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The verse of the universe – the power of poetry and science to explain the inexplicable    
Mon, 20 April 2020



Poetry, it may be argued, allows us to see the unseen – just as the Hubble telescope allows us to see deep space or the Large Hadron Collider allows us to ‘see’ sub-atomic particles. The connection between poetry and science is not a far-fetched, fanciful one. Both, to some extent, are exploratory processes, and both have the power to reveal to us worlds we never knew existed. Both, in the words of the legendary science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, have the power to “bring… thought to an impenetrable mystery.”
 
Poetry offers us a way to explain complexities in the most distilled way. The greatest poetry, arguably, is one where there is no wastage whatsoever, where every single word is assiduously selected to convey the maximal meaning in the most condensed way. Similarly, scientific research endeavours to cut through extraneous hypotheses to get to a singular, verifiable ‘truth’. It’s Occam’s razor, if you will, where the simplest theories are always preferable to more complicated ones. But neither poetry nor science could be accused of simplicity – they are deep-diving, meaning-making pursuits.
 
Increasingly, scientists, philosophers and poets are coming together to cross-pollinate their disciplines, and to use poetry as a heuristic tool to explain great mysteries and reveal seismic discoveries that are hard to capture in daily discourse, in layman’s language. 
 
Dr Sam Illingworth lectures science communication at Manchester Metropolitan University and uses poetry to build a bridge between scientists and citizens. His blog, The Poetry of Science, informs his audiences from the start that ‘this…is not Keats or Yeats’, and yet, self-deprecation aside, his poems are vividly compelling, and transmit far more than mere facts ever could, revealing unimaginable universes in an unmediated way. 
 
Each poem is informed by a recent scientific breakthrough. So, when a far-flung exoplanet over 600 light years away was observed to rain down iron, Illingworth wrote that: “estranged metals disperse into / the turbulent atmosphere / carried by Khamsin to / the cool, crisp nights, / where they tumble / to the surface / as a cooling balm of / ferrous mist. / Lost in time, / like rust in rain.”

Each poem is bracketed by the hard science behind it, with a clickthrough to the relevant scientific journal. He’s gone on to write a book – A Sonnet to Science – which shares the biographies of six impactful scientists who sought out poetry as a sense-making source of inspiration. His motivation? “By writing and sharing poetry together, non-scientists are given permission to express their opinions, and scientists are given permission to express their emotions. This creates a sense of shared vulnerability.”
 
Alison Hawthorne Deming, a much-lauded American poet and essayist, and great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, is also interested in pooling poetic and scientific resources and bridging the divide. In her brilliant essay A View from the Divide, she explores the two shared fundaments of these twinned disciplines – words and quests – and goes on to insist on a ravelling together of the two:
 
“In addition to the questing of science, its language also attracts me –the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as ‘hemolymph’, ‘zeolite’, ‘cryptogam’, ‘sclera’, ‘xenotransplant’ and ‘endolithic’, and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most science writing imprisons them.”
 
Another colloquium of cross-pollinating quasi-poets is The Universe in Verse platform, co-initiated by scholar and blogger Maria Popova and astrophysicist Janna Levin, whose originary mandate was “a broadening of perspective, scientific, poetic, and humanistic.”
 
Their second annual colloquium was led by Maya Angelou’s poem, A Brave and Startling Truth, which was sent into space aboard the Orion spacecraft in 2014. Angelou was inspired by Carl Sagan’s response, in 1994, to the Voyager’s momentous image of Earth as seen from the remotest rim of the solar system: our planet, he famously intoned, was “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. 
 
In her poem, Angelou describes arriving at a place, where “it is possible and imperative that we learn / A brave and startling truth”. She goes on: 
 
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
 
[…]
 
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
 
[…]
 
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
 
What poetry and science offer us, finally, is a profound perspective on our humanity – and, now more than ever, it must be our shared humanity. And nowhere is this more evident than the AVBOB Poetry Project, where poets from across South Africa, of all ages and in all 11 of our mother tongues, have found a platform to express their own complicated humanity. Perhaps it is time for our local scientists to find their way to that platform, when they come to it.
 
Visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za for over 10 000 locally crafted poems. And read Maya Angelou’s full poem here: https://bit.ly/34jVIub
 
[A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH
 
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Travelling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
 
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
 
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
 
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
 
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
 
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
 
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
 
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
 
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
 
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
 
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.]


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