Writer in Residence

The “Place” of Poetry and the Brain's GPS

By Edward Carson

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And so in poetry we again come around to the notion of “place” – a map composed in the size of the world.

Poetry explores, pulling itself through the filter and modifying axis of the brain adapting to its filter of technology, arriving as the outcome of an accumulation of emergent differences and harmonies made “available / to any shape that may be summoning itself / through me / from the self not mine but ours.” (A. R. Ammons)

Everthing in a poem is a map – its word structures, properties, patterns giving us a functional mapping from one meaning/experience domain or range to another.

The terrain of a poem is made up of two places: the mapped domain of the poem itself, and the elusive and indeterminate unmapped territory of understanding, interpretation, meaning and experience around the poem.

A poem becomes a place within and between the latitude/longitude lines of its linguistic landscape, dynamically evolving and interacting within a grid-like network of modifying relationships.

The theory in physics and computer science for this is known as the principle of locality, or locality of reference.

In language theory, its act of positioning might be more akin to collocation or juxtaposition, deriving from language theory where locality refers to the proximity of elements in a linguistic structure.

Fields of influence, meaning and experience of words interact, coalesce and propagate within the relative proximity, meaning or experience of other words around them. 

As in science, where the distances between those the fields of influence materially increase, the forces of meaning or experience between words theoretically “fall off like the square of the distance between them.”

Continuously adapting to the stimuli of its more immediate environment, the mind is likewise outfitted to do the work of a map – by turns short and long-range, spatially symmetric, navigational – an omnidirectional guidance satellite piloting us through both celestial and earthly passageways of meaning and experience.

The technological space of electronic media we now inhabit, communicate and think through is both a measure and reminder of where poetry cannot help but follow.

Poetry takes as its map the search engine of metaphor – one thing presented as another, where the physical and intellectually perceived distances between one thing and the other simultaneously bind them together and also hold them apart.

In a poem, metaphor is always hard at work probing for a unity in the identities of attraction and resistances of difference.

Poetry – as on a Mercator Projection – becomes in the mind that screen/sheet of paper impossible to make align smoothly on a sphere.

Once inside it . . . the mind has places to go . . .

from  the  equator’s edge  to  the  poles  where  all that is scheduled  to be measured  becomes immeasurably flat  as there is in the increasing latitudes  every  sign  of  distortion   and  also   ample  imperfections  of thought  in-between  what  is  self-

examined   or   self-positioned   scale being  neither  near   nor  far  fetched nor  an  impediment  in  a mind’s  eye  fixed  inside  the  many  persuasions  of  meticulous longitudes  located  in exacting  square  spaces  each  manipulation 

augmenting  a  confluence  of  parallel coordinates  being so  remarkably theoretical  that measures must  be  initiated  where  navigation  at a distance  from everywhere  is  everywhere  understood  to  be  90 degrees  with  rhumb  lines  also  thought  of  as 

personal latitudes  of poetry interrupting  disrupting   a  brain’s belief  in  north  south  east  west  all  of  it  contained  here  in  a  locus  of  rhetoric

A poem is about modification and transformation, not precision and completion.

Anything we write about what a poem might be or do can never be a single discourse, a closing judgment. The poem changes constantly in our mind, and likewise so our attempts at defining it must be continuous as well.

Tune in to my next poetry post on Wednesday, April 24 to read “What a Poem Does, Not what it Means

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Edward Carson, writer and photographer, is twice winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry and author of Knots, Birds Flock Fish School, and Taking Shape, as well as his most recent collection, Look Here Look Away Look Again. He lives in Toronto.