Less Is More: A Poetic Paradox

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In his Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics (1986), Gábor J. Székely shared a paradox learned from his professor, Alfréd Rényi:

Since I started to deal with information theory I have often meditated upon the conciseness of poems; how can a single line of verse contain far more ‘information’ than a highly concise telegram of the same length. The surprising richness of meaning of literary works seems to be in contradiction with the laws of information theory. The key to this paradox is, I think, the notion of ‘resonance.’ The writer does not merely give us information, but also plays on the strings of the language with such virtuosity, that our mind, and even the subconscious self resonate. A poet can recall chains of ideas, emotions and memories with a well-turned word. In this sense, writing is magic.

The paradox described above is also known as the Paradox of Information.

Thus, there is no “fixed” amount of information. The perceived quality and quantity of information depends upon the level of interaction between the sender and the receiver of the information. It is nugatory to only measure the amount of information from the information source.

Poetry is a special case. A single line of poetry can evoke powerful emotions. It can encapsulate an idea which could take a whole tome or more to explicate, and even then, it may not be enough. In addition, the information conveyed by a poem differs depending on who’s reading it. Even you would find a poem’s meaning changed based on your mood,

Revisiting a poem you read a while ago may prove to be enlightening since the new knowledge and experience you gained help you to look at the same poem from a different perspective.

So, in a way, a poem contains an infinite amount of information waiting to be unearthed.

As T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

22 thoughts on “Less Is More: A Poetic Paradox

  1. I was just considering that very same T.S. Eliot quote a couple of days ago… and i talked to my wife about it. I remember that, when first reading The Four Quartets, the words in it shocked and impressed me, but i knew that i had to continue to work at understanding them. Now one can say that such “work” is a beautiful thing! … though, of course, one may be wrong.

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  2. I’ve been experimenting with brevity, on and off, because I tend to use too many words. Your post is very encouraging – perhaps I’m saying more than I think I am in that small space. Thanks!

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  3. It’s the difference between the world of physics and the world of biological communication.

    If you want to get a billiard ball from point A to the door, use a cue stick and F=MA.
    If you want to get a person from point A to the door, see what happens when you hit them with a cue stick.

    However, if you ask them nicely, they might walk to the door on their own.

    Living beings have their own internal sources of energy. Communication allows one living being to request that the other access that energy.

    A poem is a request that a person access her or his own source of associations.

    There’s much confusion and danger in society confusing the laws of physics with the laws of communication and biology. The great scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson has written wonderful books about this.

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  4. Good poetry does have a second dimension of meaning. I think Joyce was looking for a third dimension in Finnegan’s Wake. I’m not sure Joyce succeeded to the extent that say, Basho did…

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  5. Your post is so clear that even an aspiring poet understands. 🙂 I really am intrigued with
    what you have found and can see the validity.
    There is often rhythm and hidden music in a poem as well as choice of words.
    Where factual language will explain more clearly it might not enter all centres of our being.

    That said, good literature is a lifesaver, it teaches and entertains.

    miriam

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  6. I’ve referred to the same phenomenon in the past as a “surplus of meaning,” but that quoted paragraph is even better. It’s interesting that “surplus” tends more toward the information end of whatever we choose to name the spectrum, while “resonance” tends toward the poetic.
    This one’s a real keeper, for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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