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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Art of Losing Control

When I was a graduate student, one of my roommates, an aeronautical engineer, asked me to have a look at her data, which she was trying to fit to a (nonlinear) curve.

"I'm having boundary problems," she sighed.

I was in the social sciences department, but had had enough higher math so that as long as my roommate reduced her problems to equations, formulae, or statistical analyses, I could comment on them, though I had no idea what they meant in reality. So I gamely had a look at her data.

Another roommate, a chemist, overheard us talking and asked, "What's a boundary problem?"

"Data and functions tend to misbehave, if at all, at the boundaries," I explained.

"Like people," one of my roommates added, and we all cracked up.

In the classic text Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki observed, "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first, let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them."

So it goes with data, functions, sheep, cows, and people. If you give them enough space, they will contentedly do their own thing; they will be predictable and thus "in control". However, if you want to make something happen, if you want to liven things up by introducing chaos and disarray (so often harbingers of creativity), you merely need to put in a boundary.

This has often been my experience with poetry too. If I want something interesting to happen in a poem, I need a constraint. Or two. Maybe I need to write in a formal structure, such as the villanelle or sonnet, or choose to use only one-syllable words, or never use the letter "e". Sometimes placing limitations on subject matter is useful: I may require myself to interweave the names of the planets in our solar system with the reasons I broke up with a boyfriend of yore (and do I include Pluto or not, since it counted as a planet at the time of the break-up?).

This week, however, I put two seemingly reasonable but interesting constraints on a poem I was working on. For two stanzas, everything went swimmingly. Then, in the third stanza, the poem rolled over and died. Let's skip this part for now, I thought to myself, and went on to the fourth stanza. Still no visible sign of life. What happened, I wondered, to my system of boundary implementation?

Then I remembered the deadening effect of predicatable rhyme: "hour" followed maddeningly, inescapably, by "flower" or "shower." And I remembered the Beat poets, the explosiveness and volatility so evident in their meandering free verse.(Of course, the poet Donald Hall said,"The form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau.")

Both binding and liberating, that's the essence of a boundary, or of a good boundary anyway. And so, these days I'm thinking that it's more about the art of losing control, than the the science of losing control.

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