Puzzles, pool balls and seeing poetry

By Jonathan Jacobson

I spend my days trying to connect the dots. It’s something of an unfortunate habit, one reinforced by a choice of major that demands a persistent, though often inconvenient and unfruitful, search for meaning. I am, in case you didn’t read the fine print of this column first, an English major.

The purpose of my major – and, to be perfectly honest, most majors with the exception of recreation, sport and tourism – is to try to tease out patterns from seemingly pattern-less things. A greedy landlord and that stain on your shirt, for example, might just have more in common than you think.

The difference between my major and nuclear engineering is that I look for meaning in literature – poems, short stories, plays and novels. Show me the periodic table and you’ll see the pit stains appear in short order. In works of fiction, I often see parallels to my own life.

This is probably a less pervasive occurrence for engineers or accountants. Though they might understand the underlying concepts that govern the universe – or at least the recession – better, on a daily basis I am confronted with the heartbreak, misery and ecstasy that forms the central pillar of all great literature. There is not much of the human condition in a slide rule or a calculator.

Seymour Glass, intellectual and visionary scion of J.D. Salinger’s seminal Glass family, claimed that he could see the “poetry that flows through all things.” His mother-in-law, as I recall, was not so lucky. It is of this interwoven poetry that I write.

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At college, we often complain that we don’t understand how this or that will help us with what we envision as the “bigger picture.” How will learning Newton’s laws make me a better human relations officer, we ask? What will studying “Oedipus Rex” do for me when I’m in grad school for economics? If JFK took a stab at this one, he might say that we’re asking all the wrong questions.

The minutiae of our lives – the crack in the sidewalk we pass every day that’s shaped like Nixon’s profile or the glazed-over writings on the tables in Murphy’s – are, in fact, part of a greater narrative. They are connected, like it or not, and so are we.

There are a lot of dots, I know. It is sometimes overwhelming, looking at the bits and pieces, to try to bring them together.

If Kurt Vonnegut is right and we are all on earth simply to “fart around,” then I very well may be wrong. But I have recently witnessed a very strange phenomenon, one that I think can illuminate this issue a bit further.

In the last two weeks, I have come across three different people who construct 500-piece jigsaw puzzles. For my entire life up to this point, I don’t think I’ve ever met that many people willing to take on such a challenge.

“Why do you do this?” I ask them. “Wouldn’t you rather apply yourself to something useful instead of simply putting together pieces cut by an automated jigsaw in a dimly-lit Shanghai factory?”

“No,” the puzzler explains. “I want to see if I can recreate the tacky rose garden on the cover of this puzzle box. I want to see if I can do it with my own hands.”

Putting that rose garden together, I believe, is the same thing as connecting the dots.

Let’s simplify it: There are two options. We can go through our day feeling like a pool ball bouncing around aimlessly, occasionally making contact with the other pool balls. This is the puzzle-maker’s antagonist. Or, we can be pool players – I’m thinking along the lines of Paul Newman, here – who see what happens when the balls hit, who understand the relationships between the supposedly disconnected objects. This is the puzzle-maker himself.

I don’t believe this to be a Nietzschean fork in the road: We are more than just hammers and anvils.

But if Seymour Glass was right, then we should be on a permanent reconnaissance mission – English majors and engineers alike – for the poetry that flows through all things.

Jonathan Jacobson is an English and rhetoric major who, no matter how many puzzle-makers he meets, still does not much care for puzzles.