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
He went on to say that the 40 page feature '[constituted] a plea for a
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
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
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.
(Liverpool University Press, 1995).
Wislawa Szymborska, 'The end and the beginning', in Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley,
(Bloodaxe Books 2002), p.366.