February 12, 2008

Writing Science

Writing about web page http://www.mariopetrucci.com/

I've been talking with Mario Petrucci in recent weeks, setting up a poetry-science project. I've never been comfortable calling something by that phrase - poetry-science - because the collaborative nature of projects located in that region often define themselves by the need to erode boundaries, rather than bring two ghettoes together and watch them vye for power. A new word sometimes seems appropriate in order to acknowledge a new attempt at equal symbiosis.

So the discussions with Mario have been particularly elucidating in terms of successful or failed attempts to cohere the two. One thing Mario said that really jumped out at me was about the difficulty in writing poetry about science. You end up falling into one of two traps. The first in which the poet uses science as a metaphor - and so science becomes secondary to the poem, of an inferior status.

A good example of this is Jo Shapcott's 'Love in the Lab'. In which science and scientists are depicted as repressed and the human rises up, through, in spite of. It's a love poem rather than a science-poem. More examples in Jo's work, where science is used - reined, leashed - to serve poetry's traditional themes well.

The other trap is where poetry is harnessed to provide a conveyance for science. At its crudest, this amounts to mnemonics - SohCahToa, or similar attempts at rhythm and rhyme as an aide to memory. This enslaves poetry to the science - or worse, the education of the science. As Mario put it to me, why waste your time using poetry (i.e. adding bells and whistles, as Peter Blegvad puts it to me so well in discussing so many other modes of writing), when a lucid, clear academic style can be as effective?

David Morley threw another example at me a couple of weeks ago. Heavy Water, the film version of Mario's long sequence of poetry about Chernobyl's reactor, is beautiful, combining documentary footage, collage and actor-delivered renditions of Mario's poetry. At the end, the narration lists - scientifically - the half-lives of various metals, ending with uranium. This, to David, was the most moving part of the film and it consisted of 'raw scientific fact'. I'd argue otherwise (a step further?): this was raw scientific poetry, the point where embellishment falls away and science = poetry, a = b; the one becomes a metaphor for the other and vice versa, to create something new, a product in the imagination. One that is moral, in this context; and moving; and grows beyond its own words, through context and delivery - repetition being the most obvious of the poetic devices employed.

So, maybe this is the territory in which poetry and science combine as equals. That in which the poetry in science is recognised; and the science in poetry, (though I'll admit to not having demonstrated this latter in the examples and perhaps I'm leaning unjustifiably on a notion that when the two are used in equal balance, they become interchangeable). Or to put it another way, which is where I first encountered this theme working with the Poetry Society on Poetry and Science: the point at which science and poetry (scientists and poets) cohere in their mission to understand the world, simultaneously rational and irrational.

Sooner said than done, as usual.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. hey george, i’ve been trying to write a form of poetry that walks that tightrope between empirical science and poetic exression…i know this isn’t totally relevant, but i’ve been trying to express a form of poetic music that sits between definition and subjectivity and i’m curios to see what you think…apologies for the misnomer of ‘sound poem’, i only called it that for lacking a better label. i’m genuinely interested in the point at which poetic symbolism and technical language collide (i’m working on a poem that is totally ’ sampled’ from an essay on the nature of ‘sampling’)...most of my writing is birthed in expressing sounds…any help is welcome.

    14 Feb 2008, 05:02

  2. You might be interested in


    And it’s sister productions -




    Coming to Warwick later this term. Tangle is explicitly a science play, and the playwrite (Chris Thorpe) is big on science and theatre.

    20 Feb 2008, 11:40

  3. dora

    hi, I have been working on a story but i find it difficult to express the loud noise of a honking car-can you help?

    27 Mar 2008, 11:49

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