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Time for Poetry in the Model of the Clock of the Phoenix: The Temporal Aspect of Poetic Creativity

Автор: Elizabetha Levin


     Maybe yesterday's rhyme

     Was for yesterday's time

          Neil Diamond

It is widely believed that physics has nothing to do with poetry. This article suggests that time can connect these different realms of human endeavor.

Rhythmicity is one of the most fundamental features of poetry as well as of the vast number of physical, biological and historical processes. A structural analysis of history, as seen through its poetical expression, reveals a rather complex, but nevertheless remarkably rhythmic temporal pattern, which is partially cyclical (like days or years) and partially linear (like Eddington's arrow of time). It shows that the poetic creativity does not flow at an even rate, but has its peaks of acceleration and of intermissions. Those oscillations are accompanied by the corresponding changes in the birth rates of significant poets, as well as in their favorite styles and topics. Furthermore, these regularities are shown to be correlated with the astronomical Neptune-Pluto planetary cycle (which I called the Year of the Phoenix), enabling the assignment of structure to narratives of cultural development, providing a different way of dividing up historical time and constructing a chronological mapping of the poetic creativity, the so-called model of the Clock of the Phoenix [1].

The name of this model is taken from the ancient mythology. It symbolizes both an endless stream of life and its long-term cyclic nature. All over the world the Phoenix is widely known as an immortal creature. Instead of dying, every 500 years this bird is reborn in flames. In the Roman Empire, the Phoenix denoted an eternal cycle of blessedness. Since the days of Marcus Aurelius (second century AD) it was even suggested that "time is born like the Phoenix in a great cyclical cataclysm" [2].

The proposed model of the Clock of the Phoenix has been successfully applied to historical analysis of ancient Judea, Greece and Rome as well as to the survey of the European Renaissance and the birth of the national poetries of Russia and of Japan. Significantly, many puzzling and meaningful parallels were found and discussed cross-culturally and across historical epochs. It appears that understanding of poetic creativity depends mostly on the phase of the Year of the Phoenix. In addition, special attention was paid to the history of Portugal, including its language, its poetry and its legendary Prince Henry the Navigator, known as the main initiator of the Age of Discoveries. Such mapping of historical narratives of one specific country is especially important because the history of Portugal is well documented and extensively studied over the past thousand years. As a result, the qualitative and speculative theories of Francis Bacon, Johann Gottfried Herder or Oswald Spengler, which have predicted periodicity in birth and decline of civilizations, suddenly turn out to be tangible, quantitative and measurable.

Given the multifaceted nature of both time and poetry, this work uses original interdisciplinary approach to construct bridges between scientific methods and poetical visions, between "time" as it is seen in physics and "time" as it appears in human history and creativity. Unfortunately, contemporary sciences establish no connection at all between these two kinds of time. The differences between the physical linear arrow of time and the actual historical developments are so profound that the historians complain: "Ironically, the rise of the modern timeline coincided with the decline of academic chronology. <…> Chronology, a field of study that once claimed plausibly to be the very “soul of historical knowledge,” was left little more than a skeleton" [3].  In The Clock of the Phoenix the problems of chronology gained a new perspective and the historical narratives came to be understood as sequences of long-term cycles and their logically related developmental phases.

This article is in two parts. The first part will mention different aspects of time and introduce a generalized concept of time, common for both "ordinary" physical and "complex" sociological and cultural systems. This concept of generalized time enables to comprehend both physical and creative processes within one framework and provides a common ground for discussion of the temporal laws governing our material world and our lives. The article’s second part is a synoptic view of The Clock of the Phoenix. It fits well Bohm's eloquent prediction "on the importance of poetry and art in our search for healing (= wholing), i.e. the importance of metaphor".

A Word About Time

Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.


Today it is widely accepted that there has been persistent difficulty in understanding the nature of time and that time remains a fundamental concept in physics [4]. Since the days of Aristotle, physics connects time with motion in a tautological way: motion is measured by time, though motion also measures time. Even today we find that "a clock is a device for measuring time, it is one whose law of motion is known. But we must be aware of circular statement; after all, we may say that time is what is measured by a clock" [5]. A contemporary manual of time measurement states plainly: "Let us admit that we do not know what time is" [6]. Furthermore, part of the trouble and misunderstandings in the dialogues among scientists, philosophers, historians and poets stem from the fact that the word "time" has widely different connotations and is used in several different senses. Poets or writers will claim that human time implies a denser and more complex hierarchic structure than a physical linear arrow and that from a scientific point of view time is completely unpredictable or even chaotic.

Historically, there were linear and cyclic models of time. Whereas some philosophers and scientists have imagined time as eternal, boundless and/or sacred, others have tried to calculate the ending of time. In some cultures time was regarded as standing still, while in others it was experienced as a flowing river. For Galileo time was a straight line, while for Isaac Barrow it was either a straight or a circular line. Later Newton declared that time was abstract, linear, uniform and continuous and it was connected with motion in such a way that time became redundant in physics. From then on, there is an implicit assumption both in classic and quantum mechanics that "time may be represented by a real variable, t, so that time is like the real line" [7]. As a result, for physics history became a pattern of timeless moments. Putting this in Einstein's words: "For us, practicing physicists, the division into past, present and future is merely an illusion, albeit an obstinate one."

This concept is profoundly different from a geological or biological point of view presented, for example, as early as in 1929 by the eminent Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky, for whom biological time was vitally connected with life, with history and with cosmos. In 1983 this line of thought was further developed by Ilya Prigogine, who complained in his discourse The Rediscovery of Time about "the necessity of a tragic choice between the mechanical view of classical physics and our daily experience of the irreversible and creative dimension of life." On that opportunity Prigogine also declared that "science is rediscovering time."

Nowadays it is obvious that the notion of time in physics is far from the notion of mundane time in daily life. Despite the ever growing ability of modern timekeepers to design complicated atomic clocks able to measure the tiniest parts of the second, our life is governed by the most ancient universal clock: the quasi-cyclic motion of the celestial bodies. Physicists are surprised that the atomic measurement of time has still not really become familiar: "Could this be due to a deeply ingrained habit of measuring out our everyday existence by the movements of the celestial bodies? Or could it be a reaction to the lack of poetry in atomic clocks, or their inscrutable accuracy?" [6].

Yet, perhaps this should not surprise us at all, since the rhythm of our human existence is governed by seasonal and annual changes, by solar and lunar cycles and by rhythmic oscillations between days and nights. Strictly speaking, while physics deals not so much with bodies as with trajectories of the bodies, for biologists time is tightly connected with cycles in general and with circadian rhythms in particular. Since circadian rhythms are a fundamental property of eukaryotic organisms, it is believed that "biological clocks" reflect the metabolic cycles and are synchronized with the astronomical environment. The basic need to synchronize our lives with the universal processes is so strong that despite the everlasting efforts to ban the cyclic notion of time, "cyclic" time "has reappeared phoenix-like in general relativity and quantum gravity" [8].

In his Comments on Ilya Prigogine's Program David Bohm agreed with Prigogine's revolutionary suggestion that "the study of complex systems (including, for example, biology and the human sciences) may reveal features of natural law that are just as fundamental as are those disclosed by physics and chemistry in the study of simple systems". To make these laws compatible with the laws of physics Prigogine had to introduce the idea of two different (though related) kinds of time: "age time" (or "internal time") and "ordinary time" (or "watch time"). While Newton's equations portray reversible dynamical features of a system, the "internal time" of the same system should reflect its irreversible historical aspects.

The same acute need for two different kinds of time was previously expressed by Goethe. In The Poetry and the Truth he described the differences between one's time of birth as the zero point of one's own aging (internal time) and one's birth date in relation to one's historical epoch (external or watch time). Trying to analyze a man in relation to the features of his time, Goethe came to a very strong conclusion, that "any person born ten years earlier or later would have been quite a different being, both as regards his own culture and his influence on others".

 Following Goethe we may say that "the spirit of the time" would be felt differently by those who were born at different historical epochs, and sometimes it would be enough to be born ten years earlier or later to belong to other "times." In 2006 a further step in understanding of the nature of internal time was taken when the experimental data connected with the Effect of Celestial Twins (ECT) were published [9]. This effect demonstrates that even though each human being is unique, there is an isomorphic matching between the biographical data of members in each and every group of celestial twins – people who were born “simultaneously” (defined for this purpose as being born within the interval of time shorter than 48 hours). In other words, people, who were born simultaneously tend to experience (under certain conditions) seemingly non-causal synchronic correlation of their life paths throughout the entire span of their existence. As a result, it was suggested that the factor of birth time (or “Theta-factor”) is an important temporal factor, which in addition to heredity and environment influences patterns of human development.

Further studies of the properties of the Theta-factor open new possibilities to relate quantitatively the times of an individual life to the corresponding historical times of “the world”. Impressively, the obtained results matched Joseph Priestley's observations that historical narrative is not linear but rather cyclic. In Priestley’s Chart of Biography birth dates of two thousand famous historical figures were systematically registered across three thousand years in “universal time.” As a result, the great periods of history were framed in quantitative terms, and the charts showed clearly the differences between the uneventful dark ages (e. g. the medieval period) and the ages of science and art (e. g. the Renaissance). Although Priestley was interested in individual biographies, the resulting chart depicted history in the broadest terms, showing meaningful interconnections between the internal times (birth dates, Theta-factor) and the universal times (external watch time). 

As a science of dates, chronology should have a quantitative dimension. The idea to apply Piestley's principles to the history of poetry led to the discovery of the meaningful 493-year periodicity correlated with the Neptune-Pluto cycle (The Year of the Phoenix). Significantly, this periodicity is also compatible with Lev Gumilev's ethnogenesis theories as well as with J. B. S. Haldane's evaluation of the time scale needed for the study of historical processes. (In 1955 Haldane introduced and defined proper referent scales for the study of various biological processes, such as molecular, physiological, ontogenetic, historical and evolutionary).  

 I shall not enter here into the fundamental philosophical issues, but shall just briefly mention that elsewhere [10] I proposed a definition of the generalized time as being of a two-fold nature. Generalized time is a way to order events into processes (e. g. internal times) and/or coordinate between phases of various processes (e. g. external or watch-times). Such a definition implies a possibility to employ different processes as our reference clocks. As a result, time is seen as an operator or an algorithm interconnecting different parallel processes. Depending on the processes involved it might be a one-dimensional physical linear time or alpha-numerical strings of the calendar's data (so-called time-codons). Such a concept of time enables us to construct diverse scales or algorithms by means of which the individual existence could be integrated in the larger schemes of terrestrial, cosmic or social systems of the external world. Knowing whether a certain model of time matches the reality depends solely on revealing the true nature of the processes involved.

The Hour of the Phoenix

I am the Phoenix; only in the fire I sing.

              Marina Tsvetaeva (tr. Nina Kossman(

     Between 1885-1900 two distanced celestial lights, Neptune and Pluto, seemingly converged in the skies, a rare planetary conjunction, which takes place once every 493 years. A generation born all over the Earth during this Hour of the Phoenix felt as if their lives were not part of the slow time of the daily or annual routine. This generation witnessed the emergence of something unpredictably new and took part in a genuine and incontrovertible revolutionary transformation and becoming. One of the prominent poets of this generation Anna Akhmatova wrote that "no other generation in history experienced such a fate, and perhaps, there was no other generation like it" [11].

Everything – life and death, poetry and power, time and space, social and cognitive patterns, scientific laws and artistic tastes – had to undergo a radical shift and was given a new meaning. The children of this generation felt themselves belonging to a new epoch and did not want to remain in the previous millennium. Most of them wrote their brilliant works barely having reached maturity. Many had a strange premonition of the coming disasters. Literary critics and historians are frequently at a loss to explain the difference between the volcano-like eruptions of new ideas during such short decades and the previous sleepy barren uneventful centuries marked by the absence of any significant thought.

Every Hour of the Phoenix is a moment of cosmic change, a rupture. The world completes its previous cycle and subsequently steps into a new epoch. It is both like a full stop in time and like a seminal point, establishing a time frame for an exploration of new paradigms. The very name "The Hour of the Phoenix" reflects an ambivalent nature of this zero-phase in the beginning of each Neptune-Pluto cycle. Many of the paramount events in the human history (both civic and creative) matched up repeatedly over multiple (493-year) cycles. These periods included, for example, the foundation of Caesar’s kingship in the first century AD, the  fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century,  Karl Jaspers's first (sixth century AD) and second (fifteenth century) Axial Ages. Frequently they were seen as the times of very painful crises followed by violent revolutions, which constituted a sort of a natural "zero point" for social and creative narratives of many types, including poetry.  

It has been stated that "the special intensity of poetry, its sensual and prophetic nature, has a much greater influence on man than do other arts or sciences" [11]. Poetry has always played a vital role in the history and the evolution of cultures. According to Schiller, the poets are citizens not only of their country, but of their times. Whatever occupies men in general, will interest poets still more and will make them the spokesmen of their generations. In a way, one of the chief functions of poetry is to serve as a kind of evolutionary clock and to instruct people how to tune in the intrinsic time of individuals and entire societies with the extrinsic times of cosmic processes. In particular, the representatives of the previous Hour of the Phoenix (1885-1900) included such prominent poets as Anna Akhmatova, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Boris Pasternak, Velimir Khlebnikov, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Nikolay Gumilev, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Federico García Lorca, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Nelly Sachs and Berthold Brecht. Most of them are often seen as tragic figures, the symbols and the chroniclers of the lost generation born on the edge of the coming new epoch and experiencing a spiritual crisis. Bloodshed, famine, inconsolable grief, political and cultural purges and innumerable graves accompanied their life paths. On the other hand, they felt themselves to be makers of history. Their mission was "keeping up faith in humanity, in its ability to be resurrected, to repent, and to begin a new life [11]. Akhmatova lamented "people of our generation are not threatened by sad returns – we have nowhere to return to". Yet she also admitted: "I am happy that I lived during those years and witnessed events unlike any others" [11].      

Were these events indeed unlike any others? In 2009, inspired by Pyotr Vail's insightful interviews with Joseph Brodsky, a composer Yuri Edelstein suggested to me that it is no coincidence that the prominent Russian poets of the Silver Age (Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam) have many parallels with the greatest ancient Latin poets – Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Catullus. Both groups of poets participated in enormous political and cultural transformations. For those born in the Roman world in the beginning of the first century AD, the changes were marked by the end of the Republican democratic government and the creation of a kingship. Those, who were born in the 1890-s in Russia lived in crucial times of the end of the Russian Empire and the coming age of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Both groups of poets witnessed the violent outbursts of civil wars and. both believed that the end of these wars would be followed by a new golden age for poets and artists. Both were born simultaneously with the rare cosmic phenomenon of a Neptune-Pluto conjunction. Both were marked by enormous ability and urge to change the very essence of the existing poetry. Both cases vividly illustrate how poetic perception can precede and predict historical events. Their poetry embodied a speedy temporality, while the acute feelings of suddenness, novelty and shock were instantaneously reflected in their poems. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the multiple parallels between both poetic dramas without reference to notions of historical cycles on a cosmic scale.

Further enquiries revealed striking correspondences between the Neptune-Pluto cycle and the rate of birth of significant poets. On the one hand, the structure and relative durations of the phases in this cycle are reminiscent of solar and lunar cycles. On the other hand, they are correlated with processes in societies at large. As a result, it is possible to construct a corresponding poetical calendar and to talk about the "seasonal" changes in human culture. It appears that in poetry, the use of current language and notions radically prunes the number of possible topics, expressions and metaphors that the poet can use and the reader can understand. Great poets are not born in arbitrary historical periods, but rather their birth dates create meaningful temporal order. Seen in this way, the birth dates of the representative poets present an essential structure. The following phases of each Year of the Phoenix are reminiscent of the traditional seven stages of human life, and each phase has its own unique set of “gifts” for humanity.

The opening stage is The Hour of the Phoenix – the zero point, or the emergence of the main ideas of the cycle. Then:

• The first phase is the time of infancy and childhood. It deals with innovative experiments in hope to transform the world and make it a better place to live.

• The second phase is the phase of adolescence and youth. Typically, it refers to the upheaval that happens when passionate tendencies prevail in various social, political, cultural or religious causes.

• The third phase is the phase of early adulthood, the time to take on multiple responsibilities.

• The fourth phase is the "mid-life crisis." It is a phase in which existing beliefs, theories, practices and frameworks offer no good guidance. Those are the times when the initial ideas are often challenged by disasters, wars and sudden crises.

• The fifth phase is the period of mature adulthood. This phase is the period of the golden age of enlightenment. The initial ideas are proudly entering the academies.

• The sixth phase is the crisis of the onset of old age. The initial ideas become weary, yet they still are not ready to give place to new tendencies.

• The seventh phase heralds a stage when the initial ideas exhaust their potential. Their ability to keep up with the ever-changing world comes to an end. They can either decline into oblivion or represent the source of ancient wisdom for the young generations.

Although the duration of each phase is unique to each cycle, the order of alternation is maintained during all the Years of the Phoenix. Usually these phases are seen as a series of different, discrete historical periods. However, understanding the principles of the Year of the Phoenix allows treating them as a consistent temporal progression of the same idea, launched during the Hour of the Phoenix. Although each culture and each Year of the Phoenix dynamically produces poetry in its own way, certain commonalities can be drawn for each phase. Although each great poet is a unique star, there is a link between his individual creativity and collective consciousness during a given epoch.

The model of the Clock of the Phoenix presented here, however, does not concern itself merely with poetry. A close multi-centuries analysis of the philosophic schools, scientific ideas and technological developments shows that many developments can be explained and reassessed from this temporal point of view.


      There can be no society without poetry.

                                Octavio Paz, tr by Ruth L.C. Simms

In their essence, time and poetry have similar functions: both are intended to synchronize the actions and the thoughts of individuals. Both not only derive from society but also are shaped by it. Poetry, produced by the people born during the Hour of the Phoenix resembles a storm of values and plans. It can be seen as a prologue to the coming epoch of half a millennium and, for that reason, be used by the following generations as the proper navigational equipment in their search for ways and means of dealing with all this abundance of ideas.

 In conclusion, I would like to stress that my pioneering ideas are meant mainly as proposals for inquiry. I hope that these data provide a basis for further studies.


1. Levin, E. Chasy Feniksa, Jerusalem: Milky Way, 2013; M.: Avvalon-LoScarabeo, 2014. The Hebrew version: Shaon HaPhoenix, Tel-Aviv: Astrolog, 2014.

2. Dowling, M. B. A Time to Regender: The Transformation of Roman Time. KronoScope, Vol. 3, Number 2, 2003. pp. 169-183.

3. Rosenberg, D. & Grafton, A. Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press. 2010.

4. Levich, A. P. "Vremya v bitiyi estestvennych system." In Analyz System na Poroge XXI Veka. Moscow: Intellect, 1997, pp. 48-59

5. Holland, С. H. The Idea of Time. Chichester: John Wiley&Sons, 1999.

6. Audoin, C. & Guinot, B. The Measurement of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

7. Raju, C. K. Time: Towards a Consistent Theory. Kluwer Academic, 1994.

8. Raju, C. K. Eleven Pictures of Time. SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd. 2003.

9. Levin, E. Selestialnie bliznecy, Moscow: Amrita-Russ, 2006. The Hebrew version: Teomim shmeimiim. Haifa: Hashraa, 2009. In English: Celestial Twins. Tel-Aviv: Astrolog, 2014.

10. Levin E. Prostranstvo-vremya v Vysokorazvitych Biologicheskich Sistemah, Jerusalem, Health & Healing Ltd, 2012.

11. Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle. Ed. Polivanov, University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

First published in Artistic Life:

 Interdisciplinary Studies. Abstracts of International Symposium IAEA,

 Yekaterinburg, 2015, pp. 20-25.


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