Wednesday December 11, 2013
Since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s become a commonplace that poetry and science are realms quite apart from each other, poets and scientists in some way adversaries. In an essay that appeared in The Guardian in 2011, “The science of poetry, the poetry of science,” British poet Ruth Padel described her encounter with this stereotypical divide in a high school classroom:
“‘Poetry is about feeling, science is about facts. They’re nothing to do with each other!’ The A-level students in a school I visited last week were passionate on this point. Behind them was Keats, urging them on. ‘Philosophy,’ Keats said—meaning science—‘would clip an angel’s wings.’ Science was out to dissolve beauty, ‘Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine— / Unweave a rainbow...’ Edgar Allan Poe agreed. Science was a ‘vulture’ that shrivelled wonder.”
Padel’s project, however, was to describe the ways in which poetry and science are counterparts, even siblings: “Science was born in poetry.... Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric. A new metaphor is a new mapping of the world.... But deeper even than metaphor is the way poetry and science both get at a universal insight or law through the particular....” This is the crucial point, this movement from precise details and particular measurements through a scalable metaphor to a wider understanding, poetry in the medium of words and science more often in the language of mathematics.
You may think it natural that a poet would see other ways of knowing in terms of metaphor, but scientists, too, feel the kinship between poetic understanding and scientific exploration. “The Poetry of Science” is a conversation recorded at Howard University between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in which poetry itself is not mentioned, but the idea of poetry is ever-present, in the concept of mathematics as a human-created language that we use to discover and understand the physical world in a way that parallels poetry’s use of metaphor, image, form and sound to discover, understand and expand the human world. Dawkins does use the words “poetic” and “poetry” as honorifics in this talk, signifying the awe and wonder revealed by scientific explorations of the universe, just as in the “science/music video” to which he gave the title, “The Poetry of Reality (An Anthem for Science),” based on his statement:
“There’s real poetry in the real world.
Science is the poetry of reality.”
The discussions between these two scientists will not teach you much about poetry, but they will get you thinking about our place in the universe and how we know things, and they may very well put you in the frame of mind to write a poem. Here are books by a few of the many contemporary poets who have been inspired by scientific topics:
- Miroslav Holub’s Intensive Care: Selected & New Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1996)
Holub (1923 - 1998) was both a poet and a scientist, and was quoted on his dual careers in his New York Times obituary: “I have a single goal but two ways to reach it.... I apply them both in turn. Poetry and science form the basis of my experience.”
- Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)
In a New York Times interview with David Corcoran entitled The Poetry of Science,” Hahn traces some of these poems to their sources in Science Times articles.
- Cameron Conaway’s Malaria: Poems (forthcoming from Michigan State University Press, 2014)
Conaway recounts his explorations in science poetry in a speech given at the 2012 Joint International Tropical Medicine Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand: “Poetry and Science, Method and Malaria.”
More on Poetry and Science:
The Scientist in Emily Dickinson
Mind Expansion: Pairing Poets and Scientists
Thursday December 5, 2013
Long ago the narrative poem-songs we call ballads carried the cultural memories of medieval folk in an oral tradition, stories remembered and retold by anonymous minstrels in variations hung on a structure of stanzas and repeated refrains—like the spooky fairy tale of “Tam Lin” or the murder of “Lord Randall” revealed in the question-and-answer dialogue between a mother and son. In the 18th century, broadside ballads were “poetry as news,” commenting on the events of the day.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic and Victorian poets took hold of this folk-song form and wrote literary ballads, telling their own stories as Robert Burns did in “The Lass that Made the Bed to Me” and Christina Rossetti did in “Maude Clare”—or reimagining old legends, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson did with part of the Arthurian story in “The Lady of Shalott.” Ballads carry tales of tragic romance (Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”), of the honor of warriors (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West”), of the despair of poverty (William Butler Yeats’ “The Ballad of Moll Magee”), of the secrets of brewing (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend”), and of conversations across the divide between life and death (Thomas Hardy’s “Her Immortality”)... The combination of narrative propulsion, implied melody (ballads are often and very naturally set to music), and archetypal stories is irresistable—read some of our collection of classic ballads out loud and you’ll hear what I mean.
Thursday December 5, 2013
Poetry is meant to be shared—though it may be written in solitude and silence, it is a communicative art. For many of us, our first introduction to poetry came in the voice of a parent, singing traditional nursery rhymes, or a teacher, reading from a book of poems for children in the classroom. Times are hard, though—educational funding has been cut back so severely in many places that the arts have nearly disappeared from classrooms, and teachers are forced to buy their own teaching supplies, even the essential necessities. If you love poetry and want to share it with the world, we suggest you turn some of your holiday gift-giving this year to that end: go to Donorschoose.org, where individual teachers can post their needs for classroom projects and individual donors can contribute to funding them, and browse through the poetry projects seeking funding.
Wednesday November 27, 2013
Pablo Picasso is of course primarily remembered as a visual artist, but he was also a poet, and William Blake was as much artist, painter, printmaker and illustrator as writer—we’re sure that you, dear readers, can easily add names to the list of poets who make art and artists who make poems. Here’s another: Sylvia Plath.
Plath’s work in the visual arts has recently been much in the public eye. In 2007, Oxford University Press came out with Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual, in which editors Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley show us many of her drawings and paintings and set them in the context of her writings (). Then in 2011, a selection of 44 pen-and-ink drawings, never before shown, were exhibited at the Mayor Gallery in London, and both The Telegraph and Flavorwire posted galleries of images from that exhibition that are still available online. The newest splash of Plath’s art into public view is the portfolio of drawings from the early years of her marriage to Ted Hughes, just released by her daughter Frieda Hughes and accompanied by selections from her letters and diary entries of the time (). The drawings are lovely, precise and hard-edged, very like the crystalline poems in Ariel.
More on Sylvia Plath:
Our biographical profile of Plath, with links to buy her books
Thinking About Sylvia Plath as the Winter Darkness Comes On (November 2012)
Ted Hughes’ “Last Letter” to Sylvia Plath (October 2010)
Shrines to Ted and Sylvia (September 2010)
Sylvia Plath Speaks in Her Own Voice (April 2010)
A Star Chart for Sylvia Plath’s Birthday (November 2008)