Always inspiring my sense of quantum poetics is clinamen, the atomic swerve, a foundational concept in Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysics that might be expressed in Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a key breakthrough in quantum mechanics that proposes simultaneous values cannot be assigned to the position and momentum of a physical system. If language is not merely descriptive but participates in the formation of physical reality, then poetry might be said to constitute a manipulation of physics, which would redefine poetry as not just a phenomenon of consciousness or an ontological and/or epistemological activity, but also as a clinamatic mutation on physical reality, or what might be thought of as nature. Poetry in this context could be capable of what Christian Bök identifies in ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001) as the “prohibited hypothesis” of ’pataphysics, where “the most radical gesture in science” through the “impulse to revolutionize the condition of the species” could entail “the abolition of the species itself.” It certainly seems possible that the most radical gesture in poetry could destroy poetry by redefining it, as innovations in poetry might be thought of as abolishing the relevancies of its previous forms; this is the avant-garde. However, if poetry is a physical mutation on nature, which includes humanity, could its most radical gesture, like the most radical gesture in science, destroy the species? If matter cannot be destroyed but only redistributed as energy or another form of matter, then annihilation might be thought of as an antecedent to transition, or what could be thought of as novelty, where matter changes, its borders mutable and adjustable. In poetry, distinct objects compared in metaphor are often changed by the act of comparison, suggestive of how molecules are changed by observation, and how, according to Heisenberg, “the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ takes place during the act of observation.” Walt Whitman: “And now [the grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Thus, chance could be defined as physical change—taking the form of creation, destruction, or any nuance in between—prompted by novelty.
In conjunction with the expanding and accelerating multiverse, our experience of physical reality might expand and accelerate at varying scales, including subatomic and astronomical scales and what we encounter at eye level. We create technologies like microscopes and telescopes to interact more significantly with the multiple scales of physical reality, and as such technology advances so do our capacities to create through other mediums. One hypothesis of quantum poetics is that poetry, as a multiversal technology, ricochets between pattern and the clinamatic swerve toward novelty within multiple scales of physical reality through known and unknown dimensions.
The Alphabets of the Future are Wormholes
Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle was part of his development of matrix mechanics, was concerned that quantum theory does not have an adequate language beyond mathematics to describe it. Heisenberg comes close to proposing that poetry is that language in Physics and Philosophy (1958) when, immediately after articulating this concern, he references Goethe’s Faust to describe his understanding of the structure of language. Mephistopheles says that while formal education instructs that logic braces the mind “in Spanish boots so tightly laced,” and that even spontaneous acts require a sequential process (“one, two, three!”):
In truth the subtle web of thought
Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought:
One treadle moves a thousand lines,
Swift dart the shuttles to and fro,
Unseen the threads together flow,
A thousand knots one stroke combines.
Heisenberg, while arguing that science must be as attentive to imagination as to logic, also seems to be suggesting that novel sciences must be described by novel languages. As I learned in kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s rhapsodomancy (Coach House, 2010), the alphabets of the future are wormholes: creative forms of language like poetry have the ability to not only describe novel expressions of physical reality but to invent them through its shorthand, “one treadle” moving “a thousand lines,” where a “thousand knots one stroke combines.” Since the concern in theoretical physics today is reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity through proposals such as string theory, poetry might be thought of as an experiment in physics and physics as a field test for poetry.
Physics is the study of physical reality. Following in the tradition of Western atomic science from Thales to Democritus, contemporary theoretical physicists are considering how the multiverse’s subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy—the open and closed strings of string theory—might function as elementary constituents of matter. In literary terms, string theory could be thought of as a critical theory; it not only describes physical elements within spacetime, such as elementary elements, it attempts to describe spacetime itself. Physicists, like poets, think through and with multiple forms of language. One intersection between poetics and theoretical physics that fascinates me occurs at the scale of diction, where theoretical physicists describe the strings of string theory as “open” and “closed,” just as Lyn Hejinian, in her essay, “The Rejection of Closure” (1983), describes open and closed texts. In string theory, a closed string is topologically equivalent to a circle, having no end points, whereas an open string is topologically equivalent to a line interval, having two end points. According to Hejinian, one “tentative characterization” of the closed text is “one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it.” In addition, “each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity.” A closed text might be visualized as a circle, as having no beginning and end points in which to imaginatively enter or exit the text, thus situating the writing and reading of such a text within the circle’s interior, where “all the elements of the work are directed.” The open text, on the other hand, “foregrounds process,” “invites participation,” and is “open to the world and particularly to the reader,” according to Hejinian. Open texts, topologically speaking, would have end points, entries and exits in which the imagination participates, multiplying readings. The open text operates outside of the closed text’s interior circle, its extended topology uncurling into a line. Hejinian casts the line farther: “Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces…” In quantum poetics, I imagine clinamen as a form and force of physical reality and poetry that can be open, closed, and/or open and closed all at once by way of the quantum jump.
According to physicist Gino Segrè’s Faust in Copenhagen (Penguin, 2008), while the mathematics used by Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics was not new, the theory itself was original for developing what Max Born called “symbolic multiplication,” which resulted in illustrating that the commutative law of arithmetic (AB equals BA, i.e. 4X3 is the same as 3X4) is not valid in subatomic systems. Heisenberg’s symbolic multiplication proposed that in quantum mechanics a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum is not equal to a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position; in other words, a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum (AB) minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position (BA) was not zero, as it would be if the product of position and momentum commuted. Instead, in matrix mechanics, a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position is proportional to Planck’s constant, a physical constant of subatomic quanta that is nonzero. Since Planck’s constant is always nonzero, uncertainty is at play in measuring observable subatomic phenomenon of the present. By invalidating causality as well as attempts at measuring non-observable subatomic phenomenon, Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics suggests that the future position and momentum of subatomic particles cannot be calculated because the determining elements of the present cannot be known with certainty. This is one way that quantum mechanics conceives of time in a novel way. Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics conceived of space in a novel way, too, offering a new model for how electrons moved within atoms. In contrast to notions that electrons in atoms moved in orbits like planets, matrix mechanics describes the motion of electrons as jumps or leaps from one quantum state to another, reminiscent of clinamen and evoking the possibility that clinamen could be a physical force like electromagnetism or gravity that exists not only in creative or metaphorical contexts, but also in physical reality. In the framework of quantum poetics, such breakthroughs in physics can be applied to physical reality at all of its scales, visible and invisible, including cultural and creative scales, and, more specifically, to language and what I might call its matrix mechanics, poetry.
If poetry is a matrix mechanics of language, how can interpretations of poetry be developed with certainty if a poem’s present state (while creating or experiencing it?) cannot be described without ambiguity? Conventional notions of meaning are dependent on linear notions of time, as meaning is arrived at, in time, after comprehension or examined experience. Most reading relies on linear notions of time, as well, since grammars often follow a progression that occurs before comprehension or examined experience is reached. However, poetry can usurp conventional interactions with time when the writer-reader experiences language outside of linear time, which might include time slowing, time speeding up, a sense of no time, or a sense of all times at once, where simultaneity occurs between time scales. Poems also work in tandem (toward unity and/or disjunction) with space in a way that is attentive to the spacetime of the poem’s medium, which transcends physical contexts such as the page, screen, or voice. In poetry, as in quantum mechanics, it might not be possible to forecast the future with certainty; any measure of a poem’s activity might only be described in terms of probability.
Dr. Lisa Randall, the Harvard particle physicist I saw lecturing on CERN just before the Large Hadron Collider went operational, called herself “a model builder.” Asking us to use our imaginations, she showed us crude graphs of open and closed strings in string theory to illustrate the hypothesis that our universe is a low-gravity universe while other dimensions in the multiverse, which are called “branes,” are high-gravity universes. I was interested in her arguments as well as how she presented them, taking note that she used two-dimensional illustrations to portray eleven-dimensional concepts. Considering the homophonic relevance of the word “brane” as well as Heisenberg’s concern that quantum mechanics requires a language beyond mathematics to describe it (like poetry?), I have decided that I, too, am a model builder. I construct poems that construct me—
In my sense of quantum poetics, which I think of as a mode of examination that applies principles in theoretical physics and ’pataphysics to poetry, the cultural and creative dimensions of physical reality are not as distinct from physics as discipline-specific discourse would have us assume. Quantum poetics posits that poetry and science are activities linked through what Jarry calls “imaginary solutions,” and that this exchange between disciplines is not metaphysics but Jarry’s ’pataphysics, where exceptions are the rule. Such exchanges invite more significant conversations between disciplines, or what might be thought of as translations. There seems to be a belief among poets that the best translators of poems from one language to another are poets, since those who write poetry can represent challenging or traditionally un-translatable forms and concepts using approaches from poetry that a poet would understand in a way that someone who doesn’t write poetry might not. Translation is also a political discourse with its inherent focus on expanding communication and experience between cultures. It might also be a conceptual discourse when translations are attempted between what are usually thought of as distinct modes of inquiry, as in quantum poetics. The ordinary risk of translation in any of these contexts might be that the translation fails at adequately communicating or representing what’s being translated. However, thinking of translation in terms of success and failure doesn’t take into account self-reflexive translations and how translation might operate within gradations of success and failure. Perhaps due to the inescapable result of mistranslation, the act of translation is thus always a creative act, evoking more questions than it can resolve, questions that imagine solutions that ask more questions. This is one outcome of reaching across forms in the multiverse. Imaginary solutions multiply.
POETRY IS THE TANGENTIAL POINT BETWEEN BRAIN AND BRANE.
’Pataphysics is the physics of poetry….
[Parts one to three of "Quantum Poetics," as well as examples of Catanzano's poetry, have appeared elsewhere on Poems and Poetics.]