Thursday, February 24, 2022

Intro To Naturalism Sequence

I've written an entire sequence introducing "naturalism", and I've just finished publishing it on LessWrong. You can see the whole thing at this link.

Here's the first post:

Orientation

A note on how to approach this sequence:

If you were exactly like me, I would ask you to savor this sequence, not scarf it. I would ask you to approach each of these essays in an expansive, lingering, thoughtful sort of mood. I would ask you to read them a little bit at a time, perhaps from a comfortable chair with a warm drink beside you, and to take breaks to make dinner, sing in the car, talk to your friends, and sleep.

These essays are reflections on the central principles I have gradually excavated from my past ten years of intellectual labor. I am a very slow thinker myself; if you move too quickly, I expect we’ll miss each other completely.

There’s a certain kind of thing that happens when a person moves quickly, and relies a lot on their built-up structures—their familiar, tried-and-true habits of thought and perception. There is a different kind of thing that happens when a person can step back and bring those very structures into view, rather than standing atop them. I'm hoping for the latter.

But since you’re not exactly like me, there might be a better way to approach this sequence, in your particular case, than the exact one I’d suggest to myself. I hope you’ll take a moment to check.

What matters to me is not how fast you read, or how many sittings it takes; what matters is that you create for yourself enough space to explore, to observe the real world beyond all these words, to watch how your own thoughts and experiences unfold in dialog with mine. Any method that allows you to maintain that kind of space as you read is perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

*

“Naturalism” is a label for a conceptual framework, investigatory discipline, and semi-formalized way of looking at and learning about the world. I’ve been developing and teaching naturalism for the past couple of years, if you start counting on the day I chose the term, or since 2013, if you take a more historical perspective. I’ve made some relevant content available, but I’ve had trouble writing a straightforward introductory post.

The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that the naturalist perspective is suspicious of categories, projections, and preconceptions, and seeks to move closer toward (relatively) unfiltered, direct observations. It’s specifically a frame-breaking and frame-escaping discipline, so it’s hard to describe in frame-terms without being importantly misleading.

I ardently desire not to mislead anyone.

*

There’s a saying I like a lot, which goes: “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two is never sure.”

(When I first heard this, I needed to pause for a moment, to let it sink in. It helped me to actually visualize wearing a watch on each wrist, then checking the time.)

The reason I like this saying is that it reminds me to be confused, in an appropriate fashion. “Confused” might even be too weak of a word—it’s almost like it reminds me to be scared, in an appropriate fashion.

I mean, sure—for most things, I don’t have to know what time it actually is, with sufficient precision that the off-ness of my watch makes a meaningful difference. The claim here is not that absolute clarity is required at all times.

But there is indeed an unfortunate property of having-a-watch, which is that it provides me with an answer to the question “what time is it?”

It provides that answer clearly, and specifically, and unambiguously. It provides that answer with more confidence than it ought to, like a calculation that doesn’t attend to significant digits. And if I’m not careful, then with my watch right in front of me, it’s very easy to lose track of the fact that I do not, in fact, know exactly what time it is. To forget that what I really know is what time it almost is.

*

This is what our concepts do for us. They are usually a strict upgrade over “entirely too much information for us to even begin to process or handle”; but if you lean on them too heavily, or too unthinkingly, they become actively misleading. Actively harmful, in cases where precision and accuracy genuinely matter, and being subtly wrong is disastrous.

And concepts encourage us to lean. They’re sturdy! Sensible! Comforting! They soothe confusion, make the world seem more predictable and comprehensible, give us the surface sensation of control (or at least understanding). It’s nice to have answers.

But the map is not the territory.

*

It’s easy to look up at the sky, and name the constellations, without losing track of your knowledge that there isn’t really a Great Bear up there. We know that the constellations aren’t “real,” that they’re just there to help us chunk and cluster and orient and discuss.

But constellations are an unusually transparent construction. In the set of fake concepts that we impose on messy reality, they’re unusually candid about their fakeness. Their arbitrary nature is kind enough to be apparent and obvious.

Many concepts are much less wearing-their-fakeness-on-their-sleeve. Constellations don’t bear all that much resemblance to actual stars, so it’s easy to avoid getting confused. But a lot of concepts really look quite similar to the thing they’re modeling, and are therefore much more seductive, mesmerizing, convincing, befuddling. Much more in-the-way, much more likely to distract, much harder to set aside and see past.

The concept Harry's mind had of the rubber eraser as a single object was obvious nonsense.

It was a map that didn't and couldn't match the territory.

Human beings modeled the world using stratified levels of organization, they had separate thoughts about how countries worked, how people worked, how >organs worked, how cells worked, how molecules worked, how quarks worked.

When Harry's brain needed to think about the eraser, it would think about the rules that governed erasers, like "erasers can get rid of pencil-marks". >Only if Harry's brain needed to predict what would happen on the lower chemical level, only then would Harry's brain start thinking - as though it were >a separate fact - about rubber molecules.

But that was all in the mind.

Harry's mind might have separate beliefs about rules that governed erasers, but there was no separate law of physics that governed erasers.

Harry's mind modeled reality using multiple levels of organization, with different beliefs about each level. But that was all in the map, the true >territory wasn't like that, reality itself had only a single level of organization, the quarks, it was a unified low-level process obeying >mathematically simple rules.

It is genuinely difficult to notice that an eraser is something other than “an eraser”—to circumvent the well-intentioned shortcutting that our brains are so practiced at doing.

And to be clear: it’s usually not necessary to notice that the mental category “eraser” is glossing over a bunch of detail. It usually does not matter; our concepts are ubiquitous in large part because they tend to be sufficient, adequate for our purposes.

But there are times when it’s absolutely crucial to be un-hypnotized, when it’s absolutely crucial to be aware of the difference between [what’s happening] and [the layer of interpretation we’ve draped like a blanket over what’s happening].

And there’s something frightening (to me, at least) about the idea of such a crucial moment arising and people not noticing it, because they aren’t even aware that they’re draping a blanket. Or noticing that they need to set aside the blanket, but not knowing how to actually do so.

Which is why I’ve devoted so many of my resources to developing naturalism. It’s an important facet of mature rationalist practice, and it’s mostly missing from our collective toolkit.

*

Notice, though, that “naturalism” is itself a concept. It’s a constellation painted somewhat arbitrarily over a multidimensional cluster of phenomena, pretending to be real. It’s easy to say that X is a part of naturalism and Y is not, and to forget that there just isn’t any boundary out there in the territory.

But in order to properly draw your attention to the cluster, I think I sort of have to paint those lines. Human brains (mine included) have a really hard time getting excited about vast collections of vaguely adjacent points; in order to produce something useful and comprehensible, I have to pretend that there’s a Thing, there.

I think doing so is instrumentally useful, and I think that (when done honestly, as this intro sequence is attempting to do) it’s not actually misleading, or self-undermining. This is a fundamental thesis of naturalism: that there are points, and there are paintings we superimpose upon them, and that these things are different. That the constellations are of a wholly different nature than the stars.

Doesn’t mean we don’t need the conceptual overlay. We just want to know, in any given moment, whether we’re dealing more with paintings, or more with the things they’re meant to depict.

*

The constellation I will paint in this sequence is a single sentence. It’s a sentence I built one word at a time, sketched atop a cluster of five stars I’ve picked out from my view of the night sky.

The sentence is a summary of naturalism after-the-fact. It will do almost nothing to help you understand the stars themselves, the real thing that I try to do with my mind day in and day out.

But it may serve to guide your attention to those stars. It may prompt you to look more closely, for yourself, at the reality hidden behind the tidy painting.

The sentence, which I will discuss piece by piece throughout my introductory sequence, is this:

The sentence forms the outline of my sequence, more or less:

  • Knowing
  • The Territory
  • Observation
  • Patient Observation
  • Direct Observation

My only goal in this sequence is to communicate what I mean by the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.”

*

Here is what will happen in this sequence: I will pick out the concepts that seem central to my understanding of naturalism; I will name them with words; and I will do my best to tell you what I mean by those words.

That is all.

There are a few things you might expect from an introductory sequence that I will not even try to accomplish. I want to be clear about my intentions.

I will not try to argue for the truth of the proposition the sentence picks out. It’s true, I think, that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. But I won’t try to convince you of that here.

I won’t tell you what would change my mind, or what I’d expect to see if I were wrong. I won’t tell you how I think you could find out if I were correct, or if I were not. I will not present evidence. I will not engage with counterarguments.

Inasmuch as I’m making a claim, you’re right to want that sort of thing from me. But I’ll disappoint you, for now, on this front. I cannot do very much at once; for me, just saying what I mean without misleading anyone is quite enough to be getting on with.

I will not try to argue that naturalism is important, either. Or, at least, not directly or on purpose. I won’t say much of anything about when it matters, or why. This is also a worthwhile topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this sequence.

Finally I will not try to help you learn naturalism. I do have a sometimes effective curriculum at this point, and I’ve even published a sort of [proto-naturalism introductory course] (https://www.loganstrohl.com/nature-study) that you can take at your own pace online; but I will not be presenting anything like that here.

What I will try to do is pick out the concepts that are central to naturalism, name them with words, and tell you what I mean by those words.

It will take me seven-and-a-half essays, the first of which you have nearly finished.

When we are done here, I will write more things. When I write those things, I will sometimes use the term “naturalism”. And if this sequence is successful, people who have read it will know what I’m talking about.

People who have not read this sequence will say “What is naturalism?”, and I will finally be able to answer their question to my satisfaction.

*

Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. Let us begin, then, with “knowing”.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Investigating Fabrication

I've got an essay up at LessWrong that definitely belongs here as well, but that's where it's all nicely formatted so I'm just gonna link. It's a demo of a naturalism study; Duncan wrote a great essay about "fabricated options", and I did a report on my attempts to learn the thing myself.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Why Is History So Boring?: An Open Letter To My Middle School Self, To Be Read Beneath the Desk During Social Studies Class

1. Read one random sentence of a history textbook and pick out the most mind-numbing phrases.

I'll go first.

"In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs."

Most mind-numbing phrases: "In 1958", followed by "Heinrich Berlin", followed by "Temple of the Inscription at Palenque".

2. Write down what exactly happens in your head as you read each phrase. How do you feel? What do you imagine? What kinds of thoughts pop up?

Here's mine.

"In 1958": Irritation, dismissal, skipping-over.

Whoah, slow down. What happens right before the irritation? How did you know to be irritated?

When I read something, I try to let it into my head and make sense of it. But when I read "1958"... It's like when I'm using my hands to prepare a spot in the garden for a new rosemary plant, and I reach down expecting to grab a handful of soft loamy soil and move it out of the way, but instead there's a buried rock that's bigger than my head. I run into "1958" really hard, and it doesn't yield and incorporate gracefully into my thoughts like ordinary words would, and then I'm all stumbling and disoriented. The dismissal and skipping-over is like having decided to put the rosemary plant six inches to the right rather than contending with the buried boulder.

"Heinrich Berlin": Irritation again, though less than before, and even faster skipping-over. It's almost exactly like coming across a word or phrase written in Russian. It's just some nonsense sounds that maybe mean something to somebody else and could perhaps come to mean something to me in the future given enough context, but I know that right now it's just a pointless name. But actually it's worse than that, because I know that I'm reading a history book, and I've learned that most of the names in history books only show up once or twice. It's not like when a main character in a fantasy book has an unfamiliar name that it would take a while to work out. In that case, I trust that it'll become familiar over time. But in a history book, proper nouns vanish almost immediately after they first show up.

"Temple of the Inscription at Palenque": Same as before, but this time with a feeling of exhaustion, "I'm fed up with this", and a motion of giving up. It's like my attempt to prepare the ground for a rosemary plant ran into three big rocks in a row, and maybe I should just find a pot and put the rosemary on my porch instead of in the ground. By the time I've gotten to the second half of the sentence ("identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs"), it's like I've completely lost my footing and am tumbling freely down a hill. There's no chance for those words to make it in, because I'm too tired and disoriented.

I've recently learned something about how to read history. Like in the past three days. For my entire life before that, I would read something like, "In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs," feel all of the things I just described, and then be angry at the author for doing this to me and give up in either despair or disgust. Sometimes, especially if I'd been excited about the topic, I'd even feel betrayed. The problem is, history books look a lot like novels, and they even purport to tell "stories" about the past. Because of this surface-level similarity to something familiar, by default I take on pretty much the same mental posture I use when reading a novel. But that's not the only way to read something.

What happens when you're reading a novel and you come across an unfamiliar word? You look it up in a dictionary, right? What is it like to look up a word in a dictionary?

3. Let's try it; let's both look up "jentacular", a word I've just run into for the first time, and keep track of what happens in our heads as we do it.

Even before I open a new tab and start to type (I'm using an electronic source instead of an actual book because I'm 32 and the world is different now), I can tell that my mind has already begun to "use a dictionary". There's a sharpness, a focus, a searching. I feel a little like a heat-seeking missile. It's like I've created an open space in my mind, a definition-shaped cavity, that's prepared for the meaning of a word to fall in.

As I open the tab and type "jentacular", it's as though the cavity narrows. Something about it becomes sharper. I'm no longer a heat-seeking missile; I have become more like a diving falcon who has identified a specific mouse.

The dictionary says: "Of or pertaining to a breakfast taken early in the morning, or immediately upon getting up." As I read the definition, it doesn't immediately make complete sense to me. It takes me a minute to feel it out, to find the associated concepts and experiment with ways for them to fit together until I've found something I can hold onto. I scan up and down the entry a couple of times, and what finally makes the meaning settle in place is recognizing that this is an adjective. I had to adjust a little, because the definition-shaped cavity I'd created was accidentally a little bit more noun-shaped than adjective-shaped.

But I get it now: I have a daily habit of drinking a jentacular bottle of water even before breakfast. The deer are often full of jentacular yearning for my chrysanthemums. It was a bout of post-jentacular study of the Olmec that prompted this demonstration.

I expect you had a similar experience, because you know how to use a dictionary, too.

4. Now let's try this same thing with a novel. I'll give us a random sentence from a novel, and we'll track what it's like to read it.

"Then she turned slightly, looking to Aitrus lovingly."

Just before I read this sentence, as I look at the page in the novel, it's like I'm letting some kind of barrier dissolve so that the words can flow into me unimpeded. I'm making a welcoming sort of motion with my mind, and I feel a hint of curious excitement. It's as though I'm saying, "I wonder what this book will do to me!"

As I read the sentence, images happen. It feels effortless and automatic. All the work was in the preparation, when I made myself like a canvas. I read, "Then she turned slightly," and my imagination rushes forward to present me with a hazy image of a woman, and the kinesthetic sensation of turning a body a few degrees. I read, "looking to Aitrus lovingly," and the image becomes richer, more specific. The woman is an adult with long brown hair and an apron. My emotions about her become warm, I imagine a smile, and if I focus on the image for a while I begin to smell cinnamon, oatmeal, and chocolate chip cookies, and I know the smooth soft alto voice she will have when she speaks.

None of that is work. It's just happening to me, automatically, as I read. Imagining bits of stories is what my mind does when it rests. When it daydreams, and when it sleeps. So to engage effectively with a novel, all I have to do is get my deliberate thoughts, goals, and distractions out of the way.

Now let's go back to the history book. Why did you feel betrayed by the author?

There are a lot of years between us, so I could be wrong. But if you are like me in this respect, and if my memory of you is correct, it's because you prepared to read the story of history by cooperatively, trustingly, vulnerably getting yourself out of the way. You let your guard down, as though preparing for sleep, to become a blank canvas upon which the author might paint. You did what you thought was your part in the shared endeavor, and then the author failed to do what you thought was theirs.

But a history book is not that kind of story.

When it comes to the sort of cooperative endeavor in which reader and author together engage, a history book is much more like a dictionary than like a novel.

It's a little confusing, especially in history books written specifically for high schoolers, or for a popular audience; there's a lot of pressure on the authors of those books to entertain, to not completely alienate people who don't know how to read history. So there are sentences like the one we started with, but there are also exciting full-page pictures, sentences filled with action verbs and suspenseful clauses that sound a lot like tabloid journalism, and even artificially constructed novel-like plots.

Really, though, a history book is a kind of resource. It is a resource for answering questions.

If you started reading a dictionary, cover to cover, for no other reason than that someone told you to, it would probably be even more mind-numbing than your experiences with history books so far. It would be like that because you would not be using the dictionary in the way it was designed to be used. You would not be shaping your mind in a way that let you receive the type of information offered, and you would not be doing the work needed to make sense of the information once you'd begun to receive it.

Ideally, you'd go to a history book when you were already curious about a certain topic and wanted to understand its context.

I've been reading about ancient mesoamerican cultures, for example, because I've been really interested in chocolate, and I want to know where it comes from. What I find in the history books is a curated collection of a whole bunch of evidence about what happened in mesoamerica a long time ago, before cacao trees were domesticated. As I read, the work I'm doing is about sifting through and weighing all of that evidence to figure out for myself what the world was like when people first started to eat chocolate.

But since you're in a pretty terrible educational situation where people are going to plop you down in front of a history book and force you to either read or sacrifice your grades, here is what I recommend.

Never just start reading. If you have a history book in front of you, and you notice the getting-out-of-the-way feeling that is like reading a novel or preparing to dream, stop what you are doing. Do not read anything but the title of the section, or at most the first paragraph. Then get out a piece of paper, and make a list of questions. Ask yourself, "Given that I'm going to learn about X, what do I most want to know?" Think about what kinds of things you're usually interested in (poetry, philosophy, science, whatever) and try asking questions that have something to do with those topics.

Only once you have filled the paper with questions, or spent at least five minutes trying to, should you begin to consult the textbook. The author will present some evidence that might pertain to some of your questions. See if you can use what they have to say to figure out whatever it is that you care about.

Do not try to care about what they're saying just because they wrote it down. That's not how history books work, any more than it's how dictionaries work.

One of the questions on the list I wrote while preparing to learn about the Olmecs is, "What was going on in Europe at the time?" I knew that chocolate is not native to Europe, and that Europeans did a lot to advance chocolate-making technology once they got their hands on cacao beans. I figured that if I follow the history of chocolate, I will eventually get to the point where cacao arrives in Europe, and I didn't want that arrival to be a floating, disconnected point in European culture. I wanted to understand the context of both sides of the ocean. So I thought I should keep an eye on the paralel history of Europe as I learned the history of mesoamerica.

Thus, when I encountered the sentence, "San Lorenzo is the oldest of the heartland cities, dating from about 1500 B.C.," I did not feel irritation, dismissal, or skipping-over when I got to the number. I did stumble slightly—the number didn't fall right into my head as easily as most words would—but I knew how to recover, just like I knew how to make sense of "jentacular" when it turned out to be an adjective rather than a noun. I made sense of "1500 B.C." by pausing, mulling it over, recognizing that it was a year, recognizing years as shared reference frames across continents, and wondering what was happening in Europe at the time. Was this before Socrates? I think so. Maybe even before Greece, but probably not by more than a thousand years.

In the end, after a bit more work of this sort, here is how I understood the sentence:

"San Lorenzo [an ancient city near the Southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, just within agricultural zone 11 so probably warm enough for cacao to grow] is the oldest of [the major Olmec population centers], dating from about [a thousand years before Ancient Greece, and two hundred and fifty years before the Olmec (took it over? started calling themselves 'Olmec'? changed in some way that contemporary historians now recognize them as 'Olmec'?]."

It took some doing to fit that sentence into my thoughts, and to understand most sentences I've read in same book. But it's not irritating or frustrating work, because I am eager to do it, and well prepared. That's the state you need to find before beginning to read history.

A final note:

If you're feeling up for a slightly greater challenge, imagine that the author was intensely curious about something genuinely interesting. They wrote this history book as part of gathering evidence about the interesting thing. See if you can reconstruct their list of brainstormed questions. Try to figure out what was so fascinating that they had to write an entire book to work it out.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Importance Of Being Bored

One of the assignments I very often suggest to students of naturalism is "be bored".

I'm exaggerating a little when I put it that way. I don't actually mean that painful experiences of weary directionlessness are the goal. The goal of the assignment is to ensure that there are blocks of time in your day-to-day life in which it would be possible for you to be bored.

Naturalism is a System 1 approach. Most of the work is done "in the background", while you're engaged with other things or not trying to do anything in particular at all. It asks your deliberate, solution-driven thought processes to wait in the hall for a while, so the rest of your mind has space to make contact with the world and to process it from all the available perspectives.

But what tends to happen when we stop using our minds to accomplish things on purpose for a little while? What usually happens when you go for a walk, ride in an Uber, or eat lunch?

In my experience, and in the experience of most of the people I've worked with, what happens is usually some form of passive entertainment. We watch Youtube, listen to a podcast, or casually socialize (either through social media or through in-person smalltalk).

I don't mean to demonize passive entertainment. I use it frequently, and I don't think I'm making a mistake most of the time.

I only mean to point out that many of us have our lives arranged such that when we stop making deliberate use of our minds, we tend to hand them over to someone else instead. We are almost constantly occupied with directed experiences, whether or not we're the ones directing.

I recommend that students of naturalism, or anyone trying to do creative and original work, wrest some of their time away from the external forces that sweep in to occupy their unoccupied moments.

Give yourself an opportunity every day to be bored.

If you go for a walk, you could leave your headphones behind. If you commute by train, you could leave your phone or ipad in your backpack. If you eat lunch while browsing Facebook, you could sit on a bench outside instead. And if you meditate anyway, you could try a version with no instructions at all besides "sit quietly".

You'll find that your mind wanders. It daydreams. It thinks about nonsense, and the past, and all sorts of things. That is the point. The more your mind wanders, the more psychological vantage points you will occupy. And the more vantage points you occupy, the more opportunities you have to see things from unaccustomed angles, and to probe them with diverse tools.

If you allow your mind the space to wander freely on a regular basis, more of your mind is available for processing whatever it is that interests you. So if you want to understand something deeply for yourself, do not let yourself be entertained all of the time. Be bored.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Announcing "Original Seeing With a Focus On Life"

In May and June of 2021, I ran an online nature study course with about two dozen participants. I had three goals:

  1. Help people create or deepen a personal connection with nature.
  2. Learn how to run month-long online courses with over a dozen participants.
  3. Test some hunches about the rationality material I’ve been working on.

One of my main hunches was that if you complete this course, you’ll find you’re able to study your own mind, or just about anything else, in the way a naturalist studies nature, with no further guidance. I obviously need more data, but the preliminary feedback looks promising.

A solo version of the course is now available for free through my website, thanks largely to support from the Long Term Future Fund.

If you want to get better at original seeing, I know of no better resource. I hope that some of you will try it out and tell me how it goes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

How To Get Poetry (Part 2)

I think the reason I sat on that last post for two years is because I said what I think people are doing wrong, and I said what the right thing to do is, but I didn't actually say how to do the right thing. So now I'm hoping to correct myself, at least a little.

First, an object of study: “Early One Summer” by W. S. Merwin (from Migration)

Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

As I said before, the main problem is that we're all used to adopting a certain vantage point as we read: one that reveals to us semantic meaning, implication, and degrees of accuracy.

The thing about adopting a new vantage point, no matter what it is, is that you usually have to un-stick yourself from the old one first. So we'll start with that.

I once did a photo study of a slide in which I took many pictures while slowly circling the object. Once I'd photographed the slide from many angles, my object of study seemed less like a "slide", and more like an abundant source of diverse phenomenological affordances. A fountain of experience. Ways to conceive of the object seemed endless, and "slide" felt like such a brusque summary as to be slightly offensive.

I hope to lead you through a similar tour around this poem. I will demonstrate with the first stanza, taking it line by line, and you can try the second.

Exercise 1: Taking A Tour

1. If it were a boat, what sort of boat would it be?

Years from now: A very tall, thin boat that's out in search of the edge of the Earth.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: A dusty boat marooned in the middle of a desert, half-buried in sand.

and not know what he is listening for: A phantom ship with torn black sails emerging from the mist.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

2. If it compelled a certain body movement, what sort of body movement would it cause?

Years from now: A big sweeping motion of one arm, all the way down to the floor and back up again.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: Tapping fingers, like at a keyboard or drumming on a table.

and not know what he is listening for: Shoulders shimmying back and forth.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

3. If this were the title of a song, what would the song be like? (Or, what would be its instrumentation?)

Years from now: Slow and melodic, with a quiet tympany and a french horn.

someone will come upon a layer of birds: Staccato, fast, and light, with plucked violin strings and a piccolo.

and not know what he is listening for: Warbling midrange strings and woodwinds punctuated by harsh low cello chords.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

***

If you're feeling somewhat unmoored at this point, that's a good sign. It means you're not stuck. Time for the next exercise.

We're trying to move toward a certain vantage point. But there is no map. We only know that the destination is "north". I'll describe what I think "north" is for poetry in general, and then you'll build a compass whose needle is sensitive to the relevant electromagnetic field.

Exercise 2: Building A Compass

An appropriate mental posture for most poetry involves intimacy, vulnerability, and openness.

It's like a six year old offering half of her candy bar to the new kid. It's like a son calling his father for the first time since the fight two years ago. It's like telling a secret, hearing an echo, or finding a glow worm on the forest floor. Whateer all of those have in common, that's north. When you're in the right place for poetry, your mind is making an invitation, uncertain and hopeful, ready to find out what happens next.

1. When has your mind been in that kind of vulnerable and open place?

My answer: I was in a place like this while helping a caterpillar cross the sidewalk today. I didn't have a stick or other transportation device handy, and I was worried it might possibly bite or spit acid onto my skin or something. But that seemed unlikely, and I decided to pick it up anyway. The moment when it first began to crawl onto the back of my hand, that is the memory I have in mind.

2. How can you tell? When you play through that memory, which exact features of your experience make it clear to you that intimacy, vulnerability, and openness are happening?

My answer: As the caterpillar touched my finger and began to climb onto the back of my hand, I had a feeling like the second to last note of a symphony, or of giving myself over. I'd acknowledged and accepted a risk, and now I was letting myself fall into whatever world we found ourselves in, me and that insect. I can tell it was a poetic posture from the feeling of transition between hanging and willingly falling.

3. Make that same invitation as you read the poem. It might take multiple readings to find your way there.

(I'll describe what this is like for me with the first stanza, taken as a whole, and you can follow with the second.)

Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

When I first started reading, the lines felt matter of fact, and I listened as though expecting to hear practical information I'd need to make sense of. But I felt a tiny little tug from my compass needle as my head tilted at the phrase "layer of birds".

I recognized a choice there. I felt confusion, and I felt branching opportunities. On one branch, I could try to resolve the confusion by looking for simple literal meaning. On other branches, I could let the confusion be. Just let it hang around, give up for the moment on understanding what a "layer of birds" is supposed to be about.

I asked myself which branch felt more like the transition between hanging and falling, and I chose not to try to resolve the confusion.

I circled back around to the beginning of the poem. I felt a little bit unsteady and afraid, having chosen not to demand sense of the words. I tried to invite them, instead. I imagined opening the door of my house and inviting them in off the patio.

And the second read was very different. It felt quiet and a little bit distant, full of subtle uncertainty, as though listening to almost-silence. I think I am seeing the poem as itself now, but I haven't quite connected with it yet.

My compass says I should not just invite it in, but embrace it. That feels more like giving myself over for the last note of the symphony. My arms open. I imagine hugging the poem and saying "welcome home". I also remember a few of my snapshots from the tour in the first exercise.

Now I see it.

In this read-through, it's hard to describe my experience of reading, because I can't possibly say it better than the poem. I just want to grab your shoulders and shake you while shouting, "Years from now. Someone. will come upon, A LAYER OF BIRDS. and NOT KNOW. What he is Listening for. (!!!)"

As I read, I'm wading in this undifferentiated river of imagery and emotion. The stanza is a wave made of impressions. There is a sweeping grand distant dusty future impression. It rises into an arriving stopped-short unsettling discovery impression. Then it falls into a scattered patient unsteady impression.

Your lines:

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

***

I don't know if that worked for you. These are not exercises I have ever tested before now, at least not for this purpose.

Even if it did work, you may not be feeling anything like what I described as you read the poem. But you probably will be feeling something different than you usually do when you read a poem and think that you "don't get it".

I’d love for you to email me at loganbriennestrohl@gmail.com to tell me what happened.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How To Get Poetry (Part 1)

[I wrote this in 2019, and just decided to post it here. Then I made a follow-up post.]

Someone observed to me the other day that poetry does not seem to “land” for them the way that it does for me. I want to try naming at least one thing I think poetry lovers (whom I know) are doing differently than people who don’t quite “get” poetry.

I’m not sure there is one central thing, but if there is, my guess is that it’s a matter of approach.

Anybody reading this is familiar with reading in general. At the very least, you read blog posts. You probably read Tweets or Reddit threads. And you read books.

In all of these, we tend to be focused on what happens, or maybe what it means. The words we write, read, and speak are useful for communicating about events and states of affairs. If we read “the candidate won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote”, we make an update, then move on to consider the implications. The phrase itself is immediately discarded, like the flesh of a juiced orange. That’s usually how language works.

But it’s not how poetry works. A very common way to prevent a poem from “landing” is to go in, gather info, and get out. You may not realize you’re doing this, even if you are, because it just feels like “reading”.

But it may feel like “reading, plus some other things”. I expect you can tell you’re approaching a poem this way if you recognize a background sense of searching, impatience, or frustration while reading, or if salient questions in your mind include things like, “What is this about?” and “What is the point?”.

I notice I’m delaying describing a better way to approach poetry. I’m delaying because I feel embarrassed. I feel as though I’m taking my clothes off to prepare for an arcane ritual I perform regularly, only today lots of people are watching, and they don’t necessarily know what’s happening. I’ll try it anyway. Here we go.

Poetry is intimate. It’s like a parent breastfeeding their newborn, or a husband comforting his wife with caresses after a loss, or the look of pride shared between a teacher and her favorite student during graduation. The way you would approach one of those situations is similar to how I think you should approach a poem, if you want to receive it as it was designed. Do not juice the words and throw away the rind.

The poetic experience is not one of updates or insights. Poems often ride on described events or on propositions, but they are not the stories they tell, and they're not the claims they make.

The sound of the words, the feel on your tongue, the dozens of associations an image might conjure for you, the felt shifts in your body, the rhythmic patterns, the emotions that dawn or ambush or flow, the way they superimpose, the moments when the pattern stumbles, the tiny pieces of sound or structure or concept that echo in later lines - these are what the purely poetic experience is made of.

And when you set out to read a poem… no, “read” is misleading here. Poetry is language transubstantiated in a chalice. When you set out to ingest a poem, to take it into your body and make it a part of yourself, you have to shift your mind out of its habitual relationship to language, and toward a state of extraordinary receptivity and participation.

Imagine that you are newly in love. When you wake up beside the one you love, you have the chance, for the first time, to watch them sleeping.

How does your mind move, in that moment? What allows you to rest your attention on the shape of their shoulder, the scent of their hair? What invites the full emotive force of your imagination, as you remember the time they kissed your palm?

If you can move your mind deliberately to that place, and let it rest there indefinitely, you are ready for poetry.