Fractal Poetics: Adaptation and Complexity
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2005
Around 1985, I happened across the chaos or fractal theory of Benoit Mandelbrot, which showed that many phenomena thought to be irregular or chaotic (the coastline of Britain, tree bark, cracks in mud, the firing of neurons, the distribution of galaxies) actually have pattern and shape. In the 1980s, a small but vocal faction of poets were insisting that only poems written in traditional meters and forms (such as blank verse or sonnets) have structure. When I happened upon fractals, I thought they offered a good analogue to free verse: a dynamic, turbulent form between perfect chaos and perfect order. Fractals offered a way to imagine and construct answers to questions about structure that — for good or ill — dominated the discussions of the day. In 1986, I published my first essay on fractal poetics, ‘Of formal, free, and fractal verse: singing the body eclectic’
In the 1990s, fractal theory was subsumed within complexity studies, a field that draws upon physics, artificial intelligence, mathematics, biology and other disciplines as a means of understanding turbulent systems. Throughout the 1990s, my conversations with John H. Holland, Professor of Complexity at the University of Michigan, suggested directions for postmodern poetics that I explored in a second essay, ‘Fractal amplifications: writing in three dimensions’ Like chaos theory, complexity emphasises dynamic rather than static structures: eccentric forms balanced between strict, Euclidean order and raging entropy. In the 1990s, as now, poetry needed to consider large questions of power, equity and beauty as a means of checking its propensity for lyric narcissism. Complexity studies suggested ways to move beyond formalist, confessional modes into realms that encountered suffering beyond the self: the inconvenient knowledge at the heart of justice and loveliness.
Complex adaptive systems, as described in Holland’s book Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, have no master plan — no centre or hierarchy. They are open, exploratory, inclusive. Rather than seeking equilibrium or stasis, they continually unfold and ‘never get there’. There is no ‘there’. The space of possibilities is so vast that a dynamic structure can’t declare an optimum. In poetry, the optimum might be analogous to the sublime. Rather than a single transcendent lyric ultimate, complexity suggests a sublime that happens here and there as part of the ongoing, a plurality of optimums in between other textures and gestures. Moreover, the eternal process of complex systems, their continual unfolding and surprise, suggests a maximalist aesthetic large enough to include background as well as foreground.
In Hidden Order, Holland notes that when reading formal structures we decide to call some aspects irrelevant: we agree to ignore them. ‘This has the effect of collecting into a category things that differ only in the abandoned details. The form of Petrarchan sonnets, for instance, differs only in those structural aspects we choose to overlook. These effaced elements become the ground that allows the dominant figure to emerge. The poetics I’ve termed ‘fractal’ is concerned with the discarded details – overlooked aspects of structure, and more importantly, the dark matter of content: knowledges that remain unspoken because to attend to them would be inconvenient, if not dangerous. In such a way the tenets of complexity theory can suggest ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.
Of course, it takes more effort to notice blind spots than to reify what is already visible and acclaimed. But rather than being culturally correct, popular and cute, poetry needs the courage to go against the grain. I don’t mean to suggest contrariness as a good thing in and of itself. I guess I’m answering Heidegger’s question, ‘Wozu Dichter?’, ‘What are poets for?’ I’ve always slightly mistrusted the utilitarian tone (or assumptions) of this query. Yet the question provokes a valuable examination of intent. Let me try to answer. I believe the poet’s purpose is to revise language into a vehicle of unsettlement capable of dismantling assumptions that suppress justice and contaminate love. In practice, this means poets must risk their necks in the name of fairness (i.e. equity and beauty) rather than play it safe. I hate this requirement of poetry, but it is the only justification for spending one’s life in league with it.
In the mid 1980s, it seemed almost enough to reimagine the structure of free verse by way of fractal descriptions. But even then, I thought a poetics limited to formal concerns would be deeply lacking. Science is most important to poetry when it suggests something about content rather than form. Whatever science has to teach us about suffering — how to voice it while still keeping poetry poetry — is the most important lesson. Let everything else be en route to this eloquence, this process of difficult witness. Of course, a poetry directly concerned with suffering is in some sense political. And ‘political poetry’, in particular, needs to go in fear of polemics. In the 1990s, the behaviour of complex adaptive systems suggested ways to reconfigure structure so that form itself might signal content, eliminating the need for didactic explication and helping poetry retain its ineluctable subtlety.
As I learned about complex systems, I also become acquainted with the thinking of Karen Barad, a feminist physicist who writes on the philosophy of science. In her essay ‘Meeting the universe half-way’ Barad moves beyond binary constructions (nature/culture, objective/subjective) to suggest that knowledge arises from the ‘between’ of matter and meaning. Her theory of agential realism offers an alternative to objectivist accounts of scientific knowledge, in which ‘what is discovered is presumed unmarked by its “discoverer” … Nature has spoken.’ Neither does she side with subjective social constructivist views that fail to account for the effectiveness of mathematics or admit that materiality matters. Rather than taking sides in the duel between dualisms, Barad theorises the nature/culture and object/subject binaries ‘as constructed cuts passed off as inherent’, without denying the efficacy of findings that might arise from such categories.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle challenged the Cartesian split between agent and object by suggesting that the observer does not have total control of matter: the world bites back. ‘Neither does the object have total agency, whispering its secrets, mostly through the language of mathematics, into the ear of the attentive scientist’, Barad writes. ‘Knowledge is not so innocent’. Thus ‘nature is neither a blank slate for the free play of social inscriptions, nor some immediately present, transparently given “thingness”.’ Nature is slippery: a neither/nor. Light cannot be both particle and wave. Yet it is. The two categories dismantle one another, ‘exposing the limitations of the classical framework … Science is not the product of interaction between two well-differentiated entities: nature and culture.’ Rather, ‘it flies in the face of any matter-meaning dichotomy’. As Barad sees it, subjects and objects both have agency without having the ‘utopian symmetrical wholesome dialogue, outside of human representation’ posited by objectivist accounts. She proposes ‘not some holistic approach in which subject and object reunite … but a theory which insists on the importance of constructed boundaries and also the necessity of interrogating and refiguring them.’ Her theory of agential realism calls for ‘knowledges that reject transcendental, universal, unifying master theories in favor of understandings that are embodied and contextual’.
The work of feminist scientists and philosophers (such as Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway and Karen Barad) critiques the authority of science, which — like every powerful belief system — needs such self-scrutiny lest it become smug and claustrophobic. Of course, the categories unsettled have enormous real world consequences. The old association of women with nature and men with culture undermined women as artists, thinkers, and human beings. Binary constructions of reality, unchecked by scepticism, have a pervasive, destructive magnitude. When one considers their effects, it’s evident that the questions posed are ones literature needs to address until the world is just — which is to say, forevermore.
The title of my most recent book, Felt suggests the immaterial past tense of the verb ‘to feel’, and the material noun, meaning fabric or textile. I thought I’d trace the word ‘felt’ through the book’s first section as an arbitrary means of showing some ways that science permeates my work. Proximity is one of the book’s obsessions. The word ‘felt’ first appears in these lines excerpted from the opening poem, ‘Close’ (as in ‘near’):
Though we could see only parts of the whole,
we felt its tropism.
Though taken from the vocabulary of science, ‘tropism’ is a word most non-scientists will know. The first definition, as found in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, is ‘an involuntary orientation by an organism or one of its parts that involves turning or curving by movement or by differential growth and is a positive or negative response to a source of stimulation’. I’m not sure about ‘involuntary’, which seems to imply agency thwarted. It’s true that a plant can’t help its leaning toward the light, but that orientation seems neither voluntary (chosen) nor involuntary (against the plant’s wishes). Perhaps agency, as in Barad’s theory, is an interaction located between the plant and the light, or as the poem would have it, between us and ‘the whole’. The lines suggest the universe as a great organism leaning toward or away from us, reacting to and with us. We can see only parts of this structure; there is no unifying vision or complete essence possible, rather we’re left with dribs and drabs of truth, inflected by our time, position and instruments of perception. Of course, a ‘trope’ also is a figure in a literary work. I suspect that the ‘tropism’ of science and the ‘tropes’ of literature both derive from the Greek tropos, turn, manner, way, style. To feel the trope of ‘the whole’ is to sense affect or manner in the universe, to intuit a cosmos with style, an aspect of poetics often regarded as suspect or superficial.
The word ‘felt’ next appears in ‘Maidenhead’, a poem that blurs hymen and mind, suggesting the brain as the ultimate private space. Here Emily Dickinson’s spinsterhood, her fetishised white dress, and her mind’s spectacular solitude, merge with the life of a seventeen year old girl. I cite well known Dickinson lines throughout, omitting quotation marks so that her words will blend into the ground of the text, enacting the blurring that is part of the poem’s interest. Dickinson was fond of gem imagery, and ‘Maidenhead’ lifts one of its recurring metaphors from the optics of gemology. In the following ‘felted’ passage, however, the optics of contemporary medicine are juxtaposed to a line from Dickinson’s poem 280:
… There is a lace
of nerves, I’ve learned, a nest of lobe and limbic
tissue around the hippocampus, which on magnetic resonance
imagining resembles a negative of moth.
She felt a funeral in her brain …
The technical aspects of science, its highly analytical language, the specificity and exactitude of its instruments, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), offer fresh perceptions for poetry. To cite another instance, while reimagining the myth of Daphne and Apollo for my book Sensual Math, I became enthralled by a technical book on deviant wood grains. This dry text offered a fresh take on Daphne’s prospects after she’d turned into a tree. It also helped me to imagine her transformation from the tree’s point of view. As to the Dickinson quote, her poem 280 actually begins ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain …’. I took the liberty of changing the person from first to third. I also switched Funeral and Brain to lower case type and removed the midline comma caesura, modifications that flattened the line, embedding it within its surround.
The next appearance of the word ‘felt’, also in ‘Maidenhead’, invokes scale, a concept dear to fractal science:
… The phantom pains,
escaping diagnosis, led to bolts of shock —
and tines of shudder — volting through
her mind, my aunt’s, that is — stricken into
strange, her language out of scale to what
she must have felt, and Dickinson’s metaphors —
And then a Plank in Reason broke — no help.
Geometric fractals repeat an identical pattern at various scales. That is, the fractal’s smaller parts replicate the form of the entire structure, turned around or tilted a bit, and increasing detail is revealed with increasing magnification (a little like the relation of ‘felt’ the word to Felt the book). Fractals have a substructure that goes on indefinitely, replicating itself in various dimensions. This recursiveness revises hierarchical relations to suggest new dimensions of figure and ground. In the passage quoted, language is said to have scale, a size or dimension relative to the feeling it seeks to express. There is always a gap between intention and words, or sign and signifier: language is such an imperfect instrument. Yet poetry sometimes aims to make a language commensurate to feeling, impossible as that is. In addition to capitalising the first word of every line, Dickinson used upper case letters within her lines, in effect changing the scale of selected words. The midline capitals in the line quoted (again from poem 280) magnify Plank and Reason while underscoring their symbiosis. The words leap from the line and assert themselves with the authority of proper nouns. This personified quality, along with the enlarged scale of Plank and Reason, helps create the sense of terror in Dickinson’s terrific poem.
Felt contains two poems that work the textile as metaphor. The book’s first section closes with one called ‘Fair use’, which I’ll quote below in full. ‘Fair use’ draws upon the idiosyncratic properties of felt cloth to describe both the interconnectedness of what-is and the qualities of a mystical experience. Until this poem, I’d never written about it, maybe because epiphanies are so Romantic, so prepostmodern. Epiphany! What a word. But there you are. Chancing embarrassment is part of this too. Epiphanies are wont to exist outside of time, space, and social constraints. Yet, to riff on Barad, transcendence is not so innocent. ‘My moment of brocade’ (Dickinson, poem 430) was laced with specifics: I understood that I was all others, including specific others. The poem’s first sentence likens the glittering material of a sofa with the immaterial glittering of the speaker’s mind or being during the moment of ‘trans-ferment’. But the head undergoing revelation is also a head with a hairstyle: a 60s flip. ‘Flip’ (as in flip out or lose control) turns epiphany, for the span of one word, into a thing of its time, slangy, girly, so that the instant of understanding, like Barad’s description of knowledge, is ‘embodied and contextual’. Kennedy and the TV set also infect the lyric moment with time and specificity. In fact, it wasn’t as if I transcended the mundane so much as saw more deeply into the dross material of everything. Speaking of dross, fabric is said to have ‘a hand’, meaning weight or texture, and I tried to imbue enlightenment with this material quality via the line about ‘Incandescence’. ‘Fair’ in the title is meant to connote both justice and beauty, co-creative qualities, surely, that require each other to exist.
As for the sofa, its fabric is vermiculite,
glittering, as is trans-
ferment. My head’s already in its sixties flip,
Kennedy’s already dead. Incandescence
has a heavy hand. For all I care,
the TV might be an airshaft
when the statics of is widen and show everyone
meshed, a fabric of entanglement = =
my consciousness felted with yours,
although I didn’t know you then.
It is not metaphorical, the giver is
literal beyond prediction about this:
what happens to others happens to me.
What joy, what sad. As felt
is formed by pressing
fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart,
nothing is separate, the entire planet
being an unexpected example.
Is this fair use, to find
the intergown of difference
severing self from = = nonself = = gone.
I grasp the magnetism between
flesh and flesh. Between
inanimates: the turntable’s liking for vinyl,
the eraser’s yen for chalk,
the ink’s attraction to the nib.
What lowercase god sent this
= = immersion = =
to test my radiance threshold?
From then till never = = time, space, gravity
felted to a single entity,
though the backlash of epiphany wasn’t all epiphany’s
cracked up to be. Synthesis is blistering.
I’ve often wanted to get rid of = =
it. I couldn’t get rid of it. It
resists wear and as it wears, it stays
unchanged. There is no size
expands equally in all directions as more
fibers are pressed in. No matter how stripped
of cushion, needlefelted, one
becomes there’s no unknowing what
can be compressed a thousandfold
undamaged, won’t ravel, requires no
sewing or scrim. What is
absorbent, unharmed by saturation.
What draws and holds, wicks, that is,
many times its weight in oils or ink.
Listen, I didn’t want your tears in my eyes.
I wanted to keep my distance, put a silence
cloth = = ironic = = lining = = frigid = = interfelt = =
between us. My
students = = teachers = = parents = = children = =
get your hearts out of mine,
I wanted to say. It can be hard
enough to drill or carve or turn
on a lathe. It can be sculpted.
It dyes well. The colors lock. At times
I’ve prayed that the unfrayable gods who gave it
would give it to a rock.
‘Needlefelted’ and the verb ‘wick’ come from the feltmaking industry, as do the descriptions of felt’s marvellous properties. But I think the poem also contains some quasi-scientific neologisms — trans-ferment, intergown, radiance threshold, interfelt — of my own devising, though I’m not entirely sure I devised them. The ‘between,’ so important to feminist philosophies, figures here as the space where everything happens. This interstitial realm is part of what I hope to signal by the double equal sign = = that appears throughout ‘Fair Use’. In Felt, I’ve tried to get this punctuation mark, which I’ve called the bride or sign of immersion, to work syntactically and suggest aspects of content. By the end of the book, I hope the sign will have, to some degree, defined itself. Ordinarily, punctuation marks affect the rhythm of the sentence but have no meaning; we efface them as we read, allowing only words to figure. The = = sign reverses this relation of ground and figure by calling attention to itself, juggling the poem’s depth of field. In ‘Fair Use’, I hoped the visual effect might be as if the page were turned inside out, so the seamy side showed, the stitching. I also wanted the = = sign to be one of those ‘constructed boundaries’ that gets in the way of holistic union. If, as the poem says, synthesis is blistering, then = = is a blister. I’ve often wanted to get rid of = = it, the poem says. I couldn’t get rid of it. And in that way, it’s like conscience. Inconvenient. Sterling. Controversial. Mysterious. Impolite. Annoying. Sublime. Limiting. Rich. Awkward. Impolitic.
In closing, I’ll say something concerning poetry’s relation to other disciplines and to the culture at large. Poetry is an absorbent art: maybe it can include other fields more readily than they can include it. In any case, it doesn’t have to defend itself or be ‘for’ something: it isn’t obviously pragmatic. It’s playful, having qualities of the joke, in that the ‘point’ happens between the lines. It also has the famous ‘elegance’ of good science. Writing poetry is probably the best way to teach people to love language and words. But whether it’s needed or found or appreciated within academia, poetry will continue. It’s a force, a pleasure. A beautiful complexity. Beginning poets often blame poetry for its peripheral status. But it seems to me that our culture’s lack of appreciation for poetry says more about cultural deficiencies than it does about poetry. What would it mean to be popular in a context that mostly prizes formulaic, easy reads? Can any art retain subtlety, ambiguity, courage, integrity and endear itself in such a context? Can any art question cruelties that make us comfortable, upon which our culture rests, and expect to be rewarded? When you imagine what poetry would have to do and be in order to be central, it seems poetry’s marginal standing is one with its circumference: its strength.
1. ^A. Fulton: ‘Of formal, free, and fractal verse: singing the body eclectic’, Poetry East 20&21:200–213, fall 1986, New York & Charlottesville, VA; reprinted in Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry; 1999, St Paul, MN, Graywolf Press.
2. ^A. Fulton: ‘Fractal amplifications: writing in three dimensions’, Thumbscrew 12:53–66, winter 1998–99, Oxford, England; reprinted in Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry; 1999, St Paul, MN, Graywolf Press.
3. ^J. H. Holland: Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, 11; 1995, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley.
4. ^K. Barad: ‘Meeting the universe half-way’, in Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science, (ed. Lynn Hankinson Nelson and Jack Nelson); 1995, Dordrecht/Boston, MA, Kluwer Academic.
5. ^A. Fulton: Felt; 2001, New York, NY, W. W. Norton.
6. ^A. Fulton: ‘Give: a sequence reimagining Daphne and Apollo’, in Sensual Math; 1995, New York, NY, W. W. Norton.
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30:4:323-330 (Maney, Surrey, UK, 2005)
Bio note from Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2005: Alice Fulton is a widely published poet, and currently Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University. Her most recent books of poetry are Cascade Experiment (2004) and Felt (2001), which was awarded the 2002 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. She was Holloway Poet for fall 2004 at the University of California, Berkeley, and has received fellowships from bodies including the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.