Epistemological Poetics: A Walk with Angus Fletcher by VN Alexander
In 1994, considering a course on the “Literature of Nature” at the Graduate Center of the City University New York, initially I thought it be would too pastoral for my tastes—in those days I thought I was interested in art not nature—and I almost passed it up, but the fates intervened in the form of Linda, the all-knowing and benign department secretary, who said to me, “It’s Angus Fletcher,” and, without waiting for my response, wrote my name down on the roll. In this propitious way, I was introduced to the distinguished Renaissance scholar, whose methods fitted perfectly with his subject and whose work has been, ever since, a steady spring of inspiration. In manner as well as appearance, Angus might be described, with his vibrant white hair and beard, as a classic sage. He tends to think aloud in class—about Faust’s contract or the contrapuntal voices of a fugue or Whitman—and encourages students to join in as his wanders in his mental lake country. Joan Richardson has called Angus Fletcher “a magically gifted teacher in whose presence we hear what thinking feels like.” Indeed the synesthetic experience of his poetic logic was always instructive, leading inevitably to the unforeseen vista. Memories of 1994 recall that at some auspicious point in each ninety-minute session, he would suddenly deliver an inspired oration that would leave us all physically moved. To come upon such depth and breath of erudition is to feel precisely what García López de Cárdenas must have felt when he unexpectedly came upon the Grand Canyon. Uncertain that I deserved to be occupying my seat at the seminar table that semester, I regularly worried: I will never know that much. I will never learn how to make so many spontaneous connections. I will never be able to make use of literature like that in my everyday thinking from understanding a poem to ordering a meal. And yet I must have understood some things. Innocent as I was of Angus’ numerous allusions, the concepts mentioned, the theorists, poets, and artists, I was able to learn, as a child learns her native tongue.
A language, it may be argued, cannot be taught, but must be acquired by living in it. We often speak with amazement about the abilities of toddlers to develop complex language skills so quickly and effortlessly. It may be that all grammars—but especially literary or poetic grammars—are knowable more through exceptions than rules. We can further say that learning a language is primarily an aesthetic experience that depends upon hunches about the way objects reflect each other’s light or about the way the context causes a certain degree of refraction. It may be that the clumsy and uncertain way children learn language is the way we actually learn all things. Perhaps we would do well to remain unclear about facts—as well-defined discrete bits of information—for extended periods of time to allow them to fill themselves in on their own, the way the facts of grammar do.
The entering graduate student may feel overwhelmed at first by the complexity of Angus’ thinking. However, confusion, I offer, is greatly underrated as a tool of learning. William James, for example, spoke of a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” from which the infant gradually sorts out a picture of reality. Having much experience with confusion, I can attest to the advantages it offers. When you don’t know what something means you enrich the space it occupies with all the possibilities supplied by the context. Not understanding everything is the best way to understand some things.
And yes I was mystified sometimes in Angus Fletcher’s seminars. I did not always ride his train of thought but had to chase it down like a clown at the pump cart, not catching up until the next station where I managed to throw myself on just as it was pulling out again. Others in class were better able than I to keep up, but no one, I venture, understood everything. We couldn’t have. As one of my classmates once put it, “Listening to Angus is like experiencing a force of nature.” Complexity, by the definition offered by complexity scientists, can only be known through mediated experience. Its wholeness is veiled like Nature’s face, not because divine, but because it is always changing to stay the same, so we can never see Nature in her completeness. To get to know the indivisible, dynamically stable world, we interact with different aspects of it. One must be patient and willing to listen, as Thoreau was, sitting by his pond. In time, knowledge comes to those who become one of its aspects.
Fast forwarding fifteen years later, I had just returned from a visit with Angus in New Mexico where he retired. On the plane, I was rereading his Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature (1991), noticing tantalizing germs of the two books that followed: A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (2006) and Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare (2007). I was surprised to find that my ten-year-old notes in the margins echoed the things I had discussed with him days before about an epistemology for poets, things I was just beginning to understand. After having studied with Angus for so many years, read some of the books he has read and all of those he has written, and spent more time in discussion with him than with any other mentor or colleague, I knew enough to more or less to keep up with him—still panting though to be sure—I was amazed at how much I intuited back then when I often felt fairly well bewildered, when I didn’t yet have the names for things I knew, when I couldn’t articulate the distinctions that I clearly felt. What kind of thinking was I doing back then? for I certainly wasn’t supplied yet with knowledge as we usually think of knowledge. It must have been poetic knowledge, fictitious and correct in its own way. “Fictions,” writes Angus,
can find a place for the experience of vague, unclear thought which may have been engendered by confusion and frustration. Fictions can show how one thinks through an issue or problem, while revealing the conflicts within the mind as the mental struggle proceeds. Fictions can show thoughts slipping away from object-centered clarity, as perhaps some mysterious natural phenomenon meets the protagonist with uncanny force. Fictions can show what seems in life to be the vital necessity of incomplete, inconsistent, nonsystematic thinking. All these things, and more, which the philosopher might not wish to consider in the category of thinking, the poet will show not only to be thinking, but thinking of a high order—an order usually registered in metaphor, which is the fastest-thinking linguistic form. (Colors 5)
This essay about learning to speak Angus Fletcher’s language (and subsequently learning to develop my own) is also an essay about how we acquire aesthetic knowledge of the world, an ability we may be in danger of losing. Such a fate would be tragic and disastrous, not because without knowledge of poetry we make less impressive dinner guests, or because poetry is necessarily uplifting to the human spirit or because poetry provides good mental hygiene through safe play and harmless transgressions. These hopelessly vague and ultimately meaningless ideas are trotted out and paraded around as the “reasons” why we need literature, but they just aren’t convincing. No wonder budgets are cut for the arts. No wonder literature sales are down. No wonder students of Literature have gone over to Marketing and Advertising. We need science, clearly. But few are as certain that we need literature.
If the world is as complex as a poem is, and we don’t understand complexity, then we will not make sound decisions in politics, business or science. Poetry teaches us how to think about complexity or how to think complexly. If we regularly exercise the mind with poetry, we are less likely to try to paraphrase the world and call it knowledge of the world.
Through poetry, I have found, the brain acquires knowledge; through analysis it edits and selects. Despite what many scientists have led us to believe with their computing metaphors applied to brain processes, leading neuroscientist Gerard Edelman now tells us—what poets always knew—memories are not stored in a physical location in the form of an imprint, say, that is filed away and later retrieved mechanically or logically. Like the reductive scientist, Milton’s Satan, Angus has noted, also made the mistake of believing thoughts are in some way concrete. Memories—and that means everything we know—are actually preserved and recalled as habitual patterns of neuronal activity that rely upon fluid synaptic interactions based on contiguity or similarity, or to use terms from poetics, metonymic or metaphoric connections. When analysis sleeps, we get an unadulterated view of the poetic tendencies of the brain continuing in dreams, forging new connections and associations, making paths that may be selected in our waking hours when analysis is on again. Poesis comes first, naturally.
The poetic brain invented and was using logic before philosophers found a name for it. This lovely organ created grammar without a term for a preposition. Analysis comes after poetry to divide and label. This is why when we start to learn a new subject, we should not start with the divisions and the labels. If we do we will never be able to piece together the living animal of true knowledge. Labels and divisions are only helpful in grasping what we already know through poetic experience.
Angus Fletcher exemplifies poetics in his methods. He does, thinks and says what poetic form is. The student only has to listen, and sometimes not even very carefully, for it’s possible to pick up on many things subconsciously, as I think I have done over the years. Angus’ work is “difficult,” but he is capable of holding your attention, of providing clear and concrete examples, of relating the abstract to the everyday, of inspiring the imagination. What he seems incapable of doing is dumbing things down. You couldn’t dumb down a Fletcher book any more than you could paraphrase a poem and say you got the idea across.
I don’t know if it has always been like this or not, but I do know that these days the notion prevails that we ought to learn some basics first, acquiring a simple worldview before moving on (if ever) to complexity. Everything is dumbed down: the news, college degrees, even scholarly books. It’s as if people are terrified of making errors or being uncertain. Tom Robotham, a former student of Angus Fletcher, writing on the spread of anti-intellectualism in America, tells us that some voters actually like Presidents who seem less smart than they. He also reports that museums these days discourage their docents from saying anything intellectual, lest they make visitors feel stupid. The audience for intellectuals is receding like waters after a flood, leaving them stranded on a barren and unvisited highpoint. Why have so many people become uncomfortable with the natural process of learning?
Writing late in his life, Henry James observes that learning to be an artist comes from painful trial and error. “What the artist
saw so intensely today…was that only now, at the very last, had he come into possession. His development had been abnormally slow, almost grotesquely gradual. He had been hindered and retarded by experience, he had for long periods only groped his way.” As the artist creates, even he does not comprehend the “law” of his own artistry and instead has to teach “himself by mistakes.” But in the end, this, in a way, makes “all stupidity sacred,” writes James. On a similar note, James Joyce remarks, “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Without creative and opportunistic error, learning is impossible; this we learned from Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago. We all may have a good intuitive sense of what a concept like a “species” is but none of us, least of all scientists, can tell you what any particular species exactly is, and Darwin himself never located the “origins” precisely; instead he distributed the originating acts throughout innumerable, complex and irreducible processes.
Reductive science, we may say, is partly responsible for the tendency these days to dumb things down, for it has been pushing its philosophy that the greatly simplified and idealized world of static models actually corresponds faithfully with reality. The media may be blamed for making this situation much worse than it actually is, for news favors the oversimplified. Richard Dawkins is not that popular among evolutionary theorists, but you might think he is the only evolutionary theorist if you rely on the popular press for your science. Fortunately, all good scientists live and breathe the problems they’re grappling with and that’s why they are able to learn things. Fortunately, you can’t dumb nature down, and it will teach you if you listen. Unfortunately, the scientists’ struggles and their uncertainties on the way to learning seldom come across in the conclusions that finally get published. If we could only know what they thought along the way we would get a better idea what nature is really like.
Nature speaks, as poetry does, in a language of relations. As Ladyman and Ross argue in Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007), there are no things in nature, only relationships that have effects we perceive as things. Or as Angus, four years earlier, describes how Walt Whitman understood the issue, “in any environment substance is known and functions only as (and in) process” (New Theory). Ladyman and Ross’s more recent research draws from quantum field theories, various system sciences, information theory and biosemiotics. Many scientists today are beginning to slip way from the grasp of reductionism. Philosophers are calling this the “relational turn” in science. As a worker in this field, I have to say I was ready for the relational turn because Angus Fletcher’s poetics taught me to anticipate it. “Readiness is all” when it comes to learning and the ability to interact through metaphor with what ought to be strictly unfamiliar.
Angus saw the beginnings of this turn in Galileo’s assertion of “the nonessentialist nature of physical motion.” Being relative, motion (and stability) results from interaction and is not caused by a stable internal nature. This, Angus also noted, was expressed by the form of the Miltonic line. The decentering of the universe did not abolish the notion of a center, as other literary theorists supposed. Milton’s “baroque sense of hyperactive harmony,” distributed centrifugal or gravitational forces to various interacting centers. Interaction, rather than some mysterious inherent “cause,” keeps everything moving and together. Power and stability have no single source. In the Miltonic line, as in the Galilean universe, “the telling stability of things comes from their being forever on the move, but in orderly fashion” (Time, Space, and Motion).
Angus’ theory of literature is unlike “what scholars have been calling ‘theory’ ever since about 1965” (New Theory). In the 70s, theory heralded in an unhelpful deconstructive confusion, the confusion of endlessly deferred meaning. Such intentional disruption keeps the student in an arrested state of development. He will never be able to look back, as Henry James was finally able to do, to say, I’ve learned something. This kind of confusion is indeed frightening and pointless. Milton’s Satan found himself in such a hell because he
has come to believe that his thought is solely “its own place.” The mind has become for him a monstrous figure of speech from whose spiraling self-involvement and solipsism there is no escape, because he has concretized or reified the flux of mental life in terms of a room walled everywhere with mirrors. His mind cannot stand outside of its place, because it has conceived itself to be merely place, whose mirrors serve only to increase the sense of hopeless distance and separation from the world. (Colors 43)
Angus tells us that conversation and interaction liberate mobile concepts and prevent us from becoming “victims of the immobility of the solipsistic icon, which so traps Satan, the monomaniacal thinker who has dug his own hole and cannot climb out” (Colors 47). Too many “intellectuals” have dealt in obscurities too long, dealt in confusion that cuts us off from the world, and it’s no wonder audiences are uncomfortable. Relativism should have taught us to persevere through uncertainty, waiting for stability to emerge as the adaptable rules of grammar do. Instead cultural relativism encouraged the uneducated, hardheaded, pathologically unobservant person to cling tenaciously to his inherited misconceptions and assumptions as an earnestly felt “common sense” that at least seemed reliable compared to the nonsense in academia. In a deconstructed world who wouldn’t grasp for hard facts?
Taking his departure from Galileo’s heretical claim, “It moves,” Angus Fletcher did for American literary theory what C. S. Peirce did for American philosophy. The relational turn in science is based, some argue, on a triadic semitoic system, from which meaning emerges, not a dyadic system, in which meaning oscillates back and forth, between Frege’s “sense” and “reference.” This makes all the difference; it’s a difference between Peircean pragmaticism and Derridean deconstruction. According to Fletcher, the poet “obeys a law of a continuously shifting center—not abandoning the idea of center per se as with some deconstructionists, but rather allowing a general denial of privilege to permit a paramount role to perception itself” (New Theory 59). While Angus’ theory rejects the quasi-religious Platonic form existing prior to or external to the poem, controlling from without, it is grounded in an awareness of art as a natural phenomenon, and it provides nimble analogies between poetics and the complexity sciences that are useful and prudent.
What I have learned from Angus is that there is something fundamentally true about poetry, something not being realized often enough today. The situation is one of crisis and I believe the first thing we ought to do is eliminate all those committee-made phonic readers in elementary schools across this country and sit down and read to our children for the sake of the pleasure of the words, their forms and various meanings. We risk loosing that harder-won intuitive knowledge of the world if we take it apart, label it and then say, “Well that’s done! Now what’s on TV?” Early in their lives, children develop more neuronal connections than they can ever use. Those that are not used die off. Those that are used remain. Learning is partly a pruning process that eliminates an unhelpful hyper-connection. But start pruning neuronal pathways too soon and you may literally limit a child’s possibilities for thinking later in life. Without poetically developed minds, we won’t even be able to sense the loss of this intuitive science, much less retrieve it. Knowledge is not bits of information to be acquired step by step. It’s a wild irreducible world of relations. Nature is a work of art. “Milton,” writes Angus
when thinking largest, thinks in terms of a universe that is created as an informed, counterchaotic organism…. This universe is alive with thought” (Colors 79-80)
Science today is a careless flirt with poetic and semiotic concepts like “information” and “meaning” in physical systems or “signs” in biology, without being fully committed to non-metaphoric senses of these terms. It will be a very long time before the majority of scientists take the relational turn and start thinking of nature in aesthetic terms as Milton did. Meanwhile however, it is becoming clearer that emergent self-organization—which is one of the most important creative processes in nature, more important than natural selection—uses poetic and semiotic processes. Similarities and contiguities affect probabilities of certain patterns arising over others less lucky. The only discipline currently with the conceptual tools appropriate for discussing these kinds of creative processes is poetics, and no one in the past fifty years has understood poetics as well as Angus has. He articulates in his method what poets realize in their verse and what nature discovers in her processes.
Science is sometimes too important to be left just to scientists. While I don’t think the Defense Administration ought to start awarding my poet colleagues grants for scientific research, I do believe it would be helpful if poetic literature were a more important part of everyone’s life, for it imbues relational thinking that is necessary for true knowledge of the world. Thank luck we have at least one voice in the wilderness who has laid the groundwork for thinking anew in the twenty-first century. Angus Fletcher is one of the exemplary thinkers of our time. Granted, I have for Angus the kind of cumulative esteem that may be typical of a former graduate student. Nevertheless, I believe I am correct in my intuition that he has produced a work of genius. Many colleagues and students who have had the pleasure of accompanying him on his diurnal wanderings have ended up somewhere wonderful, at some sudden clearing overlooking a broad and beautiful landscape that is simply breathtaking.
Angus Fletcher, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, is the author of several works of literary criticism, including Allegory, The Prophetic Moment, Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature, Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, and The Topological Imagination: Spheres, Edges, and Islands. He received the Truman Capote Prize in Literary Criticism, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Getty Fellowship, and a Senior Fellowship from the Endowment for the Humanities.