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Poetry Under the Influence of Time


A version of this essay appeared in CV2, Volume 25, Issue 1 (2002)



Light doesn’t get old.

I read this recently in one of the physics-for-lay-people books that I consume the way I gobble up murder mysteries: How will it all turn out?

I am enchanted by the idea that light is always the same age. It’s the logical outcome of Einstein’s hypothesis that all objects in the universe are moving through space-time at a fixed speed. Our combined speed in all four dimensions always equals the speed of light. As a result, objects at rest relative to each other are aging at the same rate. But objects in motion relative to each other divert some of their motion through time into motion through space — hence the clock ticks more slowly for an object moving away from you and you get those out-of-synch paradoxical twins who age at different rates on rocket ships. Meanwhile, something travelling at light speed will have no speed left for motion through time. All its motion is taken up by moving through space. Time would stand still.

This is wonderful. It also means that time, both for me and for the book sitting stationary here on my table, is travelling at the speed of light.

“Time goes so quickly,” we say. But we have no idea how true that is. Whoosh!

* * *

An obvious thought (to a poet, thinking about poetry) is that poems don’t get old either. Tattered and fragmented perhaps. They may drop out of sight, the way that photons become invisible to our sight at low – or extra-high – wavelengths. But a scrap of Sappho is the same age today as it was when it was created.

“.. and you, blessed one, with a smile on your immortal face

asked what was the matter with me this time,

and why I am calling this time …”[1]

But this comparison seems too easy. It’s a pretty conceit but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

What about this instead? Behind its apparent stillness, a poem is moving at light speed. This constant motion affects even the most apparently motionless of objects.

This notion suits our times – it echoes that postmodern idea that a “text” is a kind of Heraclitean river. You can never step into the same text twice. In fact, no two readers step into the same text even once.

I’ve always found this unsatisfying. Yes, the water that goes past your ankles is technically different water. But over the years, human beings take the same path down to the river, balance on the same flat rock to scoop water into the palm of our hands. Of course the stream’s channel shifts with time. The watercourse may dry up entirely with only a few low, marshy spots to mark it ever existed. But it is the continuity of experience from one moment to the next – and from one mind to the next – that interests me more than the mere fact of change.

* * *

This is the second morning in a row when I’ve been able to sit here and think about the intricacies of poetry and time.

This is absolute luxury. I always have to clip out these little squares of time for writing, like coupons. And hand them over to the grudging check-out clerk of my conscience who scrutinizes them carefully before she lets me cash them in. “Shouldn’t you really be …?” she mutters.

Today it seems absolutely true that light doesn’t get any older. A sunny January day. Christmas decorations still in the window. A tinsel glitter that caught the kitten’s eye.

A moment ago, I looked over to see the two cats, Cato and Pushkin, beside a small, darkly limp shape. Cato was poking it dubiously. Nervously I went closer – where could they have found a mouse at this time of year? I found a mostly-empty tea bag and tea leaves all over the kitchen counter and floor.

I know that, of the two cats, it must be Pushkin who invented the concept of teabag-as-toy. He has just grown large enough to jump on the kitchen counter. Cato has experienced years of me dumping tea bags in the sink and omitting to put them in the garbage. In all that time, it has never occurred to him to treat one as a potential plaything.

Instead, Cato made pens and pencils his particular toy. He delicately pushes them over the edge of desks, counters, coffee tables, then he studies them from above as though he is practicing some kind of mantic art – as if the way they fall and lie is a portent of how the day will roll itself out.

Of course cats don’t really think about the future. Humans do, but time for Cato is a narrow window. He would never think, “mouse yesterday, mouse tomorrow but no mouse today.” He’s only capable of acting on “mouse now!”

* * *

Light doesn’t get old.

Above, I used this idea as a metaphor in two ways: one comparing a poem with light itself; the second with an object that light illuminates, an object travelling at light speed through time. Perhaps I should think more about the underlying condition that make it possible to say “light does not get old” – the fundamental unity of space-time.

It’s a bit like the relationship between perimeter and area. Take four pegs and mark out a square on the ground. You’ll need a certain length of cord to wrap around them. If you change the position of the pegs in a consistent way – say, cut the length of the square in half but double the width – you’ll need a longer cord. But the area will stay the same.

Space-time obeys the same kind of mathematical rule. There’s a deep consistency about the universe, something that got blurred by talking about the ‘theory of relativity.’

We began to say “It’s all relative,” as even space and time seemed to turn shifty under our feet. Einstein didn’t want that. He actually wanted to change the name of his work to the Theory of Invariance, because ‘relativity’ threw the spotlight on only one aspect of his thinking, leaving this important unity in the shadows. But ‘relativity’ had caught the temper of the times. Next thing you know, you’ve got postmodernists saying that there is no one central story for humanity, no single, preferred arc of progress that we’re on. Only a multiplicity of separate stories.

I’ve wandered into metaphysics here, the process of trying to explain how the world works. Poetry is intricately connected to metaphysics. Almost more than any other art form, it is ‘about’ metaphysics, about how we understand the area covered by our lives, the place of good, the nature of god.

This is my personal bent, of course. A dub poet might say “Metaphysics, shmetaphysics! Poems are story and sound and society. An essay on metaphysics doesn’t make a good poem.” T.S. Eliot pointed our that same thing: “The possible interests of a poet are unlimited … our only condition is that he turn them into poetry and not merely meditate on them poetically.”[2]

But still, I’d argue there’s something metaphysical that inevitably finds its way into the fabric of a poem. A restless questioning — What is the nature of time, space, the human mind observing, consciousness? What does this particular moment, this particular story, tell us about those relationships.

“This is very dull,” says Pushkin the Terrible, back on the new-found-land of the kitchen counter. “Will you pay attention to me if I bang the colander against the wall?”

* * *

Light doesn’t get old.

I am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ description of eternity as something “simpler and more magical: the simultaneity of the three tenses.”[3]

We think of eternity as something ‘out there,’ something that exists beyond our mutable existence. We think of the temporal world as a little pucker in a vast timelessness that went on before we existed and will smooth out after our passing away.

But eternity – the simultaneity of all three tenses – is built into the nature of our daily world. The photon, that most common of subatomic particles, the particle that bears the vast energy of the electromagnetic field, is a very model of simultaneity.

The physicist Richard Feynman suggested, only half in jest, that the reason all photons appear identical is that they are identical. Perhaps one ur-photon zips back and forward in time, and at any cross-section marked ‘now,’ we see what appears to be myriad photons – the way a single thread embroidered into a canvas can look like many points of colour as it comes and goes through the plane.

Perhaps this is why poems can seem most timeless when they are most deeply rooted in a ‘now.’ Chaucer’s Miller wears a blue hood and a white coat, swears by ‘armes and by blood and bones.’ Drop him onto the main street in my city, and he’d stick out like a horse in a parking lot. He’d be flabbergasted by our assumptions about government, our clothes, our technologies – and we’d be dumbfounded by his. And yet he is timeless; his interactions with fellow pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are immediately recognizable. Not because there’s a kind of Platonic ideal Miller to whom he corresponds – an eternal out there. But because in the constant zipping back and forth of the embroidering needle, in the froth of human possibility, there will always be millers and knights and wives of Bath.

Come to think of it, the Knight is one of my favourite clients in years of freelance writing. A silver-haired CEO, decent, honourable, stiff-necked, kind and utterly conservative.

It seems to me that creating this link between the present and eternity is somehow fundamental to poetry. Put like that, it sounds pompous. When you’re working on a poem, the process is more ordinary, just as light is ordinary. You’re looking at a particular moment, you’re trying to extract from it whatever illumination it holds. You’re not thinking about Eternity in Capital Letters. But underneath, somewhere, the process of choosing what actually goes into a particular poem addresses the question of simultaneity. How will I make this stick? How can I make it both move and stand still?

* * *

There’s a deep paradox to thinking about time and space as dimensions. You can move back and forth in space, return to the same point over and over. You can’t do that in time.

The paradox is all the deeper because in the mathematics of Einstein and Newton, time is a completely symmetrical quantity. It goes backwards and forwards with equal ease. If you know where a planet is in its orbit and the speed it’s going, you can extrapolate both backwards and forwards in time. But in real life, there’s a fundamental asymmetry. The past leaves marks on us. The future doesn’t. Time is not a reversible coat.

I say this even though Borges points out that while time “is commonly held to flow from past to future, … the opposite notion, established in Spanish verse by Miguel de Unamuno, is no less logical:

Nocturnal the river of hours flows

From its source, the eternal tomorrow …” [4]

Well, maybe I’m too indoctrinated, but I can’t get past the idea that the future is qualitatively different from the past. It’s not just that we haven’t got there yet, in the way that you might say you don’t know what’s on the other side of the world and won’t know until you travel around the globe and come back. We may not know what’s on the other side of ‘here’ until we go there, but it can get along without us. But there is no other side of ‘now’ that exists already.

A poem already written exists. I may not have read it, may never know about it. But that poem has a different kind of being than a poem that might be written.

Scientists have been working on the deep mystery of time for the past century. Einstein’s theory of relativity says that events that appear simultaneous in one frame of reference can occur in different time orders in another one. However, quantum physics says that at great speeds or at miniscule distances like the Planck length, the one-thing-after-another orderliness of experience breaks down – or rather, simply doesn’t exist.

The same century also tossed up chaos theory – which, in spite of its name, is very much a theory of cause and effect. Chaos theory says that very tiny initial differences can lead to widely different effects. That time is not repeatable, because the very disorderliness inherent in quantum physics means you can’t repeat the exact situation over again. Those miniscule differences will always be there, so results will always be different.

Scientists are struggling to find some sort of mathematical common ground for these various theories, to make them add up to the kind of common-sense world that we do inhabit. In this, they are re-visioning a world in which poetry and science can be reunited.

The science of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, unfolding from the elegant and infinitely repeating laws of Newton, seemed to break art and science apart. Those pictures of the universe as infinitely fine clockwork, of rigorous cause and effect, led to a deterministic vision. There was only one way the future could unfold, because everything was set in motion and was following these laws. The cannon ball had been fired and was in mid-trajectory, on an inevitable arc.

This wasn’t the messy and contingent world that human beings felt they lived in, the world that art is made from.

In my family, my father often tells this or that story – how he met my mother, how he decided to work at the aircraft factory where they met. And the ending is always, “And if that hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t be here.” We all know that we are accidents, coincidences, chance occurrences that might or might not have made it into being.

So are poems.

* * *

This morning’s mail brought a couple of literary magazines – those little, evanescent publications where new poets begin publishing. They’re like butterfly wings, flap-flap-flapping. Sometimes, a writer published in one of these issues will go on to create a storm. More often, the perturbations cancel each other out and the poets go their lace-wing way into anonymity.

“Hmmf,” I said to myself, flipping the pages as though I was trying to set up an alternating current. “Same old, same old.”

I was just grumpy because half way through working on one of my own pieces this morning, the damn thing suddenly seemed as though it had all been written before. How many poems have been written about winter and spring and moons, for God’s sake. Why add to the pile?

One of the reasons I like writing so much is that it stays done. Housework doesn’t. You step on the button that sucks the vacuum-cleaner cord into its insect-like carapace, and the snap of the cord sends more dust revolving into the sunlight. I could vacuum this house twice a day and before I got the appliance back in the cupboard, Cato would walk through the living room scattering hair. As for cooking – well, you make a meal and people go and eat it, the ingrates. Then you have to get up the next day and do it again.

So when writing poems starts to feel as repetitious as dusting, I get nasty. One of the good things about time is that you don’t go back to the same point over and over.

Cats are a restorative when I’m in this mood. “What’s wrong with sitting in the sun again?” says Cato. “What’s wrong with having dinner every evening at six? As a matter of fact, what would be wrong with having dinner again right now?”

The essence of any art form is the combination of repetition and variation. Finding the balance, keeping it new and yet familiar, that’s the challenge.

* * *

Light doesn’t get old. But we’re constantly afraid that we will. Or more specifically, that we’ll fall into some trap of being ‘old-fashioned.’

Over the past century, artists have been afflicted by a relentless search for novelty. Pound’s dictum ‘make it new’ meant ‘make it different.’ Il faut etre absolument moderne, said Rimbaud.

Schools follow each other like the dart of minnows in shallow water: modernism, post-modernism, new criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, post-colonial theory … imagism, deep imagism, Black Mountain School …

This is one area where the paradigms of science and poetry don’t mesh well. Science assumes you can find something new, that there’s something out there you didn’t know before. Poetry only assumes you can write a new poem. But in some sense, the poem’s underlying discovery is something we already know.

“The tendency to model art on science and to assert that each generation of artists should do something technically new is a feature distinctly of our time,” writes U.S. poet Timothy Steele.[5] I know – I’ve had to struggle with guilt for writing a line in iambic pentameter. (Sometimes I write whole essays trying to justify the fact that I like iambic pentameter.)

Then I think – the pace may have sped up a bit, but the dialogue between poets and tradition has been there since Catullus. Two thousand years later, Eavan Boland writes about the struggle of an Irish woman poet finding her voice. She discovers “…many of the things I now did – from the casual gesture of looking out a window to the writing of poems – became an act of possessing the old things in a new way.” [6]

We are constantly making new poems out of old ones as new stars are made from old ones, new elements out of simpler ones. We are constantly reusing to the past, reacting to it through a complex process of antipathy and syncretism. This is not a simple process of oscillation along one dimension – classicism to romantic, more formal to less formal. Poetry grows in many directions, shifting like an amoebae or a glacier as the external environment requires.

But there’s still a range beyond which we can’t go. Stars turn simple elements like hydrogen into progressively more complex molecules – carbon and iron. But there’s an end to the process. Uranium is about the most complicated ‘element’ you’ll find in the natural world. Still-heavier molecules can be forced into being in a test tube, but are unstable in the normal world. I’d say the same is true of most literary extremes.

And the ‘simpler’ elements always continue to exist, plentiful and useful. As well, you have to ask what ‘simple’ means. At the subatomic level, behaviour doesn’t get simpler and simpler. In fact, it becomes more complex, more baffling, more mysterious. A quark is ‘simpler’ than an atom, but even harder to nail down.

* * *

But, oh, this constant need for evaluation. For putting poems in their place, in time.

I remember the year I was chairing the membership committee of the League of Canadian Poets. Poets with self-published books are allowed to apply for full membership. I remember the first batch of applications arriving: four books of poetry.

Two of the books were automatic shoo-ins. The others were doubtful. In the mail, I got the recommendations from one of the other committee members, who turned a heavy thumbs-down on the doubtful ones.

Oh, the chilly arrogance of the young and university-educated. “Doesn’t display any awareness of trends in Canadian poetry over the past decade,” this member scolded, noting that a ten-year gap between the books written by one applicant.

My fellow committee member is very, very bright and talented. She wins literary contests the way other people open a tin of salmon for lunch. She’s got the right can-opener. And generally I’d agree with her pronouncements on this poor fellow’s work. But really, does entry into the League of Poets require passing a test in contemporary Canadian poetic trends? And would such a test really measure anything about poetry itself?

I wondered what my colleague would do if we received a membership application from someone like – oh, that rock star, Jewel, who put out a book of pretty awful poems. Then I wondered what I’d do. It occurred to me – here was I, sitting in judgment on these applications when I try to weasel out of public judgments on people’s work at all costs. (I’m judgmental, of course, but privately so.) I don’t do reviews, I don’t like being on juries. So what did I think I was doing when I became membership chair?

And of course I’m desperately concerned about how I get evaluated myself. Remember that time I gave a reading of some of my physics poems? It was a small audience in a café on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. Not intimidating – except for the fact that Werner Israel was in the audience. The world-renowned physicist was teaching at the University of Alberta at the time, and his wife Inge was also one of the readers. I was immediately paralysed – I’d probably got the concepts all wrong, I’d seem puerile and superficial.

I croaked out a few introductory remarks. I read like an automaton on Valium. I’m sure no one remembers it.

I have a standing prayer for perspective in situation like this: This is not the judgment of the ages, Alice. There is no such judgment. If you are remembered at all it will be in the shifting shale beds of literary history, where you might achieve the fortuitous afterlife of a trilobite. The thing to do is just go on writing as well as you can and strive for human decency. People won’t remember us for long. Perhaps the universe will.

Cato says, “To hell with the universe remembering. What about you remembering lunch?”

* * *

But poetry does seem to have gotten old in this century. People think of it as gnarled and croaky, no fun. It’s parked in a wheelchair on the sidelines and young people go off to the movies.

“You know, I always hated poetry,” confides the librarian at a school where I was doing a workshop recently. The librarian hated poetry! She seemed as surprised as the kids in the workshop that it’s not that grim.

I think one of the best analyses of why this attitude is so prevalent can be found in The Witness of Poetry, by Czeslaw Milosz, the Czech Nobel laureate.

Milosz is asking where the deep pessimism that pervades 20th-century poetry comes from – a pessimism that seems out of step (perhaps) with the sense of technological optimism and the optimism that should have been generated in the early days of communism at least. We should assume there is something ‘real’ about this pessimism, he says. It’s something that goes beyond mere fashion, although fashion may be an element.

Then he gives historical context. The rise of bohemianism in the late 19th century was a reaction to the Age of Progress and all its bright, positivist assumptions. The bohemian world view, kicked off by the French symbolistes, was of the artist as separate, asocial, an outsider for whom writing was an act against the bourgeoisie. The connection between ‘art’ and the great human family was severed in the minds of such artists.

“It was not the best preparation for the encounter with a reality that grew ever more gigantic and ominous with each decade, increasingly eluding the grasp of the human mind,” writes Milosz.

Then he talks about his cousin, the French poet Oscar Milosz, who was out of step with this early 20th century poetry, the art-for-art’s-sake work.. Oscar described it as “the poetry of our time, the poetry that finds no audience, the poetry of the ‘unrecognized’ the poetry of the mediocre, such as we all without exception are, who do not even read each other.”

Oscar believed that a new Renaissance in all human thought would have to occur to sweep away this snivelling little practice of poetry – and that this Renaissance would take place, driven by post-Einsteinian physics.

Cousin Czeslaw points out that Oscar is closer to William Blake (the possibility of redemption and renewal exists) than to T.S. Eliot (everything good was in the past and you can’t get it back.) It’s an underlying cast of mind. Either you believe that a new world order is coming or you don’t.

Czeslaw also points out that there isn’t that much difference between joyous expectation and fearful expectation. “The principle of hope operates wherever people foresee a cataclysm that will put an end to the established order so that a new, purified reality can appear.” He then meditates on whether it is possible to have poetry that is indifferent to eschatology, to ‘last things,’ to the axis of past-future. “Everything that connects the time assigned to our human life with the time of all humanity.”

I guess the question for me is, can you be an optimist if you’re not expecting an apocalypse? Is there any ground for optimism if things don’t change that much? Is there any basis for saying, “things aren’t so bad” in a century where holocaust and upheaval have been disastrous on an unprecedented scale? Or am I a naif with a bowl of cherries for an emblem?

Maybe I don’t mean “things aren’t that bad” so much as “things aren’t that different.” Human history has been a simultaneous hodgepodge of glory and brutality. Has the percentage of the population exposed to either been different in this century than in any other? Not that this, if true, could be pleaded in extenuation of holocaust or excuse a placid acceptance of misery. But something in me says we expect too much of time. We expect it to change something, the terms and conditions of human life, in a fundamental and permanent way.

I remember a profound feeling coming over me one day years ago – something like an insight that the universe is all things at once. All things. Not simply in the ‘all things bright and beautiful’ sense. Everything. Nothing left out. And everything at once, simultaneously, no matter how contradictory. The superposition of every tense that could or should or might or did or will exist. Pure, raw, screaming existence.

We cannot make it one thing or another. We cannot assume that it will settle into some permanent state, utopian or dystopian. Both elements are always there, shifting, eddying, pushing one another out of they way.

Like light, perhaps. Light is an electromagnetic wave propagating through spacetime, and it exists as a complex pulse between electric and magnetic fields. Electric and magnetic alternate – a burst of one, a burst of the other. You can’t make electricity exist without magnetism; you can’t make magnetism exist without electricity.

Is that to say there must always be holocausts? No, perhaps I think more like Oscar Milosz than I’m prepared to admit. I do think things could – will – get ‘better.’ And like him, I think a new science will provide the Renaissance. We are being profoundly influenced, at last, by those thirty-year-old pictures of Earth from space. We see it at last as small, exhaustible. We see it seamless, knitted together. We are learning that we are knitted together as human beings, genetically. We may be part of a vast, dangerous universe, but we don’t have to be dangerous to each other.

My father, incurable optimist, keeps saying, “We have to work things out here, because we have to get to the stars.” Dad is not a postmodernist. For him, the possibility of a single human story still exists.

I tell him, turning pessimist for the moment, ‘We could blow ourselves up first, Dad, and the stars would never know the difference.” Nor do I see that space travel is technologically practical; I half expect it will always remain more a frontier for mental travel than for physical.

But still, maybe Dad’s right. Maybe the arrow of time is cocked at the stars and we’ll get there on its gleaming tip.

In the meantime, my father will die, and I will die, and numerous people unknown to me will freeze on riverbanks or hang themselves from bridges.

In all this, what is a poet to write?

* * *

Especially a poet in a relatively peaceful backwater, who only sees famine and war flattened into two dimensions on a television screen. How do you write a poetry of ‘now’ in such a case?

I remember working on one particular poem, after I’d been reading about the awful birth deformities occurring in Iran as the result of depleted uranium left by the weaponry of the Gulf War. But the poem kept floating in that tiresome space inhabited by so many written about the horrifying images presented to us on the other side of the television’s glass screen. Very few of these poems are moving or convincing. We are only making nice strings of words out of reported experience.

And yet our experience does include these images. Poets can’t ignore them, either.

I was reading some of Neruda’s poems, trying to work out how he expresses anger. That poem, for instance about “some things I’m telling you,” with its list of images, (‘aglomerciones de pan palpitante’), its surreal listing of horrors – the bandits with planes and Moors, the bandits with finger-rings and duchesses, the bandits with black friars spattering blessings who

…”came through the sky to kill children,

and the blood of children ran through the streets

without fuss, like children’s blood.”[7]

The constant drive of ‘ninos’ through the poem. In Spanish, the word gives such a strong sense of diminutive, ‘the little ones’ – a sense that we don’t get as strongly from the English ‘children.’

“… jackals that jackals would despise,

stories that the dry thistle would bit on and spit out,

vipers that the vipers would abominate.”

How direct and searing. I want to be as direct about the children deformed by depleted uranium, to be as angry. But of course, it was Neruda’s own house of red geraniums, his own sight of blood in the streets.

* * *

So you keep on trying to write a poem that will not grow old, a poem that will be filled with light.

Sometimes I think it’s all portentous, pretentious crap. Other moments, I think, “No, hang on, it might come out all right.”

There’s always a point in a poem where you think, “oh, it’s never been this hard before.” Other poems, in memory, seem to have leapt forth complete from your brow — oh sure, you remember tweaking this line or that word. But you don’t remember it ever being this disjointed and cumbersome. Don’t recall it ever being this difficult to turn a pedestrian thought into a singing phrase.

Of course, maybe it does get harder. Maybe this isn’t an illusion after all. Maybe writing poems just goes on getting harder all your life until you give up or die.

“Cheer up,” says Pushkin. “If you try hard enough, you can knock the colander off the wall.”



Translated by Anne Carson, in Sappho’s Daughters
T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions
New Expansive Poetry
Eavan Boland, Object Lessons
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, 1975, New York, Penguin Editions, p. 105

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