is not generally noted, what is not noticed , what is not important; what happens when nothing happens, but time, people, cars and clouds.’

There’s an extract here.

I’ve been getting quite into Perec – just read his Species of Spaces which was really exciting – the sections on The Apartment and The Street especially – the way he thinks about and uses spaces appeals to me – there’s a PDF here.

Then I came across Francis Ponge who I remember reading about a while back. He wrote these object poems, like paying really close attention to an object, an everyday object and trying to describe it. Click to look inside and read the introduction.

Then he wrote a book called Soap where he just focused on one object, soap, taking up the same object again and again over a period of twenty years.

The book blurb says, ‘With this work, he began to turn away from the small, perfect poem toward a much more open form, a kind of prose poem which incorporates a laboratory or workshop, recounting its own process of coming into being along with the final result. The outcome is a new form of writing, which one could call “processual poetry.”‘

There’s a bio on the Poetry Foundation and a link at the bottom to one of his poems.


“During the summer of 2001, William Basinski set about transferring a series of 20-year-old tape loops he’d had in storage to a digital file format, and was startled when this act of preservation began to devour the tapes he was saving. As they played, flakes of magnetic material were scraped away by the reader head, wiping out portions of the music and changing the character and sound of the loops as they progressed… In essence, Basinski is improvising using nothing so much as the passage of time as his instrument”

– Joe Tangari, quoted in the wiki article on Process Art

Watch Basinski’s Disintegration Loops on YouTube.

Orphic Orange

I went up to Glasfryn in Llangattock to the Orpheus/Eurydice day organised by Lyndon Davies, Penny Hallas and Graham Hartill. The main event was a reading/talk by David Cook who has just published his translations of Rilke’s The Sonnets to Orpheus. This was accompanied by a series of lectures and performances on related themes.

I didn’t know a lot about the Orpheus myth and hadn’t read much Rilke. The only thing I knew was that Guillaume Apollinaire had used the term Orphism to describe a kind of Cubist painting that used bright colours, e.g. Robert and Sophia Delaunay, Fernand Leger and certain paintings of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp.

Robert Delaunay, Window (1912)

Apollinaire wrote a poem called ‘The Windows’ which was a response to the orphic paintings of Robert Delaunay.  The last lines are: ‘The window opens like an orange / The beautiful fruit of light’. We were invited to bring along a contribution to lunch so I decided to make an orange cake. I didn’t want to do a talk but I felt that Apollinaire’s Orphism should be present somehow. I thought of creating an ambient lecture, a sort of background discussion that could be engaged in or ignored to different degrees. So I took some napkins which had oranges on them and wrote some of Apollinaire’s treatises on Orphism on them:

  • ‘Thus we are tending towards an entirely new art which will be to painting what, until today, one had imagined music to be to poetry.’ (The Beginnings of Cubism, 1912)
  • ‘It is the art of painting new structures with elements which have not been borrowed from visual reality, but have been entirely created by the artist, and which have been endowed by him with a powerful reality.’ (The Cubist Painters, 1913)
  • ‘And to renew inspiration, to make it fresher and more orphic, I think that the poet will have to refer back to nature, to life. If he should limit himself to noting undidactically the mystery he sees and hears, he would become habituated to life like the nineteenth-century realists who thus raised their art very high, and the decadence of the novel came at the very moment when the writers ceased observing external reality which is the very orphism of art.’ (Soirees de Paris, 1914)

I like the seeming contradiction in these quotes. Apollinaire describes the orphic as ‘the art of painting new structures with elements not borrowed from visual reality’ and then says that poets need to return to observing external reality ‘which is the very orphism of art’.

  • How could both be orphic?
  • When is painting more like music than poetry?
  • When is poetry more like music than poetry?
  • What is the poetic equivalent of colour in painting?

Some of these questions were answered in the discussion at Glasfryn.

For example, apparently Rodin told Rilke to go and look at things – similar advice to Apollinaire’s that poets need to undidactically observe the mystery that they see and hear. David Cook explained Rilke’s concept of ‘the Open’, which is like nature or life. He said that when Rilke was dying he refused to have a priest present because ‘he would stand between me and the Open’. He drew our attention to the Eighth Duino Elegy:

Animals see the Open with their whole eyes.

Only our eyes, turned inward, surround it

like traps, trying to hinder its freedom of movement

… to see shapes and forms,

and not the Open that is so deep in the face

of an animal.

[mix of translations by Gary Miranda and Martin Crucefix]

Cook pointed out the repeated references to breathing in Rilke’s poems. There’s the line in Sonnet II, 1: ‘Breathing, you invisible poem’. Cook explained that breathing is controlled by an automatic part of the nervous system. In this sense I could see that the orphic is not abstract but concrete – not abstracting philosophically from things, not distancing from them, but working deep in them, in the Open – so it becomes like breathing.

The Orphic painters were using swathes of colour in rhythmic or harmonic arrangements, rather than trying to depict an image from visual reality. A sort of music for the eyes. Brian Eno also described ambient music as using music as colour. And he created new structures by sampling sounds from disparate sources to create a new space or atmosphere. So maybe he was coming from the other direction to the same thing. Orphism as ambient painting. Ambient as orphic music.

In ‘The Windows’ Apollinaire juxtaposes imaginary worlds and everyday observations with snippets of overheard conversation:

From the red to the green all the yellow dies

When the macaws are calling from their native forest

Slaughter of pi-hi’s

There is a poem to be written about the bird which has only one wing

We had better send it in the form of a telephone message

Gigantic state of trauma

It makes your eyes water

Look there is a pretty girl among the young girls of Turin

The unfortunate young man dabbed his eyes with his white tie

Raise the blind

And now see how the window opens

[Oliver Bernard’s translation]

I wondered why Apollinaire responded to Delaunay’s patches of colour with snippets of overheard conversation.

I thought of Maurice Blanchot’s essay on ‘Everyday Speech’:

‘How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with this distant and sufficient noise. Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person should speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words.’ (Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’)

Overheard conversation is background music, ambient language. Apollinaire’s ‘The Windows’ a background poem, like a colour, a wallpaper, a surrounding tint.


Cook explained Rilke’s use of the word ‘Zwischenraüme’, which literally means ‘in-between spaces’.

He uses it in two sonnets in the Orpheus sequence: in Sonnet II, 3 to describe mirrors as in-between spaces in time, and in Sonnet II, 26 to describe the many in-between spaces in a single space.

Mirrors: no one yet has knowingly said

what you must be in your depths.

You, like the airy holes in sieves,

make up the intervals (Zwischenraüme) in time.

[David Cook’s translation of Sonnet II, 3]

How the shriek of a bird will shake us…

any cry once it has broken in.

… Into the many breaches (Zwischenraüme)

within the one space, (where birdsong

plunges entire, as people into dreams)

they dart their piercing shouts.

[David Cook’s translation of Sonnet II, 26]

I suppose in a place you have lots of consciousnesses moving about which are each also spaces, different perceptions of the space. The space is composed of these different perceptions of it. Like Apollinaire’s cubist poems – multiple perspectives juxtaposed.

Rilke describes mirrors as ‘like the airy holes in sieves’. Someone suggested that a poem is also like a sieve – a form with holes. The holes, the in-between spaces are the different perceptions or interpretations of the poem, the many spaces within the one space of the poem.

It reminded me of Michel Foucault’s discussion of heterotopias in the lecture ‘Of Other Spaces’. He says mirrors are heterotopic because they are simultaneously real and unreal spaces:

‘From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.’ (Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’)

The virtual space in the mirror shows us the real space where we are, but also in the act of seeing ourselves there it effaces it too. As Cook says, ‘The empty holes in sieves exist only by virtue of what is outside them, and the same is true of the reflection in the mirror.’

Foucault’s heterotopias are also in-between spaces, where many different places or times are juxtaposed and superimposed. Apollinaire created one of the key literary heterotopias in his poem ‘Zone’, which combines his impressions walking around Paris with memories of travels in other European cities and imaginative flights of fancy. The title was a reference to an area on the outskirts of Paris known as La Zone, where the poet ends up at the end of the poem. It was a defunct military area where people weren’t allowed to build homes, but when the military function ceased immigrants built shacks on the land turning it into a shantytown. Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ is also built like a shantytown in the way it juxtaposes disparate materials. ‘The Windows’ is also a heterotopia, being made up of different places and times, real and imaginary. The juxtaposition of the exotic details at the start with the mundane conversation produces a strange, hybrid space. Like Eno’s ambient environments, these poems create ‘new structures’.

Angie Voela gave a talk on Bracha Ettinger’s ‘Eurydice’ sequence, where Ettinger fed photographs through a photocopier and opened the machine during the process in an attempt to capture the image in the moment of its emerging. It’s like in the myth where in the act of Orpheus looking at Eurydice, she disappears back to Hades. Voela said that in Ettinger’s work there is always this coming back to consciousness in the act of knowing, but done through a sense of responsibility to the Other.

Bracha Ettinger, Eurydice n. 27 (1998)

Cris Paul made a good point relating these things to quantum physics. It was to do with creativity and knowledge – something like, as soon as you retrieve something from the unconscious it slips from your grasp, in becoming known it ceases to be unconscious, like the quantum wave function collapses when it is observed. Cook suggested that it’s like when you try to describe a dream you’ve had and as you turn it into something coherent it feels like your losing something of what the dream was like.

Anthony Mellors disagreed with the idea of the unconscious as the source of creativity, saying that the unconscious is just nothingness. I think what he said was that creativity comes from contact with the objective. I might have misunderstood but it suggested to me that creativity doesn’t come from some magic depths within but from outside – the world or nature or life – the Open.

Lyndon pointed out that the poem, the sonnet form in particular, is a containing, enclosing structure. The Eighth Duino Elegy again: ‘Only our eyes, turned inward, surround it / like traps…’ (see discussion in previous post of Allen Fisher’s use of traps). Perhaps Orphism is a way of approaching the poem or art work like you’re making a sieve or a mirror – a way of enabling gaps or lack – assuming an immersive, musical or ambient relation to the Open which acknowledges that in capturing it, something always escapes – which allows for the reader, the Other. There is no poem without an observing consciousness who reads it. Consciousness might be the trap that captures the Open, but it is also an in-between space. Each perception of the poem is one of the many breaches within the single space of the poem, one of the many holes in the sieve.

View the recipe for my orphic orange cake

Confidence in Lack

In his comment on Cubist Geometries, Allen Fisher points out the difference in his position from Olson’s condition of uncertainty:

I think of ‘decoherence’ as referring to a condition where I am confident in the information I have been provided with, through the use of interlocutors and expertise, which contributes to my experience of truth or a multiplicity of truths, but contemporary with this, I am unable to empirically confirm the truths or the information…

Unlike Olson, he is not in a condition of doubt and uncertainty; he is confident in the information he has been provided with, though he cannot verify it.  To me, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics seems similar to the relativism of postmodernism.  My understanding of the uncertainty principle is that quantum measurement is dependent on the observer: if the observer measures for a particle, then a particle will be found, and if the observer measures for a wave, then a wave will be found.  Similarly, postmodernism is characterised, to paraphrase Lyotard, by incredulity towards grand narratives.  Our scepticism towards such totalising explanations of the world would seem to dissolve the notion of coherent truth into multiplicity.  What we believe to be true changes over time and in different contexts.  I found it interesting that in proposing a confidence in lack of coherence, Fisher seems to allow for the possibility of truth.

In Confidence in Lack, he points out that despite the fact that most recent modernist poetry uses methods of fragmentation and multiplicity, much public discussion of poetry involves an aspiration for coherence.  He suggests that poetry might be ‘at great variance’ to such expectations of logic and coherence.  This has led to ‘a confidence in lack – a confidence that poetry, when it is at its most efficacious, cannot propose logic, as it is variously perpetuated in paternal and public thinking, and cannot aspire to coherence, as this is also prescribed.’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 7)

He follows this with examples of attempts to measure quantum entities using circuit quantum electrodynamics, a complicated set-up which, like cavity quantum electrodynamics, is a way of perceiving quantum activity.  The point seems to be that human beings cannot perceive such activity except through such devices.  He adds:

Since ancient times, thought in the west has debated the difficulties between direct perception and information derived from machines, between demonstrations of truth and informed presumption or speculation. (p. 8)

Fisher refers to Plato for examples, though these are examples of the debate not between direct perception and information derived from machines, but between truth and poetry.  He quotes from Plato’s Apology:

So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant… Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could.  I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. (pp. 8-9)

I’m not sure exactly what connection Fisher is trying to suggest between experimental physicists’ use of machines to perceive the activity of the quantum world and poets’ inability to explain what their poems mean.  The truth of physicists’ descriptions of the quantum world might be dubious because it can never be verified with direct perception, only interpreted in informed speculation from data provided by machines.  But the poet’s poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?

Fisher relates Plato’s argument against poetry to Charles Olson.  Plato thought poetry was ‘the enemy of truth’ (Eric Havelock) and that it ‘obstructed the development of the abstract powers it was Plato’s concern to nurture’ (Charles Stein). (p. 9)  He banished poets from his utopia, The Republic, because in his desire for a more rational understanding of the world, the aesthetic experience of poetry was a ‘psychic poison’ (Havelock).  Olson, however, takes Plato’s rejection of poetry as a basis for his poetics.  His emphasis on the concretistic qualities of language and thought seeks to return poetry to the position which Plato’s emphasis on abstract thought displaced.

Olson’s poetics thus seems to promote empirical observation over abstract speculation.  Olson’s stance – ‘all that irritable reaching after fact and reason … I do better to stay in the condition of things’ – might suggest that there is no point in searching after truth, that it is better to reside in the concrete realm of empirical observation.  I don’t see how, in this sense, the poet can be compared to the physicist observing quantum activity via machines.  The very point there is that such observation is never directly empirical.

But poetry is not, for Olson, simply empirical, however, due to his insistence on the concrete qualities of language.  It’s not about naturalistic description of observed reality; the fact of the words themselves is the reality.  Olson considers description abstract, an instance of the abstract powers that Plato recommended.  So it might be said that language is the machine which, for Plato, obstructs direct perception.  Plato criticises the poet’s emphasis on the material aspects of language: ‘Strip what the poet has to say of its poetical colouring and I think you must see what it comes to in plain prose’ (The Republic, quoted in Confidence in Lack, p. 9).

Fisher might, then, be pointing out the difference between the direct perception sought by Plato in a purely rational thought stripped of the material qualities of poetry, and the information derived from machines in quantum physics (and from language in poetry).  Though the latter cannot be empirically verified, Fisher can still feel confident in its truth.



It’s useful to consider Roger Penrose’s discussion of truth in his quantum theory of consciousness:

What is truth?  How do we form our judgements as to what is true and what is untrue about the world?  Are we simply following some algorithm – no doubt favoured over other less effective possible algorithms by the powerful process of natural selection? Or might there be some other, possibly non-algorithmic route – perhaps intuition, instinct, or insight – to divining truth? (The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 129)

Penrose’s view is that there are aspects of conscious activity that are not able to be produced by a series of algorithms – things like ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’.  He demonstrates this with Gödel’s theorem.  The theorem shows that any formal mathematical system must contain statements that are not provable by the system itself (p. 133).  A system of rules can never be complete in the sense that the truth of any mathematical statement can be proved by the rules of the system. (p. 137)

Linguistic parallels might be found in the liar’s paradox: ‘This sentence is false’.  Inferring the truth or falsity of the statement involves stepping outside it.  This is experienced in the insight that reveals the paradox.  In a similar way, Gödel shows, mathematical statements also require us to use our understanding to validate them.  You do a calculation but then you ask ‘Is it correct?’  Not every calculation can be proved solely using the rules of its own system.

Penrose believes that Gödel’s theorem leads to a Platonic viewpoint.  Gödel himself was a Platonist, Penrose points out.  Plato believed that mathematical truths inhabited an ideal world of perfect forms, which is distinct from the physical world, but in terms of which the physical world must be understood.  This is not to suggest that mathematical truths lie beyond human understanding:

Gödel’s argument does not argue in favour of there being inaccessible mathematical truths.  What it does argue for, on the other hand, is that human insight lies beyond formal argument and beyond computable procedures. (Shadows of the Mind, p. 418)

It is this insight, this capacity for understanding or awareness, that Penrose says provides a link to the Platonic realm of ideal mathematical forms.  He claims it shows that consciousness involves processes that cannot be produced through algorithms of classical mathematics, so might be better explained using quantum mechanics.  The quantum world becomes a portal to some Platonic realm of ideal forms.

Fisher seems to agree with Penrose that thought cannot be reduced to a formal system and he does seem to believe that some truths, such as our understanding of the quantum world, cannot be empirically verified by direct perception.  Like Bernard Williams, however, he would seem to reject the Platonic notion that rationality consists of eternal, universal standards that can form the basis of a moral law.  Williams says that in Plato ‘the concept of truth is itself inflated into providing some metaphysical teleology of human existence’. While rejecting such assumptions, Williams, as Richard Rorty explains, ‘wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism – to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world’ (Rorty, ‘To the Sunlit Uplands’).

Williams tries to abandon the Platonic realm as an eternal world of universal forms, but retain the belief that truth is intrinsic.  This is what distances him from Rorty’s pragmatism: truthfulness escapes empirical observation.

In Truth and Truthfulness, he identifies ‘an intense commitment to truthfulness’ – or at least a ‘reflex against deceptiveness’ – in modern thought, which accompanies the ‘equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective’. (Truth and Truthfulness, p. 1)

He discusses the way that supposedly true accounts – of historical events, for example – have been revealed to be biased and ideological.  This has led to our suspicion of any claims to objective truth, or to truth at all.  But Williams makes an interesting point by suggesting that this position has come about through the desire for greater truthfulness.  Claims to objective truth are interrogated for ideological bias in the aim of removing deception and attaining greater truthfulness.  This leads to the current position where it is considered more truthful to reject truth.

Yet a rejection of any claim to truth, he says, depends on some other claim being taken to be true.  For example, to reject a historical account as ideological deception, we have to believe in the truth of the information that shows the historian to be biased.

This reveals a paradox similar to Gödel’s theorem or the liar’s paradox: ‘If you do not really believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for?’ ‘in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to?’ (p. 2)

I began to see these themes in Olson’s interpretation of Plato.  While Olson seems to reject the rationalist search for truth, his rejection of it is in fact motivated by a desire for greater truthfulness: the concrete use of language is seen as more truthful than the abstract.  He rejects Plato’s claim to truth, but this is based on belief in the truth of Eric Havelock’s interpretation of Plato and the concretistic linguistic theories of Edward Sapir.

It becomes more truthful to admit that you don’t know what the poem is about.  The pretence of logic is seen as deceitful.  Yet this allowance for multiple truths is driven by a need for truthfulness.  The admission of lack of truth becomes the new truth, and potentially a new coherence.


How does this notion of truth apply to poetry?  To think about this, it might be worth looking at the recent revival of utopianism in art.

In his essay Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud proposes that ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’. (Relational Aesthetics, p. 31)  He cites examples of art works from the 1990s that he sees as ‘to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts’. (p. 8)

This is exemplified in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose art works take the form of social situations, often involving the preparation and consumption of food.  He cooks soup in the gallery and serves it to visitors; he organises a dinner at the art collector’s home and provides the host with all the ingredients to make a Thai soup; he equips the gallery with a bowl of water on a gas burner and stacks of boxes of dehydrated Chinese soups which visitors are free to add the water to and eat; he turns the gallery into a replica of his flat, which visitors are able to use; he provides a relaxation area in the gallery, complete with table football and a fully stocked fridge.

We can see how these works have the qualities Bourriaud suggests: they are ‘interactive’ and ‘user-friendly’ because gallery visitors can actually use them, and they are ‘relational’ because they set up social situations that involve relationships between people and with the world.

The concept of microtopias interested me because of its connection to utopias and to Foucault’s concept of heterotopias (in ‘Of Other Spaces’).  I wondered what the difference was between the microtopia and the heterotopia?  And how did both differ from the utopia?

Utopias are ideal spaces, hypothetical perfect worlds.  Heterotopias differ from utopias, Foucault says, because they are real, not imaginary, spaces.  They are places that bring together different places and times in a single space, such as gardens, museums and libraries, and festivals.  A heterotopia is not a perfect world according to a single set of values, but a mixture of many different ones.

A microtopia, meanwhile, is a localised, temporary utopia.  It differs from the utopia in that doesn’t claim to hold for all times and places.  It sounds similar to the heterotopia and some of Foucault’s examples, such as the festival, might be considered microtopias.  Similarly, the microtopia might be said to create a heterotopian space.  For instance, when Bourriaud describes the microtopia as ‘a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns’ it recalls Foucault’s accounts of heterotopias as spaces removed from the rest of society.

The main difference seems to be the emphasis on how the space is used.  While the heterotopia has both positive and negative aspects, a microtopia is constructed with positive, utopian hopes.  The primary aim is to generate relationships with the world in a society ‘where human relations are no longer “directly experienced”,’ Bourriaud says, drawing on Guy Debord, ‘but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation.’ (p. 9)  Bourriaud puts direct experience in inverted commas, suggesting some distrust of the notion, but there is a sense here that more truthful experiences and relationships are a possibility.

Bourriaud sees the relational art of the 1990s as continuing the utopian aims of the Enlightenment project to ‘emancipate individuals and people’, ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (pp. 11-12).

‘It is evident,’ he writes, ‘that today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models, veering in the direction indicated by Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian.’ (p. 12)

The Artintelligence article on Bourriaud’s aesthetics makes an important distinction between these suggested utopian precursors and contemporary microtopians:

…the fundamental difference lies in the concept of totality.  The notion of totality is evident in all of the precursors Bourriaud mentions…  In short their utopian project was to change the world whereas the strategy as outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari is to proceed micropolitically. (

The utopian project of modernity is continued in these art works, but without the aim for totality.  ‘It is not modernity that is dead,’ Bourriaud says, ‘but its idealistic and teleological version.’  Microtopias are utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work is ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’. (p. 13)

Bourriaud points out that the work of these artists is located ‘within the slipstream of historical modernity’ – there are clear echoes of Dada, Situationism and Fluxus – but they don’t repeat the same functions as their predecessors.  He quotes Jean-François Lyotard’s description of postmodern culture as ‘condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and abandon the overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.’ (p. 13)  The totalising utopian goals of modernism have been abandoned and artists are left to make minor modifications to the forms the modernist project produced in the service of those goals.  Bourriaud, however, doesn’t see it as ‘condemnation’ but as an opportunity: the artist today inhabits a culture with a broader conception of art forms and no longer worries about constructing a total or final world, but instead ‘dwells in the circumstances the present offers him, … catches the world on the move: he is a tenant of culture, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s expression.’ (pp. 13-14)

At the end of Confidence in Lack, Fisher quotes Williams’ question, ‘Can the notions of truth and truthfulness be intellectually stabilized, in such a way that what we understand about truth and our chances of arriving at it can be made to fit with our need for truthfulness?’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 17)

Artists and poets seem to be currently trying to find ways to stabilise their desire for truthfulness with what has been learned from poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophy about truth’s problems, its tendency to reflect ideological biases, its pretence to eternal and universal standards.

The rhetoric of postmodernism has at times conveyed a sense that there is no possibility of utopian thought, no vantage point from which to criticise the hegemony, because all truths can be shown to be relative, and the neoliberal capitalist system has, by Fukuyama at least, been heralded as the end point of history.

What Fisher describes is a condition where, as totality is no longer sought, we can take confidence in a lack of coherence that is necessary, to keep the discussion open, while a microtopian sense of truth or truthfulness tackles the disillusionment of an insistent relativism, pointing towards a way of being ethical in a postmodern world.

Cubist Geometries

In Patterns of Connectedness, Allen Fisher writes, In the second half of the nineteenth century Riemann, Bolyai, Lobachevsky, Gauss, and others had demonstrated alternatives to the linear geometry of Euclid’s Elements.’  These names also appear in Olson’s ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’:

Within five years [of Keats’ negative capability letter], Bolyai and Lobachewsky, weren’t any longer satisfied with Euclid’s picture of the world, and they each made a new one, independently of each other, and remarkably alike.  It took thirty-one years … for the German mathematician Riemann to define the real as men since have exploited it: he distinguished two kinds of manifold, the discrete … and, what he took to be more true, the continuous. (Olson, p. 46)

Reading Marvin Jay Greenberg’s Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries, I found out that János Bolyai’s description of a non-Euclidean geometry was published as an appendix to his father Wolfgang’s Tentamen in 1831.  When Wolfgang Bolyai sent a copy of the book to Carl Friedrich Gauss, Gauss replied that he also had been working on a similar geometry.  In 1817, the year of Keats’ negative capability letter, Gauss had written to W. Olbers:

I am becoming more and more convinced that the necessity of our [Euclidean] geometry cannot be proved, at least not by human reason nor for human reason.  Perhaps in another life we will be able to obtain insight into the nature of space, which is now inattainable.  (Greenberg, p. 145)

Meanwhile, Nicolai Lobatschevsky had already independently published an account of non-Euclidean geometry in 1829.  In 1854, Bernhard Riemann, a student of Gauss, went on to develop the geometry of n-dimensional space known as the Riemannian manifold, which would form the basis for the spacetime of Minkowski and Einstein.

I came across references to non-Euclidean geometry in the theories of Cubism.  Albert Gliezes and Jean Metzinger wrote in Cubism (1912): ‘If we wished to refer the space of the [Cubist] painters to geometry, we should have to refer it to the non-Euclidean scientists; we should have to study, at some length, certain theories of Rieman’s [sic].’ (Chipp, p. 212)  While in The Cubist Painters (1913), Guillaume Apollinaire wrote:

Today, scientists no longer limit themselves to the three dimensions of Euclid.  The painters have been led quite naturally, one might say by intuition, to preoccupy themselves with the new possibilities of spatial measurement which, in the language of the modern studios, are designated by the term: the fourth dimension.  Regarded from the plastic point of view, the fourth dimension appears to spring from the three known dimensions: it represents the immensity of space eternalizing itself in all directions at any given moment.  It is space itself, the dimension of the infinite… (Chipp, pp. 223-4)

The concept of a fourth dimension had been elaborated from Riemann’s non-Euclidean geometry of higher dimensions.  In 1880 Charles Howard Hinton had popularised the idea in an article entitled ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’.  Edwin A. Abbott fictionalized the contemporary discussion of dimensions in his 1884 parable, Flatland.  One frequent visitor to Cubist gatherings was the mathematician Maurice Princet who contributed to the conversations by his speculations on the possible relations of Non-Euclidian geometry, and even of the Fourth Dimension, with the new concept of space in Cubist painting.’ (Chipp, p. 223n)  It’s often claimed that Princet showed Picasso Esprit Jouffret’s Elementary Treatise on the Geometry of Four Dimensions (1903), which described and depicted hypercubes and other four dimensional shapes, and that this led to the discovery of Cubism.  Metzinger, however, reported it the other way around, writing in 1910 that Picasso ‘defines a free, mobile perspective, from which that ingenious mathematician Maurice Princet has deduced a whole geometry.’ (Chipp, p. 223n)

Whichever came first, clearly such ideas were in the air.  What interested me was why the Cubists were attracted to ideas of non-Euclidean geometry and the fourth dimension.  In The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Linda Dalrymple Henderson says that ‘non-Euclidean geometry signified a new freedom from the tyranny of established laws’ and that ‘this recognition of the relativity of knowledge was a powerful influence on early twentieth-century thought’ (Leonardo, Vol 17, No 3, 1984, p. 205).  Henderson goes on to suggest that ‘belief in a fourth dimension encouraged artists to depart from visual reality and to reject completely the one-point perspective system that for centuries had portrayed the world as three-dimensional’ (p. 205).

It was a realisation that the established laws of Euclidean geometry are not the only way of understanding the world.  Non-Euclidean geometry gave artists license to depart from the three-dimensional illusion of perspective, which had been a convention in Western art since the Renaissance.  Three-dimensionality is also characterised as repressive, with non-Euclidean geometry as offering liberation from this ‘tyranny’.

Georges Braque, ‘Still-life with Metronome’ (1909-10)

But the Cubist painters don’t apply non-Euclidean geometry in the way that, for example, M.C. Escher does – systematically.  It’s not the purpose of Cubist painting to illustrate or approximate four-dimensional space.  It was against the tradition of representing depth that the painters got rid of perspective in the first place.  Instead, Cubist painting seems to remove depth, emphasising the fact of the two-dimensional canvas.  Pictorial space is reduced by a dimension rather than increased.  The world we are used to seeing in three dimensions is flattened.  Everything crowds the surface.  There are no gaps.  Space becomes solid.

I wanted to see how these ideas impacted on poetry so I looked at some books about Pierre Reverdy.  Reverdy lived in Paris from 1910-1926, where he knew many of the Cubist painters and wrote about their work.  In Six French Poets of Our Time, Robert W. Greene suggests some ways in which Reverdy’s poetry parallels the non-Euclidean effects of Cubist painting:

In former times one-point perspective had provided the painting with a mode of transition between foreground and background, between subject and setting, while discursive logic, traditional syntax and neatly modulated thematic development had provided comparable links or transitions in poetry.  Now we are to see instead fragments on a canvas or on a page. (Greene, p. 32-3)

Here Greene is connecting the removal of perspective in art to the break-up of syntax in poetry.  Reverdy’s poems are composed of fragments of images and thoughts and these isolated line-units with the abrupt transitions between them might well be compared to the angular planes of Cubist paintings.

For example, Reverdy’s ‘The Same Number’.

There is a flatness, a two-dimensionality about this poem which is typical of Reverdy.  The lack of transition between phrases keeps the attention at the surface.  There are phrases that are not full sentences – ‘the hardly open eyes / the hand on the other shore’ – a sentence begins and breaks off.  At other times the syntax remains intact but the sentences are extremely short and direct: ‘It gets warmer,’ ‘We were happy’.  The language is plain and literal.  Reverdy is not interested in metaphor or simile, but works by a process of paratactic juxtaposition which he calls the image: ‘…the image for Reverdy is the bringing together of two equally important objects of attention not normally associated with each other…’ (Greene, p. 33)  Phrases might be placed together on the page, but one does not take precedence over the other as in a metaphor or simile where one phrase is the main subject and the other only functions as a comparison.  The image works on the tension between the lines, as Reverdy explained:

The image is a pure creation of the spirit.  It cannot be born of a comparison but of the bringing together of two realities which are more or less remote.  The more distant and just the relationship of these two realities, the stronger the image – the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have.’ – Reverdy, Nord-Sud, March 1918 (quoted in Waldberg, Surrealism)

Reverdy’s poems are thus made up of fragmentary notations of observations and thoughts.  As he stated in the epigraph to Le Gant de crin: I do not think, I note. (Greene, p. 33)  Emphasising the materiality of writing over thought, Reverdy’s notations lack any organizing narrative voice or consciousness.  In ‘The Same Number’ there’s a ‘you’ and an ‘us/we’, as well as the unnamed ‘somebody’ and the ‘passersby’ who look up.  There are eyes, a hand and a head without any specified owners.  Many objects are named though it is difficult to get a secure sense of where we are, whether we are inside or outside, whether it’s night or day.  Greene delineates the similarity of this effect to Cubist painting:

The viewpoint of the Cubist painter breaks up into many viewpoints, while the subject of his painting sinks back or melts, as in a mosaic, into its setting.  Similarly, the speaker in a Reverdy poem seems fractured, both multiple by reasons of the ever-changing personal pronouns and splintered into shards of incomplete, enigmatic utterances. (Greene, p. 34).

It does seem to me very similar to the way in which a figure or an object can merge with their surroundings in a Cubist painting.  This has clear implications for the philosophy of consciousness and that was also an important issue for the discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry.  Gauss never published his work on non-Euclidean geometry for fear of the controversy it would draw him into.  In 1824, he wrote to F.A. Taurinus:

… it seems to me that we know, despite the say-nothing word-wisdom of the metaphysicians, too little, or too nearly nothing at all, about the true nature of space, to consider as absolutely impossible that which appears to us unnatural. (Greenberg, pp. 145-6)

Greenberg says that the metaphysicians Gauss was worried about were the followers of Immanuel Kant because Gauss’ discovery of non-Euclidean geometry refuted Kant’s position that Euclidean space is inherent in the structure of the mind.’ (Greenberg, p. 146)

Greene, meanwhile, goes on to explain that the Cubist painter and poet ‘creates by externalizing the content of his world-filled consciousness’, and asks:

How far are we here from Heidegger’s idea of man as Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, or from Husserl’s notion of intentionality, in which consciousness never exists as an independent cogito but always as consciousness of something, forever “out there”? (Greene, p. 34)

Non-Euclidean geometry showed that Euclidean space is not innate.  This had previously been used as evidence for the a priori existence of consciousness.  In Cubism consciousness is only ever of external things and doesn’t exist on its own.  Whenever we try to pin consciousness down, it slips away because we can only experience consciousness of something else.  The subject only exists through fragmentary observations of things.  Consciousness is these jottings.

Cubist painting or poetry is not simply two-dimensional.  One perspective, one reality, does not dominate over another.  The space is not static.  Why present a scene or an event from a single perspective when there are many spacetimes active in any situation?  In the Cubist poem or painting, the observing consciousness is allowed to move and change.  In constructing his poems from fleeting instants of consciousness of things, Reverdy points the way to the four- and n-dimensional poetic spaces that poets like Olson and Fisher would go on to explore.

Decoherent Capability

In his comment on the post, Eurostar ramblings, Allen Fisher pointed out, ‘the significant difference between John Keats and his note in a letter about Negative Capability; Werner Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle and the term decoherence’. I hadn’t thought of Keats’ concept of negative capability, and I didn’t know what decoherence meant. Helpfully, Allen sent me a copy of an extract from a chapter of his book Patterns of Connectedness: Aesthetic function, facture and perception in art and writing after 1950, which includes thought about such things.

Negative capability

In the extract he sent me, Fisher says of negative capability:

In 1817 John Keats articulated ‘Negative Capability’ as being ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Charles Olson was to paste this against Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 ‘Uncertainty Principle’ to clarify his poetics in 1950 and 1956. (Fisher, Chapter 1, Patterns of Connectedness: Aesthetic function, facture and perception in art and writing after 1950)

I hadn’t realised that Olson made a connection between negative capability and quantum uncertainty. I had a Selected Writings of Olson out of the library so skimmed through that for references and came across the essay ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’.

Here Olson restates Keats’ thinking as:

…all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, it won’t do. I don’t believe in it. I do better to stay in the condition of things. No matter what it amounts to, mystery confusion doubt, it has power, it is what I mean by Negative Capability. (Olson, ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’, in Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 46)

Olson’s phrase about staying ‘in the condition of things’ suggests that negative capability is about being as things are in the world. Like Fisher, he goes on to connect this to the non-Euclidean mathematics elaborated by Bolyai, Lobatschewsky and Riemann in the years following Keats’ negative capability letter. The references to mathematical developments come in response to a naturalistic interpretation of Herman Melville made by Milton R. Stern. Olson argues that Melville’s statement ‘By visibile truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things’ is not a statement of naturalism:

It is rather quantum physics than relativity which will supply a proper evidence here, as against naturalism, of what Melville was grabbing on to when he declared it was visible truth he was after. For example, that light is not only a wave but a corpuscle. Or that the electron is not only a corpuscle but a wave. Melville couldn’t abuse object as symbol does by depreciating it in favor of subject. Or let image lose its relational force by transferring its occurence as allegory does. (Selected Writings, p. 50)

The point seems to be that naturalism describes reality from a distance. It makes the world its subject. Treating language as symbol makes it ‘about’ something, stand for something else. Olson sees it as outmoded by the work of mathematicians such as Riemann which showed that ‘no part is discrete from another part’, man is also an object, ‘a thing among things’, part of that world.  For Olson, Melville’s writing is to be taken as not a realistic representation of the world but a real thing in the world, like a stone or some other natural formation.

This helped me see what I’ve overemphasised or haven’t been able to get away from in these posts. My attempts to articulate a quantum theory of poetry present the observer as somehow separate from the object and rely on a realm of ‘meaning’ somehow distinct from physical reality.

So the poem and the art work might exist without the conscious observer, but only physically and materially, as canvas and paint or marks on page, or the particles that compose these. What doesn’t seem to exist without the conscious observer is meaning. (Eurostar ramblings)

This idea of the observer bestowing meaning on objects maintains a transcendent world of ideal forms where meaning exists removed from the objects of the world. Furthermore, my initial image of the wavefunction as a superposition of multiple meanings misses the concrete literalism that Olson points out in negative capability.

This is the literalism of Rimbaud that Marjorie Perloff refers to in The Poetics of Indeterminacy. The Olson-Rimbaud connection was emphasised to me in the introduction to the Selected Writings where Robert Creeley highlights Olson’s quotation from Rimbaud in The Kingfishers: ‘If I have any taste, it is only for earth and stones.’ (Creeley, Introduction, Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 3)  Perloff points out that Rimbaud’s poetry differs from other Symbolists because Symbolism is about multiple meaning, whereas in Rimbaud ‘fragmented images appear one by one … without coalescing into a symbolic network’ (Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, p.10). She quotes Rimbaud, apparently asked by his mother what his poem A Season in Hell meant, replying ‘I meant what I said, literally and in every sense’.

My quantum analogy – ‘the poem is a cloud of potentialities which the reader collapses into meaning‘ (Kinghorn Quantum) – retains the illusory transcendence of symbolic meaning, of the poem standing for something other that what it is. But indeterminacy resists the symbolic, takes language as concrete material. This is quite a difficult thing to imagine: if I think of a word as made up of a written shape, a spoken sound and a concept or idea, then the written and verbal forms of a word are more easily imaginable as physical things, but it’s like the meaning seems to exist on some other plane – of consciousness, thought. How can we think of this as physical?

Jacques Derrida might say a word only refers to other words; meaning is made out of words. Look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary and you get directed to lots of other words. You never arrive at that seemingly ‘beyond’ level of meaning, concept, idea, but remain within the play of words referring to other words.

How does this relate to Roger Penrose’s theory of quantum consciousness? Is consciousness made out of language, like meaning is made out of words? Should we visualise it as a flat plane, concrete and physical, without any symbolic level? We need to know why the wavefunction breaks down when we try to measure for it, why when we look for it meaning disappears into words, why fact and reason collapse as we reach for them.


Googling ‘decoherence’ I found out that the term describes how a coherent superposition of states might be maintained at the quantum level but on interaction with the environment collapses into an incoherent mixture of these states. The quantum world is described here as ‘coherent’ and the so-called classical world as ‘incoherent’. I had been thinking of the quantum world as simultaneity and multiplicity, seeing it in this way as allied to the poetry of indeterminacy. But re-reading Penrose, I found that he explains how the evolution of the wavefunction remains determinstic and continuous at the quantum level and only becomes probabilistic and discontinuous at the macroscopic. Indeterminacies only appear when we try to magnify the quantum to the classical level.

Decoherence explains this collapse of the wavefunction through its interaction and entanglement with its environment. This is how Fisher applies it:

In a mobile situation, coherence is made vulnerable by the physics of the situation where participants are in danger of lost confidence and are subject to manipulation and exploitation. This situation has been named decoherence… (Patterns of Connection)

What does decoherence mean for Fisher? How does he use it? And how does he view ‘coherence’? In Patterns of Connection, he says he’s looking for ‘alternatives to coherence’. He talks of ‘precedents that have for too long encumbered poetry. Expectations of centring, coherence and geometric prediction…’ Following developments in mathematics and physics since the nineteenth century, ‘There is no requirement to be sure or coherent in the Western sense of logic and certainty’.

Coherences in geometry and philosophy are equated to coherent superpositions in the quantum world. As I understand it, quantum superpositions can be calculated but not observed. It’s impossible to isolate them in an ideal realm. It’s what Fisher referred to in The Aesthetics of the Imperfect Fit seminar as ‘confidence in lack’:

In figurative terms, we are in a state of decoherence when we realise with confidence that some aspects of our knowledge are reliant on an interlocutor, a black box between us and the information. In descriptions of the cosmos or of sub-atomic particles, we are unable to use our perception, but must rely the information reaching us through machines that transform the data into a form we can then interpret. We can be confident in the truth of that data, but we are in a state of confidence in lack… (Patterns of Connectedness)

Decoherence is about being ‘in the condition of things’, ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. Beyond its figurative uses, we might even see this literally as a quantum effect: the collapse of the wavefunction gives rise to a situation where there can be no ideal, isolated meaning, only the indeterminacies that result through the interaction of physical things, words, in the situation, entangled with their situation, as Fisher says, ‘damaged by their own realisation and expression – damaged by understanding and communication.’

Eurostar ramblings

I’ve been wondering how a quantum theory of poetry might apply to the Aesthetics of the Imperfect Fit discussed by Allen Fisher at the Glasfryn Seminars.  Though the seminar didn’t use quantum theories directly, it seemed to elaborate on Fisher’s notion that ‘the reader is not simply an observer but a participator and thus affects what is read’ (Necessary Business, p. 235).

In a previous post (Kinghorn Quantum), I discussed Roger Penrose’s suggestion that quantum processes might be taking place in the brain.  But what might be the effect of such processes?

Penrose’s search for a quantum theory of mind is motivated by the question of how consciousness and free will are possible in the world explained by the deterministic mechanics of classical physics.  If we understand the world as deterministic, consciousness doesn’t seem to fit.

In The Emperor’s New Mind, Penrose points out that ‘Euclidean geometry is not entirely accurate as a description of the physical space that we actually inhabit’ as demonstrated by Einstein’s curved space-time under gravity (p. 197); and that the physics of Galileo and Newton only calculates reasonably accurate approximations because ‘…the accuracy with which the initial data can be known is always limited…’ (p. 224).  The deterministic model itself is an imperfect fit.

Yet we still tend to imagine objects as existing without us in a static space that we just pass through.  And the same tendency carries over into our understanding of how art and poetry works.  We tend to think of an art work, like Girtin’s The White House at Chelsea, for example, as containing meaning within it, as if it is there without us.

Could a poem or an art work exist if it was not observed by some consciousness?  One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that a particle can be ‘observed’ by its environment – when there are enough other particles in contact with it, the wave function will collapse.  So the poem and the art work might exist without the conscious observer, but only physically and materially, as canvas and paint or marks on page, or the particles that compose these.  What doesn’t seem to exist without the conscious observer is meaning.

But modern art and poetry repeatedly emphasise surface – the irreducible image – rather than depth and meaning.  As the works of Braque, Duchamp and Rivers show, the art work is an object in the world.  We can never quite say what these works mean, but instead remain suspended at the surface of the work.  They are indeterminate: no explanation can entirely clear up their inscrutability.  Though they emphasise the surface and materiality of the work as an object, then, they don’t necessarily deny the possibility of meaning but rather play on the impossibility of arriving at a single meaning.

What the quantum processes in the brain might do then is enable many possible meanings simultaneously.  The wave function only collapses when a particular meaning is settled on.  Indeterminate objects seem to keep the wave function from collapsing by holding the mind of the observer on the brink of understanding.  They reveal the quantum functioning at work.

As objects in the world, such art works remind us that objects don’t have meaning in themselves.  So the quantum effect that takes place when we experience art and poetry would also extend to how we interpret the world around us, the space we are in.