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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Scientific Poetry, Poetic Science

By December 11, 2013

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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
Geology Poetry


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