Jul/Aug 2017 Miscellaneous

Intimately Entangled: Some Thoughts on the Physics of Poetry

by David Farrah

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever
we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we can hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down [...].

        —Ralph Waldo Emerson in "The Poet" 18441

On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody
understands quantum mechanics.

        —Richard Feynman in the Messenger Lectures 19642

In the same year that Feynman was delivering his Messenger Lectures at Cornell University in upstate New York, two of his contemporaries—Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson—were less than 200 miles away in Holmdel, New Jersey, tuning in their telescope for the first time in human history to the signature static of the Big Bang, or as Emerson had put it some 120 years earlier, "those primal warblings." As we now know, those warblings pervade us. In fact, they pervade all forms of matter in the universe, as they continue to testify through time to both the power and immensity of the creative moment. Additionally, these long-wave, electromagnetic warblings link us, not only through form and content, but also to our shared origin, that unimaginably miniscule point in space and time from which we all began evolving over 13 billion years ago. With such thoughts in mind, a mere few years ago, I wrote the following poem:

On Hearing an Old German Kalliope in the Lobby of the Corner Inn at Arima Hot Springs

Time turns and on the wheel within
a constellations spins.

Little holes of light align with sound.

The music is perfect.
The baths exceedingly warm.

From such exquisite calculations
a galaxy is born. (Farrah, Cha)

Having been born into the same exquisite universe as the mathematician and the physicist, the poet also wishes to express it in line with—aligned with—its implicate3 perfection. However, obvious differences in the symbologies that are utilized in the search for such perfection are seemingly suggestive of a certain amount of underlying, conceptual incongruity. Therefore, a couple of questions need to be asked: Is it possible to express through words rather than through mathematical calculations the underlying structure of the universe? And if it is possible, how do thoughts and feelings organize themselves into a poem in which an elemental truth of the universe is revealed?

In attempting to answer these questions, let us first consider one of the more mysterious underlying organizational properties of the universe: synchronicity. As Steven Strogatz points out in his book titled Sync, "the tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drives in the universe" (14). And yet, as he goes on to explain, the mechanism driving the process remains very much a mystery:

Only in a few situations do we have a clear understanding of how order arises on its own. [...] Explaining order in time [...] has proved to be [...] problematic. Even the simplest possibility, where the same things happen at the same times, has turned out to be remarkably subtle. This is the order we call synchrony. (2)

My own exploration into the subtle and synchronous ordering of the universe first crystallized in a moment of time several years ago—even before my visit to Arima—when I wrote another small poem:

A Theory of Everything: Pteroptyx Tener4

Disparate at first, small particles of light
barely visible to the eye, white flashes
of one, then two, then two paired
and paired again until the dark spaces
between them in the trees connect
a string of thousands, entangled
in their attraction, as we float quietly
in a boat making waves that meet
the starry river's edge. (Farrah, Landscapes 31)

As I sat in that boat in the dark and watched those fireflies begin to connect themselves and order themselves in time through the emergence of synchronicity, the poem itself began to emerge and expand and take shape, piecing itself together, revealing a companion structure to the universe, one that manifested many of the same underlying fundamental properties: particles and waves, dark matter, magnetism, symmetry, quantum gravity, and even entanglement. Just as the universe has formulated itself into being from the moment of its inception through these properties, and just as the fireflies coalesced into collective meaning, so too does a poem evolve along formulative and inflationary lines.

The formulation of a poem,5 whether it embodies fireflies, galaxies or hot springs, is, in fact, inflationary by nature. From that very first conceptual spark of light, it emerges "out of the hubbub" (Strogatz 13) by giving voice to particular particles of thought and feeling that synchronize themselves and subsequently organize themselves into a structurally expanding pattern of understanding. In other words, a poem arises organically along its own inflationary lines, along its own matrix of meaning, linking itself together according to its own set of structural rules, though very much dependent on the same underlying properties of expression upon which all forms of matter, thoughtful or not, depend.

Another property through which a poem achieves itself, concomitant to synchronicity, is rhythmicity. It is a word that is intriguingly multiplicitous in meaning. Musically, and by association linguistically, it can be defined as "the rhythmic property imparted by the accent and relative duration of notes" (TheFreeDictionary.com). Physiologically, it carries with it a sense of the seemingly spontaneous yet inevitable and organically essential: there's cardiac rhythmicity, cellular rhythmicity, and neural rhythmicity, to name a few. Additionally, rhythmicity manifests on interpersonal and even spiritual levels. In his article titled "Rhythmicity: A Powerful Force for Experiencing Unity and Personal Connections," Henry Maier explains that "While rhythmicity can be a powerful force for linking people together, it can also be a vital source in the search for internal togetherness" (2). Working toward this togetherness, it seems, is a universal inclination. At every conceivable level, from the cellular to the linguistic to the sociological, rhythmicity and synchronicity appear to be existentially linked.

In 1998, I published a book titled Small Sounds in the Brush, a collection of poems and short tales that explores—particularly through its form—the relationship between position and momentum, those two old cousins of the quantum world. Central to the book is the idea that lyric poetry and narrative poetry are formulated and formalized expressions of, respectively, position and momentum, and that lyric poetry, especially, through its superpositional nature reveals in an instant of time (Pound had it right) a moment of truth in space, both on and off the page. An example of this occurs in the last section of the book when the one-word poem "Petiole" (Farrah, Small Sounds 67) appears among an accumulation of images. Through the word's singularity, momentum is brought to a standstill, forcing the speaker and reader into a full, shared, participatory stop. Consequently, they both find themselves definitively located within the context of the surrounding poetic landscape, thereby becoming fully positional within the context of the text and achieving a self-referential synthesis of form with content. Such a comprehensive connection, such an integration, of course, requires an alignment of energies on multiple levels of expression and perception on the part of all participants, including reader, writer, and text. And from such an alignment, significantly, there emerges a most notable frequency, shared and therefore shimmering with meaning, along which thought and matter become entangled and exist in synch to produce the experience of the poem itself.

Entanglement, as we now know, exists at the most fundamental of levels, irrespective of time or distance. Over the last decade, it has been experimentally pinned down to the point of being identified, traced, conjured and then cajoled to travel along laboratory fibers (Gilder 332), and it is now being talked about in regard to a variety of practical applications, including the creation of unbreakable cryptographic codes. Interestingly, when physicists talk about or write about entanglement, the language they engage in—as is often the case with quantum mechanics—can be richly abstract, overtly metaphysical, and intriguingly poetic in implication and nature. In a moment of exasperation, Einstein famously referred to the phenomenon of entanglement as "spooky action at a distance" (qtd. in Gilder 6). In his book titled Entanglement, Amir Aczel posits that "Entangled particles transcend space" (252). And in her book The Age of Entanglement, Louisa Gilder defines entanglement as "A condition of two or more bits of matter or light behaving, though separated, as if intimately connected" (339). Might not these scientists also be referring to the interactions that take place between the deeply varied, mysterious, innate, and complex forms of human feelings and emotions that are so often found at the heart of a poem?

Indeed, it is the intimacy of the universe at work that allows for its very own formulation:

The Gamelan and the Alchemist

The music is lost
in the wake

of his imagining
voices in that hollow

of hearts, that glittering
space of meaning

both following and preceding—
neither suggesting

nor denying
metaphor, but rather

something beyond it,
the effect of it—

the striking at the essence
of bronze being

melted down
before our eyes,

before our ears,
at his feet: the accompaniment

of what probably is
the most difficult thing

about being a god: the synchronization
of the human

with the divine,
the impartment of that

sound as thought, the overwhelming
urge to play. (Farrah, Landscapes 23-4)

Whatever it is that lies "in that hollow of hearts", we humans, in a seemingly irresistible urge to join with it, intimately entangle ourselves in its expression. We strike at its essence with every imaginative tool that we have—music, painting, dance, and mathematics among them—and in doing so briefly synchronize ourselves with the rhythms and frequencies of that original "glittering space/of meaning."

And yet, while the poet is, by nature, fundamentally attracted to that source of meaning through the gravity of words, there is, it seems, "something beyond" metaphor, something more deeply embedded, as is suggested in "The Gamelan and the Alchemist."

How deep then might we go?

One of the great frustrations of my life has been associated with my inability to execute advanced mathematics. I have often considered this to be among my most notable spiritual failings, an indication of the troubled calculus of my inner being, and perhaps even my heart. Nevertheless, it has always been the formalized, musical, mathematical nature of the underlying structures of poetry to which I've been drawn. It was Pythagoras who said, "All things are numbers" (qtd. in Heisenberg 36), and that's my hunch, too. Through their combinations, a poem spins itself out in an act of chemistry, word by word, line by line, into a cohesive whole:


One could say it grows, but rather
it seems to unravel, a silk thread
pulled from the center of the worm
one word at a time, the formulation
of a continuous singularity. (Farrah, Landscapes 75)

Silkworms and wormholes aside, the unravelling of a poem through a poet is—in its purest sense—a formulative and enlightened act of spiritual math in which a universal truth manifests in an instant of space and time. It is the piecing together of cosmic parts that stretch back to the singularity of our common origins. It is an accumulation of warblings coalescing into an equation that completes itself when the poet is "so finely organized that [he] can penetrate into that region where the air is music" (Emerson qtd. in Atkinson 289-90).

In "The Hero as Poet," Thomas Carlyle famously wrote that "it is man's sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a poet. See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it" (72). And when discussing the origin of his theory of the optics of motion, Einstein stated: "It occurred to me by intuition. And music is the driving force behind this intuition [...]. My new discovery is the result of musical perception" (Suzuki 79). These are, of course, the sorts of pronouncements that encourage contemporary string theorists to retrospectively rise up and break into song. And though their multidimensional theory has yet to be proven, it's clear that there's something there at the center of the matter of the universe that resonates within all of us, vibrating with meaning, along frequencies with which we are both intuitively and physiologically in deep, rhythmic sympathy. In fact, the deeper we delve into the shared, underlying structures and mathematical links that exist between music, poetry, and physics, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle ourselves from them. In those electric words of Walt Whitman, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (23). And everything else.

Such was the alignment of the prescience of 19th century writers with the theories of 20th century physicists. And now, well into the 21st century, theories of Inflation, Uniformity, and Entanglement, among others, all seem to be pointing in the same, comprehensive direction. Among those who are extending their thoughts in that direction is Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT who has gone so far as to suggest that the universe, itself, is a mathematical structure.6 If this turns out to be true, then we are all speaking the same language.

In addition to his thoughts on the intuitive links between music and math, Einstein also asserted that "Pure mathematics is in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." I would like to add to that assertion by suggesting a slight variation of the converse: that poetry is the mathematics of non-rational ideas. More explicitly, poetry gives form and expression to the complex thoughts, unwieldy emotions, and enfolding7 experiences of human existence. Along these same lines, at the end of her chapter titled "The Quantum-Mechanical Description of Reality," Louisa Gilder concludes with the following anecdote:

Niels Bohr died the next year.8 On his blackboard were left two drawings, a record of what he had been thinking about the night before he died. The first looked like a spiral staircase—a Reimann surface—which was Bohr's favorite metaphor for the ambiguity of language, the way you can arrive back at the same word in your thought and it can have a whole new layer of meaning than when you first thought it. But how, he used to ask, can you communicate this to another person? (177)

If by some future miracle of physics I were able to travel back in time to that night and stand beside Niels Bohr and his blackboard, I would pick up a piece of chalk and most humbly write the following one-word solution: poetry.


Works Cited

Aczel, Amir, D. Entanglement. 2001. New York: Plume, 2003.

Atkinson, Brooks, ed. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. 1841. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Einstein, Albert. Obituary for Emmy Noether. Letter. 1 May 1935 The New York Times 5 May 1935. "Professor Einstein Writes in Appreciation of a Fellow Mathematician". The MacTutor History of Mathematics. July 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Obits2/Noether_Emmy_Einstein.html.

Farrah, David. Borrowed Landscapes. Tokyo: Shinbisha, 2012. Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, issue 31, 2016. Small Sounds in the Brush. (Fude no Sasayaki.) Tokyo: Shinbisha, 1998.

Gilder, Louisa. The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy. 1962. London: Penguin. 2000.

Maier, Henry W. "Rhythmicity: A Powerful Force for Experiencing Unity and Personal Connections". CYC-Online 66. July 2004. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/cycol-0704-rhythmicity.html.

Strogatz, Steven. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Suzuki, Shinichi. Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education. Trans. Waltraud Suzuki. Miami: Suzuki Method Int., Summy-Birchard. 1983.

Whitman, Walt. The Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Bantam, 1983.



1. Qtd. in Atkinson 289-90.

2. Qtd. in Gilder 228.

3. For a thorough discussion of the term "implicate" as it relates to the structure and order of the universe, see David Bohm's Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge, 1980).

4. A species of firefly native to Southeast Asia, noted for its synchronized flashing.

5. Susanne K. Langer also writes about the "formulative use of language" (151) in poetry, albeit from a somewhat different perspective, in her book titled Problems of Art (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957).

6. In addition to Tegmark's own articles on the mathematical structure of the universe, see his interview with Adam Frank titled "Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?" in the July 2008 issue of Discover Magazine. http://discovermagazine.com/2008/jul/16-is-the-universe-actually-made-of-math#. UPNI_4WHvbk.

7. Also see Bohm for a thorough discussion of the term "enfolded" as it relates to "implicate."

8. Niels Bohr was born on 7 October 1885 and died on 18 November 1962.


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