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Friday, June 07, 2013

Poetry. Channeling Tesla.

If you want to know the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.  -Nikola Tesla

Via Prufrock, I looked at these wonderful Chladni-plate sand pictures. Description from Colossal: Youtube user Brusspup . . . who often explores the intersection between art and science just released this new video featuring the Chladni plate experiment. First a black metal plate is attached to a tone generator and then sand is poured on the plate. As the speaker is cycled through various frequencies the sand naturally gravitates to the area where the least amount of vibration occurs causing fascinating geometric patterns to emerge. There’s actually a mathematical law that determines how each shape will form, the higher the frequency the more complex the pattern.
I often think about the ways that art--poetry and narrative in particular--intersects with other fields.  And the quote from the brilliant madman Tesla is running through my brain, and like water seeking new paths for entrance. I often think of the rush of poetry and certain passages of prose in terms of energy. (Here my husband reminds me that there is a statue of Tesla at Niagara Falls, that fount of energy.) But what about frequency and vibration?

To be strict about "frequency" in poetry, the most obvious links are to refrain, to repetition of words as in a sestina, to rhyme frequency, and to repetitive metrical structures... These devices create elaborate patterns and, if read, lead to new structures of vibration in the air. We could even find analogues to cycles and oscillation or waves in established formal designs and nonce poems that use recurring patterns and variable but set line length structures.

Could we talk about the idea of vibration within a poem? (Here I am trying to channel Tesla-esque madness.) Yes, we can talk about a poem as a kind of system. Could we talk about oscillation around some sort of equilibrium point? If we look at Old English poetry, there's definitely an equilibrium point, a rest, a still place in the midst of activity. And that occurs between every Anglo-Saxon half-line. But there's a similar tendency in the iambic pentameter line as well.

I've barely started pondering the idea, and whether it is sense or nonsense, or maybe some helpful-to-a-writer combination. And there's a limit to how far we can take such analogies. But now I must go put my day in order. Enjoy the video, and be sure your sound is on!


  1. Loving this, Marly! Thank you for posting! Yes, it is exciting to think about vibrations in poetry, engendered by poetry--- from poem to poem, from writer to reader to writer to reader and so on down the chain; and to think that the "technologies" that we use today (think craft, think language strategies, metaphor, etc.) to create poetry have been transmitted - a form of energy itself - from others before us, who like us also vibrated to the energy of their own times and contemporaries... This is making me feel absolutely electric!

  2. Yes, there are lots of ways to take those ideas... Not "scientific," but exciting.

  3. Talk about energy waves! Not exactly poetry, but yesterday I saw an episode in my favourite Canadian TV series, Murdoch Mysteries, which featured Tesla, in Toronto and Niagara.

  4. Ah, the energy of serendipity! A small, happy accident...

  5. Back in '01, your fellow epic poet Frederick Turner co-authored "The Neural Lyre," a lengthy piece for Poetry exploring the possible neurobiological origins of meter. It made little sense to me, but it's certainly a worthy and promising line of inquiry.

    (As for those caesurae in Old English verse, I'm working on a new translation that employs them and fretting about how readers interpret them, because sometimes they're little more than a visual affectation. I may just close up the spacing and see if test readers "eye-hear" the lines differently.)

  6. Turner again! I need to try one of his books soon...

    I rather like the gap, both for the organization of sounds on each side and for how it looks. I recently wrote a short poem using a large middle gap (and maybe a little extra alliteration--I think I kept it in.) It was about a death and a marriage, so fit. I tend to keep the gap when translating (though I haven't done much.)

  7. Remember that the "line with a hole in the middle" was made up by modern editors. In the OE manuscripts, there's simply a point after each half-line . like this . so the half lines . might simply be . lines: couplets . bound together . by alliteration .

  8. (though the caesura, of course, still thrives in pentameter.)

  9. You're right, of course, and we don't know exactly how that sounded, and whether there was a true space (that is, a breath, a rest) in between. In some ways I like it simply because to a modern the lines are thickly clotted, and that firm break in spacing seems to give the same sort of pleasure as a musical rest.

    And they aren't simply equal pairs because there's a difference in alliterative rule between the two half-lines... But perhaps it was all blurred together. Or perhaps there was a wee bit of harp strum in the middle.

    I can't decide if I like the mystery of not knowing or not. But all the same, I suppose it's good not to let fancy run away with me, when thinking of long ago.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Not just the images and the music - but what it all means to art in general (I think it does mean something to art in general).
    Poetry read aloud is a kind of music. Quite a complex one too, really - with modulation, pitch, sustained 'notes', pauses. I think really good poetry falls into a natural pattern that we all understand. Rhythm too, of course.

    Art is always orchestrated - and the orchestrator will incline towards natural patterns such as shown in this movie. It's just the way we're made!

    Smashing link, Marly.

  11. Glad you liked it! I do think that an idea that's interesting for one branch of art tends to be interesting for all, and translating it from one kind to another often produces even more fresh ideas.

    I wish somebody who has read Boethius' De Musica would come and tell me how this idea interacts with his three categories--the music of the spheres, of the body, and of voice and instruments. Bet there might be something curious there, some interesting analogue.

    Yes, poetry (at least poetry before we reach some 20th/21st century modes like concrete poetry or "authorless" poetry or a lot of plain old free verse) aspires to the condition of song. Not to be song but to reach toward it while remaining a poem.

  12. It's worth thinking about these things... and I also was drawn by this video yesterday in Prufrok and wrote a message to the artist asking him if he would contribute something to Slippage.

  13. I've mentioned Prufrock a number of times--everybody needs to subscribe!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.