The Poetry of Science

Poetry Ireland News July/August 2012

Look into the cup: the tissue of order
Forms under your stare. The living surfaces
Mirror each other, gather everything 
Into their crystalline world...
– Thomas Kinsella, ‘Phoenix Park’

The first poem that filled me with a genuine excitement was encountered one day in a stuffy classroom in my final year in secondary school. It was Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Mirror in February’. I enjoyed poetry but this poem seemed different and more immediate. It was written by someone not distant from me in time and language, but a poet still writing as I read it – Kinsella then being the only such living poet on the English syllabus.

I faced a dilemma as I approached my Leaving Cert exams. As well as English and History I was also passionate about Maths and Physics. The question was which would I prefer to study at University? In the end, I chose Natural Sciences and found myself in Trinity College, daunted at first by the transition to higher mathematics, chemistry and physics. Thankfully, after the terror of the first term, I settled in and was an eager student, choosing to major in Experimental Physics under the guidance of my supervisor, one Prof Iggy McGovern – known to many of you now as the author of two excellent poetry collections.

At that time neither Iggy nor I talked about poetry, though I had continued to read it as I headed towards my finals, with friends in the English Department recommending poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and other modernists. Whilst I was sometimes baffled by these poets, I enjoyed the challenge such work provided. After graduation, I worked for about a year as a research assistant at the Department, but found I had no stomach for the often repetitive and slow nature of research physics. Despite my passion for the subject I didn’t see a direct future in it, and after a period of crisis decided to revisit that earlier moment of reflected encounter in ‘Mirror in February’ and try my own hand at writing poetry. My progress was reasonably quick and within a few years my first published poem, ‘Apple’, appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 47, edited by Moya Cannon, in autumn 1995. It was a piece about Newton.

I had no concept of myself at that point as a ‘scientist-poet’. It just seemed natural to me that with a background in physics – and a passion for all the sciences – that this world-view would seep its way into what I was writing as subject matter, explored in the unique vocabularies that science also provided me with. For example, in an early poem, ‘Dragonflies’, I describe the dragonflies as ‘they dart from one point to another / plotting the water’s surface / with their ghost geometries’. For me, nature poetry after Darwin had to somehow reflect this altered view of the natural world. I also found in scientific figures rich material for poems, writing pieces about Einstein (‘Einstein’s Compass’) and Galileo (‘The Moons’) as well as Newton. I also became quite fascinated with natural history and a series of poems followed about palaeontology, geology, insects, astronomy and even mathematics.

At the same time, I naturally also wrote about more immediate and personal concerns: family, lovers, friendship, loss and grief. The type of material that perhaps we expect to see in a contemporary poetry collection. The difficulty I faced was how to make these different types of subject-matter work in some unified way to form a collection itself. It took me some time to achieve this, but eventually I realised that these subjects- the philisophical and the personal-could exist side by side, the intimate, personal dramas placed against the grand backdrop of geological and even cosmological time, perhaps in the way the gods provided the epic context for the lives of mortals in classical literature. For me, the fleeting moments of lived experience are placed against the vista of what we might call ‘deep’ time.

Inevitably, I faced the question in doing this: what is poetry’s relationship to science? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Poetry also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent poem, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living, though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.

And perhaps by writing about science I’m attempting to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some kind of imaginative resonance with the nature of our lived lives, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our experience in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be felt as the ‘tissue of order’ that Kinsella speaks of in ‘Phoenix Park’ – an order that both disciplines search for, albeit in very different fashions. That is, at least, something of what I hope to achieve in my work.

Noel Duffy’s In the Library of Lost Objects was published by Ward Wood in 2011 and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Strong Award for best debut collection by an Irish poet. 

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