Circus Acts to the Poet at Large
I dare you to look up at the night sky. Admire the stars, comets, planets. Find the three stars of Orion's Belt or the jagged line of Cassiopeia's Chair. Now step back. Retreat into your lodging, but continue staring. Realize that they are likely dead, their lights twinkling in the beautiful aftermath of their existence.
The placement of the stars is purely random. It is only coincidence that the three stars (Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka) happen to form the curved belt of Orion. They are probably separated by hundreds of light years, yet from our perspective, they align perfectly. The human phenomenon of finding meaning in madness is known as the Barnum effect, named after the circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. Everything, from astrology to astronomy, can have an assigned meaning because as humans, we want desperately to find order in anarchy.
Poetry, with its healing and restorative qualities, has the Barnum effect imbued in its bones. Because a good poem is comprised of layer upon layer, it's possible for the reader to see one layer but skip the rest, which is why each poem has many interpretations. For example, consider “There is Another Sky" by Emily Dickinson:
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields—
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
In my amateur opinion, I see Dickinson advising her brother, whether he be figurative or literal. She may view the reader as a sibling of hers, coming to her poetry for consolation. You might see a beautiful, imagery-laden poem speaking of hope or motivation for the future. Critics might think it’s a spiritual metaphor for the afterlife, some sort of interior monologue that Dickinson has after the death of a close family member. Whatever interpretation you take, you must agree that poetry is intentionally both vague and specific, leading readers with a gentle hand into a forest changed by the will of our minds.
The Barnum effect may seem negative because it leads many tricksters to take advantage of humanity's fragility. Psychics often pretend that they know of events with the help of the supernatural, when really they are overgeneralizing about the future. Astrology assigns characteristics to each sign that every normal human struggles with. Pop culture is especially enamored with this intentional vagueness. Consider this fortune cookie fortune:
Patience is your ally at the moment. Don’t worry.
This could apply to a variety of scenarios. For example, a single mother with a frustratingly loud baby. A student under a lot of stress from school. A lover frustrated with their aloof spouse. The advice, in its ambiguity, is applicable to all sort of scenarios.
But this psychological effect isn't actually evil. In fact, it is a basic human desire to find tranquility in otherwise turbulent seas. Because our world is so chaotic, finding meaning in it can comfort us, and its solace may be the only thing keeping us alive. When someone believes that the world is absolutely random, we view them as pitiable and hopeless. In some ways, it’s better to have hope and think the best of the world.
So stare at the stars. Find your own constellations, name them after your many existential crises, then turn your back. Lose yourself to the entropy of the void and make haste in the time you have remaining. Because in the grand scheme of things, it’s a beautiful thing that, out of all the things that could’ve gone wrong, you exist. Make that count.