An Introduction to Nano-poetics

The importance of small things


According to poet Gilad Meiri, “down here, in daily life, in the low-rent districts of the masses, there is more space for poetry than high up on Olympus, in the VIP seats of the gods”.


Everything’s miniature, like microfilm.
And at the hour of need – enlarged.
It could have worked for us too.

The world is filled with creatures which are too large
and not always useful and not always necessary.
What’s so bad about miniaturising people and their belongings
and enlarging them at the hour of our need.

Keep them in mind big, taking up space.
Keep them in mind jumping toward the basket.
Keep them in mind, their equipment and objects.
But keep them in mind small, until the proper time.

We haven’t got the mental power
to shrink and at the same time believe
that we’ll grow at the hour of need.
We’re afraid we won’t return from the journey
toward miniaturisation.
We want to maintain our territoriality
to use and as a special option.

And so there’s no mini-future for humankind,
no micro-future for humankind, which doubts.
People don’t have the rare prowess
to contract and attack when the time comes.

(David Avidan)

One familiar trend in world literature is the movement of ordinary life toward what is considered poetic, resulting in poetry whose main characteristic is miniaturisation – downsizing toward the small and the minor key. The miniaturisation process includes content: for example, the movement of poetry from a focus on gods or the privileged classes to that which deals with existential, practical matters and ordinary people. And it includes form: the switch from high registers to low, and from the serious to the comic.

One of the reasons for this miniaturisation may be that down here, in daily life, in the low-rent districts of the masses, there is more room than high up on Olympus, in the VIP seats of the gods. The available poetic space below includes subjects and forms that are not acceptable for reasons of literary taste, and barred from the honored upper regions. And so there are an abundance of styles, subjects and forms outside the relatively constricted domain of the members-only club, but which are nonetheless significant and deserving of attention. For example, the traditional sonnet of the middle ages dealt narrowly with transcendence, with love, while the contemporary sonnet treats nearly every topic one can think of, including subjects once thought to be low or unconventional. Poetic territory has stretched downward and even sideways, toward the strange.

The movement from major to minor is generally characterised by preferences for what is concrete, human, mundane, ephemeral, personal, humorous, unusual, ironic and restrained – over what is abstract, divine, sacred, unchanging, collective, serious, familiar, bathetic and ornate. For example, David Avidan’s poem above, ‘Microfilm’, deals with an ordinary, negligible object which serves as a tool: a useful magic sliver of memory which is anti-nostalgic. Avidan’s fetishism condenses the desire for miniaturisation into a humorous manifesto. In a parodic and even self-parodying manner, it attacks large things for blocking development in the crowded world (“Keep them in mind big, taking up space”) and attacks the traditional fear/suspicion of small things (“We want to maintain our territoriality”). At this point the poem offers an alternative, redemptive narrative: “to contract” and still to “attack when the time comes”.

The term nano-poetics (from the Greek ‘nanos’ – one-billionth) comes from nano-technology, which makes use of nano-engineering for many purposes, including information gathering, self-correction and duplication in different areas of science, from medicine to the environment and space exploration.

Nano-poetics borrows two relevant qualities of nano-technology for use in the interpretation of poetry: miniaturisation and duplication. The first borrowing is the nano itself, a tiny thing that stands on its own. The use of size – poetry’s approach to the small – as an interpretive strategy is a natural extension of an essential feature of poetry itself, for a poem is the smallest, densest unit of aesthetic information there is. While some poetry spreads a wide net, such as Homeric epics, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, they are in the minority and, despite their great cultural weight, are not representative of the single poem.

Nano-characteristics are not necessarily related to the length of poems, although there are innovations and trends in this area in contemporary poetry, but mainly to content and form, as seen in ‘Microfilm’: the use of ordinary language, and apparently ordinary objects and situations, simple or marginal people and places, humor, nuance, superficiality, prosaicness and the like. Further expressions of the trend to miniaturisation that began in the 1980s in Hebrew poetry are the foregrounding of social minorities, such as Sephardic, homo-lesbian and various religious communities, as well as religious esotericism, magic and mysticism – New Age influences which may be found in the poetry of Ella Bat-tsion and Mois Benarroch, to name two of these voices.

The second borrowing is duplication, which depends on miniaturisation. Without the miniature there can be no reproduction. Experience tells us that in order to recycle and duplicate poetry, it isn’t possible to copy the entire original, but rather only a part or parts [. . .] Poetic duplication is based on the breaking down of larger poetic structures into smaller ones which are then recycled in quotations, imitations, parodies, or intertextual references, such as the breaking down and reproducing of Bible verses by writers of liturgical verse into smaller aesthetic and informational units reworked in new contexts.

The quotation is a compact carrier of a great amount of information, which takes the place of a long narrative. One precise linguistic hint, a kind of poetic optical fiber, is enough to transmit an entire narrative. For example, it is sufficient to use the Hebrew word for ‘manna’ (from heaven) to evoke the exodus from Egypt and all its relevant and various components. The rapid accumulation of information in our times produces many new linguistic chips, or poetic optical fibers, and greatly enlarges the supply of recyclable material.

When my soul skyrockets to the heavens
an unending rustle of paper will accompany me.
And perhaps if I’m lucky, the crackle of microfilm.

(‘Fast and Plenty’, David Avidan)

In 1959, Israeli poet Natan Zach published his famous article in the literary journal Achshav, ‘Thoughts on the poetry of Nathan Alterman the same year that the American physicist Richard Feynman arrived at the basic tenets of his theory of nano-technology. The keys to the future may be found in both these occurrences, poetic and technological. The ‘thin’ and minor-key poetry of Zach and his generation took a giant step away from the collective to the individual, from the high-toned to restraint, from the sacred to the profane. This process may be seen as the earliest step in the process of Israeli poetic miniaturisation – a reduction of the preceding poetics by younger poets – and even in the duplication trend of the 1980s, for example, parodies involving recycling and changes in Alterman’s work made by Avidan, Haim Gouri and others.

The high point of David Avidan’s use of nano-poetics may be found in his Book of Possibilities (1985, in Hebrew), which contains all of the trend’s characteristics: miniaturised forms, reduction of content, nonsense and duplication (which in Avidan’s case means parody). Avidan, a pioneer of space and futuristic poetry, sees the realm of the future in the universe of the tiny, the sub-atomic particles which may be found in outer space.

For example, in his short, parodic poem ‘Skull-alaxy’, Avidan writes, “How did all these ideas get into my head? / Easy. The entire universe is my skullbox.” This skeletal poem is based on the word-play in the title, and takes the question-answer form of interviews. (The Hebrew word for ‘idea’ is a homonym for the word for ‘interview’.) While the poem is indeed occupied with galaxies and megalomania, as Avidan’s work often is, it is also self-mocking, and deals in a vulgar but flashy way with a trivial subject: the poet’s public relations and ego, that is, the most superficial element of personality and not the most profound – the poet’s nano.

In the New Age world of esoteric alternatives, the religious element looms large and so its choice of nano-poetics may almost be taken for granted, its source in the marginality of the esoteric. This poetry does not necessarily reveal secrets in a sensational fashion but aesthetically depicts hidden, ex-canonical information, as for example in Agi Mishol’s parodic ‘Question for a Macrobiotic’. An echo of hidden spirituality may be found in Admiel Kosman’s ‘Hymn’.

Amen, make us into these tiny creatures. Very teeny
tiny, please, under your vast galaxies.
Amen, make us very tiny, pinky-size, under
the galaxies, suns, Milky Ways, waters and your blazing light.

Amen, make us a different size, tiny, invisible and uncomprehending,
unseeing of what you have or don’t. What do you care? Make us
itty-bitty, pinky-size, and we will praise you for it, amen.

Kosman offers human communication with God based on a small, purified ego: both God’s and ours (“make us a different size, tiny, invisible and uncomprehending”). This approach reverberates with Indian philosophy and New Age developments which seek to refine the ego, but also with Hasidic approaches to ecstatic humility. The worshipper asks God to make him and human kind smaller without any apparent practical reason and so one concludes that the reason is spiritual.

In Kosman’s parody of hymns and prayers, the believer turns to God ironically, in a chummy manner, lightly and in ordinary language that people use with each other (“What do you care?”) The request to be made smaller in fact reduces God. After all, we are in any case small creatures and so the goal of the request is to complain about God’s obsession with enlargement and the lack of intimacy between Him and us. This communication does not use the characteristic tone of traditional prayers: official, serious and distant. Although we are not talking about a reversal of the hierarchy – God is still God and people are still people – there is a narrowing of the distance between them; worshippers speak less formally. The change in focus produces a different order of preference in relations: instead of a connection based on power, one based on intimacy is offered, that is, a reduction of the distance of people from God. And this is perhaps one of most significant messages in the narrative of miniaturisation in general: an invitation to intimacy.

Excerpted with permission from the Ketovet Literary Review (1: June-July 2009), Carmel Press, Jerusalem.

© Gilad Meiri (Translated by Lisa Katz)  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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