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 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.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Staying Grounded

I struggle a lot with mornings. If I'm not very careful about what I do in the hour or two after I first wake up, I become extremely stressed and anxious. It's as though my mind has to take some time to put itself together into a solid structure, or else it gets obliterated by the first obstacle it encounters.

I've been thinking lately about how to design a morning routine that optimizes for building that solid structure efficiently. There are a lot of things that help. For example: being alone, moving to familiar music, watching a candle flame, lifting moderately heavy weights, and drinking chamomile tea.

Things that tend to slow or reverse the solidification process include interacting with humans, reading sentences, doing things in a different order than I'm used to, being near anything loud and fast (such as cars), and planning (the farther out, the worse it is).

What do the helpful activities have in common, and how are they different from the unhelpful ones? Mainly, I think the important thing they have in common is that they're grounding.

But why are they grounding, and what does that mean?

In early 2019, after a month of studying groundedness with Jacob and Nora, I wrote that "groundedness is what happens when your thought patterns are in feedback loops with things that aren't thought patterns."

And I mostly like that. But it doesn't really say what, exactly, is happening with groundedness. It only says when groundedness happens, or where you should look if you want to find it. It also doesn't account for a what I might call "abstract groundedness", of which "staying grounded in what you care about" is an example.

I've developed a feeling, while designing morning routines, that groundedness involves certainty and uncertainty, and especially movement between the two.

What is most difficult for me in the morning is uncertainty. Humans are harder to deal with than a cup of tea or a pair of dumbbells, because unlike tea and dumbbells, humans are intelligent agents. Their behaviors depend on complex and opaque algorithms. When the behavior of other humans is an input to my perceptions, it's very hard to predict what perceptions I will have. Will they walk across the room? How loudly will they speak? Will they ask something of me? Similarly, fast-moving cars produce huge waves of sound and visual experience at hard-to-predict times, from the perspective of someone on a sidewalk.

Tea does none of that. (Nor, notably, does the literal ground.) Tea just sits there being tea. I am extremely certain about the effect tea will have on my perceptions: the air in my nose will be more humid, my mouth and hands will be warm, I will taste a certain flavor.

But predictable things are not grounding in themselves. Blank white walls afford a lot of certainty, but rarely are they particularly grounding. Groundedness is an activity; it exists in the relationship between minds and their objects of attention. Blank walls are so predictable that it's a bit hard to maintain any relationship with them at all.

I think that perhaps groundedness is engagement with uncertainty by a mind that rests on something certain.

It is easy to drift into a state of ungroundedness while thinking about such topics as AI timelines, social dynamics, or possible career changes, because to get anywhere with those topics, you have to spend a lot of time thinking deeply amidst extreme uncertainty. The more attention you devote to something, the less attention you have left for other parts of your experience; so the more attention you devote to predicting uncertain outcomes of uncertain circumstances, the less grounded you become.

It is possible, and usually preferable, to engage with uncertainty in a grounded way.

The trick to doing so is to find something extremely certain and make it a central structural component of your experience. Not only should a fraction of your attention remain with your anchor at all times, but you should return the majority of your attention to the anchor at regular intervals.

Moving to rhythmic music is so effective for me because as I move, and thus engagedly experience novel sensory inputs that I cannot perfectly predict, the music encourages a regular returning of my attention to the anchor point of sonic rhythm. I move deliberately toward uncertainty, but a piece of my attention is always on the certainty of musical sound, and most of it returns often to the downbeat of a cycling musical phrase.

This model suggests that if you're concerned you'll become ungrounded during a conversation or activity, you should begin by identifying three things:

  1. a certainty you'd like to use as an anchor and a beacon
  2. a strategy for keeping some part your attention on it at all times
  3. a strategy for returning most of your attention to it at regular intervals

Since most of this is still armchair philosophizing, I don't expect my suggestions for how to identify those three things will be very good. But I do have some guesses, things I plan to try out myself in the near future.

  1. Anchors are most effective when they are emotionally powerful, but not emotionally fraught. They should be certain, but not entirely inert (since engagement with the anchor is crucial). The best ones probably involve properties of the non-social external world. In a conversation, I expect the two of you should choose something you're both certain about, something you agree on in the same way you agree that many birds have wings, or that Mount Everest is taller than your mailbox.

  2. Keeping a piece of your attention on something feels TAPs-shaped. You'll need to recognize when your attention has completely left the anchor; therefore, begin by imagining what it would feel like to leave the anchor behind. That's your trigger. The action will be cognitively cheapest if you have an external symbol to draw you back toward the anchor. So your TAP might go, "If I notice [that I've left the anchor behind], then I'll [look at the phrase I've written down]."

  3. Returning most of your attention to the anchor will require increased engagement. In more challenging activities, you'll probably need to start by disengaging from whatever uncertainty-focused pattern you've been spinning up, perhaps at the prompting of an alarm that goes off every n minutes. Space-making activities are likely appropriate: getting a snack, taking a walk, five minutes of yoga, that sort of thing. Once you've created a little space for other kinds of thoughts, you can then engage on purpose with your anchor. I would expect one to three pre-designed questions would work well, questions to which the anchor itself is an answer. For example, you might ask yourself, "What matters to me here?", and the act of answering that question anew will remind you of the answer in a way that draws a lot of your mind into the shape of it.

But like I said, these are just my intuitions. I haven't tried these things yet in a deliberate or systematic way, and I haven't walked anyone else through this process either. If you experiment with this yourself, I'd love to hear about whatever happens.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Study Nature With Me!

Starting May 16th, I'm running a nature study course called "Original Seeing With a Focus On Life". In one month of study, we'll become better naturalists.

EDIT: This round of the course is all full up! Thank you to everybody who applied. :)

Who should enroll?

I think you should take this course if you want to build a closer personal relationship with nature. The point of the course is to develop your ability to learn for yourself about the living things around you, without relying on someone else to tell you what's worth knowing or what to care about. It's about learning to actually see what you're looking at, and bothering to look at all.

Whether you're a city-dwelling couch potato or a professional park ranger, you should enroll if you want the natural world around you to come alive.

Who shouldn't enroll?

Almost all of the coursework will happen as part of your ordinary day, during walks taken on your lunch break, or in evening visits to the park or your back yard. The whole thing depends on using your attention a little differently, so if there's no slack at all in your current attentional allocation scheme―if you just can't find any time for yourself, or you're too overwhelmed with everything going on in your life to bring something new into it―then this is probably not a good time for you to take this course.

There will also be a one-hour discussion each Sunday for five weeks, starting on May 16th, at 11AM PST; I think you'll get a lot less out of the course if you can't attend most of the discussions.

How much does it cost?

Nothing! This is a free course. I see it as part of my R&D work toward helping people gain traction in pre-paradigmatic fields, a project supported by my grant from the Long Term Future Fund.

Watch this <10 minute video to learn more, and if you're interested, email me at

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Catching the Spark

Linkpost: I've got a new essay about curiosity and naturalism over at LessWrong!

Monday, August 24, 2020

Hey Brienne, what do you think of freeverse?

Great question, thanks for asking! I've been wondering that for a while myself. In short, I think that it’s wonderful, and I’m worried it’s ruining everything.

What is free verse?

Actually, let’s back up even further. What is “verse”?

The English word “verse” comes from the Latin word “versus”, which means “turned around or turned back”. Poetry is written with deliberate line breaks, which usually occur with great enough frequency that each line occupies a single row on a normal-sized page. Thus, when you read a poem, your attention is continually “turned back” to the left margin as you begin each line.

“Verse” is a bit of a folksy term that refers to poetry written in meter. There are a lot of kinds of meter, most of which have something to do with stress, syllable count, or both. In metered poetry, sounds are measured out into little parcels that combine to form complex but regular structures.

In some languages (such as English), these larger structures often include rhyme, usually of the final syllable in a line. Some also include a fixed number of lines. Some include double line breaks, resulting in collections of lines called “stanzas”. When the line number is fixed, there are often standard conceptual patterns hung on these structures. Some verse forms even dictate the repetition of entire words or phrases. An example of a form with all of these features at once is the villanelle.

Accentual-syllabic poetry was by far the dominant type of English language poetry from the 1500s through the 1800s. In the 1900s, though, something changed. I guess people got fed up with the rigidity, or maybe literacy rates rose to a point where it was no longer necessary to hear line breaks with your ears in order to recognize them. Whatever the reason, people started writing poetry that conforms to none of the metered poetic structures, at any level, save the continual turning back at the end of each line. This became the dominant type of English language poetry, and it remains so today. It’s called “free verse”.

To understand how I feel about free verse, you have to understand how I feel about metered poetry: At its best, and even at its not-amazing-but-still-pretty-good, I feel that metered poetry is incantatory.

One of my favorite illustrations of poetic incantation is “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Shelley, which speaks to this quite directly. In the poem, Shelley’s all, “I’d really rather be alive forever, and for the whole world to be that way also. How about I use written words to become like the wind that blows around everywhere in gusts and storms and breathes life into all things forever.” He has some interesting content to convey, but he doesn’t just throw it out there. He conveys it through the meter. It has this inexorable rocking rhythm, and if you give yourself over to it, the spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could.

And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Different verse forms cast different kinds of spells. They incline us to be more receptive to certain kinds of thoughts and feelings: their rhythms, like the call of a coxswain, line up the pieces of our minds to move all at once toward whatever mental posture the poet has choreographed. Sestinas move us into dream-like spiraling rumination. Ballads move us to look again and again from many angles. Sonnets move us to feel three times the force of a single thought.

Consider "Recuerdo" by Edna Saint Vincent Millay, the first stanza of which goes

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

The imagery in this is at most half of how the poem does what it does. If I were to replace the words with nonsense sounds in the same rhythm, I think it would still make me giddy; I'd be ready to skip, to fall against someone's shoulder in helpless laughter, or to fall in love.

There’s something very basic about how human minds interact with certain rhythms of language. Over the years metered poetry has learned the shape of it and built the keys that turn our thoughts. There is little more I could ask of an art form.

And yet, in a way free verse does offer more. Without losing access to any particular tool from metered poetry, it gains indefinite potential for precision. At its best, free verse finds a new prosodic key for every thought.

Take these two lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, for instance

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

To my ear that’s three troches followed by a double dactyl; then an iamb, a dactyl, and a troche. As far as I know, I’ve never heard that rhythm before, and it doesn't recur anywhere else in the poem.

But I think it's exactly the right rhythm for that exact thought. Starting with three trochees in a row (STREETS that / FO-llow / LIKE a), it feels like following. It feels like walking on a sidewalk down an ordinary quiet street. Then the two dactyls hit you at the end of a line, knocking you down, but in a way that is unexpectedly drawn out. TE-di-ous / AR-gu-ment. There are just more syllables there than you were ready for. Then the next line kicks you around a bit while you’re down. of in-SI-di-ous in-TENT Maybe even without the context of the poem, it’s masterfully done, and it couldn’t happen in accentual syllabic verse without breaking the form.

The thing is, nearly all of free verse is prosodically abysmal.

Which honestly seems kind of inevitable, ya know? When an only moderately skilled person writes in one of the standard verse forms, they’re using a pattern that basically works, and they may manage to cast a decent spell with little more than that.

But casting a spell in free verse, the kind that only poetry can cast, takes extraordinary prosodic sensitivity. I’d be pretty shocked to hear that anyone truly successful at it had not studied verse forms from before the 1900s (or verse forms descended from those). It’s called “free verse”, but in fact you are constrained at every moment to choose exactly the rhythm that fits your precise thought. Otherwise there’s no poetry at all, just pretentious clattering prose with way too many line breaks.

this is not
a poem.
introducing obnoxiously frequent line breaks
some prose does
not make
thing poetry and
this fucking style
die in a fire.

My favorite poetry is written in free verse. I certainly don’t want it to go away. I just worry that over time, if there isn’t a resurgence of accentual syllabic poetry in the next few decades, English will move so far from the best examples of its most hypnotic rhythms that poets will lose the ability to cast powerful prosodic spells at all.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Shame Processing

I wrote up my shame processing method. I think it comes from some combination of Max (inspired by NVC maybe?), Anna (mostly indirectly), and a lot of trial and error. I've been using it for a couple of years (in various forms), but I don't have much PCK on it yet. If you'd like to try it out, I'd love for you to report back on how it went!

What's up with shame?

According to me, shame is for keeping your actions in line with what you care about. It happens when you feel motivated to do something that you believe might damage what is valuable (whether or not you actually do the thing).

Shame indicates a particular kind of internal conflict. There's something in favor of the motivation, and something else against it. Both parts are fighting for things that matter to you.

What is this shame processing method supposed to do?

This shame processing method is supposed to aid in the goal of shame itself: staying in contact with what you care about as you act. It's also supposed to develop a clearer awareness of what is at stake in the conflict so you can use your full intelligence to solve the problem.

What is the method?

The method is basically a series of statements with blanks to fill in. The statements guide you a little at a time toward a more direct way of seeing your conflict. Here's a template; it's meant to be filled out in order.

  • I notice that I feel ashamed.
  • I think I first started feeling it while ___.
  • I care about ___(X).
  • I'm not allowed to want ___(Y).
  • I worry that if I want Y, ___.
  • What's good about Y is ___(Z).
  • I care about Z, and I also care about X.


I notice that I feel ashamed. I think I first started feeling it while reading the first paragraph of a Lesswrong post. I care about being creative. I'm not allowed to want to move at a comfortable pace. I worry that if I move at a comfortable pace, my thoughts will slow down more and more over time and I'll become a vegetable. What's good about moving at a comfortable pace is that there's no external pressure, so I get to think and act with more freedom. I care about freedom, and I also care about creativity.

On using the template:

The first statement, "I notice that I feel ashamed," should feel a lot like noticing confusion. To master this method, you'll need to study experiences of shame until you can reliably recognize them.

The second statement, "I think I first started feeling it while _," should feel like giving a police report. You don't tell stories about what it all means, you just say what happened.

The rest should feel like Focusing. Wait for a felt shift before moving to the next statement.