August 31, 2006

New Scientist Poetry

On my way back from Düsseldorf, I indulged myself with my new addiction: New Scientist magazine. Imagine my shock when fuck me if there isn’t an article by Simon Armitage about the relationship between science and poetry. It stands out immediately because every other article is characterised by depth analysis whereas this reads like it has slipped in by accident and should have been in the Reader’s Digest. “Science by another name” as it is called, despite claiming to explore the links, starts out with a first column of personal anecdote demonstrating that poets really are as disconnected from scientific thinking as their stereotype. He concludes with a short poem:

“Being more in tune with the feel of things than science and facts, we knew that the tyre had travelled too fast for its size and mass, and broken through some barrier of speed, outrun the act of being driven, steered, and at that moment gone beyond itself towards some other sphere, and disappeared.”

(I took the liberty of removing the poem’s line endings just show it is not a poem at all, just a sentence, with no distinguishing poetic artifice). Putting aside the formal, it has no trace of relevance to a discussion of science and poetry, and in combination with what went before only confirms the stereotypes ‘science’ readers will probably have of poets. Armitage compounds the situation by summing up with observations about the relationship. Apparently “Science is besotted with perfection. [whereas] Poetry …goes out of its way to describe every occasion in a new and fresh and surprising way.” The example he included failed that criteria then. “A successful poem brings a kind of animal comprehension [yes this is supposed to be someone able to fashion language art!]…from a common pool of experience.” Animal comprehension being a pretty daft idea to offer up in a discussion with science, but Science (and poetry) are then summed up as dealing with ‘likeness, similitude and equivalence” As a poet I’d say that is definitely not what poetry deals with, and I expect scientists would question this from their perspective. I work regularly with scientific language and have worked in science collaborations and I would say that there is a surjective (so use a mathematical term) relationship between poetry and science, which is in language, usefulness and enquiry. Putting Armitage (and the other British establishment ‘poets’) aside as historically marginal (though damagingly hegemonic), the congruence of 21st Century poetry to science is in theoretical speculation, experimental enquiry and the creation of formal and linguistic tools that make these investigations useful (not for animal comprehension) for thinking, growing, and resisting.

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