Expanding the Universe

Poetry as a Quantum Phenomenon

John Yu Branscum

My poem “The Cheshire Cat Effect” reflects my interest in the intersection of quantum mathematics and poetry. This is an interdisciplinary field that’s really got me excited these days because I feel like there’s a lot of productive thinking to be done about the relationship of the arts and the sciences. And also our culture, whether it’s reflected through the arts, or through psychology or religion, still has barely begun to come to terms with the implications of quantum physics although it’s been around for over a century now.

I started thinking about this disciplinary intersection during my previous career as a financial analyst, a position in which I regularly used quantum algorithms to make sense of market behavior. It was a wonderfully perverse job to have. A lot of people think of financial services as a red-eyed minion of unfettered capitalist greed, but we actually functioned largely as a nonprofit and directed a lot of energy toward giving retirees free financial and investment advice. The thing I loved best about my job though was the opportunity to take whacky, esoteric ideas – from quantum mathematics, fuzzy logic, and chaos and complexity theory – and use them to make sense of the market. It was very important to me at the time to not just fall in love with an idea with a pretty smile (in order to check my tendency to regard ideas more as aesthetic objects than Tupperware for truth) but to explore whether or not said ideas had validity in terms of practical outcomes. My job allowed me to do so. If our theories were correct then we made money. If they were just pretty nonsense or half-digested, we did not. It was a very pleasing marriage of the sacred and the profane.

Now, at the time I had this job I was also writing poetry, and I noticed very quickly that poetry could be productively viewed as having quantum effects too. For me, this is tied to what I see as one of the key distinctions between poetry and prose. Although, of course, there’s all kinds of poems, and all kinds of prose, in general poetry has a lot more to do with the associational and symbolic subconscious, with its gleeful fondness for wordplay, and fluid identities, spaces, and narratives. Prose by contrast traffics more in the everyday Newtonian world of linear causality, logic, denotation, and fixed identities.

I find looking at poetry this way very beneficial because it gives one a new way of understanding its effects and an opportunity to more consciously use quantum effects in poetry. Take the “Cheshire Cat Effect,” the quantum effect my poem refers to. The Cheshire Cat Effect is simply a quantum phenomenon in which a particle, like an electron, can be split from its physical properties, each existing independently of the other. This is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat remaining even after the Cat is gone. Or it’s like a heartbeat being able to be separated from the heart itself. One sees a similar effect in poetry frequently. In other words, the attributes of one phenomenon is split from it and subsequently grafted onto another phenomenon (i.e. the howling moon, the soft summer, etc.).jperkins-i-thought-you-would-like-to-hear-it-nar-copy

Another quantum effect one sees in poetry is what’s called quantum contextuality. In terms of language, this simply means that a word’s meaning changes depending on the words that it’s entangled with. In this way, we can consider a single word as both a particle (having a set/collapsed dictionary meaning) and also as a wave function (in which meaning is not collapsed but rather dynamically entangled with the meaning of the words near it). This is an idea I borrowed from the science writer Mark Buchanan who points out in a September 5, 2011 article in New Scientist magazine, “Quantum Minds: Why We Think Like Quarks,” that “the fuzziness and weird logic of the way particles behave applies surprisingly well to how humans think.” Buchanan explains that quantum math, which is independent of quantum theory proper, can be profitably applied to human thought, particularly in relation to how people link concepts together, often on the basis of loose associations and blurred boundaries. He offers as an example how the way the word "red" is defined depends on whether you are talking about "red wine", "red hair", "red eyes", or "red soil". Your associations, and what you see in your mind when you think of both words in the word-pairs will differ, sometimes quite dramatically, depending on their interaction and entanglement. In this way, words in poems have both Newtonian and quantum functions.

Approaching poetry as a quasi-quantum phenomenon doesn’t mean of course that poetry really is made up of tiny particles. But it’s a useful way of understanding how it works, and it acknowledges our mental and physical existence in two dimensions of reality: the Newtonian and the quantum. Moreover, it potentially sharpens one’s sense that poetry, versus prose, is a more unsettled genre, one that traffics in waves of probable meanings rather than settled ones, and that there’s a value to resisting fixed and settled meaning in a poem in order to produce work that is multidimensional and dynamic.

There’s one final benefit, too, of thinking of poetry this way and that’s to realize that there’s value in using the genre to do speculative philosophy. For me, the best poetry, in a Russian formalist sense, defamiliarizes the world, makes it strange, and it does so to reawaken us to its beauty and magic. Since scientific and mathematical concepts often accomplish this same end, via less literary means, I figure, “Why not blend the two?”

John Yu Branscum

John Yu Branscum, the son of migrant laborer parents, grew up in the small-town trailer parks and inner-city housing projects of Kentucky, Arkansas, and California and, as an adult, he’s resided in China, Costa Rica, and the Czech Republic. Presently, he divides his time between Yentai, China and Indiana, PA.

His first career was as a technical stock analyst and communications director for a financial advisory firm in Louisville, KY, and presently he is an Assistant Professor of Writing Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also CEO of Dreaming Tree Foods, based in Qingdao, China, and creative consultant for the manga café, 77, in Zibo, China. He additionally works as literary editor and columnist for the international, post-punk fashion and literature magazine Black & Grey, based in Los Angeles, CA.

His individual works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, and creative nonfiction have been published in venues ranging from the Evergreen Review to the North American Review, Chiron Review, Hippocampus, Works & Days, Studies in the Humanities, Tusculum Review, and Opium.  He is the author of the poetry collection Skinwalkers (Argus House Press, 2015) and co-editor of the Appalachian literary anthology, Red Holler (Sarabande Books, 2013), as well as the author of A Reading Guide to Red Holler (Sarabande Books, 2013). A new poem, “The Farmer’s Milk,” will appear in the Spring 2016 edition of Apex magazine.

Among the awards his work has received is the Rustbelt/Appalachia/Affrilachia Midwest Chapbook Contest Award from Argus House Press, the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature Award from Sarabande Books, and the Ursula K. Le Guin Award for Imaginative Fiction from Rosebud Magazine.

Most importantly, he is husband to the Chinese poet and scholar, Yi Yu, and the father of Francesca Lu, a toddler who has recently invented a hybrid dance style incorporating Tai Chi and dance hall hip-hop, and Vivianne Mahlee, a six-year-old who is training to be an astronaut princess.

Illustration by Justin Perkins. Justin Perkins graduated from College for Creative Studies. A freelance illustrator and designer, he teaches art in Detriot. Justin’s first illustration for the North American Review appeared in issue 298.4.