Despite increasingly sophisticated and easily available acoustic and visual distractions, despite an incipient but growing aspiration toward robotic standards of performance, despite a proud faith in science and rationalism commonly opposed to lyricism as its contrary, the taste for poetry persists, not only as an aesthetic distraction but as a means to understand and experience the world. While some may disdain poetry as a futile activity left to those dreamy cicadas among us, for a significant number of others poetry emerges as a means of understanding life with more immediacy and greater breadth than science or philosophy can afford.
One might say that poetry is an offspring of youth, a youth that fundamentally has not to do with the number of years but much to do with temperament. It springs from a longing to feel and understand differently and better. It is a quest to decrypt the universe by following the wild paths of experimentation without fear, without prejudice, and with a ruthless honesty.
In this last, science and poetry may be said to be siblings, though there are obvious differences in their respective efforts. The first evolves within the realm of mathematical rigor, meticulous observation, proof testing, practical application, and development. The second evolves in the highly subjective sphere of lyrical interpretation and in the diffuse domain of inspiration. Science is a controlled effort elaborated from past and equally pragmatic restraint, while poetry, in essence, is and must be an outlaw. Nonetheless, they are similar in that they are equally fueled by that youthful energy to perceive, decipher, grasp, and deliver a harmony and a revelation.
In both, focus on a detail may trigger a broader revelation; small observations may justify a much larger inference and a more encompassing configuration. In the case of science, however, the quest is spurred on by a sense of constant incompleteness, of a perpetual “further on.” The how of the discovery may be given but never its why. Science remains a hostage to its inflexible rules of rationality. Poetry, on the other hand, may provide a sudden and complete understanding by way of its own particular magic, freeing us from our three-dimensional constraints.
Despite this fundamental difference or rather, perhaps, because of it, science and poetry have approached each other, attracted to each other’s sense of adventure and to the possible prospect of finding in each other that which they felt missing or inspiring in themselves. They have sometimes made significant incursions into each other’s territory. This mutual magnetism has come to the attention of a few who, to prove their point, have provided lists of scientists who wrote “serious” poetry and of poets who found motivation in science.
Sometimes, in fact, lyrical interpretation of the universe has shown to have spontaneous and accurate insights into the scientific realm before the scientific discovery itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s premonitory interpretation of the origin of the universe and the equivalence of time and space in his prose poem/essay “Eureka” is a famous example of such intuition. Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats (who had scientific training) were all drawn to science as a source of inspiration, the implication being that they too might accurately perceive the functioning of nature, of the universe by way of poetic perception. Going back in time, John Donne showed a similar preoccupation in his An Anatomy of The World; a Benedictine nun called Hrotsvitha wrote verse on mathematics; Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrated his interest in trigonometry in the Canterbury Tales; Ben Johnson wrote The Alchemist; John Milton approached science in Paradise Lost. Phineas Fletcher, in The Purple Island, produced an allegory of the human body and mind. Samuel Butler demonstrated his interest in astronomy in “The Elephant in The Moon.” More recent writers notably inspired by science were Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Elias Canetti who was both Nobel Prize winner in literature and a trained chemist. The list is far from exhaustive.
Scientists, for their part, have borrowed poetic language to describe and discuss famous equations by the likes of Isaac Newton, James Clark Maxwell, Albert Einstein, and Erwin Schroedinger in terms of beauty or ugliness. Such unscientific qualification, applied both to scientific relevance and to the visual quality of a formula, here related to the substance of the equation. In the initial stages of a scientific breakthrough, researchers will speak of “creativity” and of the “romance” of intuition.
The advent of quantum physics and the discovery of “oddities” challenging typical rational thinking and leading to, for example, Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, seem to have deepened the opportunities for science and poetry to cross over into each other’s domain. Indeed Nobel Prize-winning physicists have seemed notably prone to writing poetry. J. C. Maxwell won a poetry prize; Richard Feynman, Marie Curie, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Wilhelm Busch, all wrote poetry; Max Born also translated poetry from German to English; Max Planck composed songs.
Is this outreach the effect of overactive and exceptional minds seeking another way to exercise themselves, or do scientists themselves recognize an inevitable and essential bond between the poetic and the scientific mind?
Physics research and poetry writing seem indeed at times to mirror each other in the thinking process. For example, one might say that the concept of entanglement of the universe by which the physicist Erwin Schrödinger explained the connection between particles separated by any distance also describes quite precisely that impulse of poetic inspiration during which different threads of emotion suddenly recognize each other and communicate within the poet himself. In its discovery of irregularities or idiosyncrasies in the universe, quantum physics has had to reevaluate the scientific underpinnings of impregnable logic and view the universe under a more unpredictable light. By doing so, it has taken another step toward the unpredictable world of poetry, sufficiently to consider the possibility/plausibility of an elusive, even metaphysical dimension.
Will physics (and science at large) and poetry feel, then, a growing need to mingle, neither relinquishing ascendancy over the other, as the boundaries of both expand and become increasingly subtle? Will they mutually inspire each other and perhaps attain, by way of equations and words, a truth that neither can hope to convey alone: a poetic science and a scientific poetry leading to the understanding of the essence of life?
It would be an interesting if somewhat outlandish partnership. And as with all surprising matches, one may wonder cynically if it is not based on a measure of weakness and collusion to nurture an illusion. What we call understanding, intuition, inspiration may be the result of language, history, and culture, the common tools used to conceptualize. In his Truth and Method, the German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer dissects the concept of knowledge. He suggests that the words we use inevitably limit and close us off to other understandings. Therefore, a discovery, an inspiration that would be entirely free from a given cultural basis would be nearly impossible, so that one may legitimately wonder whether both poet and scientist, instead of being ignited by timeless and pure understanding in moments of revelation, are not, like most of us, conditioned by culture, by what preceded them, by their own time and ideas brewing in that particular time broth. As in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” science may close itself off to other paths and solutions through its inheritance of prior established scientific laws. And science and poetry, both progeny of the same bank of culture, may use similar semantic and conceptual paths and therefore mutually recognize their “truths” and reinforce each other.
Poetry, however, has an advantage over science in that, unlike science, it has always been free of any need of proof or a view toward practical application. It is, so to speak, its own self and for its own sake, free of the sequence of progress and therefore perhaps more apt to transform.
While we continue to live by scientific principles discovered long ago, the enthusiasm and surprise they once generated have somewhat faded, the discoveries having gradually been taken for granted. Whereas if the fascination and pleasure drawn from reading a poem were to the reader only a question of its relevance to a particular period, he or she should only be moved by poems written during or around his or her lifetime and not centuries before. But this is not the case, and a poem several centuries old can infuse one with a gut-wrenching sense of beauty and revelation. The incorruptible youth of poetry resides in an expression of freedom that relies fundamentally on the sensitivity and intuition of inspiration, rather than on paradigms of logic and proven evidence. By its law-breaking nature, poetry is compelled to create alterations, loopholes, hybrids of thought that in turn help to bring the mind to new dimensions.
The impulse to compose a poem is the urge to transform the personal experience, be it pleasurable or not, into something vastly more comprehensive; it is a profound desire to transcend the egoistic experience of I in the moment and elevate it to the ineffable. Each word, each pause wishes to “live out” a kind of unity with all consciousness. To achieve this result does not necessitate a standard progression of the poetic phrase from A to B to C. More likely, there will occur a skipping over in any direction according to the leaps of inspiration. In the best of cases, a previously invisible underlay of the visible human experience will emerge. A poem may thus give an enlightening reply to a question without any obvious process of induction or deduction, but by way of emotion in which a truth, an ideal is felt. Despite the absence of a strict format dictated by determinacy as in science, it will nonetheless irresistibly convey a reality. In fact, the genuineness of the initial emotion is essential for the poem to be recognized as successful and true. One has entered another dimension.
Over the centuries, the poet has transformed himself from magician, genealogist/historian, raconteur, musician, to warrior-poet (as typified by the samurai in Japan), to the visionary physicist of words described by Arthur Rimbaud in Les Illuminations.
Whatever poetry’s social role may have been, the value of the poet, like that of the scientist in the sphere of research, has resided in absolute honesty, in the authenticity of inspiration. Because genuine emotion is fresh by nature, composing poetry is essentially a youthful act, and the text will preserve that youth in which the initial emotion can neither dwindle nor die. This, in turn, conveys an aura of immortality to the poet that science has not quite been able to offer the scientist, however great; perhaps because, as said previously, science is rooted in the tangible and provable, to the contrary of poetry.
One may wonder with some excitement—if science and poetry continue their relationship in more systematic fashion and if science takes this relationship seriously—whether poetry might not be able to trigger an acceleration, even a mutation within the process of scientific discovery that will help humanity achieve more than just partial understanding of the universe.
Stephanie V. Sears is a French-American anthropologist, free-lance journalist, and poet with a keen layman’s interest in quantum physics. She shares her time between the United States and France.