No 12 - Winter 1998/9
Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, science has turned away from regular and smooth systems in order to investigate more chaotic phenomena. Rather than being divided into the classical binaries of order and entropy, form now can be regarded as a continuum expressing varying degrees of the pattern and repetition that signal structure. As architect Nigel Reading writes, "Pure Newtonian causality is an incorrect (finite) view, but then again, so is the aspect of complete uncertainty and (infinite) chance." The nature of reality now is "somewhere...in between" (‘Dynamical Symmetries’). It occurs to me that this shift in focus makes itself felt within literature as postmodernism. In any case, the poetry I am calling "fractal" shares many defining traits of that contested term: postmodern. Since other contemporary poetries show a greater allegiance to romantic, confessional, or formalist traditions, fractal aesthetics describe – or predict, if you will – only one feature of the topography. I say "predict" because I hope these remarks will suggest future vistas. When poets address aesthetics, their own work inevitably shades their views. I write from perceptions of where my poems have lately been and where they’re likely headed. I’ve provided few examples because I would prefer that readers locate (or build) the representative works themselves.
In the seventies, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot found that certain structures once thought to be "chaotic" contained a deep logic or pattern. The communication between roots and leaves; the oscillations of cotton futures; the movement of spiralling funnel galaxies; the branching of arteries and veins; and the curved, nonlinear structure of space-time itself are examples of chaotic phenomena found to contain fractal designs. Mandelbrot coined the word "fractals" (from the Latin fractus, meaning "broken or fragmented") to describe such configura-tions. In my 1986 essay, ‘Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic’, I suggested that science’s insights concerning turbulence might help us to describe traits common to the poetry of volatile (rather than fixed) form. I proposed that we view the irregular yet beautifully structured forms of nature as analogues and call the poetry of irregular form fractal verse.
Just as fractal science analysed the ground between chaos and Euclidean order, fractal poetics could explore the field between gibberish and traditional forms. It could describe and make visible a third space: the nonbinary inbetween. Consider water. At low temperatures, it is fully ordered in the form of ice; at higher temperatures it becomes fluid and will not retain its shape. The stage between ice (order) and liquid (chaos) is called the transition temperature. Fractal poetics is interested in that point of metamorphosis, when structure is incipient, all threshold, a neither-nor. Over the past decade, scientists have come to view fractals as particular instances within the larger field of complexity theory. While retaining the term "fractal poetry", I hope to suggest ways in which complexity theory might amplify the possibilities of such a poetics. (A poem is not a complex adaptive system: the comparison is analogical, not literal.)
My tentative 1986 prospectus for post modern fractal poetry suggested that digression, interruption, fragmentation, and lack of continuity be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness and that all shifts of rhythm be equally probable. Of course, disjunction also informed high modernist aesthetics. Postmodernism seems more an elaboration of that tradition than a wholly new formation. The new always contains aspects of the old: novation springs from the existent. Hand-me-downs are recombined and during the process freshness (a strange entity that might seem wrong or counterintuitive at first) seeps in. Perhaps it’s nothing new to say that newness is a composite. Rather than elide this truism, however, postmodernism rejects originality and stresses the inevitability of appropriation in creative work. The prefix "post" signals a foundational debt and an unabashedly reactive position that departs from a modernist make-it-new credo.
Common sense, moreover, suggests that contemporary work must be inflected by the pressures of its day regardless of the poet’s willed intentions. Even a strenuous attempt to duplicate a previous aesthetic would fall into the temporal gap and become, at best, ventriloquism. Difference is a given. Describing that shift – the changes in poetry’s metabolism across generations and time – is an ongoing project for scholars and poets. Recent scholarship has suggested alternative modernisms that enlarge the view. In this essay, however, Pound’s well-known ‘List of Don’t’s’ and The Waste Land will serve as high-profile reference points. Pound and Eliot, more than any other literary figures, have defined literary modernism during the twentieth century. Pound’s directives were the catechism of poetry workshops during the sixties and seventies. As a result, his precepts possibly have exerted a greater effect on contemporary poetry than they did on the poetry of his own day.
In Hidden Order, John H. Holland writes that complex systems possess "a dynamism" that is different from the static structure of a computer chip or snowflake, which are merely compli-cated. Complex systems are balanced on the edge of chaos, where the components "never quite lock in place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either." A rain forest, the immune system, the economy, and a developing embryo are examples of complex adaptive systems. In poetics, Holland’s "dynamism" makes itself felt in eccentric forms that share broad similarities, in contrast to more "static" received forms with specific similarities. This essay describes those broadly similar traits and calls the poetry that shares them "fractal". Lest my descriptions seem to imply otherwise, I must assert that aesthetics are not a progress narrative: it isn’t getting better all the time. It’s getting different all the time.
On the ground between set forms and aimlessness a poem can be spontaneous and adaptive – free to think on its feet rather than fulfil a predetermined scheme. In a depar-ture from Romantic ideals, fractal aesthetics suppose that "spontaneous" effects can be achieved through calculated as well as ad libitum means. Thus "spontaneity" does not refer to a method of composition but to linguistic gestures that feel improvisatory to the reader. Rifting and jam-ming, rough edge and raw silk – such wet-paint effects take the form of long asides, discursive meanderings, and sudden shifts in diction or tone. By such means "spontaneity" becomes a structural component of the poem.
Complex adaptive systems do not seek equilibrium or try to establish balance; they exist in unfolding and "never get there". As Holland says, "the space of possibilities is too vast; they have no practical way of finding the optimum." Like complex systems, fractal poetry exists within a vast array of potentialities: it is a maximalist aesthetic. High modernism also was much of a muchness. At 433 lines, The Waste Land may not be a long poem by today’s standards, but it is long when compared with the imagist poems of its time. Perhaps The Cantos, at roughly 23,000 lines, offers the best prefiguration of contemporary maximalism. In any case, the high modernist impulse toward length seems different in kind from the spirit informing today’s long poem.
For at least part of his career, Pound espoused a modernist renaissance that would draw on the example of rightly-governed past cultures. His aesthetics were imbued with his sense of historicity, a backward gaze that became increasingly elegiac as his discouragement gained force. Modernist maximalism, as practised by Pound and Eliot, was a structure of depletion: the poem spent itself as a gesture of mourning – for lost civilisations and mythologies. Its exhaustion was nihilistic in spirit, much ado about nothing ("I can connect/ Nothing with nothing", The Waste Land; "emptiness is the beginning of all things", Canto 54). To risk a generalisa-tion, their modernism beautifully encountered what-is-not and gave ample voice to absence. The postmodern poem, on the other hand, is an architecture of excess; it spends itself by revelling in the plethora of what-is. Its exhaustion is celebratory – or hedonistic, grasping. With the A-bomb’s ashes for its grim confetti, it means to carpe diem all night long, whistling in the dark context of impending (rather than ended) apocalypse. Built from presence, it has a life wish. Taken together, the two modernisms resemble a twentieth-century lost and found.
Although a fractal poem might offer transcendence at the local level – in a line, a phrase – like a complex adaptive system it does not try to sustain a sublime optimum throughout. Its high lyric passages might be juxtaposed with vulgar or parodic sections; its diction can range from gorgeous to caustic. These oscillations occur with no change of speaker since fractal poetics is not a voice-based aesthetic. Williams’s variable foot arose from his observation that "the iamb is not the normal measure of American speech". And Pound stipulated that poetry’s language must "depart in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)". Poetry must contain "nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actu-ally say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the readers’ sense of the poet’s sincerity." (Of course, Pound did not take his own advice. But hundreds of poets did – and do.) "Naturally", he added, "your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning".
Fractal poetics has dispensed with fidelity to the "normal" and the "natural", to "simplic-ity" and "sincerity". Instead of reproducing speech, the poem makes a sound-unto-itself; its music is not so much voiced as built. Even the most "sincere" or "natural" poem is a means, however unwitting or disavowed, of manipulating the reader. Fractal verse heightens the distinc-tion between art and life rather than create an insincere sincerity. Marjorie Perloff describes it splendidly: "Whereas Modernist poetics was overwhelmingly committed, at least in theory, to the ‘natural look’ [...], we are now witnessing a return to artifice, but a ‘radical artifice’, to use Lanham’s phrase, characterised by its opposition, not only to ‘the language really spoken by men’ but also to what is loosely called Formalist (whether old or new) verse, with its elaborate poetic diction and self-conscious return to ‘established’ forms and genres. Artifice, in this sense, is less a matter of [...] elaboration and elegant subterfuge, than of the recognition that a poem [...] is a made thing –contrived, constructed, chosen" (Radical Artifice).
Fractal form might counter such "natural" effects as breaking lines on nouns and verbs; it might favour music that unhinges rather than reinforces the poem’s content. Such effects call attention to themselves, and in doing so they highlight the "radical artifice" that is the poem’s surface and disrupt its transparency. Diction, surface textures, irregular metres, shifts of genre, and tonal variations take centre stage as defining formal elements. Function words (articles, conjunctions, prepositions) assume schematic importance. The content of fractal poetry’s form (yes, the content of form) also dismantles assumptions concerning "the natural". Form’s subver-sive or reactionary possibilities are recognised rather than denied.
Holland’s Hidden Order 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 cat-egory things that differ only in the abandoned details." The form of Petrarchan sonnets, for instance, differs only in those structural aspects we chose to overlook. We focus on the identical rhyme scheme, the iambic pentameter, the "turn" at line nine. We examine properties that define the sonnet and disregard properties that fall outside of this definition. Fractal poetics is composed of the disenfranchised details, the dark matter of Tradition: its blind spots, recondite spaces, and recursive fields.
When structure is imbued with substance, when form carries freight, the poem need not resort to polemical narrative or didactic anecdote as a means of airing its engagements. Its "political" explorations, structurally embedded, can retain subtlety. The gender of pronouns and the relation of linguistic figure and ground can provide a formal means of addressing cultural visibility and negation. Punctuation, rather than effacing itself, can become a glyph of implica-tion (as the levelling, democratic colon does in the poetry of A.R. Ammons, for instance).
The emphasis on ground rather than figure necessarily changes the poem’s point of view. If The Waste Land were written from the perspective of the woman who says "My nerves are bad to-night", the resultant work might resemble Rich’s ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’. "You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!" Eliot quotes from the Preface to Fleurs du Mal. "The argument, ad feminam, all the old knives/ that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours,/ ma semblable, ma soeur!" Rich revises. Rather than conversing with The Waste Land, it seems to me that Rich enacts a radical reversal of ground by placing one of Eliot’s peripheral "voices" at the centre of her poem.
There are two kinds of fractals: geometric and random. The geometric type, by repeating an identical pattern at various scales, suggests new dimensions of figure and ground. 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. My long sequence, ‘Give’, can be seen as a fractal re-imagining of the Daphne and Apollo legend from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In my telling, the story changes scale; the myth is blown-up: enlarged and exploded. Daphne, who was voiceless in Ovid, is given words. And after she is turned into a tree, the subjugated, silent laurel speaks – literally speaks – to the human intrusion into nature. Ovid’s bit players – victimised Daphne and the violated tree – are magnified and given starring roles.
To say that the politics of masculinist high modernism were different from those in the previous paragraphs is to understate. Rather than culturally-inflected icons and scripts, Eliot and Pound viewed archetypes and mythology as revelations of "essential drives": universal, natural truths whose meanings apply across time and place. They identified the loss of such mythology with spiritual bankruptcy. The feminist postmodern poem, on the other hand, seeks to discredit the pandemic power of myth. It questions the assumption of "naturalness" surrounding, for instance, heterosexuality, human sway over animals and planet, woman’s association with nature and man’s with culture. The loss of such "natural" truths is seen as a potential source of spiritual gain.
Of course, postmodern aesthetics do not automatically assume "high" art to be more interesting than "low". I find the engagement with popular culture to be somewhat troublesome and contradictory, however. Attention is a form of homage. And our fascination as a culture has fed upon commercial art throughout the twentieth century. "Serious", "composed", contempo-rary music, for instance, has been neglected to such a degree that we lack an adjective to describe it. Throwing euphemism to the winds, I refer to it as unpopular music. Such music is less commodified, clearly, than popular genres. It also is of high quality and deserving of more notice. If fractal poetics means to honour the margins and illuminate the fringes – the quirky handmade rather than slickly mass-produced, the bit players and backdrop rather than the spectacle and principals -– unpopular art, though redolent of "high" culture, must be part of its subject. The example of music extends to the visual arts and to literature. Whatever is complex and underinvestigated must become the starring subject.
And yet. The implications of popular culture – and the engines of its power – have come under scrutiny only recently. Rather than exclude the popular, fractal aesthetics want to understand its magnetism – and sometimes richness. "Consider the way of the scientist rather than the way of the ad agent", Pound advised. Fractal poetics considers both. Neither elitist nor populist, it exists on a third ground between "high" or "low" terrains, resistant to those classifi-cations. Like the components of complex systems, the poems’ inclusions neither lock into position nor dissolve into turbulence.
The structure of complex adaptive systems is determined by internal models. In like fashion, the fractal poem’s growth and resolution are activated by self-determined imperatives rather than by adherence to a traditional scheme. But how does the inner imperative of fractal verse differ from the organic form of free verse? In 1912, Pound stated the organic credo as succinctly as his Romantic predecessors or The Black Mountain poets who succeeded him: "I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm’, a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed."
Though modernism has come to be associated with discontinuity, Pound seemed to regard The Waste Land as a model of cohesive design. In a letter of praise to Eliot he admon-ished himself for "never getting an outline" in his own poems. For me, the wholeness of The Waste Land arises from its singleness of tone and symbolic coherence. Its polyphonic voices wear a grey membrane of irony; the sensibility throughout is measured and austere. There are no petards. Nothing funny or vulnerable is to be found in its shifting lines. Eliot’s rhetoric never veers into confession or exposition. Fractal poetry, on the other hand, splices satiric and lyrical, elegiac and absurd lines without casting a unifying tonal veil over the melange. But the distance between the mod and the post- is nowhere more evident than in their respective stands toward the symbolic. Contemporary poetry prefers metaphoric to symbolic encodings. A poem as self- consciously and determinedly allusive as The Waste Land would seem old-fashioned if written today; the water/desert trope, heavyhanded and shopworn.
Modernist discontinuity tended to be grounded in mimesis and realism. Its disjunctions sought to replicate the mechanistic quality of urban life and the beginning of the age of infor-mation (as figured by telephone, film, and radio). Rather than mirroring its age, fractal disruption functions as a Zen slap, awakening readers from the spell of the "sincere" voice. It contrasts transparent lines with less "genuine" dictions, and the disparate tones vibrate like complemen-tary colours, highlighted by proximity. The poem thrums with bone-conduction music as regis-ters vibrate in concert with unlikenesses spliced nearby.
Both organic and fractal form compare poetry to structures in the natural world. Or-ganic form, however, extends this prizing of nature to imitations of the "natural" speaking voice. Fractal poetry, as we have seen, regards voice as a construct: a consciously made assemblage of dictions, metres, rhetorics, gestures, and tones. Whereas organicism insists upon wholeness and smoothness of thought, fractal poetry regards interruption, artifice, disjunction, and raggedness as facets of its formal vocabulary. In practice, these differences mean that the textures of fractal poetry will be more turbulent than those of organic free verse. A fractal poem might establish iambic pentameter only to break it with rudely dissonant effects. It locates structure in disrup-tion and allows new (or old) forms to emerge as the poem proceeds.
Organic aesthetics, by definition, try to match the poem’s cadence with its emotional content. Feelings must be expressed in a "natural" speaking voice, lest they sound stilted or become inaccessible. If the verse is truly organic (and The Cantos is not) its language will vanish into meaning when read rather than linger opaquely on the page as an indecorous re-minder that poems are made of words. Fractal aesthetics, in contrast, refract the poem’s surface in order to make its linguistic materiality more evident. As free verse broke the pentameter, fractal verse breaks the poem plane.
The poem plane is analogous to the picture plane in painting: a two-dimensional surface that can convey the illusion of spatial depth. Painters use perspective, colours, texture, and modelling to suggest three dimensions on the flat canvas. If objects are painted progressively smaller and closer together they will seem to recede. Space also can be suggested by juxtaposing oncoming warm colours with introverted cool ones. By alternating thickly-textured impasto with turpentine-thinned washes, the artist can create opaque areas of positive space and radiant glazes of negative space. Objects of the same scale can be modelled differently to create depth: a hard- edged rendering will appear nearer than a hazy one.
A composition’s rhythm sometimes depends on repeating picture planes through multiple zones of recession until the painting gives credence to spaces ungoverned by the laws of physics. In Poussin’s The Funeral of Phocion, for instance, the picture plane is repeated as walls, buildings, and hills recede toward the final backdrop of sky. John Canaday describes the effect this way: "A second series of planes at an angle to the picture plane is suggested first by the side plane of the stone wall at the right. We enter the picture from the lower left and move across it, but are kept from moving out by the tall tree at the right and by this plane of the wall, which is turned to deflect the ‘current’ of our movement back into the picture. It is not notice-able that this plane is, in fact, a distortion of true perspective." The eye moves from left to right across the painting until a tree and a plane of wall at the far right rebound the gaze back into the picture. In poetry, a justified flush right margin (instead of the usual flush left alignment) will halt the eye abruptly, almost rudely, stranding the gaze in an unbidden white surround before deflecting it leftwards and into the next line. Such a "distortion" underscores the poem’s constructedness; it also offers a subtle formal means of reinforcing content.
The motion of reading is horizontal and vertical: our eyes skim across and edge down the flat planes of print. Poetry has held language to this single plane rather than using linguistic properties as a means of constructing three-dimensional space. "To be fractal a form must be [...] between dimensions", notes Nigel Reading. Just as paint fosters illusions of proximity and distance on canvas, words can suggest spatial depth on paper. A fractal poem can do this by shifting its linguistic densities: the poem’s transparent, easy passages impart the sensation of negative space; they vanish into meaning when read rather than calling attention to their linguistic presence. More textured language, on the other hand, refuses to yield its mass immediately. The eye rests on top of the words, trying to gain access but is continually rebuffed. Such (relatively) opaque sections assume the solidity of positive space. By juxtaposing transparent with textured passages, fractal poetry constructs a linguistic screen that alternately dissolves and clouds.
Planes of varying densities move us into and out of the poem, as if it were a field of three dimensions. We gaze "through" thin lines and are deflected to the surface by "showier", distract-ing, dense language. This modulating depth of field allows us to experience the poem as a construct of varying focal lengths. Such palpable architectonics also create an awareness of the poem as thing-in-itself rather than conduit for meaning. I’ve used the words "transparent" and "textured" to describe two broad effects. Perhaps it’s worth noting that transparent lines are not drawn solely from simple, lyric registers. They also can be forged of exposition, reportage, platitudes, advertisements, or clichés. What they have in common is lucidity. And textured passages are not composed only of arcane, difficult words. Density need not be leaden or dull. "Texture" can be built, for instance, from sequined, woolly, stippled, flannel, marbled, glittery, or drippy linguistic registers. Resistance is key.
What I’m suggesting is that poetry take advantage of a synaesthesia that attributes physi-cality (colour and texture) to language. For me, and I think for many linguistically-addicted people, words have an unignorable materiality. It is not only the meaning of words that holds my attention, but their sensual, and especially tactile, presence. Passages can have an ultrasuede nap, like the velour finish of a petal, or they can feel prickly as hairbrushes. I am bored by poetry constructed solely of thin, homogenous tones because it reads like a field of grey plaster. I think most readers possess some degree of synaesthesia. Fractal verse develops this ability to feel language as a 3-D tactile surround. Perhaps its greatest urgency exists in its potential for limbic awakening.
Of course, The Cantos also can be read as "planes in relation". Yet that staggering poem does not create a sense of three-dimensional space; it splices disparate people and places so that readers can draw inferences from the allusive montage. Pound modelled his poem plane on the ideogram or concrete picture, and The Cantos strives for a uniform degree of concretion rather than a plate tectonics of transparent and textured passages. "Don’t use ‘dim lands of peace’", he famously advised. "It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realising that the natural object is always the adequate symbol." Pound’s later practice – in which the "natural object" became a pre-existent text spliced into the poem – was more complex than his early theory would lead one to suppose. Poetry writing textbooks and workshops over the past thirty years have taken his injunction to "go in fear of abstraction" at face value, nonetheless. In the grammar school of imagism, contemporary poets learn that "dim lands" imply "peace". This might be a useful place to begin, but it’s a facile place to end up.
Rather than excise stale portmanteaus, fractal poetry might use empty rhetoric sardonically, as a means of splintering the "sincere" voice that was a modernist value. Abstractions are arguably the most rarified words because they have no relation to a specific physical object. In fractal poetics, abstractions are not forsworn as redundant explications of self-sufficient concrete symbols; rather the abstract becomes a valuable realm in itself, a means of adding ether, gasiness, fumes, breath to the poem’s corporate mix. By adjoining abstract with concrete pigments, poets are afforded another method of refracting the poem plane.
As soon as one begins to analyse or dissect a poem’s formal components, the poem is no longer organic or "whole". This is why organicism seems the antithesis of formalism. And it explains why organic free verse never developed a vocabulary with which to describe its formal proper-ties. Although fractal poetry does not adhere to a predetermined scheme, it offers a terminology (planes, surface, canopy, textures, transparency, opacity, obverse, metabolism, understory, cluster, supercluster, limbic...) that is descriptive of its structure. The vocabulary used to de-scribe form changes the way that we think of form. And changes in thinking emerge as changes in the work.
The New Critics believed poems rended by formal analysis were reconstituted within the readers’ improved understanding. Rather than stressing the retrievable wholeness of separate parts, fractal poetics investigate – and prize – the spaces between the parts. In Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick writes, "One simple but powerful consequence of the fractal geom-etry of surfaces is that surfaces in contact do not touch everywhere [...] The bumpiness at all scales prevents that [...] It is why two pieces of a broken teacup can never be rejoined, even though they appear to fit together at some gross scale. At a smaller scale, irregular bumps are failing to coincide." The excerpt hints at concepts dear to fractal aesthetics: surfaces, touch, bumpiness, scale, broken, irregular, and failing.
Failingmight seem an unlucky inclusion, but with it I mean to suggest not only a relinquishment of subterfusion but a taste for subterfuge in the guise of accidents, pratfalls, slippage, and mistakes. I have two copies of The Waste Land. One is a recent, clean edition. The other, the one I favour, is a used paperback remastered by the marginal scribbling of some eager, previous reader. One comment refers to "the lonely, arid dessert within", and the phrase’s connotations are more interesting than the "right" words would have been. Fractal poetry is enthralled by such failures and fallshorts, such improving accidents. "Plan addiction with Hank", I find on a to-do list. And in a letter, "I’ll have it to you by the end of the mouth". Lengthy, scholarly notes at the end of poems (as in The Waste Land or Marianne Moore’s books) pre-date this sense of the absurd. Unless such notes become creative works in themselves (a parodic means of undoing the poem’s precious gestures, for instance), they remain a mod trait.
Marjorie Perloff noted that the poetry of "radical artifice" is not to be confused with formalist verse, which depends on established forms and genres and whose artifice is based on elaboration and elegance. I would add that poetry in received forms can be likened to standard mathematics (calculus, say, or linear analysis) in which the value of the parts adds up to the value of the whole. That is, the strength of a metred poem’s lines adds up to the poem’s strength as whole. The disjunctive shifts of fractal poetry, however, are akin to nonlinear interactions in which the value of the whole cannot be predicted by summing the strength of its parts. A fractal poem might contain purposely insipid or flowery lines that would be throwaways if taken out of context. When juxtaposed with other inclusions, however, these debased lines establish a friction or frame greater than their discrete presence would predict.
Complex systems tend to recycle their components. A rainforest, for instance, captures and reuses critical resources as a means of enriching itself. Fractal poetry likewise makes use of recurring cluster words, limbic lines, or canopy stanzas as a means of creating depth. (Cluster being an aggregation of stars with common properties; limbic connoting emotion and motiva-tion; canopy casting a shade overall.) Unlike the villanelle or sestina’s recycling, fractal repetition does not appear at a predetermined place within a set scheme. The poem is more dynamic and turbulent because its repetitions have an element of ambush. Readers experience the consola-tion of pattern without being able to anticipate the moment of return. Such recycling, at once surprising and reassuring, can occur throughout a poem, book, or body of work. (Dickinson’s recurring vocabulary comes to mind.)
Sceptical readers might think Dickinson? What is she doing here? And poets have always used repetition. I can only say again that newness is a composite. Dickinson – with her broken syntax and maximal dashes – is a fractal forbear. And though all structures rely on repetition, poets have not used recycling in conjunction with the other effects I’ve described. Novation also is created by context and label: free verse was written before the modernists popularised the term, yet twentieth-century unrhymed poetries of variable metre sound like none other.
Though this might be the maximalist talking, I sense there is much more to say. My intent here has been more visionary than critical: that is, I’ve described an incipient poetics, one that I feel forming as I write and read. I’ve taken the liberty of devising a vocabulary as necessary. Rather than existing territories, I’ve looked toward unmet horizons. Generalisations must be customised to particular poets since each turns on her own axis. Each builds her emancipa-tions by hand. That such freedoms can speak to one another is my fair calculation: that differ-ence can be tempered by affinity. I leave the compass of that conversation to you.
- 10th Muse
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