Poem of Probabilities

Today, everything seems quite likely.
The mountains are entirely on the cards, kneeling
peaceably by the sea, with tides smoothing
their knees into pebbles. And the sea is, as always,
highly probable, down to the smallest
of its waves, which are never too young to be legally
attractive. In such clear air, love
or dislike at first sight are equally
possible; and a fox with white albino
eyes is nothing unusual, as it crosses
the tracks for the tenth generation of its line,
limping with the responsibility. Even
the lighthouse looks unavoidable, though it falls
down twice a century. In town,
reflections in shop windows predictably
cast people onto the streets. Ten
to one, our doubly mortgaged homes
are dreams in the mind of the surrounding forest,
which may any time wake up.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Poem of Probabilities”?

Sometimes, we can wake up to a way of looking at things where the world seems ruled by chance. It can strike us that even the most familiar patterns of events just happen to be recurring in the same format, and things might easily happen differently next time. Even hard-nosed physicists allow that the most familiar laws of nature might, conceivably, change. Perhaps a time will come when light doesn’t travel at the (present) speed of light. Though this way of looking at things is explored by the philosopher David Hume, I wanted to explore it in the language of poetry. It’s a way of looking at the world that can be fraught with anxiety: we might start worrying about what to expect next, if nothing seems certain. On the other hand, it can be filled with delight, with our appreciating each thing in its uniqueness, as though it may never occur again, or with wonder that it’s there at all. The poem tries to cover both ends of this continuum of feeling, though concentrating more on the delight than the anxiety. Think of our delighted wonder, looking at the Rockies, that they are there at all, rather than the Earth’s formation having left flat ground.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Poem of Probabilities”?

A main technique I use in this poem is paradox, or the conjoining of ideas and words that, in everyday language, would be nonsense, absurd. In everyday terms, it makes no sense to say that everything is equally likely to happen, equally possible or probable. I can accept it as possible there’s a stray cat outside the front door; but not my favourite movie-star, or an alive and well William Shakespeare. A paradox, though strange or absurd on the face of it, turns out to make good sense, but only if you change your understanding of one or more of its terms. So the poem invites you to a nonliteral interpretation of the attitude that everything is equally likely. It’s an attitude of appreciative wonder, amazement even, that things are as they are: energizing wonder at each morning’s sunrise, say.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.