It’s sometimes suggested that science and poetry are two ways of looking at the world that really don’t have many points of contact. But, curiously, below is one of the world’s greatest living literary critics, Helen Vendler of Harvard, explaining how her early training in the sciences brought her to a lifetime study of poetry.
In light of what Helen Vendler says above, perhaps it’s helpful to think of a poem as a kind of contingent and quirky leaf with the following characteristics: (1) traceable ancestors; (2) an environment it interacts with; and (3) very definite patterns and structures available for analysis.
Then again, what can a scientist’s analytic rigor bring (except perhaps diminishment) to an explication of lines like these (from the opening of William Carlos Williams’s “Portrait of a Lady”)?:
Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Why do these lines upend us so? To echo Wordsworth, would it be murder to dissect them?
And speaking of upending, notice that if Williams had said, “Your legs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky”, we might have been able to take some plausible and rational hold on the declaration in the following manner:
William Carlos Williams, being a man of science himself, a physician, is giving us a visual image of a woman out-of-doors, naked on her back, her legs in the air, her toes as apple blossoms touching the sky.
But this would be an “iffy” interpretation (to put it politely) because Williams didn’t say that her legs are “appletrees”, but her thighs. This leaves us with a nagging problem of sense: what could possibly correspond, in straightforward metaphor, to the blossoms of her thighs?
The flush of orgasm? Children?
The difficulty is obvious; the solution is not. What Williams has written is not a metaphor to which we can point out a self-evident referent, but a symbol that points everywhere (and nowhere) at once. What makes the lines powerful—if you feel them to be powerful—are their reverberations going out in all directions, hinting at connections and taking them back at the same time.
This, by the way, is a nice method for distinguishing symbol from metaphor. In a poem, you know you’re dealing with a symbol, and not a metaphor, when you can’t really get a handle on it. “My love is a red, red rose” is a metaphor. In old school terms, love is the tenor or subject, the rose its vehicle explicitly carrying love’s meaning. Love and a rose are equated: This is that. But Blake’s “O rose, thou art sick”, is a symbol. What Blake’s rose is meant to carry or refer to is not stated by him, and is anybody’s guess.
So, in a sense, “Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky”, is a Jeopardy question concerning which we can only assign probabilities as “answers” to why the lines move us:
- What is a woman lying supine, her toes in the air? (3%)
- What is orgasm? (6%)
- What are children? (8%)
- Who is Eve in the Garden of Eden? (11%)
- What is the relation of woman to nature? (18%)
The right answer is all of the above (and none). That is, all of these associations may be causing us, at least to some degree, to respond to the lines, but none dominates. And, of course, there may be dozens of other influences that make the lines work as well. These other influences may be lurking, though not available to consciousness.
And so, when a scientific—or, more precisely, an analytic—attitude is brought to bear upon a poem, it’s likely to play out in a manner similar to the interaction of science with religion. At some point, we’ll simply reach an impasse where silence—and our contingent and peculiar responses to the poem at hand—are all that’s left. We will be brought, in other words, to a conclusion something like this:
The sources from which Williams’s lines achieve their force appear to be complex and perhaps impossible to trace; the lines’ effects seem, as it were, overdetermined. And maybe, when we approach the lines’ ultimate source of power, we are dealing with more than just a very complicated problem. Perhaps a genuine ontological mystery undergirds this power, and is being directly pointed to by Williams, and the attentive human soul responds to it. It may not even be, in principle, possible to account for why Williams’s lines work.
This, of course, is the kind of conclusion that makes scientists crazy (because it is, inherently, a science stopper). Of course, there must be some material answer, in principle, for why (and how) poetry dazzles the human brain, and why certain lines do so in particular. To suggest otherwise is to invoke gods and spooks into the gaps of our knowledge.
Still, there’s something in poetry that haunts and resists reduction. Below are some lines from e.e. cummings (from Collected Poems 1922-1938, #225) similar in nature to Williams’s lines. Absent an impulse to burn a candle to them, or otherwise make an altar of worship to the ontological mystery that they seem to point to (or employ English teachers to facilitate class discussions around them), what can one ever really conclusively say about them? And what can science ever seriously bring to bear upon them (except perhaps to dismiss them as the products of bamboozlement and an obscurantist’s mind)?
Richard Dawkins, for example, once called Blake an obscurantist. And Daniel Dennett once (in)famously declared any “proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed” a “deepity.”
In any case, here are the lines from cummings:
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
The rain doesn’t have hands. So I guess it’s a deepity. And cummings doesn’t even use grammar properly! (And why, o why, is “opens;only” scrunched together?)
What is the sound of one (small) hand clapping?