Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable Void,
This soul-shudd’ring Vacuum? Some said
It is Urizen. But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark Power hid.
William Blake The Book of Urizen
A Review of Verse and Universe
Edited by Kurt Brown. Milkwood Editions 1998.
Students of the CP Snow 1950’s genteel classic1 Two Cultures (or the more recent Alan Sokal2-instigated “science wars”) would do well to consider the long-foreshadowed conflict between science and the humanities. Blake formulated this dichotomy in The Book of Urizen and his famous engraving depicting Newton. Despite tortured re-interpretations (e.g., Blake as unwitting proponent of chaos theory), and the largely forgotten work by Aldous Huxley3, Blake and Newton are still engaged in a mighty struggle that continues to this day. Inroads, convergences and congruences between the cultures have been sought and attempted, but the core struggle, if anything, has intensified.
Verse and Universe, a poetry collection edited by Kurt Brown (Milkwood, 1998), is a recent and worthwhile attempt at convergence, though the collection limits itself to work by American poets writing in the second half of the twentieth century. The selected works, overall, are useful, and the project is probably unique among poetry anthologies.
Despite its advertised scope, a brief work such as Verse and Universe must be faulted for its omissions, perhaps because such collections are so rare. Key among the omissions is Miroslav Holub, noted immunologist (“One of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere” according to Ted Hughes), whose work is far more memorable than, say, Jorie Graham’s slight from Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (An Adaptation). Graham’s reinterpretation of work now of only historical interest to the science community, exudes the grim obscurity of the self-marginalized. Rather than advancing the cause of reconciliation or achieving cross-cultural synthesis, such forays are painful reminders – considering the forces of science at work today — that the gulf between the two cultures must be measured in light years, and through poorly calibrated instrumentation. This was a criticism that would have been unfairly leveled at Wordsworth just a few miles above Tintern Abbey, where it could be accepted that he could “connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”4 Today the excuses are comparatively lame.
Brown, or his chosen poets, might have considered whether good poetry can be written about bad or discredited science. Some of the specialized language of science, mathematics and technology is subject to the Kuhn-ean motion of constantly shifting paradigms. Aldous Huxley noted that “specialized meaninglessness has come to be regarded, in certain circles, as a kind of hall-mark of true science.”5 Yet science produces powerful neologisms. In the hands of a gifted poet, the added weight of science’s intersubjectivity delivers a powerful punch that is less easily refuted. It is also more easily ignored by the uninformed.
In many ways science and mathematics are larger forces, presiding over a larger domain with vastly more adherents than poetry – both present and future. Seen in this light, poetry must understandably operate on the periphery. But there is a discouraging subtext to all this. The information explosion, knowledge revolution and the forces of capital will surely lead to further specialization, complexity and moral ambiguity. As with economic stratification, there is the likelihood of evolving subcultures of Experts and Know-Nots. Poets can create useful and imaginative perspectives, but only if they learn enough about the science first to make the metaphors stick.
Pattiann Rogers’ “Achieving Perspective” struggles to come to terms with astronomical distance “millions of miles beyond the dimness / Of the sun, the comet Biela, speeding / In its rocks and ices, is just beginning to enter / The widest arc of its elliptical turn.” But one is left with the uncomfortable sense that the writer understands that “. . . nothing at all separates our bodies / From the vast emptiness expanding . . . ” these are the rantings of refugees. A mind no less expansive than Updike’s comes to terms with neutrinos in “Cosmic Gall” with a humorous but equally transparent anthropomorphism. Rita Dove makes an appearance in which she identifies with a fossilized fish who “would like to fall / back into the sea . . .” and who is “. . . weary of analysis, the small / predictable truths” (from “The Fish In the Stone”).
Poets who eschew complexity and deploy only lightweight analogy and casual metaphor deserve the criticism they are likely to hear from philosophers of science and practitioners of technology
The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is — second only to American political campaigns — the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.6
Such poets, and the lightly considered science they integrate, are prospective dupes for the likes of Sokal. A poetics of science must not be purely subjective, or escape in relativist proposition-making.
Offsetting the underwhelming efforts in the collection are many worthwhile verses, albeit not a universe of them.
The reader is happily treated to such benchmarks in science poetics as Eiseley’s “Notes of An Alchemist”:
our wise men
in their wildernesses
to charm to similar translucence
the cloudy crystal of the mind.
We must then understand
that order strives
against the unmitigated chaos lurking
along the convulsive backbone of the world.
Sometimes I think that we
In varying degrees are grown
like the wild crystal,
now flashing red,
within my surging molecules
by nature cling
to that deep sapphire blue
that marks the mind of one
who knows and does reflect
starred space and midnight,
who conceives therefore
that out of order and disorder
perpetually clashing and reclashing
come the worlds . . .
Verse and Universe is an undertaking that deserves to be commended merely for its intention. That the result is also laudable is of secondary importance, even if it is only because there is so much work to do seeing “into the life of things.”4 Verse and Universe should be required reading – a primer — for every serious poet of the new millenium. –Mark Underwood
- Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures, Reissue Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Sokal, Alan. `Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text, Spring/Summer 1996 issue.
- Huxley, Aldous. Literature and Science. London/New York: Chatto & Windus/Harper & Row, 1963
- Wordsworth. William. “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.”
- Huxley, Aldous. Ends and Means, Chapter 14 “Beliefs”, Buccaneer Books, 1991 (originally published in 1937).
- Laudan, Larry. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1990.