Unsung by Singers
In an essay titled ‘ The Value of Science’ the physicist Richard Feynman wrote about the world view which is the result of scientific effort.
We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvellous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. ... awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. ...
He goes on to complain that:
our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? ... The value of science remains unsung by singers...
This sounds like a challenge to poets, should we be inspired by science, should we write about the scientific picture of the universe, our situation in the world as understood by science today? Would it be easy to do? Feynman himself suggests it would not, he says that to understand science ‘one has to know how to read the music’ that what sounds like a dry fact in a scientific article, for instance one which reports that, ‘ the radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebellum of the rat decreases to one- half in a period of two weeks’, actually means that the atoms of the brain in rats are always being replaced, and that this process, extrapolated to humans, means that: ‘the thing which I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.’ This also means that a poet who wanted to work with scientific concepts would need to interpret or translate them first.
Feynman, in the essay ‘ The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ 1 explains that there is another problem for those who want to understand science: if you are interested in the ultimate character of the physical world, or the complete world,... at the present time our only way to understand that is through a mathematical type of reasoning, ... not to know mathematics is a severe limitation in understanding the world. I find it impossible to conceive of a poet who could translate mathematical concepts into poetry, and I can’t imagine that anyone would want to, as I can’t imagine a poet who would want to translate music into poetry.
Science is essential to our society, but it is still, in many ways, irrelevant to everyday life for most people. We don’t need to understand scientific principles to use the machinery of modern life. We can drive a car without understanding the internal combustion engine.
Poetry is concerned with the feelings and thoughts that life evokes, and for many people science and technology evokes no specific feelings or thoughts, they just take it for granted until the machinery that supports us breaks down, when a feeling of exasperation sets in. Few people appreciate the abstract beauty of science and technology and this makes any effort to portray science in poetry more difficult,. Only a minority of car enthusiasts, for instance, are interested in the engine of a car, it’s owner may be interested in it as a status symbol, but passengers are usually more interested in the journey they are making. So it would be difficult to find an audience for a song or a poem about the mechanics under the bonnet of even a Mercedes or Rolls Royce.
The mechanisms and processes of the human body do touch us more directly, though many of the references in poems, the sighs of lovers for instance, just glance at the processes, but the once popular song Dem Bones, an African American Spiritual based on Ezekial Chapter37 verses1-14, has the anatomy of the skeleton as a central theme. It tells how the prophet Ezekial visits a valley full of bones and brings them to life simply by mentioning the Lord.
... Ezekial connected dem dry bones,
Your toe bone connected to your foot bone,
your foot bones connected to your ankle bone,
your ankle bone connected to your leg bone
your leg bone connected to your knee bone,
your knee bone connected to your thigh bone
your thigh bone connected to your hip bone
your hip bone connected to your back bone
your back bone connected to your shoulder bone
your shoulder bone connected to your neck bone
your neck bone connected to your head bone/
I hear the word of the Lord.
Dem bones dem bones, dem dry bones/ Dem bones dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones dem bones, dem dry bones / I hear the word of the Lord ...
The song goes on to disconnect the same bones,
Your toe bone disconnected from your foot bone, etc.
and then again the chorus that hears the word of the Lord. The bones are as dry as an anatomy lesson but the word of the Lord which connects and disconnects them to the beat of an African American spiritual brings them alive. To hear an anatomical description of bones become part of a miraculous religious narrative sets up interesting tensions that unsettle and intrigue the listener. Perhaps dry scientific mechanisms need to be seen from an unusual standpoint to become poetry.
Poets often seem to see things from an unusual standpoint, to sharpen language with fresh images that replace mind numbing clichés, although the best poetry does not use an artificial, poetic diction but speaks in the language of the day. Poetry is full of such contradictions and subtleties, which make it impossible to define. While writing this essay I feel hampered by not really knowing what poetry is, and what it is for. It appears to me to be a form of communication characterised by the fact that the sum of the words, their sound, their meaning, their rhythm, their connections to other words, sounds and images in the reader’s minds, slide into each other, merging to evoke feelings in the reader which cannot be spelled out by simply explaining the meaning of the words. Poetry that works is more than words, just as a car that works is more than a collection of parts.
Although great scientists such as Einstein also need to reach beyond words to make the imaginative leaps that are necessary to see the world in a new way, scientific language is designed to be the opposite to poetic language, scientists try hard to counteract the inherent tendency of words to slip and slide: scientific words are carefully defined and as far as possible refer to very specific entities. This is easier in chemistry and physics than in biology, where the boundaries, for instance those between species, are often blurred. Nature can be as slippery and difficult to pin down as words, but science does try and put a fence around the meaning of words.
In view of the difference in the use of language, the need to translate scientific concepts, the difficulty of finding an audience for concepts that are not of practical importance in everyday life, is there any point in trying to include the rational scientific understanding of the mechanisms of the world in poems? I think that there are reasons to include science in poems, firstly, how people see the mechanisms of the world and of life and death does influence what they feel about the world and about themselves, and secondly, scientific knowledge brings in its wake all sorts of ethical dilemmas, which are not scientific but moral, and should be explored by poets and writers.
To explore the problems of writing poetry about science I wrote a poem which included scientific facts.
PAUSE FOR BREATH
I’m almost there; I pause for breath
by a forked ash tree, right branch
angled more obtusely than the left,
and see a page of Gray’s anatomy,
left bronchus, right bronchus,
dividing into twiggy bronchioles.
Breathless, I take it in,
the upside down perception :
the airy blood suffusing leafy lungs.
And as the tree inhales a watery
breath from underground I tremble
in the ripples of a dark reflection.
One day, a final pause of breath,
a shudder in some mouldering soil
and all that I was will be reclaimed,
water and elements I felt were mine
will rise up through a mesh of roots,
become the breath of other lungs.
Is this a poem ‘about’ science? The poem certainly features the understandings of science, the mechanics of respiration and the similarities between the patterns and processes of nature in different organisms. But I think one characteristic of poetry is that it’s often very difficult to say what a poem is actually about, a poem often combines several tangential meanings. My poem is not just about science, it’s about my feelings about death about the terror and the comfort of contemplating the cycles of death and decay from which new life rises. It's also about feeling a connection between myself and other living things: the feeling that the world and I are one which has been expressed in myths in pre-scientific times.
There are many examples of double meanings in literature, for example, Shelley’s Ode to the Skylark seems to be about a bird and yet he tells us so in the first two lines that it’s a spirit not a bird: Hail to thee blithe spirit / bird thou never wert. Yet whenever I hear a skylark I cannot help but invest this scrap of blood, feathers and air with Shelley’s spirit climbing higher and higher. Mary Shelley’s poetic novel Frankenstein is overtly about a scientific experiment that goes wrong but also, I feel, about a Jekyll and Hyde situation, and I think the power of the book comes from her portrayal of the alter ego, the terrifying and yet pitiful and unhappy monster that the hero cannot escape from because he has not only been made by the hero, but he is also part of the hero. Yet many people who have never even read the book equate science with Mary Shelley’s account of Frankenstein’s imaginary experiments with bits and pieces from the charnel houses. Poetry is slippery stuff.
It is difficult to avoid the thought that science, however fantastic, cannot be the whole of a successful poem; if a poem is to communicate more than the words it contains it must be connected to direct human perceptions and feelings, because it’s only possible for a communication to become more than its words if we absorb it into our unconscious as well as our conscious faculties. While scientists also use their unconscious, as shown by the way in which the original cry of eureka emerged from Archimedes relaxing in his bath, a scientific explanation, if it is to be tested and accepted by other scientists, must be intellectually comprehensible.
I think that the same limitation applies to poems about religion or politics. If poems are ‘about’ these things, written from one particular standpoint, then they acquire the solidity of didactic sermons or speeches. It appears to me that the value of poetry is that it can slip between different view points, connecting things in a way that cannot be done by looking at the world from only one point of view, whether scientific, political or religious. For instance, Gerald Manley Hopkins, writing from a religious viewpoint, cannot help other points of view, which he was probably trying to suppress, from emerging into his work. This tension is one of the things that makes his work interesting. So I don’t mean that poets should not include religion, science, and politics in their work, but that these can only be part of the machinery that helps a poem to move the reader.
In conclusion, I would answer Richard Feynman’s challenge by saying that although science, with its wonders and its terrors, can be, and should be, included in poems, I don’t think it’s possible to write poetry ‘about’ science.
* * *
The Richard Feynman quotations are from The Pleasure of Finding things Out - The Best Short works of Richard Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins. If you would like to buy this or any of the other books mentioned in the essay you can browse the Amazon UK Books Home Page.
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Darwin biography, as impartial as I can make it, without fundamentalist 'religious' disapproval or overzealous 'scientific' trumpeting of his work.
A Simple Guide to Evolution - a short history of evolutionary ideas 'Unsung by Singers' considers the scarcity of poems on science. A Flash of Golden Fire considers the love of nature with reference to a poem by Coleridge, travel writing by the explorer Mungo Park and a sci-fi novel by Philip K Dick. Darwin, Wallace and pigeons - two poems Tidal Haiku illustrated by Hilary Griffiths