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.

Chapbook Contest Winner Announced

I just posted the winner of the 2008 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest:  William Keener’s Gold Leaf on Granite.  The poem I chose as the example for the announcement page is one titled “Take This Page,” a poem that embodies the awareness of energy flow, of “emergy” (embodied energy), that my concept of energonomics (the main focus of another blog of mine, which this post echoes for the most part) tries to express.  I will post the poem in its entirety:

Take This Page

Look past
the distraction of words,
our endless procession
of letters.

In the presence of white,
touch the page itself,
this rectangle,
this empty room,

a place for meditation,
if we ignore
the black scuff marks
on its ivory floor.

Let natural light
reflect the textures
of felted fibers,
cotton and flax,

egg shell, bread dough,
wool and bone,
the pressed shirt,
the linen shroud,

smooth, uncreased,
a sheet of paper deep
as any world we enter
through a book.

With the whorls
of our fingertips
we can read beneath
the watermarks,

between the laid lines,
faint patterns
left by the mesh
where pale pulp dried,

the cellulose in its slurry,
the wood chips, sawdust,
splinters, bark,
the cambium, the core

of a tree giving ground,
a legion of trees, a forest,
the billion leaves
they gird on every year,

their green machinery,
the sugars in the sap,
oxygen, carbon, lignin,
every molecule made

with heat, the photons
charging through space
from the flares of our sun,
its fiery hydrogen

burned into this room,
written into this page,
this book,
this volume of light.

This is a powerful poem for many reasons.  I especially like the syntactic build-up at the end of the poem:  you can feel the energy building as you are swept along by the syntax, as the poet leads us from the page that we are reading to the pulp of the page and through it to the very photons flowing from the sun that made possible the life of the tree which we have translated into “this book/this volume of light.”  The poem is wonderful insofar as it introduces and embodies all of these complex scientific concepts without burdening the reader with jargon or complicated language.  It brings us to an awareness of our basis in energy–it reminds us that we are beings of energy, that all, ultimately, is energy.

Congratulations to William Keener for having the clarity of mind and simplicity of insight to recognize and capture these truths in a truly beautiful way.