Monday, 20 April 2015

Science and poetry again

Several poets are drawn to using science in their poems. In England the poetry of Prynne, Dorothy Lehane, etc sometimes includes a liberal sprinkling of science vocabulary. More mainstream are Heidi Williamson and Lavinia Greenlaw who use science or (more often) scientists as subject matter.

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.

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.

"Gathering Evidence" by Caoilinn Hughes is the latest addition to maths/science poetry that I've read. Like Greenlaw, Hughes has written about Marie Curie, but she also uses technical terms in the way that Lehane sometimes does. Here's an example - "If he could secure/ a hailstone in a wheelbarrow, with solid algebra, he could square a circle.// To square a circle! He might as well have measured the Garden/ of Eden if he could master this binomial expansion". Maybe it's this kind of writing that encouraged a reviewer to write - Hughes uses scientific language with such precision that I wondered if she had an adviser on hand (booksellers New Zealand)

On the back of Williamson's 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."

I think he's right in suggesting that there may be some mutually beneficial schemes available. I've written about Poetry about Science in the UK before, so I won't repeat the arguments here, other than to point out the risk that a mutually beneficial scheme can sometimes turn into uncritical mutual back-scratching.

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