A Baghdad DoubleTake and other matters

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Zen recently posted a video of a terrific hour-plus-long speech by Doug Hofstadter – one of the best videos I’ve ever taken the time to watch – in which Hofstadter, the guy who brought us Godel Escher Bach and much more, talked about analogy and suggested that it’s at the very core of human cognition.

I posted a poem and some comments in response — they got a bit mangled in terms of formatting, which may be fixed by the time you read this – and Zen then posed a question:

Charles – there’s a large portion of visual imagery in the passage you cite: do you think the incorporation of imagery (thus activating a powerful region of the brain) enhances or distorts the underlying conceptual connection in an analogical construction?

That’s what set me off this time…


I think of a poem as a braiding of three strands: a strand of sound or music, a strand of image, and a strand of meaning. For convenience, I’ll usually include a fourth – wit – but it’s actually more like a pearl that can be threaded on the strand of meaning.

From my POV, the poem is thus essentially a screenplay for the mind’s eye – and if a poem begins with strong music, at the very least I’d like it to end with strong music, if it starts with wit or wordplay, I’d like it to end with that too, and if it has imagery, I’d like the images to unspool in a way not unlike the images in a movie…

When I’m reading poems by others, and particularly if I’m teaching a poetry class, I’ll sometimes notice a sudden disjunction in one of the three strands. If it’s clearly for effect, all’s well and good – but if it’s unconscious, unintended, it will always reveal an aspect of the poem that hasn’t been worked through yet, and applying conscious attention to it will result in the emergence of new material from the unconscious store that enriches the final product. Sometimes, that kind of attention reaches something that was psychologically difficult, a disjunction in soul if you like – and the result of moving through it to the finished poem can be very much like a breakthrough insight in therapy.

But “poetry is not a hospital” – if Apollinaire didn’t say that, and I used to think he did, I shall.


From my POV, therefore, there are analogies of sound, analogies of meaning, and analogies of image. There’s an analogy of sound between tomb and womb – we call it rhyme. There’s certainly an analogy of meaning – whence we come at birth, whither we go at death. And if you like, there’s an analogy of image – when I think of the “twinning” of those two words, I see life itself as running across a brief stretch of grass between two caves…

When as here, the analogy runs across all three braids, you have a very powerful “conceit” or poetic device.

The graphic match, together with sonic rhyme, between the visuals of a hotel room fan and the rotors of a helicopter at the beginning of Apocalypse Now parallels the sense of explosive heat and frustrated inaction of Captain Willard trapped in Saigon with the sense of freedom and clarity he feels when sent on mission up-river – again, an analogy in three strands.


But analogy can also cut across the senses in a different way. Here’s Hermann Hesse‘s view of the Glass Bead Game:

Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement . A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combination.

That’s analogy cutting across disciplines, and across sensory modalities too.

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