Useful Insights

Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science

edited by Robert Crawford
[19.99 hbck, O.U.P. 2006]

Here is a book whose subject is very much of the moment, aiming to show the ways in which poetry and science continue to be intertwined, despite the divisive debates that have gone on for centuries; debates which were further polarised by C.P. Snow's infamous 1959 lecture, Two Cultures. Does this book live up to that intellectually provocative history? To a greater degree, yes, although when an editor provides an introduction that contains an apologia such as:

     Some of the essays and poems here are immediately accessible; others,
     such as that of the Cambridge-based literary critic Drew Milne, may
     require more effort on the part of readers whose background is very
     different from that of the writer (4)

we wince somewhat at what might be coming next. 'Immediately accessible'? Oh good, that's alright then; presumably 'accessible' in the same way that 'relativity', 'string theory' or the mathematical equations for 'predator-prey relations' are 'immediately accessible'? Why this 'immediate accessibility' should be a good thing per se
I simply don't know? Perhaps it's just another user-friendly marketing phrase in the new culture of 'popular science' and 'poetry for the people', so as not to put anyone off too much that both disciplines might actually be rather difficult and demanding. And yet, we know that necessary 'difficulty' is something very different from 'wilful obscurantism', and so that caveat about Drew Milne really does become troubling, as becomes painfully obvious, that the piece is going to be impenetrable to anyone but a handful of academics au fait with the jargon. Which it certainly is.

There are, however, some very interesting contributions to this book: essays by Miroslav Holub on the relations between poetry and science; by Robert Crawford on information technology and poetry, and by Edwin Morgan on virtual realities and poetry. Where Morgan ventures in to the virtual, John Burnside shuns it in favour of 'the enduring mystery' of the real. This, for me - 'the real' - is where the true link between poetry and science resides at the moment - in the ontological links between poetry and Critical Realist philosophy of science, and how those may be applied to the pressing ecological concerns of the moment. Burnside's empassioned and lyrically refined chapter examines, as does his own work, poetry and ecology with, here, a specific emphasis on the politics of walking. Simon Armitage also writes contra 'the virtual' in his (sometimes provocative) piece: 'Poetry can be part of the campaign to top reality becoming entirely virtual'. He also provides some useful insights in to the interface of poetry and science in his own work. One of the most pleasing chapters comes in the form of a thorough overview of Astronomy and Poetry from Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who discovered pulsars - stars that release regular bursts of radio waves), but the most sophisticated chapter is Adalaide Morris's up-to-the minute application of Complexity Theory and Emergence in the poetry of Jorie Graham and Leslie Scalapino. This is clear, insightful, academic criticism with an open and genuine interest in communicating these complex ideas with a general reader. It also shows how the poetry and science embody each other in real ways, and therefore provides the most coherent and cogent demonstration of what this entire book is about. This alone makes the book worthwhile, as do the previously mentioned chapters and the quirky pairings of poets with scientists (the poets commissioned to respond to the research of the scientist with a new poem); exciting new poems emerging from Paul Muldoon (which actually affected change in the scientist's research programme), the late Michael Donaghy, and John Burnside, amongst others.

Holub concludes his essay with some comments on 'science in poetry'. It 'should shed some relatively new light', rather than just function on the level of the expression of scientific terms and concepts'. This idea is echoed by other writers in the book, many times over, and appears as one of the ultimate concerns of the volume. It is given examinations from all sides and the reader is rightly offered the chance to make up their mind about it - given the differences in opinion, there is no ideological sleeve-tugging going on here. Holub himself equally thinks that science in poetry 'is definitely not the post-romantic and postmodern poetic way of wearing dark glasses on a moonless night'. It has, on the contrary, 'immanent optimism'. This is echoed in the concluding words of the scientist Warren S. Warren, who worked with Paul Muldoon on one of the poet-scientist pairings:

     The world needs more poets who follow science, and more scientists
     who learn to appreciate beauty in words (168).

This latter sentiment cuts the other way too, as Robert Crawford notes: 'It is part of the poet's delight even duty, to use such [scientific] words and experience in poetry'. He qualifies this by adding:

     Screens and words are enriched by being imbued with metaphorical
     resonance and possibility. Poetry will continue to be obsessed with
     sea and stars, love and death, but if it is not also alert to
     semiconductors and computers, wind farming and global warming,
     it will grow subtly untrue to the linguistic and cultural climate in
     which it is written  (54).

This book has been published in a climate in which poetry and science continue to be discussed together in magazines, at festivals, in books and in the academy itself. As long as 'interdisciplinarity' continues to be a buzz-word for research funding and the RAE, I guess they will continue to be so. This volume, at least, for the most part makes an engaging and worthwhile set of contributions to those debates.  

           Andy Brown 2006