Experiential Time in Some Modern Poetry

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Experiential Time in Some Modern Poetry

Aaron Lercher


Experiential or lived time (A-series time) can be many things. Gertrude Stein claims, in her 1935 Narration lectures, that experiential time is a plenum: all experiential time is full of vivid experience, if one is alert to perceive it. Stein, however, then poses a problem of narration that seems to obstruct poetic access to this vivid plenum. Bernadette Mayer and Lisa Jarnot take up Stein’s challenge with time-defined and time-filling poetic writing processes. Much like children, these processes can come to have their own experiential times.

Key Words
time; experiential time; Lisa Jarnot; Bernadette Mayer; Gertrude Stein; Alfred North Whitehead


1. Introduction

Poets are metaphysicians. Poets do not merely use the metaphysics developed by philosophers; poets work this out for their own purposes in their own ways. That is the general thesis behind this essay, although this essay is confined to the work of a specific lineage of poets concerning the metaphysics of time.

Gertrude Stein’s methods are radical and precise. For Stein, anything can be named and addressed in its particularity, just as it is. So, anything can be in a poem. As she says in Tender Buttons:

A measure is that which put up so that it shows the length has a steel construction. Tidiness is not delicacy, it does not destroy the whole piece, certainly not it has been measured and nothing has been cut off and even if that has been lost there is a name, no name is signed and left over, not any space is fitted so that moving about it is plentiful.[1]

Nothing is left out or cut off, even if it has been lost. Space is not confined. Stein’s rigorous measure has a “steel construction,” and its tidiness is not merely a matter of having delicate taste. Instead, Stein is driven by a firm sense of correctness with which to address things, so she enjoins us, in a famous passage, to “show the choice” by which the poetic construction proceeds:

Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.[2]

In this rigorously constructive mode, Stein poses a basic problem about the metaphysics of time ,in her 1935 Narration lectures, because it arises while writing any narrative. According to Stein, it turns out that no narrative can be true or correct. Next, Bernadette Mayer responds directly to Stein’s problem of narration, in her 1971 project, Memory.  Mayer’s methods are as radical as Stein’s, and Mayer’s extremely intensive writing process entails some risk to herself. Then, Lisa Jarnot brings this lineage to the present in her 2019 A Princess Magic Presto Spell, in which the risks of Mayer’s type of writing process are controlled by carrying out the process in small increments spread out over a long time, allowing an emergent consciousness in the poem itself to come into view, alongside that of Jarnot herself and that of her daughter.

2. Stein’s experiential time

The problem Stein wants to solve in her 1935 Narration lectures is how it is possible to speak or write vividly in narration. She first defines knowledge and truth. For Stein, ‘knowledge’ is a state of “immediate existing,” in which “in knowing anything you know it as you know it, you know it at the time that you are knowing it.”[3] Stein is talking about the qualitative immediacy of the present. Stein pairs this concept of knowledge with an experiential or idealist concept of truth, according to which language is correct or succeeds when “it tell[s] something in the way that makes it feel that something is what that thing is.”[4] She uses an amusing example to illustrate the fact that our experience can be vividly full, even when nothing appears to happen. During World War I, when American soldiers arrived in France, French people would do nothing but watch “the American soldiers standing, standing and doing nothing standing for a long time not even talking but just standing and being watched by the whole French population.”[5] Her example shows how “impressive” an experience can be, even though no action worth mentioning occurs. If this experience was vividly full for these French people, then it must have significance.

In terms of the metaphysics of time, Stein’s view of knowledge and truth is “presentist,” affirming that only the present is fully real. This is a variety of A-series time, according to which tense is a real qualitative property of events. The events that are present are continually changing. Likewise, change or time-passage is another general characteristic of A-series time. A-series time is the time of experience, action, and suffering. In contrast, B-series time is the time of physical explanation. B-series time is a relation between events, such that an event is either before, after, or simultaneous with another event. This relation does not undergo change. What matters for physics are quantitatively measurable intervals among events that are before, after, or simultaneous with each other; and physical time is the main example of B-series time. The equations of physics accordingly have no tense.

Moreover, according to Stein’s view of knowledge, “at no time of knowing is there anything but knowing that thing the thing you know.”[6] That is, for every time, there is an experience. Stein thus postulates a map from time to experience, such that experiential time is full of experience. For Stein, A-series time is a vivid plenum of experience, even if nothing seems to happen, as exemplified by the French people’s experience watching American soldiers while apparently nothing happened.

A map from B-series times to physical events would be a physical plenum, perhaps real if we think of the cosmic background radiation or gravity as filling space-time.[7] But the point of Einstein’s 1905 Special Relativity paper is to define a map going in the opposite direction.  Instead of a map from time to events, Einstein defines a map from events to times. A relation of simultaneity is defined between events in relative motion, which then extends to a relation between events before and after each other, consistent with physical facts, especially the constancy of the velocity of light in a vacuum. These B-series time relations between events in relativity theory depend on the trajectories of relative motion and so are not unique, contrary to prior assumptions, including Kant’s.

But Einstein’s map is still from events to times, rather than Stein’s map from times to events.[8] For Kant, the map from experiences to times was necessary for objectivity; experience that was not organized by the objective synthesis of time “would not be knowledge, but a rhapsody of perceptions that would not fit into any context according to rules of a completely interconnected (possible) consciousness.”[9] Yet such rhapsodic perceptions are just part of what fills Stein’s plenum of experiential A-series time. Stein’s vivid plenum of experience, however, is not a mere “rhapsody of perceptions,” but instead an exploratory and constructive process. Stein’s modernism thus aligns with the post-Kantian romantic embrace of increasingly diverse experiential content, including very particular, inward, extreme, alienated, abrupt, or mad (as in “mad pride”) experiences.

3. Stein’s problem of narration

Gertrude Stein’s “Lecture 3” of her four 1935 lectures in Narration critiques the time expressed in ordinary narration. She disputes the putative temporal immediacy of newspaper reports and headlines. Suppose we consider the proverbial headline, “Man Bites Dog.” This might seem to state something in the immediately present ‘now,’ but it does not. When anyone reads that headline, the event is already over. The newspaper headline started with an occurrence that was “existing” in an experiential now having the “quality of ending or beginning.”[10] The newspaper headline converted that immediacy into an event or “happening” (in contrast with “existing” in Stein’s terms), and “it is a fact like any other and having been done it is for the purposes of memory a thing having no vitality.”[11]

Stein argues that the newspaper headline is false according to her concept of truth, and narratives in newspapers and many other kinds of writing are false. It does not “tell something in that way that makes it feel that that something is what that thing is.”[12] Instead, the fake immediacy of the headline serves to “deceive the reader into feeling that yesterday is to-day.”[13] If yesterday is today, then today is tomorrow and the same for all days. Then change is unreal, “nothing must ever be changing.”[14] Also, and in the same way, historical writing is merely soothing repetition.[15] Stein thus presents a sharp critique of ordinary narration as confusing past with present, thereby obliterating the vividness of the present.

Stein’s “Lecture 2” of Narration follows her “Poetry and Grammar” in Lectures in America, by explaining poetry as a language of nouns and prose as a language of sentences and paragraphs.[16] Stein considers a borderline example to illustrate the distinction. “Let’s make our flour meal and meat in Georgia,” which she saw on a billboard from a train, might be “moving in any direction.”[17] As poetry, this could be a line in a song of praise for the agricultural god of Georgia, and so addressing or calling out to that god. As prose, this could be part of a plan, or else a statement advertising the fact that such products are available. A language of nouns can be correct or not, as Stein says: “A name is adequate or it is not.”[18]

Aside: Stein is not making any logical error here by extending truth from sentences to a language composed mostly or entirely of nouns. An expression of elementary arithmetic, such as “2 + 3 = 5,” consists of two nouns, “5” and the complex noun “2 + 3.” By equating these, we say these refer to the same thing. One could replace the equals sign by a rule of substitution, and instead say merely “2 + 3” followed by “5,” which would be correct in that narrowly restricted language.

Poetry, then, aims to call things by their adequate names, as in “how you talk to anything whose name is new to you a lover a baby or a dog or a new land or any part of it.”[19] This correctness can fade as feelings, things, and their names change. The vividness by which a lover calls a love-name to a beloved can easily be lost; then we would have lost the thread of truth in Stein’s sense. In response, Stein aims to replace nouns by “the thing itself,” whereby “it was eventually to be poetry and not prose which would have to deal with everything that was not movement in space.”[20] Addressing is the point, not the words as such. Tender Buttons begins that project, and Stanzas in Meditation is its culmination.

Stein, then, affirms the authoritative truth of poetry, but remains troubled by narration. How to narrate without deceptively converting vivid existence into merely completed facts? In “Lecture 4” of Narration, Stein proceeds to consider the question of the audience, the answer to which might possibly provide a solution to the problem of narration. In particular, letters and lectures have definite addressees, and therefore have a poetic element of direct address. To achieve a vivid immediacy, the writer’s experiential plenum somehow needs to merge with that of the audience. Stein says, “What makes writing writing is hearing what an audience is that is to say makes recognition while in the act of writing what he is writing.”[21] Stein emphasizes how difficult this is, and that a writer is a ”genius” who is continually listening while simultaneously telling.[22] A telling that achieves an experiential merger between the ceaseless changes in the particular present now for both audience and writer would achieve the vivid immediacy that Stein regards as truth.

4. Mayer’s Memory

In the same way that she criticizes newspaper reports, Stein also says, “Remembering is repetition anybody can know that.”[23] The context is that Stein is talking about the problems of how to portray people without implying that anyone is merely an instance of a preconceived concept. In objective time, one thinks of people, or anything, as embedded in time; time is a master concept into which every changing thing fits, but Stein abjures this view. Stein’s deprecation of remembering, however, presents a deep problem about time, language, and consciousness. How can one, with full truth in Stein’s sense, remember anything? If experiential time really is what we think it is, we should be able to talk directly about a qualitatively distinct “now” and “then,” without theoretical abstractions or other loss of immediacy. Bernadette Mayer takes up this problem in 1971, with her monumental project, Memory. Mayer remarked a few years later that Stein “wasn’t indulgent enough” in considering the full variety of memory and ways of writing.[24] If it is possible to say what something is, and to call it lovingly by its right name, which Stein did not doubt, then the real problem of memory is the inclusion or selection of what to say.

Mayer’s early work is in the intersection of conceptual art and experimental poetry in late-1960s New York City. In 1967-1969, she co-edited a small magazine, 0 To 9, with Vito Acconci. This magazine bridged the art and poetry communities by publishing work both by conceptual artists, including, among others, Adrian Piper, Robert Smithson, and Sol LeWitt, and by experimental writers, including Hannah Weiner, Ted Berrigan, Jackson Mac Low, and Clark Coolidge, and others. Mayer’s experimentalism is not just about works as processes or objects distinct from her life and mind. Instead, she uses herself as an experimental test case.  In a later interview, Mayer said:

… I’ve always used myself – as a person – as an example.  That’s how I write. I have an example of the emotions and other feelings humans have in the twenty-first century … (laughs). Uh, anarchists, left-wing humans not many of us, right?  But yeah, I’ve always very rigorously used myself as an example because that’s what I have available to me.  And for free, right?[25]

In the interview, Mayer next explained that this idea first occurred to her from reading books by countercultural biologist John Lilly, who had a “very rigorous attitude towards experimentation with himself.”

Mayer solves Stein’s problem of remembering in Stein’s own terms, using the poetic authority of addressing or calling. Memories occur in thought, then other things occur, each qualitatively distinct and none interchangeable. Repetition is never a problem. In language, something comes first and other things follow: “the things that dont get called they come last if there’s time if there’s time, you missed it you threw it that’s an echo that comes last.”[26] Mayer analyzes the problem of order in experience as being about selection. Sometimes, an initial order set up for some experiences continues to work for new experience. “But if that does not happen, if the order or design that’s set up for the original experience doesnt prove workable when the volume of it is increased, … then we have two alternatives: we can reject the new stuff, orange pen, or we can change the order or design, orange pen: …”[27] This sentence continues, like others throughout the book, by expanding to fill experiential time:

washed hair here, rampage, heavy air here, talked to anne & m is still pissed offf about videotapes & now peter too as well & larry & gertrude & harris her going to the coast & grandfather’s state terrible nothing right nothing wrong, a kidney infection jaundice dehydration oxygen intravenous feeding hardening of the arteries, can you break this seal break this seal his first movie in the english language, grace is in the country with the magician’s children: the arsonist a hit & run, I saw it all at once tonight that words are leading me on, the one in imagination, saw, in leaks in indian leaks somehow, I can erase I can modify I pick up, least it’s not a nautical sleep affinity for words like genet some flow to stretch, stretch out & pull in, to masturbate: & it is in honor of these crimes that I am writing this book & so on, not a use or function like v, perform a service, work words into a system, words put into a system, it’s some play, some death, nautical, at sea with them & I started to write that, what’s put in, watts, what’s put in creating problems, everyone expects a rearrangement to suit not to suit, expect spectrum: yellow but the sun is pure white, a little lemon in it, I was holding them on, those games, jokes all the time, nothing to do with time, what can a diary be not a reconstruction, something put in, use the time, pass it, stain it, pass it, it’s stained, it’s magnified, it sticks, it sticks in my mind & my hand always hurts always hurts still does when I write in this book: book, took three rolls to be developed into seen.[28]

Mayer’s run-on sentence starts with her talking about the problem of composition as choice and ends up talking about how the appearance of light is added up from the component light in the spectrum. Mayer says the sun is yellow (on a cloudless day, one supposes), even though sunlight in the visible spectrum adds up to white, but both the yellow sun and white light are part of a process that fills time.

Full experiential time has everything in it. A diary need not be a reconstruction, but it can be an original construction of a pattern of experience, since we are always constructing such patterns anyway. Later, Mayer described the Memory project:

if a human, a writer, could come up with a workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition of his or her own mind, & could perform this process of translation on himself, using the code, for a 24-hour period, he or we or someone could come up with a great piece of language/information.[29]

Mayer solves Stein’s problem of the loss of immediacy by making herself into an observing instrument. She assists herself by keeping a journal and by taking photographs. Then Mayer’s writing process generates a time filled with experiences leaving no gaps. The aim was not just to transcribe data, however, although the all-encompassing character of this project can make it seem that way. The project defines an operation or process that the writer applies to himself or herself. The aim was “to find a structure for MEMORY” and to “find out what memory is.”[30] The aim is any pattern of significance that would reveal itself as the outcome of applying the process to oneself.

After a month of the Memory project in July 1971, Mayer felt that she was going crazy (“go on going crazy”[31]), but that this self-transformation was itself worth pursuing. “I thought why not go over that brink & see what’s there.”[32] This conscious self-transformation, then, continues in Mayer’s Studying Hunger Journals project, in which she kept journals to share with a psychoanalyst. Mayer turned her own mind into a demolition and construction site, with new building materials arriving all the time.

Mayer’s projects solve Stein’s problem of temporal immediacy in narrative. An immediate truth occurs in the recording of events, rather than remembering them. Mayer’s recording of events generates memory. These events rise to the level of consciousness, even if they are dreams or anything initially subconscious. A structure for memory arises in bringing these to consciousness. These events have significance for Mayer as episodes of her conscious life, and thus they constitute her self-consciousness of having been there and done that.

One interpretation of Mayer’s projects involves psychologist Endel Tulving’s concept of “episodic memory,” which he developed around the same time as Mayer was writing Memory and Studying Hunger Journals.[33] Tulving argues that self-consciousness arises through memory of events as one experiences them, which he calls “episodic memory,” in contrast with factual memory. He describes a motorcycle accident victim who retained his factual memory about his own life after the accident but lost his sense of these being his own memories of events as he experienced them. As a result, the accident victim also lost his sense of subjective time as his own past, present, and future. In this light, Mayer’s projects are exercises in heightening her self-consciousness by deliberately building episodic memories. Mayer’s Memory project may have overloaded the process of creating episodic memory, which made her feel like she was going crazy.

5. Jarnot’s entities and their times

Lisa Jarnot’s (2019) Princess Magic Presto Spell project is comparable to Mayer’s Memory in that both are time-defined and time-filling processes of recording.[34] Jarnot’s process, however, is much slower and more deliberate, devoting ten years to write one poem, starting in 2009 with the birth of her daughter. Motherhood changed Jarnot’s life, so that writing three words per day, when possible, had become a reasonable and “modest” goal.[35] The effects of the writing process on Jarnot’s life were not as much of a shock or disturbance as Mayer’s experiments on hers. The effect on Jarnot and on her readers lingers, however.

Jarnot’s poetry frequently jumps or hovers between selves that seem to divide and appear beside themselves. Her poem, “The Bridge,” is a good example.[36] The first person of that poem experiences a kiss, despite not being there. The first person metamorphoses into Thucydides, who famously said he wrote the truth for all time, but who appears in the poem as a child wandering in an American exurban landscape of shopping malls and abandoned barns, somewhere “near the ocean.”

A Magic Princess Presto Spell starts with nouns and the Steinian authority of poetic truth, calling first, “Into the eve of a picnic of trees of the Strawberry Rugelet Rabbit Tyrone.”[37] The preposition, “into,” prefixes this first address, so we are not only addressing but also entering. “Strawberry Rugulet Rabbit Tyrone” is a way of addressing Jarnot’s daughter, whose birth brought the book project into existence. This must be a goofy singsong chant by which Jarnot’s words entered her newborn daughter’s mind. Thus, at that moment, the poem begins with a way of sharing minds between Jarnot and her daughter. At that moment, the poem is this identity-bond between Jarnot and daughter in the mother’s chant. We know that this identity must eventually dissipate, as Jarnot’s daughter gradually attains her own separate self-consciousness. In any case, the poem is not the poet.

That first address is soon over, and the second line enters into a distinct moment, a distinct present now: “into a glazed economic disturbance caused by the rain most dramatic and strange.” The first now has immediately vanished. A new now has replaced the first.

If we applied a common-sense ontology, then there are three distinct things: the poet, the words, and the daughter. We would say, “The poet says words to the daughter.” By saying that, however, we would lapse into the error Stein diagnosed in newspapers. So we shall not do that. Instead, we shall attend to the addressing itself, as Stein did when proposing a pure poetry in which “the thing itself” replaces the nouns.

A Princess Magic Presto Spell does not narrate in the way Stein deprecates. Instead, Jarnot follows Mayer’s example by adhering to the process of constructing the poem, which is also a process of constructing consciousness. This construction is not hypothetical. Jarnot attained a mother-daughter bond in that silly phrase, “Strawberry Rugulet Rabbit Tyrone.” Then, the daughter’s consciousness grows through the poem. We encounter her “first k sound” at the beginning of her second year, followed by early words, “milk, apple, cracker,” and then early sentences, “catch it! stop it! go there! I want to do that.”[38] Meanwhile, goofy singsong breaks, “mango turkey boobie” and “silly gilly gumball,” as well as “Strawberry Rugulet Rabbit Tyrone,” align the poet, the poem, and the daughter with the same rhythm and the same present now: identical consciousness at that moment. These identities between Jarnot’s, her daughter’s, and the poem’s senses of a present now are fleeting, however. With Jarnot’s daughter’s fourth year, there is “Not a coming into/ but a going out of.”[39] Her daughter’s mind has begun to separate itself to make its own way. Her own stories start to appear, along with complete sentences.

Mayer’s constructive processes heightened her self-consciousness, writing perhaps too much, too fast. Jarnot’s is much, much slower. But not only that. By writing only three words a day, the writing process becomes so slow that time consciousness in the writing departs from Jarnot’s own time consciousness. The poem cannot exist just in Jarnot’s mind. Jarnot’s method of writing three words per day for ten years implies that she does not keep the poem enclosed in her mind. The poem is fragmentary and not a patterned unity that might be remembered in detail. Yet it has the unity of a succession of now-moments, laid down like geological sedimentary strata or successive tree rings. Whatever kind of thing the poem is, it has something other than any sort of unity human consciousness might have: Jarnot cannot possibly remember its contents or the process of writing it over ten years; the process was not that of remembering. The directness or directedness of Jarnot’s authorship dissipates over the course of the writing process, like a mist that lifts, leaving something like the pure poetry of addressing that Stein sought.

Yet, there is direct address in A Princess Magic Presto Spell; its first and most important addressee is her daughter. The writing process primarily addresses her. That address initiates the poem and sustains it. It addresses the readers indirectly. It would seem that something that talks to us is conscious in some way, or very like a conscious entity. So, in some sense, the writing process itself attains something like its own rights, or something like consciousness.

6. Whitehead’s actual entities

How precisely the writing process, or the poem, is conscious requires some strange metaphysics. Stein’s friend, philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, provides a metaphysical framework for stating how this might happen. Whitehead’s metaphysics, in Process and Reality, supports the claim that A-series time is real, and that experience as having tense – past, present, and future – is real, and so there is something false in converting this experience into a time lacking such qualities. Whitehead views the objective time and space of physics as a hypothesis, rather than basic reality. He insists, “[I]n every act of becoming there is the becoming of something with temporal extension.”[40] Hence, time is a plenum.

For Whitehead, reality consists entirely of atoms of experience (“actual entities”). Each atom is an indivisible “This happening here now.” Each atomic experience has duration and is not an abstract point of time. In this kind of unit, experience generalizes in such a way that a bacterium has experience (“prehension”) by its chemical metabolism with its environment,  not only human or animal minds. Hence, time is full of experience.

Whitehead’s metaphysics has the remarkable consequence that every form is “organic form” by default. This is because each atom of experience is a unity (“concrescence”) of relatedness with other things. Any actual entity undergoes self-realization by successive concrescences. Organic unity is a relationship between a whole and all of its parts. Kant, for instance, defines organic unity: “An organized product of nature is one in which everything is a purpose and reciprocally also a means.”[41] In Whitehead’s metaphysics, things never have parts that fail to fit together into organic wholes, because every actual entity is atomic and has no parts. It is vacuously true that each experiential atom is an organic unity. The unity exists by default in any present moment of experience. No wonder Charles Olson and Robert Duncan were inspired by Whitehead’s metaphysics, which underwrites the authority of the present moment of experience.

Whitehead’s metaphysics of experience might seem far-fetched. One can discuss and debate the reality of tense, and Stein’s claim that denying that reality is false, without bringing up Whitehead’s process philosophy. (Whitehead is not influential in academic philosophical debate over the metaphysics of time.) Yet Whitehead’s view has another consequence of interest to any poet. If a bacterium can have experiences in Whitehead’s sense as “prehensions,” then why not a writing process or a poem? If so, then the process of writing A Princess Magic Presto Spell, amoeba-like, experiences the things it absorbs, engulfing each. Each datum swims briefly into “presentational immediacy,” as Whitehead calls the simple mode of experience by which any “actual entity” realizes itself. Moreover, if a writing process can have experiences, should it therefore have rights? The idea that a poem has rights goes back to the beginning of romanticism, with Friedrich Schlegel’s claim that poetry is “a speech which is its own law and end unto itself,” with the rights of a free citizen of the realm of art.[42] Further, Schlegel argues, “Poetry can only be criticized by way of poetry. A critical judgment of an artistic production has no civil rights in the realm of art if it isn’t itself a work of art .…”[43] Schlegel’s romantic idealism might be taken in an elitist direction, but it need not be. It is more usual today to expand the notion of “artistic production” in a democratic way. Warhol’s work, among many others’, exemplifies democratized artistic creation.

7. A Princess Magic Presto Spell as actual entity

One puzzle about open form in poetry is how it should conclude or end. Since an open form can grow forever, does it end only when a poet collapses in exhaustion – or dies? If so, then the poem would exist as a unity primarily in relation to the poet, or to her mind, as the topic of her thoughts and creative activity. Yet, Jarnot’s method of writing three words per day for ten years implies that she does not keep the poem enclosed in her mind.

A solution to the puzzle of how open forms can conclude or end has to say that it does not matter. Pound worried about closure in his Cantos, but we do not. Our expectations as readers are mistaken if we demand a special flourish, such as a rhyming closure or rhythmic call and response, to mark the culmination of a poem. Then, however, how is a poem to exist as an entity without such special flourishes to mark its unity? There needs to be something in its method of construction such that the poem is continually realizing its own internal nature. Jarnot’s method of writing three words per day is enough for it to achieve “concrescence” through its geological sedimentary method.

The simplest way that A Princess Magic Presto Spell is an “actual entity” of its own is that the writing process defines its own time internal to the poem. Over the duration of ten human years of jotting down words, and then editing and culling, the writing process grows apart from whatever perception of time that the poet or readers would experience on our own. Too many words have grown up between us for any one mind to hold them all together; we have to accept and respect that, somehow. That brings us to the result of the writing process: the poem itself.

In its sixth year, the poem presents a block of text in which events overlap in a confusion, verging on simultaneity. Then, in the seventh year, the poem enters a new world, “teeming with life.”[44] A Princess Magic Presto Spell shares this world with “roaches, fruit flies, ants, hairballs, ringworm, fleas,” and people coexisting with all of them. This world has public facts, like “global liquidity funds” and deaths of famous people. This world has both private and public meanings: “for ‘Hopkinesque’ read ‘urinalysis.'” Finally, the ninth year begins with a surreal yet coherent complete declarative sentence:

Dust and spirit

in the cavernous eyes
of our dead cat
help to immanentize the eschaton
toward a fruit-based strangeness
with the head of a girl
with the snake of a body

at the Erie County Fair[45]

Complete declarative sentences bring the poem into a world of objects, such as a cat, which can have attributes, such as that of being dead. Complete thoughts only gradually emerge in the poem; their full emergence marks the conclusion of the poem. For Whitehead, objectification of aspects of actual experience defines their being in the past.[46] Such objects can exist in the shared hypothesis of objective time. The time of the poem is no longer exclusively experiential time. The writing process of A Princess Magic Presto Spell concludes by resulting in the product of that process. This product is the poem as it is on a page and bound in a book. The completion of a process can be a metamorphosis akin to something dying and decomposing, but also similar to a human growing up. Either way, the writing is done and the poem has become something for a reader to read.

For Whitehead, it remains unresolved whether distinct actual entities can share the same time sequence or whether any one mind has a single unified time sequence.[47] In A Princess Magic Presto Spell, a shared time sequence coincides with Jarnot’s daughter’s earliest years. Yet as the writing process and Jarnot’s daughter grow up, Jarnot’s daughter and the writing process as “actual entity” split off from each other and grow apart. The process addresses and embraces Jarnot’s daughter, and as it nears its conclusion, she can experience the poem. They experience each other in a community, along with the poet. Their experiences are distinct. The poem is more receptive in embrace of relations with other things, all at once or in quick succession, than any human could be. The poem embraces the separateness of human minds, and it embraces its own separateness from human minds.

This essay began by considering two maps, one from all objective mental contents to one kind of time, and another from all times to mental contents. The map from all times to mental contents requires a time that is full of content. A writing process that achieves this plenum acquires a sort of life of its own. We need not interpret this emergence as irrational, or even as asserting the validity of one’s own experience, although it is the latter. It is also a rational process of departure and exploration, of trying and possibly succeeding in finding something.



This essay, with gratitude, is for Lisa Jarnot. The author also thanks the editor and reviewers of Contemporary Aesthetics.

Aaron Lercher

Aaron Lercher is a librarian at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA.  He earned a doctorate in philosophy at SUNY Buffalo. His publications are mostly in environmental ethics and information science, with another forthcoming in logic.

Published on October 31, 2023.

Cite this article: Aaron Lercher, “Experiential Time in Some Modern Poetry,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), pp. 68-69.

[2] Stein, Tender Buttons, p. 76.

[3] Gertrude Stein, Narration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 31.

[5] Ibid., p. 19.

[6] Ibid., p. 21.

[7] Albert Einstein, Relativity: the Special and the General Theory, trans. Robert W. Lawson, Fifteenth, enlarged edition (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 156: ”On the basis of the general theory of relativity, on the other hand, space as opposed to ’what fills space,’ which is dependent on the co-ordinates, has no separate existence.”

[8] Einstein, Relativity, p. 25: ”In this manner a time-value is associated with every event which is essentially capable of observation.”

[9] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1929), B275-279.

[10] Stein, Narration, p. 42.

[11] Ibid., p. 42.

[12] Ibid., p. 31.

[13] Ibid., p. 37.

[14] Ibid., p. 43.

[15] Ibid., p. 58.

[16] Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (New York: Random House, 1935).

[17] Stein, Narration, p. 28.

[18] Stein, Lectures, p. 210.

[19] Ibid., p. 234.

[20] Ibid., pp. 245-246.

[21] Stein, Narration, p. 56.

[22] Stein, Lectures, p. 170; Stein Narration, p. 34.

[23] Stein, Lectures, p. 178.

[24] Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh. Piece of Cake (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2020), p. 93.

[25] Kate Shapira and Deborah Poe, “A conversation with Bernadette Mayer,” Denver Quarterly 46(1) (Winter 2011), p. 76

[26] Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Catskill, NY: Siglio Press, 2020), p. 91.

[27] Ibid., p. 142.

[28] Ibid., pp. 142-143.

[29] Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2011), p. 2.

[30] Mayer, Studying Hunger, p. 3.

[31] Mayer, Memory, p. 271.

[32] Mayer, Studying Hunger, p. 1.

[33] Endel Tulving, “Memory and Consciousness,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadiene, (1985) 26: 1-12.

[34] Lisa Jarnot, A Princess Magic Presto Spell (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2019).

[35] Jarnot, Princess, p. 63.

[36] Lisa Jarnot, Ring of Fire (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2003), pp. 5-6.

[37] Jarnot, Princess, p. 3.

[38] Ibid., pp. 11-15.

[39] Ibid., p. 25.

[40] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 69.

[41] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett), Ak V, 376.

[42] Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments, Number 65, in Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, edited by J. M. Bernstein (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 239-245.

[43] Schlegel, Critical Fragments, Number 117.

[44] Jarnot, Princess, p. 43.

[45] Ibid., p. 59.

[46] Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 123.

[47] Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), p. 73.