C = Me (Mod N), or, (HYPE + DOGMA)2

Dove Releases: New Flights and Voices, edited by David Morley
(184pp, £10.00, Worple Press)

I should start by saying that this is more 'matters arising' than a review. The phrase 'poetry and science' is part of the poetry landscape and so are the arguments that people make about it. People usually make one of two arguments: the discourse argument or the enquiry argument. The discourse argument sounds like this. Back in the day, when I was an enthusiastically biddable and uninformed co-editor of The New Poetry, I wrote that 'In the 1980s and early 1990s, poets' use of science has been closely bound up with a rediscovery of poetry's plurality of form and discourse.' The enquiry argument sounds like this. Introducing a Poetry Review special feature in 1987, the editor Peter Forbes wrote that

Poetry and science' reminds me of the man who discovered
he'd been talking prose all his life. Poets are scientists, in the
sense of being seekers after the essence of things. It is
notorious that since Galileo scientists have concerned
themselves only with certain categories of phenomena,
essentially those which can be abstracted, weighed and
measured. This leaves out a good deal—most of human
experience for example, which is essentially synthetic rather
than analytic.

He went on to say that the 40 page feature '[constituted] a plea for a metaphysical poetry.'

Peter Middleton makes a similar point in an article on Allen Fisher and Bruce Andrews, arguing that poetry and science share 'the commitment to observation, analysis and report' and that various types of poetry 'still maintain the virtues on which science is based, curiosity, accurate observation, honest reportage.' (53) What's most interesting about Middleton's comment is the word 'virtues'. It shows how much science forms our world view because behind Middleton's comment is science's view of itself as the right way, the only way, to organize the world and our experience of it. His comment reproduces science's view of itself as a form of pure and purifying enquiry. The discourse argument also assumes that science is pure and purifying and that its vocabularies will either make poetry more rigorous or, in the manner of Peter Redgrove's poetry, will allow the poet to discern surprising structural equivalences.

What is wrong with these two arguments? The answer is a combination of disingenuousness and naivety. Most poets who use science are not using it like Bruce Andrews or Allen Fisher; and the 'and' in 'poetry and science' is the sound of poetry trying to reprivilege itself by association. Science (particularly genetics and robotics) is where the action is so the 'poetry and science' pairing is meant to signify something risky and provocative and brave and maybe even heroic. It's like a shouty bulletin from Masterchef
-world: thinking doesn't get any tougher than this. It's meant to signal poetry is at the cutting edge when the reality (in the so-called mainstream at least) is that complexly stratified generations of highly-educated people are still writing poems that are somewhere between diary entries and etiquette and lifestyle manuals. If you believe the spin, at least scientists have the decency and wit to develop some sort of self-consciousness about methodology. So a lot of the time when people write 'poetry and science' the 'and' is being used as a kind of beard. It's being used as a way of distracting attention away from the fact that although the point of writing a poem is to make something that can't be reduced to anything else a lot of contemporary poetry could easily be rewritten as other linguistic products. Saying 'poetry and science' implies that both discourses are engaged in transformative activities; that poetry is research; and that somebody somewhere is about to discover something. You can even throw in a bit of Heisenberg and say that both poets and scientists change things by observing them.

Marrying poetry with science, then, is a way for poetry to try and buy some rationalist respectability for itself and for mainstream poetry to be modern without being modernist. The naivety comes in because in the phrase 'poetry and science' poetry is allowing itself to be used as science's beard. Poetry and science are not similar forms of enquiry and science is not a pure and purifying form of enquiry. Most scientific research takes place because commercial, military, or other interests are paying for it. Take the equation that partly titles this piece. Some people argue that it's the most significant equation since e = mc2. C = Me (Mod N) is the equation for RSA encryption code which, among other things, makes secure Internet transactions possible. It relies on putting both encryption and decryption in the hands of the receiver. The key is C i/e mod (p - 1) (q - 1) = Mod N = message. The value of Mod is determined by multiplying two very large numbers together and the principle is that security is arrived at by using mathematical operations that only work in one direction.

C = Me (Mod N) has changed our lives. It's the product of mathematicians at Stanford University working to make the world a better place. Except that's only half the story. It has been reported that UK government cryptographers working at GCHQ in Cheltenham came up with it 25 years earlier and it stayed top secret until the guys at Stanford came up with it independently. A similar story has been told about computer chips: that the American military came up with them before Intel was even thought of. Except how do we know the truth about something top secret? Saying you'd already thought of something might just be a brilliant intelligence bluff. So it's impossible to separate science from powerful interests.

And that leads us on to the most important question of all: what does science get from 'poetry and science' or from, say, the Australian artist Stelarc and his robotic arm? Art has always done the PR for the institutions of power which is one reason why museums and the entrances to large corporations often look fairly similar. We might talk about the PR art does for power like this: art provides propaganda for powerful patrons or for the patrons artists hope to attract. I think we can say something similar about poetry and that is that large areas of so-called mainstream poetry in the last 50 years have been consoling us with illusions about the workings of power. Science gets two things from Stelarc: the idea that robotics doesn't have any potential to be nightmarish only quaint and comical; and the idea that we're not in control of our minds and bodies so giving them over to outside forces is more of the same. Similarly, what the institutions of power – of which science is one – get from poetry is, for example, that no matter what happens there's always space for the individual consciousness. It's the kind of sentiment you find at the end of Wislawa Szymborska's poem 'The end and the beginning' which says that after a war 'someone's got to lie there / in the grass that covers up / the causes and effects / with a cornstalk in his teeth / gawking at the clouds'. The idea that there is 'our essential humanity no matter what' lets power off the hook and certainly doesn't engage with another fact i.e. that 'essential humanity' and 'the individual life' are actually products that power wants us to consume.

These thoughts were prompted by the arrival of Dove Release
which samples writing produced by students and some of the tutors on 'The Practice of Poetry' course that David Morley runs at the University of Warwick. The anthology gathers the work of sixty poets so it's good value for money. Morley tells us that Dove Release 'certainly isn't' an anthology of '“science poems”' but he spends five paragraphs of his fifteen paragraph introduction telling us about the supposed links between poetry and science. We learn that the student poets

worked alongside leading research scientists, and the
scientists were charmed and challenged by their presence—
and their questions—into fresh ways of thinking. The poets
themselves were challenged and charmed by their experience of
scientific knowledge and discovery.

Morley also tells us (three times) that poetry and science share a sense of vocation. The sense of vocation is synonymous with 'the sense of science becoming almost like an art form' and goes hand in hand with scientists' 'craft and humour'. Finally, 'the terminology of science is gravid with metaphor and is constantly inventing new terms for describing the stuff of life and the structures and shapes of the universe.'

This leaves so much unexplained that one assumes that the reader is just supposed to agree with it. It's prose that seems to want to do your thinking for you. Why, for example, is the language of science more 'gravid with metaphor' than the language of fashion, professional football, or cooking? Think of all the fun young poets could have with the prepositional pidgin spouted by TV chefs: fry off, chill down, cook out, plate up. The clue, of course, is in the second half of Morley's sentence which is another version of the enquiry argument. His concluding clause gives us the dogma of how science likes to see itself combined with the spectacle of poetry silently hitching a ride as pure enquiry.

After all this, it's surprising how few of the poems actually use science. Andrew Webb's work seems to use scientific vocabulary in order to enlarge perspective in 'Parameters', 'Gesture', and 'Superpositions', all poems interested in taking the evolutionary and historical long view. 'Gesture' moves from allusions to Hamlet
and The Odyssey to the fact that 'the bonobo's 'reach up out' / is neither prefixed nor suffixed' in the story of how:

the mutation of a codon in chromosome seven's
FOXP2 took gesture from the hand to the mouth

releasing—like history from the split atom—phalanx,
wheel, the larynx from the windpipe's stranglehold.

This is interesting as sound and in its implied rejection of a limited cultural space for poetry. But at the same time, the poem's portrayal of a supposedly pure point of origin for everything we are seems unrealistic and romanticised. As with the dogma that science preaches about itself, we get the idea of the human as the result of a disinterested process. 'Superpositions' is a little harder to fathom but seems to suggest that our sense of ourselves and our place in the world is an illusion when placed against both larger and invisible processes: 'tomorrow I'll wake as if / I woke in the place I went to sleep'.

Leaving aside the fact that we don't experience science in our daily lives as enquiry but as products, these poems seem to me incredibly pessimistic in their implications. If such manifestations of 'poetry and science' were seeking to show, as Nigel Reeve and Richard Kerridge have argued about J. H. Prynne's poetry in Nearly Too Much
, that 'certain apparently primary or instinctual moments of the self [...] tend to arrive already implicated in and mediated by a range of [...] processes external to them' and that 'Lyric poetry is not allowed [...] to be a place where the self could shelter from these processes' (37) then there would be much to debate. But the effect of Webb's poems is to reduce the human, almost to an irrelevance. Jonathan Ware's 'Mill Bay' seems to suggest something similar in its perception of 'fluidity in everything' which results in 'breaking perspective's hold'. This would make sense if Ware and others were writing in a manner akin to, say, Ron Silliman's Tjanting but they're not. So when the pessimism inherent in science's dogma of determinism and inevitability meets the elegiac impulse inherent in most mainstream poetry, the life is drained out of everything. I'm also sceptical about some other poems here which describe conventional subjects with unconventional vocabularies. This suggests 'poetry and science' is a means of prolonging the life of dying poetic practices.

It's difficult to know what to say about the rest of Dove Release
simply because its range of styles and subjects is so vast. Morley may actually have done most of his poets a disservice by frontloading the anthology with 'poetry and science' evangelism. I was pleased to read work by the following poets: Nicola Davidson, Emily Hasler, Thom Hutchinson, Jonathan Morley, and Cari Thomas. Other readers will be pleased to read work by other poets. There are a lot of what could broadly be termed 'nature poems' and weirdly skewed social narratives but these are the default settings for most mainstream poetry these days so that's hardly surprising. At the same time, there is also a lot of inventiveness, humour and formal experiment which makes Dove Release a better buy than, say, Voice Recognition but I don't know what it says about the future. For the present, though, don't let this book or the 'poetry and science' lobby do your thinking for you.

© David Kennedy, 2010

Peter Middleton, 'Performing an experiment, performing a poem' in Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance & Site Specificity, edited by David Kennedy & Keith Tuma (The Cherry On The Top Press 2002).
N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne
(Liverpool University Press, 1995).
Wislawa Szymborska, 'The end and the beginning', in Staying
Alive, edited by Neil Astley, (Bloodaxe Books 2002), p.366.