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Poetry and Science.

Such is Nature-description as referring to a class, an action, a quality, and an individual substance. It is this very [descriptionl that rules supreme in scientific treatises; and in poetry too the same [type of description] is required.

-Kavyadarsa of Dandin 6th century.

Not only are poetry and science both theories of the world, they are also worlds in and of themselves, from the world of Herbert's Mr. Cogito to Winograd's Blocks World of early AI. And in so much as genres themselves supply us with meaning even before we get to the actual information, what do we do with the fact that, on a linguistic level, poetry and science are exactly the same thing? Much has been made of humanists' abuse of and misunderstandings about certain scientific ideas that result in the portrait of science as a cold-eyed discourse. But then what to do with, to borrow a phrase from Lyn Hejinian, the cold of poetry?

Both science and poetry wrestle with the "out there" using propositions composed of language. Maybe it's not a question of how attentive a scientist should be to poetry or vice versa, but rather a question of that fact that they are possibly the same thing, the same genre, the same iterations of epistemology and ontology and biology. To use the Linnean binomial "musca domestica," whether in an article in Nature or as the title of a book (as poet Christine Hume recently has), involves the same register of abstraction, though possibly with different ends in mind. But it's the means--subject matter subjected to language--that we're interested in.

Was Goethe's pursuit to find the intermaxillary bone in humans a scientific one or a poetical one? Both. It's in the language that he used. It's in the primacy of observation--the center of all good science and poetry and poetic science and scientific poetry. Science written as poetry uses the same raw materials as science written as science. "The world," as Aldous Huxley says, "is poetical intrinsically and what it means is simply itself." A poem, in some sense, is an 'organic unity' that does not point beyond itself--a poem is ruined if its form is changed. What it says cannot be conveyed by any other means than in poetry. "No phenomenon explains itself of itself," says Goethe. It must be supplied with, among other things, a literariness through which the phenomena will come to light. The poetic language is an aspect of Goethe's scientific methodology, and, in some respects, the science cannot be lifted out of Goethe's language without doing harm to the ideas. Style and scientific purpose are fused, in tur n giving weight to the science and emphasizing the style.

In Goethe ambiguity is a viable intellectual and scientific tool. Certain investigations stop at the moment of apercu, and without fully establishing the link between observation and thought, an observation is held in a moment of poetic suspension that awaits another reader's perceptions to give it closure. The non-instrumentality of language does not preclude an efficacious science since, as Goethe observed, "perception is itself a thinking." Language proceeding perception need not be an account or message but merely suggest or act in the manner of perception itself.

There was no Golden Age when poetry and science were considered the same thing--but in order to begin again to speak of the relationship between these two efforts at describing the world and creating new worlds, we must forget about C. P. Snow's "two cultures." Unfortunately, The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, a collection of essays edited by Kurt Brown (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2001) predicates its project on the existence of two cultures; also, many of the essays (all written by non-scientist poets, with the exception of the immunologist Miroslav Holub and Forrest Gander, who received a BS in Geology) subscribe to the naive and ultimately false dichotomy between 'objectivity' of science and the 'subjectivity' of poetry. In her essay "The Two Cultures at the End of the Twentieth Century," Kelly Cherry writes that "the challenge of using science in poetry lies in using it in a way that results in stronger poetry, a poetry that incorporates as much as possible of the real world" (27). The assumptions beh ind such a statement do a disservice to both poetry and to science--as if science were the arbiter of the "real" and poetry its dreamy cousin needing to be brought back down to earth. Cherry also imagines a world in which scientists believe that literature is "merely an ornament or a therapy." I have yet to meet a scientist who attests to this idea.

Other essays, like Alice Fulton's on "fractal poetry," Daniel Tobin's analysis of A. R. Ammons's "chaotic" poetics, and much in Paul Lake's essay "The Shape of Poetry," are examples of what Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont call "fashionable nonsense." These authors co-opt scientific--specifically mathematical--ideas and misapply them to the realm of language and poetry. (It is telling that there are few references to actual scientific texts: most books mentioned are books of popular science, like James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science, or books of science studies, like N. Katherine Hayles's The Cosmic Web and Chaos Bound--books that scientists, fairly, bemoan for getting the science of things wrong). Though Fulton creates an evocative analogy between fractal geometry and poetic form, she should stop at analogy, rather then use the mathematical to legitimize the poetic. One need only think of the Oulipo to understand that poetry does not need math to legitimize its own claims, but that math and poetry share th e same potentialities, that poetry is an act of mathematical probabilities and constraints. It should be a source of alarm that most poets latch onto misunderstandings of uncertainty, fractal geometry, and chaos in order to legitimize a "postmodern" aesthetic. To say, as Tobin does, that Ammons's "poems are constructed like huge attractors that perform the tensive union of the one and the many in a manner that would imitate...the deep structure of physical reality" (149) is, ultimately, to sayvery little about science, or poetry for that matter. It merely recaps the usual cliche: "order in chaos."

However, there is much to admire about Holub's essay, "Poetry and Science," reprinted here. Jonathan Holden's "Poetry and Mathematics," Stephanie Strickland's essay on Hypertext, and Lake's discussion of Hopkins stand out in this crowd. Also, Forrest Gander's essay, written in Goethean aphorisms, makes no claims other than the following: "Neither good poems nor good science simply corroborate the assumption of presumed values" (40). This ought to have been the starting point for this very mixed collection, which abounds with tenuous assumptions, presumptions, and nonsense. Rather than look for bridges between the "chasm" of poetry and science, better for a book on science and poetry to begin with the idea that poetry and science must--and have and do--share traits in order to tell the truths they want to tell. Good science, just like a good poem, cannot be paraphrased but must be experienced.
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Author:Elshtain, Eric
Publication:Chicago Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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