Science meets poetry
They meet every day in the world. They meet in the person, scientist or poet. How many scientists are left gasping at the beauty of the world as manifest in the universality of a precisely articulated law or equation? And isn’t all poetry ultimately our human response to the beauty and fragility of the world, of life itself?
They met yesterday for me, at the Science Meets Poetry III seminar at the Schroedinger Lecture Theatre, in the School of Physics, Trinity College, Dublin. This day was part of ESOF 2012 (EuroScience Open Forum; http://esof2012.org/), for which Dublin is the host as European City of Science for 2012.
As part of that forum, yesterday was an opportunity for scientists and poets to meet and discuss their different labours to understand the nature of life, of matter. The joint chairs were Iggy McGovern, Professor of Physics at Trinity, and also a well-respected poet, and Jean-Patrick Connerade, Professor of Physics, Imperial College London, and President of the European Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
Professor Connerade wasn’t the only president present however. As we approached the School of Physics, there was was a large shiny black car blocking the way. We circled to confirm we were at the right location, and when we got inside, who was in the coffee room, quite unostentatiously bar his accompanying splendidly uniformed aide de camp, but the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, a wonderful man who gives hope to the nation in these dire times. President Higgins attended the first two sessions given by Iggy on the correspondence between the scientist William Hamilton and the poet William Wordworth; and that given by Jean-Patrick on Ecology and Creationism in European Culture. Shortly after the President Higgins was seated, the audience was also joined by Seamus Heaney. The latter stayed on to read a poem at the end of the poet Maurice Riordan’s session discoursing on the influence of science and technology on the outlook of poets, with particular reference to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Seamus Heaney read his beautiful poem based on St Kevin of Glendalough and that monk’s efforts to hold a blackbird’s clutch after she laid her eggs in his palm, while he prayed with outstretched hands. As a metaphor for restraint and care for the natural world as we live through the Sixth Wave of mass exinctions of the current era, it was gently, appropriately, inspirational. (http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1396
Enthralling as these two guests were, however, there was another quieter, but revolutionary, presence. The physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a native of Northern Ireland, who is more famous for having missed out on a Nobel Prize than many a Nobel laureate. I heard her interviewed on BBC Radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/science-discovery/jocelyn-bell-burnell/#intro), and the casual offensive sexism she experienced in her youth is shocking; and, you know, it’s not that long ago. And things haven’t changed that much; not remotely enough. I met another poet, not much older than me, who was able to tell me that she never was even offered science as a subject in school. And I myself remember, as an eleven-year old, at a grammar school, being offered the choice between Home Economics, and Science. Thankfully, my parents insisted I study science. I vaguely remember from that radio interview that Jocelyn Bell was offered the same choice as me, barely a decade before (Have since checked. She wasn’t even! Listen, as above, and be appalled!). It was a real honour and pleasure to meet her. We need the shouters and the protesters as well, but sometimes quiet persistent determination also speaks. The work – when you get the chance to do it – speaks.
The day was a great mix of scientists, poets, and poet-scientists. One of the highlights was a talk by Dr Valeria Mikhalevich, a palaeontologist at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who is also a translator of Seamus Heaney into Russian. Her overview of the parallels between Irish and Russian literature was fascinating, how the tenuous connections between the Gaelic Literature Revival, and the Russian Silver Age were broken by the Stalinist terror. And yet, here she was, an embodiment of that connection, as well as that of the integration of poetry and science.
With Kate Dempsey, and Noel Duffy, I read at the day’s end. It’s a year or more since I’ve given a poetry reading (http://memineandotherbits.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/paris-bloomsday/), and it was good for me. I have been complaining about missing poetry, and the reading put me in touch with that fundamental part of myself again. While I can’t promise it that much attention in the immediate future, I trust that it is reassured that new poems will eventually emerge from my latest embracing of science in due course.
Next weekend, I’m in Essen, Germany (http://www.ecbb2012.org/), to give a paper on my PhD research. I’m considerably more nervous of that than I was of the poetry reading, as it’s the first time I’ve given a paper at an international conference. However, I’m somewhat buoyed up by yesterday’s experience. It’s certainly an exhilerating, if exhausting, time.
Perhaps then, it’s time I linked to my poetry in this context. I’ve been shy about this for a very long time, but I guess I can’t keep hiding my light under a bushel, so to speak. I am fortunate to love and to be reasonably talented at two things, poetry and science. The only thing that stops me marrying the two in a way that I would wish, is the limitations we all face of time and energy. But one of the poems I read yesterday, and which was well received, is The Word, based on John’s famous gospel passage. It’s taken from my second collection, Tribe, (http://www.dedaluspress.com/poets/montague.html) published by Dedalus Press, Dublin in 2008. That collection builds on the initial chance I was given by Summer Palace Press, of Kilcar Co Donegal (http://www.poetryireland.ie/resources/feature-articles/joan-and-kate.html), which brought out my first collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain (2001). However, I’m going to quote The Word, as I myself think it’s one of my more successful efforts at getting science and poetry to meet.
after John the apostle
In the beginning was the word
and the word was in the code
and the word was the code.
It was in the code in the beginning.
Through the code all life came to be.
Not one life had its being but through the code.
All that came to be had flesh through it
and that flesh was the joy of creatures:
mortal flesh, built out of chaos;
inventive flesh that death can’t extinguish.
The code was the first word
animating all flesh
that came into the world.
Flesh grew from the code,
had its being through it,
but flesh knew only itself.
Then, through mutation of the code,
consciousness arose out of flesh
and language could celebrate
this fresh power.
Where it is manifest
flesh bears witness
to a different way of being in the universe
through the power of the word
born not out of instinct
or sexual urge
or any dictate of the code
but out of word alone.
Word was made flesh,
dwell inside us.
We glory in it:
the glory of us, fruits of evolution,
creatures of conscious awareness.
Indeed, from this fullness we have, as a species,
received truth in return for awareness
since, though the word was first given through the code,
knowledge and truth have come through the flesh.
We cannot fathom the word,
but flesh evolving from the code
has made it ours.