January 19, 2012

Alice Major


Flying changes the scale of things. From up here at 40,000 feet, the immense boreal forest of northern Canada looks like lichen on rock, as though the huge landscape below had been reduced to a boulder. An hour or two from now, when we begin the descent to my northern city, the quarter-sections of cultivated land will become a quilt of human textures, the grain of corduroy or twill. The cars sliding along the highway will become insects and then toys. Then the wheels will bump down, everything will become its “real” size once more, and I’ll be home.

Whether child or adult, we are fascinated by changes in scale. Look how long people will spend making model ships—the exquisite tangle of thread that’s exactly the right thickness to represent rope—or the bridges for a model railroad. Look at our fascination with bonsai, a whole landscape on a ceramic dish.

When I was a kid waiting for an Ontario spring to arrive, I used to loiter by melting piles of snow at the side of the road, fascinated by the way they created miniature systems of river and waterfall, channel and dam. Years afterwards, on my first trip to Jasper in the Rocky Mountains, I had the strangest sensation that my childhood landscape had been blown up to a gigantic scale. The wide valley where the Athabasca River makes its way through braided channels and white cascades tumble down mountainsides was the grown-up version of my old walk to school.

“Scale invariance,” this tendency for certain patterns to look the same as you get closer up or further away, is a common feature of the natural world: branches on a tree, cloud shapes, coastlines, the hierarchies of bronchiole and alveoli in the lungs. It is also a feature of intriguing mathematical objects known as “fractals,” which have become increasingly relevant to studying the world’s varying phenomena since mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot began working with them in the 1970s.

We are used to the idea of dimensions and the objects that go with them—one-dimensional lines, two-dimensional squares or triangles, three-dimensional cubes, pyramids, spheres. We learn to manipulate such objects mathematically: area equals length times width; radius and circumference can be used to establish the volume of a sphere. We use these formulae to think about our world and forget that very few objects are this simple.

Because we are creatures who evolved in the natural world, scaling relationships give us intense pleasure. They allow us to recognize a deep interrelatedness in the world’s disparate phenomena, where its parts are related both to larger structures and smaller ones. We are amazingly good at extracting fractal relationships from the incoming stream of wavelengths—sound and light—that pour in on us. In fact, recognizing fractal relationships is quite possibly central to how our visual and hearing systems distinguish random noise from meaningful data.

Aesthetically, we are particularly fond of fractals that fall in a certain range of self-similarity, more at the middle. Patterns that repeat too exactly are monotonous; others that don’t repeat at all are uninteresting for a different reason. A pure monotone is the auditory equivalent of a straight line—a uni-dimensional repetition of a single wavelength that could quickly drive us mad. “White” noise, its opposite, is made up of all possible wavelengths. It’s the hiss from speakers or an old television, a featureless blanket that we quickly tune out.

Instead, we like the sound of water, where we hear self-similar clusters of wavelengths repeated for shorter and longer periods, or the rustle of leaves in the wind. We like the patterning of mountain peaks with smaller and larger versions of the same shapes laid over each other. Or clouds.

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote poet-philosopher Gerard Manley Hopkins. His line wouldn’t have had read nearly so well if he’d written, “Glory be to God for fractal objects,” but it comes to nearly the same thing.

* * *

And poetry? Any genre that ranges from haiku to epic can obviously exist on many scales. But fractal relationships are especially relevant in considering the fate of poets.

I was flying home from a conference of the League of Canadian Poets in Toronto. It was early summer, 2005, and I had a snug secret in my pocket. I had taken a phone call the previous day from the Mayor of Edmonton, confirming that I had been selected as the city’s first poet laureate.

My emotions were mixed. When the idea of establishing the post had first been mentioned casually, I felt cool to the idea. Of course it is important to pay attention to an art form that typically ekes out a lichen-like existence on inhospitable tundra. But the notion of banging one poet on the head with a civic club and saying “You’re it” went against the grain of what poetry is to me. It seemed to play into the whole cult of celebrity, making poetry a kind of reality-TV game show. Who will struggle through when everyone else is thrown off the island?

But then, when the local political will to establish a poet laureate coalesced into reality, my ideals deserted me. I was urged by friends to put my name forward as a candidate, and when I did so, I found that I wanted that honour.

I was to be interviewed by a jury for the post; they would quiz me on my ideas about the position. Please be prepared to read a poem aloud for the jurors, I was told. But because I was away for the conference on the necessary date, I had to phone in at a designated time.

The interview experience fell into a fractal dimension somewhere between epic and comic verse. In an obsessively interconnected culture, making a long-distance call may not seem like a big deal. But poets do not meet in posh conference centres with videoconferencing technology. I was staying in a phone-less dorm room in Victoria College’s Burwash Hall. The League meeting was in the stony-pillared vaults of Hart House. I was sternly refused permission to make a long-distance call from any of its offices. I did not own a cell phone.

I didn’t exactly want to make the call from a public phone booth, so I jumped in a cab, having borrowed the key to the League’s office—only to run into the snarl of Toronto’s downtown rush-hour. The cab lurched into a line of traffic and sat there clucking like a constipated hen. After ten sweating minutes, I flung a bill at the driver, leapt out and galloped back to Victoria College on foot. The offices with their forbidden phones were now all locked up for the business day. I pleaded for someone, anyone, to point me to a place where I could make a relatively private phone call. For god’s sake, I’m looking for a phone not a personal teleportation device.

They directed me back to the basement of Burwash Hall, where a phone was mounted on the wall in a bare, booming corridor just outside the dorm’s laundry room. The long white walls made an appropriate setting for a Hitchcock film—god only knows what might be tumbling behind the glassy occularity of the dryer doors. It felt as though I should be dialing 911 and hoarsely mouthing “help, help” into the mouthpiece instead of conducting a long-distance poetry reading. My voice came out in an un-laureate-like croak when I finally connected and introduced myself to the receptionist, who sounded dubious about accepting reverse charges from a frog in an echo chamber.

“Please hold,” she said. “The jury isn’t quite ready for you yet.”

I waited the long minutes on the phone, reading over the lines of a poem to get used to the sound of my voice in this theatre of the absurd and praying that no one would come out of the laundry room with a basket of sheets or a revolver while I was declaiming. The things I do for art.

But perhaps the weird acoustics stood me in good stead. For here I was, flying back home as the soon-to-be-official-civic-poet. The plane may have been at 30,000 feet, but I was probably 5,000 feet above that. Yet my emotions were still mixed. Yes, I’d wanted it. But part of me could also imagine the yuck-yuck reaction from the world’s bigger ponds: “Edmonton? Where the hell’s that? And they think they have poets there?”

In vain, I tell myself that my city’s population is about three times the size of Shakespeare’s London and we’ve got as much right to poets as anywhere. But the insecurity lingers, and the problem is a fractal one of scale.

* * *

Years earlier, I’d come to this city that would become home from the other direction—from a much smaller city even further west, where I’d worked as a newspaper reporter for a couple of years. In Williams Lake, British Columbia, I had covered city council, sitting in on evening meetings that staggered on until after midnight.

My very favourite story as a reporter concerned the beaver dam debacle. Williams Lake—the lake itself—was dammed at its exit by enterprising rodents. As spring began melting snow from the surrounding hills every year, the lake levels backed up and up, getting ominously close to the front doors of houses built along its shore. The province’s fish-and-wildlife protectors did not want to do anything to destroy the dam because eventually the cold meltwater would descend to the bottom of the lake and flush up the warmer, stagnant layers below. This stale water would then pour over the top of the dam as part of a natural cycle of renewal.

The hell with flushing out lakewater, says Mayor Tom—that dam is going to flush out people’s basements. So he goes out himself in a canoe one night with a couple of sticks of dynamite to blow a hole in a dam.

I felt that this kind of escapade must be typical of small-town politics. Surely the assemblies of larger communities must act with more sense of proportion, more sophisticated analysis of issues. I came to Edmonton thinking that a city of three-quarters of a million people would be governed by a city council somewhat more dignified in its proceedings. However, I found the human dimension doesn’t change much. There were huge uproars when a new mayor didn’t want to wear a large beaver hide that came with the official chain of office. For her, it was a statement about animal rights; for the rest of council it was a rejection of the city’s history as a great fur-trading post.

For me, it was more of a fashion statement—wearing that beaver hide is like having a great round furry pond draped over your shoulders from which your head sticks up like a lonely lotus bud. Only a mayor built like a buffalo can carry it off.

The whole silly debate occupied more column inches in the paper than the approval of millions of dollars in road repairs. You might think this sort of thing happens just because we’re out here on the lone prairie and the winters are long. But then you watch televised proceedings from the national capital in which the level of discussion is hardly higher. Human beings don’t change scale much, regardless of the size of the stage they walk on. The distribution of capacities and talents is much the same in any group of humans. Making the group larger doesn’t lead to a corresponding increase in the individual IQs clustered under the Bell curve. To this extent, human beings are not fractal.

However, assemble us into progressively larger groups and fractal patterns do tend to emerge. The qualities that make a good poet are a complex of linguistic ability, creativity and the desire to invest the time and effort necessary to succeed; these qualities are more or less uniformly scattered through the population. The qualities that make a famous poet are not so different, but they are compounded with something that can only be described as luck. The process of poetic fame is governed by fractal patterns.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his essay “The Black Swan: Roots of Unfairness in Arts and Literature,” points out that literary or academic fame is analogous to stock-market booms. There’s a “winner-take-all” effect—one book in 800 will account for half of sales in any given year, while the other 799 eke out a meager share of the pickings. We jump hopefully into the publishing cab and go nowhere much.

The phenomenon operates much like the Mississippi river system scooping up the water from smaller and larger tributaries in an immense drainage basin. It becomes impossible for a water droplet to cut its own channel to the sea. The pattern is not caused by malice or design or even by commercial greed. Taleb points out that the same pattern emerges with academic citation system, supposedly free from such commercial interests. If you are the lucky researcher whose paper first gets cited out of all the researchers who may be working on the same problem, you’ll go on getting cited by all the future researchers. And the bigger the drainage basin, (i.e., the larger the number of contributors like authors or researchers) the higher the concentration into one main channel will be.

An idealized mathematical process can be subdivided forever. However, the real world is not scale-independent in that way. In our world, most things are not subject to one fractal pattern but to two or more simultaneously. Such multifractals tend to come to a natural limit. Patterns that work at small sizes don’t work at large ones; hierarchies emerge in response to physical constraints. The early days of an embryo’s existence can be nourished without a central circulatory system, but fairly soon that doesn’t work any longer and cells need to specialize.

In poetry, the physical constraint we are up against is time—the public’s time. In any one life, there’s only so much time to read books. Few citizens can take on 300 poetry books—the number published annually in Canada alone. You need a process for deciding which ones are worth your while. In isolated tribal systems, there are only so many bards, so many works, and each of them can be absorbed and recognized. In large urban societies, we depend on some kind of filtering system.

Fame is just what happens when you can’t know every book personally—when you have to fly at 40,000 feet to get across the country in a manageable amount of time. Its filtration system is essentially an information-exchange process made up of little magazines, poetry contests and prizes, and includes the luck of proximity to the whole tag team of mentors, publishers, reviewers. It’s less hierarchy than swamp bed or compost pile. Only those poems or poets who are very sturdy, accidentally lucky or both will survive. The great advantage of being a poet is that the filtration system is so damn slow. A novelist will usually have a one-time chance to cut a channel with her book. For the poet, reputation is more marsh than Mississippi—an ecology that lets a lot of us flourish locally, which is where we’re really needed anyway.


Excerpted from Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science, to
be published by the University of Alberta Press in fall, 2011.

from Rattle #35, Summer 2011
Tribute to Canadian Poets


Alice Major has published nine collections of poetry and a novel for young adults, and served as the first poet laureate for the city of Edmonton from 2005–2007. She emigrated from Scotland with her family at the age of eight, and grew up in Toronto before working as a weekly newspaper reporter in central British Columbia. Major has lived in Edmonton, Alberta since 1981, and is past president of the Writers Guild of Alberta, and the League of Canadian Poets.