Saturday 15 January 2011

Poetry about Science in the UK

Our world has been transformed by technology so one would expect cars, TVs and test-tube babies to appear in poetry. And as the percentage of scientists in the population grows, the lives and preoccupations of their profession feature more often in poems.

But the world we can't see directly has changed too. Relativity and (even more so) Quantum Physics have shown us that we live in a world beyond what common sense can cope with. And Mathematicians, dealing with topics like (and here I quote at random from the first maths journal at hand) 'Examples of tunnel number one knots which have the property 1+1=3' live in a stranger world still.

One might have thought that adventurous poets would have rushed into these newly opened territories, but it seems to me that poets over the last few centuries have withdrawn from trying to tackle the big questions about the Nature of the Universe. They tend not to deal with the moral complications that new technology engenders, and it's rare to see a Blakean anti-materialist piece attacking scientists.

In England the poetry of Prynne, Dorothy Lehane, etc sometimes includes a liberal sprinkling of science vocabulary. The risk with using science terms is that the poem is going to come over differently depending on how much science the reader knows. This risk applies to many types of allusions of course, but in the science case the reading communities are easier to define, and the material may more easily become out-dated.

Using science words is easy. Less frequently, poets deal with science (and maths) concepts. We are used to philosophical or religious poetry, poetry that presents an argument. Quantum theory and Relativity are common themes for those wanting to express scientific ideas poetically. More mainstream than Prynne and Lehane are Heidi Williamson and Lavinia Greenlaw who use science or (more often) scientists as subject matter. I think poets' attempts to write science poems fall into these main categories

  • Awe and Wonder - like children given a microscope for Christmas. Science is the new Exotic to some (mysterious trinkets from another land), to others it's the new Theology - deep truths masked by code. With its cornucopia of new ("X-ray") and re-used ("charm") vocabulary it's tempting to raid its word kitty. If the result sounds clever, the reader might think the poet's clever too. Few readers are going to be in a position to challenge from a scientific position, and in any case, what would it prove? A poem's not a thesis. However, I suspect that if poets appropriated the vocabulary of Art in similarly cavalier fashion, they wouldn't get away with it.
  • Effects on relationships - e-mail and the mobile phone
  • Science Fiction Poetry - there's a book of StarTrek poetry
  • Biographical pieces about famous scientists

These are topics that can easily be tackled by people who know little about science. And yet, more poetry is written by scientists nowadays than in any previous era. So why don't we have more poetry from the frontiers of science? On the international front, the internationally acclaimed Czech poet Miroslav Holub was also a serious immunologist. It is perhaps significant that he had doubts about twinning poetry and science. In "The Dimension of the Present Moment" (Faber and Faber, 1990) he wrote

  • "At first glimpse one might suspect that literature would be closer to the sciences than other art forms, because sciences also use words and depend on syntax for expressing their findings and formulating ideas. ... [but] There is no common language and there is no common network of relations and references. Actually, modern painting has in some ways come closer to the new scientific notions and paradigms, precisely because a painter's vocabulary, colours, shapes and dimensions are not congruent to the scientist's vocabulary." (p.130)
  • "In the use of words, poetry is the reverse of the sciences. Sciences bar all secondary factors associated with writing or speaking; ... poetry tries for as many possibilities as it can." (p.132)

In New Scientist (24 July 1999) Graham Farmelo (Science Museum, London) wrote "Be sceptical of any science-art initiative and you are liable to find yourself marked down as a narrow-minded reactionary. If a new work of art is based on a theme related to science, most critics will give it an easy ride... It seems that this flavour of political correctness encourages intellectual laziness, allowing shallow and sentimental nonsense about the relationship to pass for serious thought". So perhaps we should be wary of some recent initiatives.

In the UK ex physics/maths professors appear in small magazines, and Mario Petrucci, who's active in many areas of UK poetry, has a physics Ph.D. London's Science Museum sometimes has a poet-in-residence. The best known holder of that post is Lavinia Greenlaw. In 2000, she was awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. She said she'd use the £67,000 to "undertake formal study" in science, and journey "to places with extreme perspectives - precarious and changing landscapes, or those which experience the natural phenomena of eclipses and equinoxes". For television, she has written a sequence of poems about the meaning of numbers for an Equinox documentary. Her WWW site is Also worth a look is LUPAS (Liverpool University Centre for Poetry and Science).

Heidi Williamson was poet-in-residence for the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre in 2008 and 2009. On the back of her book it says that her "fascination with science leads her to explore less usual territories for poetry, including mathematics, chemistry, and computer programming, as well as space travel, electricity, and evolution". I think that more poets who write about science go into it nowadays with their eyes more pragmatically open than that -

  • "The main difficulty with 'Night Photograph' has been the “poetry about science” tag. I grew up in a family of scientists and have long been fascinated by time and space, so this is a natural source of metaphor for me. I only became conscious of how much science there is in the book when it was pointed out. Since then, I have resisted science like hell. It is mostly too seductive, incomprehensible and exciting to be anything other than borrowed" - Lavinia Greenlaw, interview in Thumbscrew (1997)
  • "I married an astronomer! ... I think initially I was trying to write metaphors for the science, based on human experience but that wasn’t working out so well, the science was present, but the poetry seemed dry. I didn’t think I was achieving anything more than representing the original idea, theory, or astrophotography I was looking at, or the paper I was researching. So I tried to do more than represent the original by using the science as a launch pad but moving away from it, by keeping a dialogue with human concerns at the same time" - Dorothy Lehane, interview in Annex (2013)

Andrew Duncan reviewing Lehane's "Ephemeris" in Litter magazine writes that "Lehane’s project has to do with combining poetry and science. The two are intertwined in a very specific way here: objective knowledge separates projections of feelings and wishes from the information provided by the eyes, but here the idea is to interfuse them. Her poems are intensely personal and highly coded: everything profound loves a mask".

He goes on to suggest that "The poetry-science project is likely to draw a great deal of attention in the next twenty years or so. It is quite hard to define what the purpose is; I think the core is the sense of opportunity, that there is a wilderness here, and that if you buy creative people time they will wander around that wilderness and bring back things never before seen. Part of the impetus is the wish of museum staff to make their holdings presented anew in visible or audible form."

If you want to read science poems, 2 UK anthologies of note are

  • "Poems of Science", eds J. Heath-Stubbs and P. Salman, Penguin, 1984.
  • "A quark for Mister Mark", eds Maurice Roirdan, Jon Turney: Faber, 2000.

See also

To finish, here's a list of UK poets with science-related degrees

  • Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (was a computing professor)
  • Tania Hershman (M.Sc, M.Phil)
  • Peter Howard (science degree)
  • Joel Lane (M.Sc, M.phil)
  • Valerie Laws (Maths/Theoretical physics)
  • Kona MacPhee (computing degree)
  • David Morley (post-degree)
  • Stephen Payne (Professor of Human-Centric Systems)
  • Mario Petrucci (Ph.D)
  • Colin Will ('majored' in earth sciences and chemistry; a Ph.D in information science)
  • Rachel McCarthy (Chemistry and Physics)
  • Jemma Borg (Ph.D in evolutionary genetics)

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