Field Theory Energy as Organization

The modernist interest in the new physics, described above in terms of communication, also had implications for poetic design for Pound and his followers. 'The rose in the steel dust' — the pattern produced by electromagnetic forces Pound described in 'Psychology and Troubadours' and other essays — seemed to embody the mysterious flow of energies towards a design he saw in primitive art; and to provide a model for the image as a 'radiant node or cluster'; and slightly later for the 'vortex' which was both a historical confluence of forces and an aesthetic design like that of the Cantos. Pound derived the term 'vortex' from a reading of the pre-Socratics as well as from modern sciences (specifically, as Ian Bell shows, Helmholtz's work on the vortex in hydrodynamics, developed by Kelvin for use in describing the twisting of atoms in the 'ether') (Bell, 1981, p. 163). What the term allowed was an idea of design as dictated by the energies of the materials involved, producing the poem as a field of activity in which elements exist in dynamic and organic relation to each other (here, as so often, rather vaguely specified ideas flow together: the vitalism described above could produce similar conclusions).

The semiotician C. S. Peirce is one point of reference here. Not only does he, as Gillian Beer points out (Beer, 1996, p. 297), argue against determinism in 'The Doctrine of Necessity Examined' (1892), but for later writers like Muriel Rukeyser he serves as a foundational thinker in relation to the notion of an interpretive field in which poet, poem and reader all interact. Rukeyser began by exploring such subjects as aviation and industrial technology in Theory of Flight (1935), the volume with which she won the Yale Younger Poets prize. Rukeyser attacked industrial America in The Book of the Dead, her account of silicosis in West Virginia, but continued to incorporate the language of science into her poetry and later served as an adviser to the Exploratorium, the pioneering San Francisco museum. In 1942 she published a study of the American theoretical physicist and mathematician Willard Gibbs, often described as the founder of thermodynamics. Gibbs provided a 'language of process . . . language of the kind of life that is not a point-to-point movement, but a real flow in which everything is seen as deeply related to everything else'. In The Life of Poetry (1949) she expounds this poetics of connection, bringing in biology, the cutting of film, the study of sound-waves; asserting that the poet, scientist and mathematician seek 'a system of relations', and that the exchange of energies is central to both poetry and science.

In the work of other poets this becomes a fully elaborated theory of poetry. William Carlos Williams considered that Einsteinian physics had opened the way to a new conception of poetic form, as well as of space-time. In 'The Poem as a Field of Action' (1948) he formalizes the theoretical foundation of what becomes, in Charles Olson and his followers, 'composition by field' — a conceptualization of poetry as an array of forces, as a discursive space with its own internal relations between elements. Like Williams, Olson saw modern science's non-Euclidian space (which he studied via such texts as Whitehead's Process and Reality, 1929) as justifying his procedures, suggesting that the real may in fact be a matter of form: a dynamic arrangement of forces or pathways (method is 'the science of the path', he writes in Letters for Origin) (Olson, 1989, p. 106). His 1957 essay 'Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself' spells out the implication of this view of poetry in terms of what he calls a 'Riemannian' metrical field in which textual space bends around reality (Olson, 1997, p. 125).

One result of field theory is a heightened sense of intertextual relations. From Pound onwards, poets have produced texts in which are suspended the words of others, leaving the reader to see a dynamic relationship between the fragments so dispersed: Pound's multiple sources in the Cantos, bound together within the vortex of history; Williams's letters and other found texts in Paterson and Olson's records of early and later Gloucester in Maximus, associated by location; the scattered texts of Melville and Mangan in Susan Howe's 'Melville's Marginalia'. As Olson's annotator George Butterick comments, such widespread borrowing raises 'fundamental questions as to . . . the limits of originality in art' (Butterick, 1978, p. xi).

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