Science and Poetry

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.

22 Responses to “Science and Poetry”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Poetry is well loved today by “the people”. What they don’t generally think much of is *modern* poetry (I am speaking generally and don’t have McBride in mind). Just as they don’t think much of Stockhausen’s cacophony or Jackson Pollock’s chaos. Unhappily, these accurately reflect the state of the modern Western mind.

    McBride’s lines, “Do not suggest that patterns, laws, and the aesthetics of structure/ Hold anything of the spirit” cause me once more to consider WHY the laws of physics are beautiful. As somebody who believes in an intelligent designer/creator, who is into beauty, I have an explanation. I don’t know whether McBride believes in one, but can anybody secular provide a better explanation?

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      I agree to some extent with what you say, but I’m not sure even the classics are widely appreciated among the general public. One can’t always expect the new stuff to be either popular or critically acclaimed. Keats’ poetry was pretty universally reviled in his time, for example.

      My complaint with a lot of modern poetry, art and music is not that it is difficult but that it often seems to be technically complicated and clever just for the sake of it, without saying anything particularly interesting beyond itself, i.e. anything that connects with the reader’s (or viewer’s or listener’s) own experiences.

      As for your question, I’ve passed it before and I’ll pass it again!

      Peter

  2. It’s something of a shame that science is viewed so far apart from the other endeavours like poetry, art or music. Science is a very human activity.

    On the other hand, Peter, one could make the same complaint you just made about a lot of modern science as well!

  3. telescoper Says:

    Brendan,

    Quite. But I hope you’re not arguing in favour of Impact Statements!

    Peter

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dirac to Oppenheimer: “I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say…something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.”

  5. One thing that article seems to miss is the importance of performance in encouraging engagement with poetry. Certainly poetry can be a private thing rooted in words put down on the page, but it can and should also be a powerful form of performance art.

    I’ve seldom been much impressed by the rather limp and sanitised affairs that are most poetry readings, but since moving to Cambridge, MA I’ve been very impressed by the various poetry slams that go on here. At their best, these produce poetry that is well written, challenging, deeply relevant, and delivered with deep passion. At its worst, its like listening to the poetry of an angst ridden teenager, but surely experimentation is as much a part of getting to good poetry as good science?

    This might not be the classics, but it is an area where poetry seems to be alive and well.

  6. Peter,

    Don’t get me started on the Impact Statements. The comments section of this blog are no place for me to let rip with my opinion of them! (I gather EPSRC also now require this daft Impact Statement – something that lead to a lot more disquiet amongst that commmunity than the astro-particle one, it seems – see http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=405350).

    Anton: Didn’t Dirac have a wonderful sense of humour? (Though I gather this was not as obvious when met in person!)

  7. The above link needs the right parenthesis removing. It seems wordpress does not handle that so well.

  8. One thing I’ve noticed, at least in the United States, is that education seems to be growing increasingly specialized. Vocational technical schools continue to grow. Corporate sponsorship of educational programs and research within universities, usually with a very narrow focus, continue to be a major source of income for those same universities. At the same time people grow up increasingly within a consumerist mentality, even in academia, where what they might want is laid out before them and conveniently available in tight packages.

    On the other hand, poetry requires a breadth of perception if you are to experience it beyond it’s purely technical merits as poetry, or merely some abstracted literary exploration of a subject.

    As such, modern institutionalized poetry can itself be excruciatingly specialized and even obtuse. It relies upon its own specialization and often, as you suggest, clever for the sake of being clever, in an attempt to justify itself. Musical composition often suffers within the same situation.

    However, it’s obvious that music need not be established within an academic institution before it is embraced by others. Nor is poetry. In many ways, the abundance of modern lyrical music has supplanted the role of strictly word-based poetry.

    But I think you have hit upon a much keener point here, which is, with so much within the world now that makes no sense, people seek the sensible. However, when all things do make sense, it is the dominant sense that prevails for all.

    And that is where poetry lives at its best and strongest, representing the spirit which exists and drives us beyond mere sensibilities. Which, as Dirac suggests, says something that everybody knows already. But not, as Dirac suggests, with words that nobody can understand. But rather, with words that, though literally taken mean nothing, yet allowed to sink within, evoke a more visceral truth that we all somehow share, and implicitly understand.

    In some ways, poetry tests the meanings we garner through the intellect. In other ways, poetry is the champion of our nature that exists beyond those confines.

    Of course, all this can be distilled into a philosophical epistemology of consciousness, or if you like, an even more narrow and incomplete espousal of biochemical processes, or even further…

    And what are we left with? Sitting solitary in the kitchen light late at night, with our wholly own experience? The knife clinking on the empty glass jar. Our breathing celebrated by busily naming objects. Mouths, small circles of awe?

  9. Intriguing post and a particularly great comment by Mark. ‘poetry tests the meanings we garner through the intellect. In other ways, poetry is the champion of our nature that exists beyond those confines.’ – you put it well. Dialectic is so important to poetry.

    Ours is becoming a society of niches which do not necessarily serve individuals. As far as dominant movements (in poetry, say), these seem to be overridden by smaller (yet more influential) movements and ‘schools.’

    However, I disagree with your distillation and conclusion. Perhaps I don’t follow that line of logic, but I remain enchanted with incompleteness, with biochemical processes, and all that remains yet to be perceived.

    For me, poetry is essentially about the pleasure of beauty and truth.

  10. Very kind Stephen, thank you.

    I don’t think we disagree about the distillation bit, and it was entirely my fault you believed we might. I left a good deal out, because it represents an entirely other, equally convoluted subject.

    Science is a good deal of reductionism, as is philosophy, whether all the branches like to admit it or not. Poetry deals in reductionism as well. In all it can be said that this reduction can be followed back up into larger conclusions. But poetry is distinct in that, on the way back up, we need not follow any lines that we came down on. In fact, the reduction can leave us in an altogether different place, unexpected, non sequitur, yet every bit as valid.

    The nature of consciousness is an interesting thing. It is not easy to see oneself. I am not altogether certain that biomechanical processes can fully account for consciousness, though it is obvious our consciousness can be altered in profound ways by manipulating biochemical processes.

    What I was trying to say is that poetry should not, necessarily, be regimented to the mathematical. It may well hint at something else.

    And this is the problem, I believe, that scientists might fear when they lock themselves away in the poetry closet.

  11. I once had an English teacher who, when announcing that the course would now be turning to poetry, was “surprised” to hear that most of the students said that they didn’t have any connection to poetry. She then asked them how many songs they knew the lyrics to.

    Could it be that many modern poets no longer choose to publish in a literary magazine or wherever, but rather choose music as an outlet? Sure, there are all kinds of lyrics, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Sturgeon’s Law certainly holds. However, there is some good stuff as well.

    The obvious cases are people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, i.e. folks who sing their own lyrics, but there are musicians who write lyrics for their band but don’t sing (e.g. Neil Peart from Rush, Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath) as well as lyricists who perform as musicians only rarely or not at all (e.g. Bernie Taupin).

    This is, I think, a comparatively new phenomenon. Until quite recently, most lyrics were religiously themed, based on texts from the Bible or whatever; based on other literary works (think of opera libretti); or were ballads. Two aspects are important: 1) most of the people who sang them didn’t write them (in the examples above, only the original composer of a ballad might have sung the lyrics himself) and 2) the topics are almost always non-personal, third-person and relate tangentially if at all to the singer.

    In the old days, poet might have been the goal of someone who wanted to express his emotions in poetry. Today, he might choose music as an outlet.

  12. telescoper Says:

    Phillip,

    I think there can be quite a big difference between song lyrics and poems. Leonard Cohen himself is careful to distinguish between the two: “a poem has a density of meaning that a song cannot support.”.
    It’s true that there are poems that have been set to music with great success but, generally speaking, song lyrics don’t work so well when separated from the music. That’s not meant as a criticism of songwriters, most of whom would not claim to be writing poetry anyway.

    Peter

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    @Jonathan: I love listening to good poetry read well and find that this is the strength in the “audiobook” movement which has sprung up in the last decade. John Gielgud was especially noted for his poetry reading, and Paul Scofield reading TS Eliot is a wonderful CD (far better than Eliot himself!)

    @Brendan: Hard to know when Dirac meant it and when he was being satirical! Please don’t suppose I agree with the verbatim meaning of his comment, but I couldn’t resist posting it here.

    Anton

  14. I believe it’s true that music lyrics cannot support the same density as poetry. The more “poetic” lyrics seem to usually rely upon fewer words, that combine with the implied sentiment of the music, and often repetition, which produces an almost meditative experience.

    I also agree the vast majority of people do not identify themselves with poetry. It is uncommon to find poetry that can grip you, even when you actively seek it out. And when a poem goes awry in some way, it’s usually a complete disaster.

    The interesting thing to me is that people wholeheartedly understand the language of poetry, even if they do not read poetry. They even use the language themselves, from time to time, in normal conversation. Scientists, even the ones deeply buried in the closet, often let their inner poet slip out. That is something that drew me to science originally. Poetry is a fundamental part of us all.

    Yet oddly, it can be a very difficult thing creating a poem that can stand on its own.

  15. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Science and Poetry […]

  16. I spoke at a public event about poetry and astronomy with Jocelyn (and a poet called Kelley Swain) a few weeks ago at ROG. We had a very interesting discussion with the audience on why poets are interested in astronomy, and any similarities there might be between doing astronomy and writing poetry.
    See my blog http://pippagoldschmidt.blogspot.com/2009_10_01_archive.html for a more in-depth discussion.
    It’s interesting that there is so much poetry about astronomy and so little prose…

  17. telescoper Says:

    Pippa,

    I’m not sure what you mean about there being “so little prose” about astronomy….

    I think there’s rather a lot, but most of it is rather, er, prosaic.

    Peter

  18. I meant prose fiction – as opposed to poetry.

  19. Ha!
    Have you read Rebecca Elson’s poetry? I think she managed to say something serious about astronomy and astronomers.

  20. steve eales Says:

    I agree with you 100%, Peter. I’m also not sure that there’s much evidence for a lack of appreciation of poetry generally today. Look at the popularity of TV and radio programmes on poetry. Although their audiences are not large compared with broader entertainment programmes, they are still significant. I don’t think there was ever a time when people were routinely quoting Auden on the street, and I also suspect that outside the people that regularly read poetry, there are a lot of people that recognise and like a few poems. I also don’t agree that modern poetry is necessarily that obscure. I think Carol Anne Duffy’s poems, for example, are pretty accessible

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