Practicing science and poetry

Last week I went to a seminar on poetry and science by Bryan Walpert and Helen Heath. Both spoke of the capacity of writing to manifest other ways of knowing the world beyond the totalising, univocal perspectives of both “objective” science and “subjective” poetics–a topic that kept me rapt for several hours and is still rattling around my brain.

Chinese kite frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

Mostly I find myself returning to Walpert’s suggestion that by bringing different kinds of language together, by using language to put pressure on different kinds of knowledge, discursive poetry could “trick the truth into its starry net.”

Computer Map of the Early Universe by Maura Stanton

We’re made of stars. The scientific team
Flashes a blue and green computer chart
Of the universe across my TV screen
To prove its theory with a work of art:
Temperature shifts translated into waves
Of color, numbers hidden in smooth lines.
“At last we have a map of ancient Time”
One scientist says, lost in a rapt gaze.
I look at the bright model they’ve designed,
The Big Bang’s fury frozen into laws,
Pleased to see it resembles a sonnet,
A little frame of images and rhyme
That tries to glitter brighter than its flaws
And trick the truth into its starry net.

I recalled Henry James’ essay “The Art of Fiction” which describes, I think, a skill set shared by both poets and scientists: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

But this gets us closer to netting what the scientist and poet always already have in common: practice or craft. And this is where I find the most hope in my own work because I genuinely believe that if we all learned to communicate our practice–our everyday doing and making of things–then we could always find enough common ground to start productively discussing our differences.

Heath discussed her PhD work on how poets use science and technology in their writing, and I very much enjoyed her reading of Jo Shapcott’s beautiful poem “In the Bath” (from Phrase Book). But I wondered how we might get beyond embodied experience as well, and back into the extraordinary mundanity of everyday practice.

Chinese kite frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

When I got home, I looked up “Love in the Lab” (from Electroplating the Baby) and I think I may have found what I was looking for:

Love in the Lab by Jo Shapcott

One day
the technicians
touched souls

as they exchanged
everyday noises
above the pipette.

Then they knew
that the state of molecules
was not humdrum.

The inscriptions
on the specimen jars
which lined the room in racks
took fire in their minds:

what were yesterday
mere hieroglyphs
from the periodic table

became today urgent proof
that even here –
laboratory life –
writing is mystical.

The jars glinted under their labels:
it had taken fifteen years
to collect and collate them.

Now the pair were of one mind.
Quietly, methodically
they removed the labels
from each of the thousands
of jars. It took all night.

At dawn, rows of bare glass
winked at their exhausted coupling
against the fume cupboard.

Using their white coats
as a disguise
they took their places at the bench
and waited for the morning shift.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that practice or poeisis should sit beside representation as a way of both being and knowing the world. Inherently social, practice moves beyond individual experience to describe the world in terms of people, space and culture. I would think that poetry–or the crafting of a poem–similarly requires a writer and a reader to push and pull each other in new directions, and into new shapes.

“Love in the Lab” may be a poem, but I think it’s also very powerful (and indeed truthful) sociology of science. Since I’m not a poet or a literary scholar, I can only say that I really like the combination of precision and ambiguity. Shapcott brings practices of science and poetry out of hiding and, without completely lifting the veil, shows how entire worlds get made, unmade, remade. It truly resonates with what I have witnessed as an ethnographer in labs and other places.

Chinese kit frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

As Dinty W Moore explains:

“There are two ways imagination comes into play with creative nonfiction. The first is simply that the writer can imagine all she wants in an essay, as long as the border between observed truth and imagined truth is acknowledged . . . The second and more significant way that imagination comes into play is that a creative nonfiction writer must create the form, shape, language, metaphor, and rhythm of the essay.”

And now, after all this thinking-out-loud, I think the most valuable thing that I’ve gleaned is that it’s there, in the narrative rather than the plot, that practice belongs. (But I’ll have to come back to that another time.)

UPDATE 02/09/13: Roberto Greco pointed out that the objects in the images above look a lot like Polynesian stick charts. I had the same thought but decided to use the information provided by the Smithsonian instead; I mean, who am I to argue with them? On second look, however, I noticed that “Marshall Islands” is one of the tags, so maybe they’ve just been mis-labelled? In any case, besides being attracted to the objects themselves, I chose those particular images because I love cyanotypes. And see? It’s all still about science and poetry.