Poetry and science: An Introduction

LANDSAT composite images of the Mississipi Delta taken in 1973, 1989, and 2003 (courtesy NOAA/USGS).
Convener: Gilbert Adair

Rae Armantrout, Amy Catanzano, John Cayley, Tina Darragh,
Marcella Durand, Allen Fisher, James Harvey, Peter Middleton,
Evelyn Reilly, Joan Retallack

Below is much of the text of a letter of inquiry I sent to a number of poets in 2010, which led to the forum whose results follow. Where they are directly relevant to the discussion, poems are interspersed in the prose passages that follow; more poems can be found in the “Poetry Supplement” at the end.

A while back I was listening to a program in the PoemTalk series put out by Al Filreis on PennSound, in which Al and three guests give “a close but not too close reading of a poem” they find interesting. The work discussed this time was poem 12 from Zukofsky’s Anew, which includes the word “condenser.” One of the guests, Wystan Curnow, noted he’d had second thoughts about looking up the scientific meaning of this term, even though the science is explicitly one of Zukofsky’s points of reference, “because what I thought, there’s an attempt here to look at some kind of physics but the intention actually is to propose something to do with meaning, you know, that is very implicated in polysemy and metaphorical applications. And the way those terms actually get localized to their very specific uses and then become unrecognizable as ordinary words or as words that operate in other forms in other parts of the language.” The discussion then shifted to the modernist concern with “condensing” in Pound and others, and the emergent consensus seemed to be that the primary role of “condenser” in the poem indeed homed in on its “metaphorical implications.”

There’s an undeniable strength and subtlety in Wystan’s articulation of this position, but I didn’t see how it ruled out on principle looking up the scientific meaning of “condenser” — which I did, and which seemed to me to realize a precision of the radiating thought in the poem that palpably enriched my appreciation of what Zukofsky seemed to be doing here. I wrote to Bob Perelman, another of the guests, to register some shock horror at the turn the discussion had taken, and the upshot was that Bob invited me to put together some kind of forum to discuss poetry/science relations in Jacket2, operating out of its new home in UPenn.

So I’m inviting a group of poets (at present, ten in all), known for an interest in science, to answer however many you’d like of the attached list of questions. As the answers begin to come in, I’ll put them up on a discussion board, and hopefully that will prompt a range of threads to any of which any of you can contribute. The provisional deadline for getting something productive broadly available is September 1.

The questions are listed below, and supplied the headings for the initial sections:

Could you provide a brief statement on why (if you do) you think that science/scientific discourse should be incorporated by poets not simply as a source of metaphor but as an independent discipline or set of disciplines? (If you’ve already addressed this in print in some detail, feel free to indicate where that can be found.)

Which scientific discipline(s) do you find particularly helpful or urgent at the present time and why? How versed in the relevant expertise do you have to be to earn the right to use it (them) in a poem?

Explain thro’ a brief analysis why the reading of any poem of your choice, by yourself or someone else, is enriched by bringing a science-informed interpretive strategy to bear. The poem may or may not be working consciously with scientific allusions; if you think it will help, refer to one poem that is and one that isn’t.

Is there anything you want to say about poem 12 from Anew?

Do you find that words are sufficient for the poetic response/input?

In fact, the exchanges took place June through October 2010, and their final arranging required decisions on two matters. First, should they be arranged chronologically in order of arrival, or should the basic threads be preserved? The latter seemed more important, but it should be noted that because postings were simultaneously coming into various threads (creating a couple of new threads in the process), if you now read the forum straight through, you will sometimes find responses in one thread to something that will first occur further down the line in another. The second question, then, was whether or not to include the date of arrival with each posting. In the email interviews I’ve seen, dates are not given, and the illusion is presented of two people in the same room, responding to each other without delay. On the one hand, that felt to me foreign to my, at least, experience of the forum; on the other, it seemed that individual datings would have added for tracking a temporal crazy paving not only unhelpful but downright misleading. Initially, as I say in “Basics of Definition,” I’d thot to just light the blue touch-paper and retire while responses poured in — well, not: there was no unified physical location; responses were voluntary, and probably not at the top of most people’s list of priorities. Additionally, the nature of such a forum is that some people are in a position to participate more than others. Over the summer of 2010, there were deaths in the families of two participants; one poet’s contributions were limited by pressures from work; two others apologized for various reasons for not having sent more; at least two more had extended stays in remote places. Given the broad topic of poetry and science, this is interesting in itself with respect to conditions of electronic exchange, work, and sociality across 10,000-odd miles. Most useful than dates in pointing this up, I think, is Rae’s comment in “Science-Informed Readings”: “I’m starting to wish more people would post poems here. What are you waiting for? If it’s for fools to rush in, a couple already have. (I can say that since I went first.)”

This forum is now replete with poems as well as comments, and has gone public for use (or not) by people more than equipped to discern and riff off what matters to them. Over to everyone …