The Poetry of Science

I’m reading a book titled Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, about the role that (the second law of) thermodynamics plays in the origins, formation and maintenance of life.  One chapter opens with an extensive quote by E.O. Wilson, a quote worth reproducing in whole:

Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination–informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultuous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises.  And yes, more poetry.

When I first read this, I thought it was a concise and accurate summary of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  I like the way that it suggests that the winning theories end up as “memes” in our minds, and from there become available for further imaginative leaps of “informed imagination”–which Wilson summarizes as poetry.

Of course, as a poetry blog, I am focused on the idea of science as a source of poetry.  I have always found it to be so–going back to my undergraduate studies, when intro courses in astronomy and geology were quickly translated into metaphors of a self in transition.  Much of my own recent poetry integrates references to various sciences and grows directly out of considerations of science, such as my Snowman and Fireman poem sequences.

I am tempted to go through all 19 issues of Albatross and find the poems that would serve as examples of my point, but then it occurs to me that I should leave that up to you.  Suffice it to say that science informs poetry best when it grows out of an intimate knowledge with current theories, when these theories naturally lead to metaphors that help us go beyond ourselves and frame our experience in the broadest of terms.

Tom Sexton: Poetry Reading in Lowell, MA

I attended Tom Sexton’s reading in Lowell MA the other day.  He was visiting town for his high school reunion.  I made sure to attend because we published Tom way back in 1987, in our third issue.  Tom agreed to let me republish the poem from that issue here:


No path led from the cabin
to a clearing
or to an abandoned garden.

Inside a sour smell,
slivers of bone, a shrew’s skull,
bits of fur.

On the sill of the single window
placed to catch the light
a mason jar of water from the glacial river,

above the silt
a bud of light as epitaph:
I made this water pure and then departed.

Sexton has done well for himself since then.  His third book of poetry was published by Salmon Poetry, and the book I bought at the reading, titled A Clock With No Hands (Adastra Press, 2007), features his hometown Lowell.  Many in attendance at the reading recognized characters and places from the Lowell of his childhood.  I was happy that he inscribed the book as follows:  “For Richard:  Who was there for me at the beginning.”  I’m hoping that he sends two unpublished poems that he read at the reading for ALBATROSS #20: they were beautiful!