Poetry puts language in a state of emergence, in which life becomes manifest through its vivacity. These linguistic impulses, which stand out from the ordinary rank of pragmatic language, are miniatures of the vital impulse.” ― Gaston Bachelard

As I have mentioned before, in science, emergence is the process/concept that/whereby a thing has characteristics that are not shared by its component parts. Hydrogen and oxygen do not necessarily glitter, gurgle or slake thirst by themselves, though when put together as water, they do. Mind is an emergent property of the physical brain and its chemicals and electrical impulses. Like that.

So words, which written in the dictionary and unread, do not have the power they have when we put them together, read them and speak them. Nothing about each word separately—and still less each letter separately—moves people to go to war, make peace, marry each other or even laugh when laughter seems impossible. All of this comes from the emergent nature of language. To take language a step further, we can talk about poetry.

(And I should make clear that we could just as easily talk about science writing, since it is kind of amazing that we can communicate the incredible microcosms and macrocosm of our universe, brain to brain, through language filtered through the scientific process. This is only different from poetry in that the beauty of the content is foregrounded; the beauty of the carrier of the content—language—is usually pretty dry, although I have heard lots of arguments for the aesthetic appeal of the math. Sorry, that bit is lost on me. But I believe these people because when they say it, they get all starry-eyed.)

I am not sure that Bachelard is using this particular definition of emergence in his statement above. I think he is saying something more, perhaps that while language shares in the magic of emergence, poetry puts language on steroids, and the emergence that is made possible through poetry is something more like the Big Bang, not just a universe but a universe full of universes may come into being, like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Multiverse. Similarly, poetry makes possible not simply beautiful images and ideas but the possibility of Beauty itself. Not to get Platonic here, but there is nothing inherent in a massive explosion of matter or words that should create sentience or souls or song.

It shouldn’t. But it does.

The Magic of Emergent Creativity


Here I go again, letting my writing get in the way of my blogging about writing. Luckily, when I am in a big project like this, I also sit on my own shoulder to watch myself writing, and I learn stuff. What I have learned this week is not exactly new to me, but rather something I have known for a while but have not had the language for. There is a sense of trust that creative writers need to have to be really productive. We must trust that the writing wants to happen, that the story is out there somewhere trying to enter the world, and when we get really, really lucky, it finds us.

J.R.R. Tolkien called this process Subcreation, and talks about it with both fiction and nonfiction in his book Tree and Leaf. But I think today I would rather call it the emergent miracle of creativity or the magic of emergent creativity. In science, emergence is defined as characteristics of a material, say, that are not characteristics of the material’s cells or atoms. The human mind is an emergent characteristic of the human brain. Wetness, reflectivity, and splash are emergent qualities of water that have no clear source in either hydrogen or oxygen atoms. When we are creative, something happens that we do not really ever have complete control over. I throw words on a page, and sometimes they turn into clear or turgid prose and sometimes they turn into a failed poem or a poem of such beauty I reduce myself to tears. Yes, some of that is learned, some of that is my unique imagination applied to a particular subject. Sometimes it can come down to a word I came across the day before or an image from a dream, those tiny gifts the universe gives us, saying, “Take this. Make me more.”

But this thing we learn to trust is what Stephen Buhner, in his book Ensouling Language, calls the golden thread that we find and pick up and follow to the end. I like this metaphor because of the way it has mythic resonance, reminding us of Theseus getting through the labyrinth with his ball of thread, a story about order overcoming chaos, which is, after all, one of the duties of art.

I saw this today during my office hours, which I spent writing a poem about Love and the Epic Hero, which not surprisingly turned out to be very long, about 136 lines. After struggling with a piece at what I originally thought was the end, I finally realized that a different set of pieces in the middle Really Needed to be the ending, because of the pair of images those pieces ended with. One person ends the stanza saying:

I long for a map,

Even if much of it is blank and claiming

“Here be dragons.” At least then I would have

A chance to navigate this strange terrain.

Then the other speaker ends the next stanza with:

This is the territory of dragons. I dare not

Treat it instead as some kind of treasure map.

I love taking an image and using it in two different ways like that, and I did not see when I wrote the first image how I could use it until I wrote the next stanza, but I have learned to trust that I will know what needs to be done.

And now, for you, a small dose of Sandra Boynton.