An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Finding Paradoxes

Posted by xbanguyen on March 20, 2011

Did you know that Socrates started learning to play the lyre after he was sentenced to death? That is not surprising as the man believed that all you need to be happy is to be virtuous.  And to be virtuous all you have to do is to know enough to describe in words the necessary and sufficient essence of  virtues.(1).   It was what originally drew me to reading Socrates’s words as told by others, especially the idea that virtue is  a kind of knowledge that once known will be carried out by rational beings.  There are no weaknesses of will, only lack of knowledge (2). And that in itself is a paradox.

The relentless expectation to be rational can drive one to extremes and to seek out paradoxes in conventional wisdom such as “practice all things in moderation”.  Would this extreme adherence to moderation is an immoderation in itself? Paradoxes abound in mathematics. Are there different sizes of infinities? If there is an infinite number of even integers and an infinite number of integers then how can it be proved that there are more integers than even integers?  Regarding time, Augustine’s paradox is compelling: the past does not exist because it already happened,the future does not exist because it has not yet happened, and the present has no duration (3), so how can time be measured? The question escapes being rhetorical to become almost poetic for me, preoccupied with time as I type. In the same universe, paradox is also a literary device used most effectively in a tragicomedy manner by Joseph Heller in Catch 22. It has been said that the language of poetry is the language of paradox with its inherent contradiction creating tension to draw in the reader. Sometimes the tension appears to be gently dark.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rober Frost

In making green  gold and flowers leafs, the poet conveys that the earth turns. That in itself may not be so dark after all because spring will follow winter as surely as autumn summer. There are no reasons to pine for permanence because permanence is stasis. Impermanence is permanent. I will learn to make peace with that paradox and turn to these stanzas of Marie Ponsot’s

Burn, or speak your mind. For the oak to untruss
its passion it must explode as fire or leaves.
The delicious tongue we speak with speaks us.
A liquor of sweetness where its root cleaves
ripens fluent, as it runs for the desirous
reason, the touching sense. The infant says, “I”
like earthquake and wavers as place takes voice.
Earth steadies smiling around her, in reply
to her finding of pronoun, her focal choice,
& waits: while sun sucks earth juices up from wry
root-runs tangled under dark, while the girl
no longer vegetal, steps into view
a moving speaker, an “I” the air whirls
toward the green exuberance of “You.”

Only to themselves are the passionate
hot. To the objects of their passion they
are cold. What Yeats knew. They eradicate
what they notice; the thumb hard-crams the clay
impressionable under it, to lie flat,
apt to the shape a cold-steel scribe may
cut or spurn it to. Yet they know passion
must drown to ripen sweet & give fair play
to the whole life hot passion speed us from

Clay, be glass. Cling to the crystals of sand
that tell you, centuries of soil will come.
Not-heart, translate root-ends the planter’s hand
cut & abandoned, to slow chrysanthemum.
Heart of felt life, drop your guard, be still, be slow,
easing all you long for toward all you know.

Marie Ponsot

Tall order that is, to drop one’s guard – only in certain company, perhaps. Challenged to choose between speaking my mind or being burned, I immediately fell for the poem and had difficulty deciding where to stop quoting as the single-syllable words march purposeful forward like drumbeats. Valiantly I tried to grasp hold of a punctuation mark, any punctuation mark will do, to no avail, the words insist on appearing like a compulsive habit. Paradoxically, this poem is from a collection called Easy. Time to stop. I had planned to end this post with a note of optimism but the biblical paradox quoted by Fitzgerald in The Crack Up has the upper hand. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

Thank you for the imagery, dear muse.


(4) The old books image is from
(5) The green/gold leaves photo is from
(6) The early leaf photo is from
(7) The waterdrop photo is from

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