By  Walker Zupp

Section 1: The [un]reasonable reader

The first section of this discussion will deal with the concept of the [un]reasonable reader. To aid this, I will be focusing on the writing of E.E. Cummings. The second section of this discussion will be dedicated to criticism made towards my third Constant.

There are three Constants:

  1. There are finite ‘reasonable’ possibilities.
  2. There are infinite [un]reasonable possibilities.
  3. All poetry is alien.

It must be stressed from the outset that this is not the way to read Cummings’ poetry—it is a way to read Cummings’ poetry.

But if a living dance upon dead minds
why, it is love; but at the earliest spear
of sun perfectly should disappear
moon’s utmost magic,or stones speak or one
name control more incredible splendour than
our merely universe, love’s also there:

and being here imprisoned, tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget, perish, sleep
cannot be photographed, measured; disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains. . .

–Who wields a poem huger than the grave?
From only Whom shall time no refuge keep
though all the weird worlds must be opened?
)Love

The transcription above is not an accurate one. I split the poem in to four stanzas because I thought it made more sense, given that there are four clear shifts of perspective.
Why did I do that? We are often told to think of what the author might have done instead of what they did. This is absurd.
In a parallel universe—Let us say that P is the purpose that Cummings has in mind for splitting his poem in to four stanzas, F being the form of the poem. Therefore the equation for this pro-semantic process is F=P; similarly we can say P=F as the purpose, hence meaning of a text on a micro or macro level can be traced back to its form i.e. syntax, rhyme, etc. There is always reason.

But now we must ask ourselves: does Cummings split his poem in to four stanzas? No. There are no line-deviations in the poem bar the indented line ‘Love’. Therefore we can conclude that P does not exist; nor does F—it would be a completely different poem and for the present moment, a poem that does not exist.

We are dealing with matters of causation—What causes a reader to react in a particular way? Is it the poem, or the author? Is it other poems surrounding the poem in question, or something that has nothing to do at all with poetry? Richard Taylor says the following about causation:

‘[…] causation is a philosophical category, that while the concept of causation can perhaps be used to shed light upon other problems or used in the analysis of other relationships, no other concepts can be used to analyse it.’ (Taylor, 1966)

Causation is A caused B. We could dwell upon the circumstances under which poetry is read, but for two reasons: Firstly, it would shift the focus from text to reader and secondly, it is more important to note that if we start tearing poetry apart and reading it post-mortem, we will be reading poems different to the ones with which we began.

If we set out to understand O but suddenly turn O in to π, we are crippling our own analysis. This is unnecessary.

So what have we instead? The real poem—four shifts of perspective in one block of text:

but if a living dance upon dead minds
why, it is love; but at the earliest spear
of sun perfectly should disappear
moon’s utmost magic, or stones speak or one
name control more incredible hristur than
our merely universe, love’s also there:
and being here imprisoned, tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget, perish, sleep
cannot be photographed, measured; disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains. . .
—Who wields a poem huger than the grave?
From only Whom shall time no refuge keep
though all the weird worlds must be opened?
)Love

(Cummings, pg. 27)

If a table and a chair are sat next to each other, we automatically assume the purpose of the combination e.g. sit on the chair at the table, sit on the chair with your feet on the table, etc.—There are infinite possibilities [∞]. Why can we not do this with the poem in question?
If a table and chair are considered familiar to us, we can conclude that the poem must be unfamiliar to us. It is alien. How do we make the poem not [~] alien?

I previously mentioned reason [R] in relation to why an author performs certain acts [A]. And through this an author makes those who are subjected [S] to the text react in a certain way—so we have the author’s perspective [RA] and the reader’s perspective [RAS]. What predicates RAS? Or what reason is there to explain why a reader reacts in a certain way? The obvious answer to this is that the author intends the reader to react in a certain way, to perform AS.

If the poem is unfamiliar or alien to us, then we can by nature of RA and RAS assume that E.E. Cummings intends the poem to be so i.e. he is using unconventional metaphorical devices to discuss the topic of Love.

Returning to the table and chair, I said that there were infinite possibilities [∞] in relation to how one may interpret the purpose of the combination. The first two purposes I listed would be, I assume, considered ‘reasonable’: sitting on the chair at the table; sitting on the chair with your feet on the table—But surely there are many unreasonable possibilities given that there are ∞ purposes.
Why not ignore the chair and sit under the table? Why not set fire to the table and chair? Once we ignore the ‘reasonable’ assumptions made when faced with combinations like a table and chair, we may make our thought [un]reasonable—We may see what is in front of us without assumptions: a table and chair. What of it?

  1. the ‘reasonable’ assumptions we make: (||||||||||||)
  2. [un]reasonable possibilities that stretch in to infinity: (<|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||>)

||||||||||||<|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||>

If we reverse this process, can we not move a step forward to reading the Cummings poem? Indeed we can: therefore, we must do away with the infinite [un]reasonable purposes and focus instead upon our ‘reasonable’ assumptions of what the poem’s purpose is. That is to say, we are searching for RAS via RA.
This is the [un]reasonable reader of which I speak, whereby the reader embraces an author’s alien work as ~ alien—allowing themselves access to the logic of the poem.
It is not only helpful to view [un]reasonable poetry as reasonable—It is essential. We are broadening by tightening—not creating reason ex nihilo, but post factum—Only when we deem something beyond understanding, do we in fact understand it: we have only what is shown to us.
Let us say that quantum mechanics is beyond the understanding of X. X sees no reason in quantum mechanics—only random numbers and variables. However, it would be wrong to say that X doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand quantum mechanics. X understands the concept that she herself does not understand quantum mechanics. Therefore, whenever X thinks about quantum mechanics, an image is present—one that X can make assumptions about.
‘Assuming’ may be about the worst thing to do in any area of mathematics, but for our purposes i.e. in terms of understanding poetry, it is a totally viable, if not necessary method.

Let us look at another accurately transcribed Cummings poem with this in mind:

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
I met christ

jesus )my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed( as

close as i’m to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

(Cummings, pg. 72)

There are three Constants:

  1. There are finite ‘reasonable’ possibilities. If X assumes that the Cummings’ poem above is about the author meeting Jesus Christ in a dream, she is correct. If X assumes that the brackets represent two unwritten parallel streams of thought e.g.

([stream of thought] no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
I met christ

jesus ) […]

[…] ( as

close as i’m to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness [stream of thought])

She is correct. If X assumes that ‘yes closer’ is representative of ‘yet closer,’ she is correct. If X assumes that ‘no time ago/ or else a life’ is representative of ‘A long time ago/ or in another life,’ she is correct. She may interpret these observations as she wishes with reference to the text.

  1. There are infinite [un]reasonable possibilities. This feasibly could be where X might consider the line, ‘walking in the dark’ to be about quantum mechanics—Therefore it goes against the concept of the [un]reasonable reader.

The acknowledgement of infinite [un]reasonable possibilities is a step towards understanding a poem. It is not a method of understanding in and of itself.

  1. All poetry is alien. We do not know what a poem is. We do not know what it is about—what the purposes of its author are. That is because we have not seen it.

Once we have seen it, we must assume that it wants us to react to it. But it is no good being reasonable with something that we view as having no reason. We must acknowledge our lack of understanding and be [un]reasonable – assume there is logic in the madness.

Section 2: On poetry being alien

When Section 1 was shown to a colleague of mine, she immediately noted a problem that I had not addressed: How can all poetry be alien? The following was an attempt to clarify that problem for her:

‘We are of course referring to ‘alien’ in its use as an adjective, which has thirty-two synonyms: foreign, overseas, non-native, external, distant, remote, unfamiliar, unknown, unheard of, foreign, strange, peculiar, odd, bizarre, outlandish, remote, exotic, novel, incompatible with, unusual for, opposed to, conflicting with, contrary to, adverse to, in conflict with, at variance with, antagonistic to, unacceptable to, repugnant to, hostile to, inimical to, (rare) oppugnant to—not taking in to account the synonyms associated with extra-terrestrials or the synonyms associated with all of the individual words above.

When I say that ‘all poetry is alien,’ I mean to say that a poem that I have not seen before is unfamiliar to me in the most literal way. It is unknown. I have to read it so that I can understand it, as is the same for all people.
There is a distance between poem and reader. Understanding a poem is shortening this distance. The most common way of doing this is by reading the poem.
It is not an insult to call a poem ‘alien’. I simply mean that I haven’t seen it before. If the poem in question is one that I have seen before e.g. Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’, it is not alien. That is how to distinguish between something that is alien and something that is not alien.
Tackling this discussion with more merit would invite an analysis of truth. The phrase, ‘all poetry is alien,’ has the appearance of an Empirical Fact (a notion I would like to be true in and of itself). Therefore we must ask ourselves whether there is only Empirical Fact, or only the possibility that something is what it is in that temporal space. You cannot have both.’

The fact that I refer to one of my notions as being an Empirical Fact, after having written exclusively about possibility constitutes this explanation as farce.
However, I am correct in saying that you cannot have both Empirical Fact and the possibility that something might be true in a particular temporal space—We return to causation.
Analysing this issue is a simple task: Am I correct in saying that there will always be the possibility [P] that a notion might be true [T]? Yes. Am I correct in saying that when faced with an Empirical Fact, there is the possibility that it might be false? No—If this were true, of what use would the entity Empirical Fact be? If an Empirical Fact can be proven to be incorrect – to be not fact, then how can truth be possible? Put simply:

We may have:

But we hay never have:

What if we consider this: Allowing an Empirical Fact has the possibility of being false (in reference to the second diagram), does it not also have the possibility that it may be true?
It does, but the concept of possibility should have nothing to do with an Empirical Fact—It either is, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then we must begin to understand that Empirical Facts do not exist—only the possibility that something may be true or false in a given time.

So with that in mind, is all poetry alien? In order to answer that question we must first ask ourselves: Are all people the same? No.
Causation [C] is to subjectivity [S] as each rock is to a stream. For example, if I am presented with a poem that I have never seen before and do consider it alien, I do so because of my own personal thoughts, feelings and opinions [S].
Could it not be however that the reason(s) as to why I find the poem alien lay not only in my subjectivity, but also in the poem itself—therefore the author [C]?

Therefore C and S are both unique and the same—I may always liken C to S thoughts, and I may always liken S thoughts to C: hence C=S + S=C.
The binary nature of this notion is apparent here—hence the rock and stream.
Now we must ask ourselves: Are we prepared to take in to account every subjective interpretation of every poem ever written—an infinite [∞] corpora that grows larger each day?
This is not possible. We must therefore analyse this infinite problem on a finite scale: Let us say that there are five poems [V] in the world. Along with this, there are five people or readers [L] in the world. Currently, each L has been assigned one V.

Logically, there will be five crosses when each [L] has read each [V]. And for the sake of argument, the following combinations are:

  1. V1+L1, V1+L2, V1+L3, V1+L4, V1+L5
  2. V2+L2, V2+L3, V2+L4, V2+L5, V2+L1
  3. V3+L3, V3+L4, V3+L5, V3+L1, V3+L2
  4. V4+L4, V4+L5, V4+L1, V4+L2, V4+L3
  5. V5+L5, V5+L1, V5+L2, V5+L3, V5+L4

The same information is illustrated in the diagram below:

The diagram demonstrates two issues: Each V has been read; each L has read every V. With regards to the discussion question we must ask ourselves: Are V alien?
In a perfect world, we can either assume that (a.) all L found V familiar, or that (b.) all L found V to be alien. In addition we could either say that (1.) L understood all V if and only if they engaged with (a.), or that (2.) L did not understand any V if and only if they engaged with (b.)—Even in a perfect world our variables begin to stack up.

What about an imperfect world within this finite one? I will not list the variables here. I will give one example however: Suppose that all L understand all V apart from L3—who for the sake of this example is not a particularly gifted L.

1. V1+L1, V1+L2, [V1+L3], V1+L4, V1+L5
2. V2+L2, [V2+L3], V2+L4, V2+L5, V2+L1
3. [V3+L3], V3+L4, V3+L5, V3+L1, V3+L2
4. V4+L4, V4+L5, V4+L1, V4+L2, [V4+L3]
5. V5+L5, V5+L1, V5+L2, [V5+L3], V5+L4

In this case we may reach the conclusion that 1/5 of all poetry [V] is alien if and only if 1/5 of all readers [L] comply with the former statement. Therefore, alien or unfamiliar poetry is contingent upon constituents who think it so—The aggregate sum of V considered alien is equivalent to the aggregate sum of L who think it so.
This aggregate sum is accommodated in the diagram by the cross that contains question marks—in those squares the errors of L3 could feasibly inhabit.

It is therefore impossible for all poetry to be alien. If it were possible, we would have to add the following Constant: No one knows anything—This is not a rational notion.

If we have found a notion to be impossible in a perfect, finite world, then it is more than likely going to be impossible in an imperfect, infinite world i.e. the one in which we live and think. Attempting to reduce the topic of Section 2 in to a Constant is a feckless exercise—By matter of being a Constant it needs to suggest an unchanging state of affairs. And with the amount of contingent variables involved this is impossible.
So let us eliminate my third Constant—What have we left?

1. There are finite ‘reasonable’ possibilities.
2. There are infinite [un]reasonable possibilities.
3. All poetry is alien.

The two remaining Constants complement each other. Both are unchanging states of affairs, but because one consistently contradicts the other we may always have the notion that P—T and not T—P. I would also argue that due to the second Constant being more tuned to real world implications i.e. infinite ones, we should make it the first Constant—The other being more of a necessary additional:

1. There are infinite [un]reasonable possibilities.
2. There are finite ‘reasonable’ possibilities.

In summation, we began with a discussion of causation—what causes a reader to react in a certain way? Following this, I explained the essential nature of the [un]reasonable reader—how we are not creating reason ex nihilo, but post-factum.
Shifting in to Section 2, I intended to highlight the impossibility, or rather the non-existence of Empirical Fact. It was at this point that causation made its second appearance along with the notion of an imperfect, infinite world—explored in the paper through a perfect, finite world.
We reached this conclusion: The notion that all poetry is alien is not feasible in an imperfect, infinite world. Consequently, the Constants were changed to accommodate this.


References:

Cummings, E.E., 1960. selected poems: 1923-1958. London: Faber & Faber.

Taylor, R., 1966. The Metaphysics of Causation. In: Sosa, E., ed. 1975. Causation and Conditionals. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 39-43.