The circumcontent of science and poetry

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge; it’s just the best we have. More than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking. The contextual openness we incite in the concept of the “circumcontent” impresses upon us a similar notion of science that can tap its way into the heartland of poetic thought. A fundamental assumption we make in the white paper on Circumcontentive Poetry is that it will address a well-informed audience as opposed to the masses as they are generally conceived in Bengal. The greatest stresses Circumcontentive Poetry asserts are on poetry’s “thought-material” and its “way of thinking.” This makes Circumcontentive Poetry immediately coeval with scientific approaches. An important underpinning of the “New Text” is a relentless reflection of this way of thinking. One could, however, ask what makes it relentless. Is it because it has no bias towards the self?

We probably do not want to collect evidence in order to arrive at the poem’s preplanned interjections; rather, the poem will grow based on the evidence it samples. The difference between these two approaches might be considerable although the process is one and the same. A plethora of scientific investigation is carried out in the presumptive mode, such that at the outset we are able to ascertain the “truth” being sought. There is a fundamental fallacy in this approach: it ignores the element of uncertainty. So one might want to analyze all the evidence collected during the artistic or scientific process before any “place” is reached. Even if the work has a goal, let’s say, a theme to dwell on, nevertheless data must be culled and analyzed.

At a dinner many decades ago, the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to the toast “Physics and Metaphysics.” By “Metaphysics” people then meant something like philosophy or a truth that one could recognize simply by thinking about it. Such truths could have been considered as pseudoscientific information. Wood answered along the following lines:

The physicist gets an idea. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He consults scientific literature. The more he reads, the more promising the idea begins to appear. Thus prepared he goes to the laboratory and devices an experiment to test the idea — a painstaking experiment. Many possibilities are checked, the accuracy of measurements is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful experimentation, the idea proves itself to be worthless. So the physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of errors and moves on.[1]

The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded, as he raised his glass high, is not that the practitioners of one are any smaller than those of the other. The difference is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory. The truth that rung out of Wood’s speech was relentless, and this is the same quality with which the circumcontentive poet asks whether poetry has a laboratory. Does a scientist have an experimentally ascertainable absolute truth? Or can there be an “absolute truth”? Instead of meddling into a philosophical debate, what if the poet decided to experiment like a scientist? In the words of Octavio Paz,“poetry is a form of knowledge, of experimental knowledge.”[2] There is no perfect instrument for probing knowledge. The need to innovate, improvise and experiment remains central. Why don’t we likewise experiment with the scientific way of thinking by embedding its codones into the genetic strip of our poetic process?

We ought to explore ideas by means of scalable research, observation and analysis (at times comparatively). We may be seeking the truths of the past already sought by artists, or perhaps the truths sought by men and women of science, both past and present. As Wood reminds us, “the truths they seek are different, but they employ similar methods to ascertain them.” It’s the process and quality of seeking that will distinguish the art we are trying to define.

One major difference between scientific and poetic thought arises not from the process of the experiment but from the subject. A scientist, for the most part, is an observer, he sets things up, no doubt, but rarely is he an object or vehicle of his own experiment. A poet, however, often is. Especially in Circumcontentive Poetry, we yearn to see the poet as an instrument of his own experiment — a fundamental difference from past experiments lies in the fact that this experiment needs to be performed by means of direct and indirect experiences, in a cohesive manner, and through frequent exhanges between data and information, home and world, across boundaries of art, language, culture, and epistemes. The poet could be both the observer and the phenomenon observed. His body and psyche, his entire being could serve as a field in which parametric transformation occurs. Even though information might be acquired without a bias, the field experience tends to personalize it, to originalize the ideas admitted. The data and/or information gathered fashions itself a little differently, somewhat awry, and in the end becomes a poem.

Describing the relationship between modern poetry and science, Octavio Paz writes,

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomena through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimentor has subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms or other-material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter.[3]

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religious believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything apriori; he knows what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as the scientist’s? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and institutions. But theories and working hypotheses do not justify experiments; rather the converse is true.

In her poetry, Run Bandopadhyay leaves traces of her scientific thought process. A pertinent question to ask here is this: can the poem be appreciated by a reader unaware of time’s status in the world of mathematical and physical sciences as a fourth-dimension?

Who are you? Grinning for ever behind dimension four?
In the wrap of bodies you fashion after your own whim
I can hear nothing but your own fable. Tell me, tell me as much
as you could within the bounds of Hertz.

Can such a poem be appreciated by readers unaware that the S.I. unit for measuring frequency is named after the German physicist Heinrich Hertz? We would like to answer both ways. To someone who is able to grasp the sense, the facts are redundant. For the other reader who is at a loss, we would recommend further reading. To grasp the circumcontent one needs exploration, and there is no one classroom that will give it all. Indeed, there is no classroom for Circumcontentive Poetry.

Scientific knowledge is a container of ideas, of which some are severely indeterminate and some are nearly certain, but none are purely deterministic. There is no absolute meaning anywhere and this is precisely where science does not have to differ from poetry. The uncertainty principle can be invoked here to highlight the observer effect which helps the reader personalize the received poem.

It cannot be denied that science and humanity have intertwined beyond the point of any unwinding. There doesn’t seem to be a point of return. Consequently, we are excited by the tremendous and long-awaited potential of the scientific consciousness that we embrace and champion. Thus, in our poetry content is often an abstraction and it takes a different kind of consciousness, a different kind of approach to dig into its grooves and take it apart. Unless the fibers of content can be taken apart, content can’t be rewired, recombined and rekindled. As the poet drills harder and multi-axially, it’s likely that more juices will flow, free for the reader to take. We would like to underline once more that the circumcontentive poet is not a teacher but a facilitator. And this poet enters into relationship with a readership that is well informed or has an appetite for information. Ideally, the reading experience is ever-unfurling like Draupadi’s sari — no matter how much it is pulled at, no matter how much it unwraps, desnuda (nudity) never seems to come.

If the circumcontentive poet wants to push his already lodged thought-schema deeper, the reader must be ready to respond. When that happens, their collaboration could widen the path — knowledge often brings on newer and denser mysteries that tempt further penetration. While preparing a presentation of his thought- or content-schema, the poet should not try to asses the reader’s initial response. The initial response could be lackluster, the early entrenchments could be rejected, the interaction between data and information might be eluded, but the poet must realize that the purpose of the entire exercise is not to teach but to facilitate by turning each pebble on the way, by digging deeper in search of the best imaginable delight. This will become the grand adventure of our duo, the circumcontentive poet and his reader. This state is best described by a phrase borrowed from the physicist Richard Feynman: “the pleasure of finding things out!”[4]

Poets do not normally write about such grand adventures, artists rarely attempt to represent them. Singers don’t sing about the values of science. Why doesn’t that happen? Isn’t the beauty of the universe moving? No wonder we invariably end up in science lecture halls mostly listening to boring, narrow discourses that preach to a square choir. In the exact same way, we attend lectures on literary theory that make such primitive passes at the world of science that we are led to wonder: do we really live in the age of science?

One needs to remember the fallacy of statements like, “where science ends, philosophy begins.” Such gesticulations are brought in either to dissolve a particular context or to cover up a genuine lack of scientific consciousness. True scientific curiosity takes multiple forms and these add excitement and mystery to its pursuit.[5] They never subtract from it.

Let’s consider an object of eternal aesthetic charm — a flower. It has a specific aesthetic value for a poet. If that aestheticism is compounded with scientific pursuit, that can help the poet discover a few hidden facts, assemble a few marvellous mysteries. The poet, enriched with this new consciousness, could be led to think of the internal organic cells of the flower; the complex network of chemical reactions underway in each cell surely has a beauty of its own, a pragmatic beauty largely untold in poetry. A flower does not have to be represented by its external physical characteristics, its aroma and so on. Instead, it could be seen in the form of a fractal, a micro-form, a molecular form of life which is repeatable and has an aesthetics of its own. A knowledge of biology might help the poet understand the miraculous motive that determines the coloring and aroma of its petals, its whole evolution — soon he will come to see the purpose of all this well-planned, skillful decoration was to invite the insects, the bees, other prokaryotes and eukaryotes. This discovery might lead to a question: do organisms at a lower level like flowers possess a collective sense of aesthetics? The mathematical poet is easily lured into thinking about why the petals of many flowers, the wings of insects, the rabbit population and so on resemble the dimensional growth pattern described by the Fibonacci sequence.

In 1959 Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.”[6] We, the present group of circumcontentive poets, consider Nabokov’s statement a champion of our agenda. A large chunk of our group, virtually all of us except Raad Ahmad and Subhro Bandopadhyay, make a living in the field of science. For many of us, the involvement is deep, both academically and industrially, with a strong focus on research and development. Scientific thought at times works as an unconscious precondition for our writing. Circumcontentive Poetry aims at a more conscious investigation and presentation of the profound intellectual similarities between science and poetry. It is one of our major goals.

All women and men don’t express and exclaim in the same way. Neither do all hold in themselves the same capacity to be surprised. Profound scientific thought that has an invariable spiritual quality about it fails to invade most poems. Most poets struggle to take on this dimension of spiritual reality, not because their scientific knowledge is lacking, but because of the absence of the contrivance necessary to feel the reach of this scientific breath. The idea of God may be as unique as the idea of Godlessness but neither, for us, seems more astonishing than the fact that the source of earthly life, the sun, is only one of the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way, and our galaxy is only one of the 200 billion galaxies.

The issue of scietific honesty is the key to keeping circumcontent error-free. Although at times a literary text might choose to consciously follow scientifc theory, it could still find easy distractions or deviations, eventually ending up as an intellectual imposter. Artistic creativity often finds itself at loggerheads with scientific honesty. This conflict, if not dealt with rationally, could spoil the circumcontent of poetry, greatly reducing its intellectual cogency.

On the flipside stands the production of a certain kind of poetry that is honestly ingrained in scientific theory, but so severely lacks aesthetic imagination that its ability to appeal to readers outside the world of science remains questionable, as is evident from the poems read at the 2008 Science Meets Poetry convention in Barcelona. In Circumcontentive Poetry, we aim to embed a scientific consciousness in the poet that will enable him to respond to instinct and emotion with logic, rationality and precision. This will help him dilate the range of meanings of his “A-phors,” such that the width of a bird’s-eye view is achievable even at lower heights.

 


 

1. Carl Sagan, “Science and Hope,” in The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Random House, 1995).

2. Octavio Paz, “Modern Poetry and Science,” trans. Helen Lane, in Canadian International Youth Letter (2002).

3. Ibid.

4. Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (New York: Penguin, 1999).

5. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, “Postmodernism Disrobed: A Review of Intellectual Imposters,” in A Devil’s Chaplain, ed. Richard Dawkins (London: Phoenix, 2004).

6. Stephen J. Gould, “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov,” in I Have Landed (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003).