In 2007 the Poetry Foundation and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts collaborated to bring poets together in conversation with works of art based on the Pulitzer Foundation's Water exhibition. John Yau served as a curator for this collaboration. He invited poets Cole Swensen, Andrew Joron, and Arthur Sze to reflect on and react to artists including Roni Horn, Cy Twombly, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse.
What a poet has to say about water is obviously going to be different from what a scientist would say, or even from what a visual artist would say. And in what I’m going to say, I’d like to maintain that difference, and give you my own poet’s-eye view of water—but because poets always like to promote a multiplicity of meanings, I also want to elide and erase that difference between art and science, and appropriate and mix up the multiple discourses, the multiplicity of ways of construing and constructing the meaning of water.
A familiar strategy of poets is to find analogies, metaphorical relationships, between things—and for some poets, the more unlikely the analogy, the better! I think there is an obvious and not at all unlikely similarity between language and water: water is like language, language is like water. Both are seemingly transparent, ubiquitous, and necessary to sustain our life. Mainstream culture and mainstream writers (and here we see that common usage has already anticipated the water analogy) trust in the transparency of language, and use it as a transport medium for carrying meaning. Then there are those language-workers, poets and writers, who are not carried along by the mainstream, who want to divert the main stream of meaning from its easy and obvious flow, who want to force meaning to do the impossible, to flow uphill, to make language move in ways it has never moved before. Such language-workers (I am one, along with my fellow panelists) distrust the apparent transparency of the medium, and seek to discover turbulence, ripples, eddies, and vortices, plays and tricks of the light in the reflecting pool of shared meaning.
And of course the underlying meaning of water is that it is very nearly meaningless: tasteless, odorless, shapeless, its properties are very hard to nail down. Very like the shapelessness, the actual meaningless of language considered as a whole. For the sum total of all possible statements in language is not one big meaningful statement, but a meaningless multiplicity of statements. So, in considering what water really is, what language really is, we are suddenly closer than we might wish to the primeval chaos.
The British poet Peter Redgrove, recently deceased, and who incidentally wrote many fine poems about water and who was known to splash language up quite vigorously, once offered a definition of the poet as a “scientist of the strange.” In other words, poets are observers—and producers—of astonishing events, of configurations that occur only once and never again, of the kind of motion where cause and effect are no longer proportionate, where small causes lead to great effects and vice versa. In physics, this kind of motion is called “nonlinear”: the motion of a water molecule, for example, is nonlinear, as is the circulation of meaning in a poem.
And so a poet thinking about water quite naturally assumes his or her role as a scientist of the strange—and I hope to demonstrate some of the strangeness of water. Our predecessor in this undertaking, the great imaginative spirit who examined water from the viewpoint of the artist as well as the scientist, was of course Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was interested in water throughout his career, but especially relevant for our purposes is the series of drawings he executed late in life, when he was thinking about the end of the world and about last things in general—these are the series of sketches known as the “Deluge drawings.”
The Deluge drawings attempt to do the impossible, to capture and convey all of the effects of nonlinear motion by means of line drawings—that is, to represent that which is inherently fleeting by that which is inherently fixed. Leonardo’s Deluge drawings come close to abstract expressionism in their violent registration of water in a state of crisis. Looking at the Deluge drawings, the eye gets lost in a maze of lines depicting waves, whirlpools, eddies, and turbulence of all kinds. Leonardo needed to invent abstract expressionism in the 16th century in order to document scientifically all of the properties of water in motion—of water, more precisely, in extreme states of motion.
Leonardo solved the problem of using pen and ink to represent a transparent substance by depicting not water itself, but the lines of force within water. We might say that Leonardo’s depiction of the chaos of stresses occurring within and upon the body of water are really the tresses of pure energy; in fact, Leonardo, in his notebooks, explicitly compares the flow of water to the flow of hair when he writes, “Observe the motion of water on the surface of water, which resembles the behavior of hair.” The image of complexly interwoven strands of hair provides metaphorical support for the movement of Leonardo’s stylus as it traces otherwise invisible lines of energy within water. However, the Deluge drawings (I can barely refrain from calling them “traces of stress-tresses”), as maps of unrepeatable and unpredictable forms of motion, where Leonardo has obsessively blackened sheets of paper with curling vortices, look not so much like representations of water or even hair—instead, what Leonardo has given us in the Deluge drawings are the first renderings of force fields in the history of art or science.
By trying to make visible the fearful symmetries inside water, Leonardo at the end of his life confronted forms of chaotic turbulence that could not be subordinated to the laws of perspective, proportion, and harmony that he developed earlier in his career. The representation of complex, irregular motion in the Deluge drawings foreshadowed a new poetics of vision and a new understanding of nature whose significance is only beginning to be understood in our own time, especially in light of abstract and nonrepresentational art on the one hand, and the new science of chaos and complexity theory on the other.
And like the visual arts, poetic language also has undergone an evolution that brings it closer to the chaos patterns that Leonardo first observed in the movement and the self-entanglement of water. Once poetic language was released from the constraint of having to tell the stories of gods and kings and later, of having to express individual and social identity, it began to discover—or rediscover—its sources in the mysterious movement of language itself, in the manifestation of a meaning in words that goes somehow beyond words. In the modernist and the postmodernist poem, language is finally manifested as a self-exceeding system, and to explain what I mean by this, I’m going to resort, very much in the spirit of Leonardo, to the properties of water.
Now, self-exceeding systems are those systems that are capable of pushing themselves into a new state of being. A simple system, such as a clock or a pendulum, is not capable of such transformation; only complex, nonlinear systems are. Water and language are both classic examples of complex systems, and as such they have many properties in common—properties that, for me, relate directly to poetic attempts to say the unsayable.
Water and language are both composed of a great many interacting elements (molecules on the one hand, words on the other)—but complexity is defined not only by the number of elements in a system, but by the way they interact. Hydrogen and oxygen interact to produce water, but the properties of water have nothing in common with the properties of an isolated hydrogen atom or oxygen atom; in other words, the characteristics of water are not present in the constituent parts of water, but emerge only when those parts begin to interact with one another. A hydrogen or an oxygen atom is not “wet”—the quality of wetness emerges only when those atoms combine to form molecules. It’s that combination, that interaction, which brings about a breakthrough to a new level of reality where viscosity and flow and reflectivity and moistness spring into being. This kind of breakthrough, in the parlance of nonlinear dynamics, is known as “emergence”—water is an emergent property of the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen.
It’s the same thing with language: the meaning of a sentence emerges only at the level of the interaction of the words in that sentence, and is not present in any of the words, taken by themselves, that compose the sentence. The meaning of “The sky is blue” is not present in “the” or “is” or “sky” or “blue,” but results only from the interaction of those words. Now consider a line of poetry by the French surrealist Paul Eluard: “The earth is blue, like an orange.” Here, meaning emerges not only at a level beyond the individual words composing the sentence, but also at a level beyond the sentence as a whole. The sentence appears to be meaningful, but that meaning refuses to be contained within this or any other set of words or phrases. In poetic language, meaning overflows or exceeds its own condition, and a saying of the unsayable takes place. Poetry pushes language into a new state of being, and is therefore an emergent property of language; indeed, poetic emergence precipitates an emergency within the being of language.
Furthermore, I would argue that the emergency of poetry can best be understood with reference to the scientific study of emergence in complex systems—using complexity theory here not as a metaphor but as a literal description of a transformation that belongs to the same class of phenomena as the emergence of water from hydrogen and oxygen.
In closing, I want to point out that complexity theory—really a new version of materialism—reveals the poetic-revolutionary nature of reality, and confirms Romantic and, later, Surrealist visions of the convulsive beauty of cosmic being. The most important aspect of complex systems, composed of a large number of elements far from equilibrium, is their tendency to experience convulsions called “phase transitions.” In this process, chance associations within the system, after reaching a critical point, undergo spontaneous self-organization. Here, then, is the dynamical equivalent of water flowing uphill: the system increases its complexity (and temporarily contravenes entropy) by incorporating chaos. The origins of order are vertiginous: by “riding” its own chaotic tendencies, the system propels itself to a higher level of organization. Complex systems, as one researcher put it, are situated at the “edge of chaos.”
Both water and language are complex systems situated at the edge of chaos. “A single drop of water is a seething melee of order and disorder, with structures constantly forming and breaking up within it” (New Scientist, April 2006). The behavior of water is a molecular counterpart of the way that meaning circulates within a poem. Never mind the “watercourse way” as a path of wisdom, which always seeks, following the downhill flow of water, the simplest path, arriving only at the quietude of equilibrium and death. Complexity, and especially life, requires disequilibrium. The poet-scientist, the new Leonardo, will look for signs of water flowing uphill, against all odds—those are the signs of poetic activity, of life, and of revolution.
Born in San Antonio, poet Andrew Joron was raised in Germany, Massachusetts, and Montana. He earned a BA in the philosophy of science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend. Addressing the trajectory of his work in a 2010 interview with poetry blogger...