Welcome back to dVersePoets, poets and friends! I’m Chazinator and I’ll be your host again. I hope the words are already blowing the tops of people’s heads off in there and I’ll explain how this works in a few minutes. Last time we started out in Florence, but tonight’s prompt starts in Greece, takes a tour through England’s green and pleasant land, a small town in New England, and ends its race at the rocky shores of California …
In my first gig at this blog, I challenged you with the task of wrestling with philosophy. Tonight, I’d like you to take on science. I know, it’s a big subject, fraught with so much lost territory. While it’s not exactly bad blood between science and poetry, there’s certainly some friction, though it wasn’t always so.
The theme of tonight’s prompt is nicely encapsulated in the following remark from the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” In the same work, he ridicules the notion that only science teaches, and poetry and art have no truth but just are meant to entertain us. Tonight’s prompt asks you to think about what “problems of life” it might be that science doesn’t answer and that poetry might, if at all.
Way back when, the idea that poetry had certain truths to tell about the world was a given. Homer was not just a pretty face singing sweet notes on the Agora, (s)he was an oracle enunciating truths about the human, natural, and divine worlds. When a more rigorous understanding of the relationship between the world of nature and human consciousness began to take shape, natural philosophers found it not unusual to use poetry to state their ideas.
In Greece, this began with the great Eleatic philosopher, Parmenides. In his poem/treatise on the nature of Being and Becoming, he stated the nature of time in this way:
… How, then, can what is be going to be in the
future ? Or how could it come into being ? If it came into
being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is
becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.
Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, and there is no more
of it in one place than in another, to hinder it from holding
together, nor less of it, but everything is full of what is.
This “poem” about time and the material world – or is it a treatise? – basically says that time doesn’t exist. The material world is and always has been and will forever Be. Pretty heady stuff, which even some modern physicists have wrestled with. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion. What Parmenides was saying fits quite well in with the way that some modern physicists understand reality.
In terms of poetry, Parmenides’ work is not very aesthetically pleasing, to tell the truth. However, another natural philosophet/poet renders both scientific theory and poetry more successfully. The Roman poet, Lucretius, wrote an epic to Atomism that is recognized as poetic classic and fundamental scientific text, providing a world-view based on that materialistic view that many of those following science find amenable.
In the following description from On the Nature of Things, Lucretius recounts the beginning of the material world from primordial chaos:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.
The poem states the fundamental theory of a universe based on chance and matter. Nothing more, nothing less. The poem is a great hymn to this realization, expanding on the poet’s understanding of how this plays itself out in the world we see and in the interactions between humans.
As science gained in strength, throughout the Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment, religion and the assumptions it brought into art and poetry came under attack. I’ll skip over over a lot of time and events here, so as not to restate well-known history. By the time that we hit the 19th century, however, science was triumphant, and poetry was beating a bedraggled retreat. The ambivalence to science comes out full bore in the English Romantic poets, especially William Blake. Blake understood that science’s vision of the world is antithetical to the poetic.
Blake was not simply bemoaning the loss of prestige of poetry, but was truly terrified by the possibility that an important facet of being human would be lost. That is, a specific world-view as we now call it, the scientific world-view, diminishes human awareness of both the human self and the self’s relationship – moral, spiritual, and aesthetic – to the world.
The engraving, Isaac Newton, by William Blake is in the public domain in the United States, via Wikipedia Commons.
6. And Urizen craving with hunger
Stung with the odours of Nature
Explor’d his dens around
7. He form’d a line & a plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath.
He form’d a dividing rule:
8. He formed scales to weigh;
He formed massy weights;
He formed a brazen quadrant;
He formed golden compasses
And began to explore the Abyss
And he planted a garden of fruits
In these words from the Book of Urizen, Blake sums up his concern that the infinite grace of the universe is somehow bounded and wrapped up in a nutshell, the mystery that existence, life, awareness are. Blake finally came to accept the fact that scientific reason is part of a larger self-consciousness in the soul. He believed that poetry and science can live within their own spheres, comprising the human whole, though the modern world has not followed Blake’s prophetic vision.
Robert Frost also took up Blake’s question, though with a more mundane sagacity and without the world-shattering mytho-poetic reach of Blake. In the poem, Star Splitter, Frost narrates the tale of a somewhat unscrupulous man fascinated with stars. Entangled within the mesh of social interaction and relationships, we see how he pursues his interest with science and its impact on his relationship with others.
We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
We seem to be brought face to face with those questions that Wittgenstein said that science leaves uanswered. With Yankee common-sense and within the most everyday narrative, Frost asks where are we, and does science answer that question.
But the Romantics do not hold the floor, nor does the antipathy to science hold complete sway. Many poets find the scientific spirit quite amenable to their vision of reality and produce powerful verse celebrating the universe in a hard scientific light.
Another American poet, Robinson Jeffers, was a trained scientist in biology and geology. His poetry incorporates that training in its microscopic view as well as its encompassing vision of life and its place in the universe as a whole. The following lines from De Rerum Virtute give a taste of Jeffers’ cosmic vision:
I believe the first living cell
Had echoes of the future in it, and felt
Direction and the great animals, the deep green forest
And whale’s-track sea; I believe this globed earth
Not all by chance and fortune brings forth her broods,
But feels and chooses. And the Galaxy, the firewheel
On which we are pinned, the whirlwind of stars in which our sun is one dust-grain, one electron, this giant atom of the universe
Is not blind force, but fulfils its life and intends its courses. “All things are full of God.
Winter and summer, day and night, war and peace are God.”
Here, Jeffers celebrates the cosmic forces at play in the universe, identifies each place that each holds, and embraces it in its vastness and its wholeness. Jeffers’ vision can sometimes appear harsh and indifferent to human life as it plays itself out on the cosmic stage. His bold eye sees all, cruelty and tenderness, with the same intensity and passion, but equally objective and beheld by an indifferent universe.
In this week’s prompt, write a poem that references in some way the scientific spirit of our time. To accomplish this, you might
- take a natural process and describe it in poetic terms, like Parmenides or Lucretius
- describe how science affects our everyday lives
- give us a grand view of the cosmos which science opens up to human view through science
- engage in poetic conflict with the scientific world-view
Cool? Then let’s get it on. Here’s how it works:
- Post a poem based on tonight’s theme to your blog.
- Link in the poem you’d like to share by clicking on the Mr.Linky button just below.
- This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog url and entered your name, simply click Submit.
- Don’t forget to let your readers know where you’re linking up and encourage them to participate by including a link to dVerse in your blog post.
- Visit as many other poems as you like, commenting as you see fit. Chances are if you comment on others they will comment on you. Funny how that works.
- Remember, we’re here for each other. Engage your fellow poets, talk, chat, comment, let them know their work is being read, and enjoy the input you also will receive. Feel free to tweet and share on the social media of your choice.
Finally, enjoy–this is poetry alive.