Pattiann Rogers on the Scientific Underpinnings of Poetry
“Poets judge their own reactions to the words and the forms they have chosen.”
When I first began to write poetry seriously, years ago, I came across essays published in magazines and journals written by people who were not poets but whose thoughts have stayed with me and influenced me.
One of these essays appeared in The Atlantic in 1992 and was titled “The Case for Human Beings,” by Thomas Palmer. In a portion of this essay, the author wrote a short summary of evolution in simple, colloquial language, ending with this sentence: “It was as if Nature, after wearing out several billion years tossing off new creatures like nutshells, looked up to see that one had come back and was eyeing her strangely.”
That was the beginning of humanity as a wondering, curious, questioning creature; maybe even the first question, a uniquely human invention. Scientists and poets, each in their own ways, still continue asking, exploring, and discovering. Who are we? Where are we? How did we get here? What are our limits? What are our obligations? What does it mean to be human? What is nature?
In his 1973 book, The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski (a mathematician, scientist, and poet) wrote, “The underlying essence of science is questioning. Ask an impertinent question and you are on your way to a pertinent answer.”
Questioning is also an underlying essence of poetry, poets suggesting, wondering, seeking to understand our reactions, our emotions, the source of the soul and heart of our lives.
I never aspired to be a scientist, but I like listening to scientists talking together (using the pronoun we when referring to their research) and so often using the words suppose, imagine, consider, what if…asking questions and attempting to respond to them through observation, research, experiment, mathematics, curiosity, and imagination. I admire the best scientists for their dedication to their work, their respect and reverence for the natural, physical world, and their required absolute honesty in reporting the results of their research.
After all, it is nature that judges and will determine if the work of scientists is successful and true or has failed. In metaphor, the work of a scientist has been compared to the work of a tailor who measures, designs, and crafts the pieces of the garment he is making to fit the client perfectly, and when the garment seems to be finished, it is held up to the client to see if it fits.
In the metaphor, does the finished research project fit and explain the element of the natural, physical world that the scientist was investigating? After much testing in nature, if the results of the scientist’s research explain and predict correctly the functions of his subject, his work is accepted and moves into the community of science.
Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman wrote an essay titled “The Value of Science,” appearing in chapter 1 of Frontiers in Science: A Survey, Edward Hutchings Jr., editor (New York: Basic Books, 1958). My first book was published in 1981 by Princeton University Press. This essay was quite important to me. I read it many times, especially the paragraph below, where Feynman describes the feelings he experiences as he works on a research project and goes deeper and deeper into the study, finally finding an answer to his quest, only to discover that by his success he has uncovered an even deeper question. Remaining excited and elated, he calls this the “Grand Adventure.”
It is true that few unscientific people have this particular type of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing—not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
Poets too are searching and exploring, asking questions, testing phrases, listening to the music of the language, studying the craft and the art of poetry. They subject their work to testing, trusting the opinions of other poets who have acquired the skill to communicate and enlighten readers and listeners. Poets judge their own reactions to the words and the forms they have chosen. They reach out to informed critics and audiences, listen, and observe.
In his July 1991 Scientific American article, “Essay: The Poetry of Science,” John Timpane writes:
Early in [the 20th] century, an old and great Dilemma resurfaced—Poetry or Science?…
In truth…20th-century poets owed much to science. In giving poets more things to think about, more viewpoints to take, science enlarged the ambit of the imagination and bade the poet take over from there….
These two great ways of seeing lie on the same imaginative continuum. They do not compete; they connect. If science explicates the surprising, complex, undreamed of truth, poetry enacts the full impact of that truth on the human consciousness. A good poet can take an insight revealed by science and suggest the full range of its human importance.
Poets writing at this very moment—some good ones are Gary Snyder, Albert Goldbarth, Elizabeth Socolow, Ed Dorn, A. R. Ammons and Pattiann Rogers—are doing just that.
In the arts in this year, 2022, many poets have made progress in portraying the recent discoveries about the universe and the earth, the births and the deaths, the beginnings and the endings in both realms, that scientists have given us. But expressions or questions of how deeply the human soul and heart are affected by this expanded vision of our world have not been revealed poetically in “the full range of its human importance.”Questioning is also an underlying essence of poetry.
In my work, I’ve endeavored to convey my fascination with the results of scientific research and what they continue to reveal to all of us, enlarging our vision, expanding our vocabulary, describing our physical universe—from the tiniest known elementary particle to the unending edge of the universe (or, at least, as far as we can calculate now), from the birth of light in our universe and the births of stars and galaxies to the birth of a butterfly. It is possible now to view the speed of the sperm, the penetration of the ovum, and the development of a human child in the womb.
In what way do these enlarged visions and understandings affect the human heart, the spiritual soul? Reactions to discoveries that touch the heart and soul are largely the purview of artists who portray such reactions with their talents—not through a lecture, a dogma, a sermon, or a scree, but through a song, a symphony, a drama, a sculpture, a painting, or poems by poets engaging a bold imagination, employing all poetic crafts possible.
Finally, I believe the following words, from Stephen Jay Gould’s 2002 book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, perfectly present a combination of scientific and poetic skills enhancing and celebrating together an amazing perception:
Something almost unspeakably holy—I don’t know how else to say this—underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.
I don’t call this last piece a poem, although the language is remarkably poetic and beautiful. I don’t call it a prayer, as it does not bless nor implore. It is scientifically and emphatically stated and astonishingly true. The author has named it. I look out now from the earth at the sky and our world, and I agree.
Excerpted from Flickering by Pattiann Rogers. Copyright © 2023. Available from Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.