Saturday, 15 February 2020

WHAT POETRY WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO A SCIENTIST?


I have occasionally been asked this question.  I’ve no idea is my answer.

Behind the question there seems to be the assumption that scientists will only like poems about science.  Perhaps there’s even the ancient ghost of C P Snow’s the Two Cultures (the sciences versus the humanities) rattling around in the background.  The question may in reality mask a different and more personal one – how do I get my partner/relative/good friend, who happens to be a scientist, interested in poetry?

It’s like asking, what poetry would you recommend to a builder, or a farmer, or an accountant?  It all depends …  Despite decades of teaching literature (including a considerable amount of poetry) to adult students, I’ve always been amazed at the varied ways people respond to the same text, how they notice different things in structure and content, and how, when exposed to contemporary poetry, they surprise themselves by liking it.

I thought of this question again recently when I read Katrina Porteous’ new book Edge, the poetry which emerged from her collaboration with research scientists, a composer and an artist.

I have always thought of Katrina Porteous as a poet who captures the distinctive character of the Northumbrian landscape and its inhabitants.  But this book throws time and space wide open and explores the world of astrophysics.  In 2017 in Keswick I heard Katrina perform excerpts from ‘Sun’ – part of a collaboration with Professor John Woodward of Northumbria University and artist Helen Schell.

The new book Edge is a wonderful expansion of the poetry in ‘Sun’.  I am full of admiration for the way Katrina has engaged so deeply with contemporary science.  It’s a meaty volume – 125 pages, of which 13 are introduction and acknowledgements and 12 are notes which explain the scientific principles behind the poems.   I started off by reading each poem or section separately with its accompanying note – and made slow progress.  It was almost like reading Paradise Lost and reading every footnote.  So I read the poems straight through – and loved their liveliness and originality.  The poems are full of surprising and varied metaphors.  Here are a few lines from ‘Titan: second rising tide’ –

     ‘Out of the stuff of stars –
      Gas, dust, ice –
      Someone is painstakingly

      Threading a necklace.’
Sometimes the only way to explain science is with the use of metaphor.  When the first image of a black hole was published last April, science writers resorted to metaphor: a fiery doughnut of red and gold, a halo of dust and gas, an image created by an algorithm which stitched together data, capturing the image was the equivalent of photographing a bagel on the moon and so on.   (These examples are from a Guardian report 13 April 2019).

Metaphor brings poetry and science together in this fine body of work by Katrina Porteous.  Would I recommend it to a scientist?  I’m not sure but I would like to hear a scientist’s response to the book.


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