Poetry For Engineers, Part 2 – A Problem To Solve

November 29th, 2011 § 4 comments

Try to remember how it feels to fall in love for the first time.


If you have never been in love before, imagine you are swimming in the ocean when the waves are tall and crashing on the shore, or running down a hill so fast your legs won’t stop when you tell them to. You shall have to think carefully and concentrate very hard; it is difficult to know what being in love is like if it has never happened to you, as we shall soon see.


When we experience something powerful and out of the ordinary, we often want to share those feelings with other people. How can we share the feeling of falling in love for the first time?


When being in love makes you feel happy or sad – and if it makes you happy, you are very lucky indeed – other people can tell how you feel by looking at your face and seeing if you are smiling or frowning. Your friend Earnest can tell that you are happy if you skip and jump around, singing and clapping your hands. He can tell that you are sad if you slouch and lie in bed, sulking and pouting. But he might think you are happy because it is warm and sunny today, or sad because you ate too many strawberries and have a stomach-ache. How can we let him know how we feel, and why we feel that way?


We can use language to describe the situation we are in. We might say:


I am in love with a girl.


If this makes us feel sad, we might want to explain how difficult love can be:


I am in love with a girl, but she doesn’t love me back.


Someone who has been in love before might begin to understand how this sorry situation makes us feel. But we have cheated a little! We want to explain how it feels to be in love, but we have used the word “love” in our explanation. We aren’t explaining how it is to be in love, we are simply reminding people how they have felt when they have been in love in the past. If Earnest has never been in love (and he has not, for he is a very serious and sensible young man), he is no closer to understanding our feelings after listening what we have said. If we want Earnest to understand how we feel, we have to use language that describes both what has happened and our reaction to what has happened.


I feel sad because I am in love with a girl, but she doesn’t love me back.


That’s better! Now we’re getting somewhere. Earnest now knows how we feel and what has caused us to feel that way.


However, when we use the word “sad”, Earnest might think about when he feels sad: when it rains all day, or when he has no-one to play with. But being in love can feel so much worse than that! It’s hardly better than when he thought we had a stomach-ache!


We might explain that we have strong feelings:


I feel very sad because I am in love with a girl, but she doesn’t love me back.


Unfortunately, Earnest has probably used the words “very sad” before: when it has rained for two days, or even three in a row. When we say “very sad”, that feeling is what he will think of. But that’s still not close to how it feels to be in love!


We could try adding different words: “extremely” or “intensely” or “thoroughly”. Earnest will think of a longer and deeper sadness. But no matter how clever a word we think of, being in love isn’t very much like the type of sadness you feel when it’s raining outside. Making our feelings sound stronger isn’t enough, because Earnest will still not understand the type of sadness we are experiencing.


What’s worse, Earnest still doesn’t understand why being in love makes us feel sad.


How might we solve this problem? One option might be to use detail. Perhaps if Earnest knows more about what’s happened, he will understand how it has led to our thoughts and feelings.


I feel very sad because I am in love with Julia, but she doesn’t love me back. Julia is a girl who lives in the next village. She has black hair and brown eyes. I spoke to her yesterday afternoon at around three o’clock and asked if she would come to the dance with me this Saturday. She said “No.” I now feel like crying all day.


This gives Earnest more information. It might help him a little, but he will still have many questions. “Why is it important that Julia has black hair? Why wouldn’t she go to the dance with you? Why can’t you ask somebody else?”


We could try to add more detail about our actions and feelings to solve these problems:


I feel very sad because I am in love with Julia, but she doesn’t love me back. Julia is a girl who lives in the next village. She has black hair and brown eyes. I think she looks very pretty. I spoke to her yesterday afternoon at around three o’clock and asked if she would come to the dance with me this Saturday. She said “No”. This means she does not love me. I now feel like I want to cry all day. Because I am in love with Julia, I do not want to go to the dance with anyone else.


After reading all that, Earnest might understand a little more. But he still has many questions. “Why do you think black hair makes Julia pretty? Why do you love Julia and not somebody else? Why can you only be in love with one person at a time?” If we keep on adding more and more detail to our explanation, it shall grow to be longer and longer. Soon it will be ten pages long, and Earnest will still have lots more questions. How boring!


What’s worse, even if we manage to remember and write down every detail about every time we have met Julia, Earnest might still not understand how we feel, because he will react to the situations we describe differently than we did.


Perhaps being in love is simply too hard to describe? Let’s try something simpler.


Imagine that you are very afraid of creepy-crawlies, and come home to find a large spider scurrying over your bed. You are very frightened, and run to Earnest for comfort. “Why are you afraid?” he asks, “That spider can’t hurt you.”


Let’s use the techniques we have developed to let Earnest know why we are afraid. We need to tell him what has happened and describe our feelings using as much detail as possible.


I arrived home and saw an extremely large spider on my bed. It had eight horrible legs and four pairs of scary eyes. It was covered in disgusting hair, and it moved very quickly.


Sadly, we have run into the same problems as before. Earnest (who is, as you recall, a very serious and sensible young man) isn’t afraid of spiders, so the details we’ve given don’t help him to understand our reaction. When we say “horrible legs”, he thinks of brussel sprouts, which are horrible, but then he thinks to himself, “Spider-legs aren’t horrible! Mother doesn’t make me eat those!” When we say “scary eyes”, he thinks of when he has to kiss his Aunt Mabel, which is scary, but then he thinks to himself “Spider-eyes aren’t scary! I don’t have to kiss those!”


No matter if we can describe the events or our feelings in perfect detail, Earnest won’t understand our experience because we haven’t explained how the events caused our feelings. We need to find a way to demonstrate how what happened caused us to think and feel in a certain way.


How can we solve this difficult problem?


If only we could make Earnest afraid of spiders! Even if it were only for a few minutes, he would suddenly understand our experience.


We can’t change Earnest’s view of the world, but perhaps we can change the way we describe what’s happened to make him feel as if he were afraid of spiders.


We could tell Earnest:


I came home and my bed was covered in hundreds of huge tarantulas. They had big sharp fangs and they ran towards me very fast and tried to bite me.


Earnest would leap into the air and exclaim, “How terrifying! You must be in shock! Sit down and I shall make you a cup of tea and fetch you a blanket.”


Suddenly, without even trying to describe our feelings we have communicated to Earnest a much better idea of our experience. What’s more, he’s making us a lovely cup of tea!


“Now hang on!” I hear you cry, for you are a very moral person, “You’re a big fibber! That’s not really what happened at all! You lied to poor Earnest!”


And you are correct. We lied to Earnest about the facts of what happened. If he were the pest-control man or a scientist studying the types of spider that lived in our area, we would have confused and misled him by giving him the wrong information. But we set out to let Earnest understand our fear of spiders, and by changing the way we reported the events, we have given him a much better understanding of our experience.


What an interesting property of language! Rather than trying to report the events that happened and the way in which we reacted to those events, we have used language to recreate our own experience in Earnest’s imagination. In fact, we could have told him that it was a vicious snake or an angry scorpion on our bed, and he would probably understand our feelings almost as well.


This power of language to capture the essence of an experience or thought is the foundation of poetry. But how can we use it to solve our original problem?


Rather than trying to report meeting Julia and describe our feelings and thoughts afterwards, we need to find words to recreate those thoughts and feelings, as best we can, in Earnest’s imagination as he reads what we have written.


In the next article, we will think about how to find the essence of an experience, and begin thinking about how to capture it in words.



§ 4 Responses to Poetry For Engineers, Part 2 – A Problem To Solve"

  • Lee says:

    Very interesting. Knowing and understanding this will certainly improve my communication with others. It may also help to develop a personal character.

    I look forward to the next chapter.

  • Noriega says:

    Bro, this is fantastic. I hope this turns into an overall growing experience for me. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Sumeet says:

    This power of language to capture the essence of an experience or thought is the foundation of poetry.

    That’s so simple, yet so profound! Your blog is a pleasant read.

  • Jon says:

    This is excellent, I’ve been having trouble writing songs lately, and this is helping me understand my problems so much more. Thanks so much for posting this, it’s great to see a different perspective on language.

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You are currently reading Poetry For Engineers, Part 2 – A Problem To Solve, part of a blog about writing by Gabriel Brady.