Archive for December 6, 2009

Science and Poetry

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 6, 2009 by telescoper

In amongst all the doom and gloom about job cuts and the oncoming onslaught that goes by the name of impact, I found in this week’s Times Higher a thought-provoking article about the demise of poetry. The author, Neil McBride, is principal lecturer in Informatics at De Montfort University and the piece is made all the more interesting by the fact that it includes some of his own verse. In fact, with his permission, I’ve included one of the poems below.

I agree with some of what McBride says in his article and disagree with some too. I don’t intend to dissect the piece here, and suggest instead that you read it yourself and form your own opinion. Since I wanted to include one of the poems here, however, I thought I should at least address its context in the article. The opening paragraph states

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the renowned astrophysicist, hid her love for poetry from the world until she retired, out of fear for what people would think.

In fact, I posted an item about an anthology of astronomy-inspired poems edited by Jocelyn on this blog many moons ago. McBride goes on to describe an anthology of poetry written by scientists that was published in 2001 wherein all the writers remained anonymous, the reason being

Good intelligent men and women, clothed in cold rationality, considered it professional suicide to admit to any literary emotions.

The following poem, McBride’s own, develops this image to the point of caricature:

Science and Poetry

In his lab he’s hid “Whitsun Weddings” behind the sink,
The latest volume of Fuller sandwiched between reagent catalogues.
Shakespeare’s sonnets encoded in the lab book
Rossetti pasted to the wall behind the periodic table.

Amongst the chaotic dishes and tubes, there cannot be anything poetic at all
Rhythm and language must be neutralised, the third person
Is the wash of objectivity, the veneer of scientific discipline:
Verse is hidden at the back of a draw covered with Millipore.

The poets of science have no names, clothed in the shame
Of irrationality, the atrocity of the literary mind is unspoken
Words must be disguised, sanitised. Any evidence of life
Outside the rational, the objective, must be denied.

The observatory is cold, dark, starless. Pulsars blip
The steady drip, drip of numbers stripped of spirit
The poetry of the stars must be denied
Planets are mathematical objects swimming in an emotional vacuum.

Do not suggest that patterns, laws, and the aesthetics of structure
Hold anything of the spirit. Don’t speak poetry to me:
We silence our critics, mute emotions, declare ourselves ‘observers’.
There is no soul, nothing but a rotting body of clockwork chemicals.

It’s certainly a finely crafted piece of satire, but as a scientist myself I have to stand up for my brothers and sisters and say that it is very far from my experience of their view of literature. Perhaps astronomy attracts more romantic types more likely to wear their hearts (and literary sensibilities) on their sleeves than computer scientists or chemists. The many scientists I know who do read and write poetry do not hide- and, as far as I know, never have hid – this from their peers or anyone else. And I doubt if it ever occurred to any of them that confession to a love of poetry would damage their careers. I don’t think there ever was a reason for Dame Jocelyn to have hidden it away for all those years, or perhaps she was just using poetic license?

McBride goes on to discuss a number of possible reasons for poetry’s falling popularity. Modern poetry is too difficult , too obscure, too “academic” , for the reader-in-the-street to understand. That’s not helped by the fact that, in this digital age people, the immediate availability of easier visual forms of entertainment is making people less receptive to literature that requires prolonged reflection. I think there’s truth in both of these arguments, but I think there’s another possibility: that the internet revolution may just be changing the way literature is conceived and delivered, just as technological and sociological change has done many times in the past.

In the course of his very interesting piece, McBride also touches on another theme I’ve posted about a number of times. To quote:

Perhaps the power of poetry is its downfall. It addresses uncertainty. It questions, it leaves frayed edges and loose wires. We reject poetry because we shun its emotional engagement.

This reminds me of the stereotypical image of a scientist as an arrogant god of certainty, one that I don’t recognize at all. Scientists are constantly addressing uncertainty. That’s their job. I’m sure we’re all too aware of frayed edges and loose wires too. The conflict and indeterminacy we face in our work is not the same as people find in their emotional lives, of course, but the need to engage with it causes similar levels of stress!

Most people don’t care much for either science or poetry. Both are considered too hard, but probably in different ways. The digital age hasn’t turned everyone into unthinking zombies, but I think it has probably led to more people opting out of difficult ways of earning a living and finding easier ways of spending their leisure time. But there are still some who find pleasure in what’s difficult. Perhaps the reason why so many scientists love poetry is that they know how hard it is.

You can find more of Neil McBride’s poetical work here.