Science and Poetry: A View from the Divide

The harmony between scientific language and poetics

The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development and cannot be reversed.

– Jacob Bronowski

The great English poet John Donne published An Anatomy of the World in 1611, one year after Galileo’s first accounts of his work with the telescope appeared. The poem was probably commissioned as a funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury, who died at age 14, the daughter of a wealthy London landowner. But that loss is not the only spiritual dislocation the poem commemorates. The universe suddenly had been peppered with 10 times the stars that had been there before. The perception of the Earth’s place in that expanded (though not yet expanding) universe had been thrown into metaphysical revolution. Donne was not convinced by the new theories of Copernicus and Brahe placing the sun at the center and the Earth as merely a whirling outlier, but he took them seriously enough that one can feel his inner sense reeling. An excerpt of the poem goes like this:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new …
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone …

Part of his task as a poet was to integrate this new information about the nature of reality with his beliefs and emotions, to give a voice to his very process of confusion, his struggle for equilibrium in a newly unstable world. It is difficult to imagine a conceptual change more profound than the one experienced during the first century of modern science. The Copernican Revolution meant that people could no longer trust their senses. The experience of observing the sun circle around the Earth, as one might continue to witness every day, was no longer the truth. What then could be the value of the senses, of experience, after one has learned that the truth requires tests, measurement and collective scrutiny?

That shift in Earthlings’ fundamental sense of place may not seem like a big deal now. We have had a few centuries to get used to living with its psychic disjunction. But science (along with its headstrong, profiteering offspring technology) has not slowed down in presenting artists with destabilizing new realities. As we race toward the millennium, the dizzying changes in chaos and quantum and genome theories, in the neurophysics of the brain and the biotechnology of reproduction, and in the search for the Theory of Everything, can send the amateur science-watcher into a state of permanent vertigo. Indeed, I am surprised at how few contemporary artists, and in particular poets, have captured that sense of reeling. Certainly there are some–A.R. Ammons, Richard Kenney, Pattiann Rogers, James Merrill, Diane Ackerman, Miroslav Holub, May Swenson, Jorie Graham and Loren Eiseley all have made footholds in the shifting terrain.

Nevertheless, the view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of fact; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well wrought urns, and more and more like the misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet.

In my high school biology notebook, which I keep with the few artifacts of my youth that continue to interest me, among the drawings in meticulous colored pencil of the life cycles of diploblastic coelenterata and hermaphroditic annelids, is a simple schematic of an unspecified point in human history at which science and religion took separate paths as ways to understand the world. I still can picture my biology teacher with his waxy crewcut and a sport jacket standing at the blackboard explaining the schism as simply as if it were an intersection on a highway. What could be tested and measured took the road of science, he said, and the unknown took the other. It is the drawing I remember most keenly because it seemed to me, even then, puzzling. How could the great questions about the nature of existence be separated into subjects, professions, vocabularies that had little to say to one another? Wasn’t everyone, wasn’t all knowledge and ignorance, joined by the simple desire to know the physical world, to learn how “I” got to be a part of it and to make some meaning out of our collective existence? How would the world look, I wondered, if one could see it from a point prior to that split?

Illustration by Anna Hall

I was hooked. Science became for me, not the precinct of facts, but the place where the most interesting questions were asked. I knew that no matter how much the professional rigor of science demanded objectivity, there would always be the curiosity and bewilderment of a human being hiding somewhere in the data. And though decades would pass before I heard the name Heisenberg, I already began to sense what I would later read: “even in science the object of research is no longer nature itself, but man’s investigation of nature.”

That year for the school science fair I conducted an experiment on white mice to see if they would get skin cancer from tobacco. I distilled the smoke of cigarettes into a vile black paste and pasted it on their pink depilatoried backs. For the control, I used a known carcinogen, benzanthracene, I believe. I kept the cages in the cellar playroom of my family’s home, tucked on top of the piano. All of my subjects developed lesions. I was a smoker at the time (a fact that did not favorably impress the fair’s judges). After the fair, my biology teacher, also a smoker, helped me etherize my charges. And that’s about the extent of my career as a scientist–a far cry from the lofty questions that had spurred my interest. The experience led, 20 years later, to the poem “Science,” in which I began to discover the mythology of science as a guiding force in our civilization, a force like that of ancient gods, capable of generating both transforming hope and abject humility, a discipline that explores both the nature of reality and the nature of ourselves.

It is the mythological significance of science that continues to attract me as a poet, not simply the guiding stories and metaphors–“The Big Bang,” “The Tangled Bank” and “The Neural Jungle”–but also the questions that drive scientific endeavor, the ambiguities and uncertainties it produces. No one with a television can fail to perceive that current scientific events play an prominent role in American culture, whether we understand the events or not. The incredible staying power of “Star Trek,” in all its combinations and permutations and spinoff subculture, attests to this. Where will those wacky intergalactic science nerds leads us next? But actual science events–news of research, for example, with the Hubble space telescope, the genome mapping project, biogenetic engineering or the extinction of species–meets more than its share of the public’s hostility and skepticism toward authority of any stripe. Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists’ warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their skepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist’s prodding, “Well, we just don’t know the answer to that question.”

The public’s skepticism stems from other sources. Everyone knows all too well that an expert can be found (and paid) to take any scientific position that will support the claim of a special (likely corporate) interest. Coupled with this, the public is generally ignorant about the most basic science concepts. In a 1995 study fewer than 10 percent of U.S. adults could describe a molecule, only 20 percent could minimally define DNA, and slightly fewer than half knew that Earth rotates around the sun once a year. Lacking basic science literacy, one is unable to assess whether or not an expert opinion is persuasive. The capacity to appreciate such tropes as “the selfish gene,” “punctuated equilibrium,” “the greenhouse effect” or “cascading extinctions” is beyond hope.

What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don’t know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, “the incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of science or art is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves both physicists and poets.” Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

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. As a friend from across the divide has confirmed, even over there the condition of “journal-induced narcolepsy” is all too well known. The flourishing of literary science writers, including Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, E.O. Wilson, Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Stephen Jay Gould, Gary Paul Nabhan, Evelyn Fox Keller, Natalie Angier, David Quammen, Stephen Hawken, Terry Tempest Williams, and Robert Michael Pyle, attests to the fruitfulness of harvesting this vocabulary, of finding means other than the professional journal for communicating the experience of doing science. I mean, in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints–for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one’s findings. Ethnobotanist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that “narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal’s life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.”

Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. The challenge for a poet is not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one’s mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own backyard. I subscribe to Science News to foster that process, not for total comprehension, but to pick up fibers and twigs, so to speak, that I might tuck into the nest of my imagination.
Here is a recent poem of mine that operates on this principle, a poem that pokes fun at some of the rather curious practices of my naturalist friends, while praising the deeper longing that motivates them:


When the naturalists
see a pile of scat,
they speed toward it
as if a rare orchid
bloomed in their path.
They pick apart
the desiccated turds,
retrieving a coarse
black javelina hair
or husk of pinon nut
as if unearthing gems.
They get down on their knees
to nose into flowers
a micron wide–belly flowers,
they say, because that’s
what you get down on
to see them. Biscuitroot,
buffalo gourd, cryptogams
to them are hints of
some genetic memory
fossilized in their brains,
an ancient music they try
to recall because,
although they can’t quite
hear the tune, they know
if they could sing it
that even their own wild
rage and lust and death
terrors would seem
as beautiful as the
endolithic algae
that releases nitrogen
into rocks so that
junipers can milk them.

I will leave the analysis, both literary and psychological, to the critics. What pleases me about this poem (other than the fact that I managed to use both “cryptogam” and “endolithic” in a single poem) is the way that an interesting fact (that rock-dwelling algae are a major source of nutrient for junipers growing in rimrock country) becomes a metaphor for inner, meditative aspects of the naturalists’ work. As Leo Kadanoff wrote, “it is an experience like no other experience I can describe, the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that’s happened in his or her mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature.” And so it is with poets.

But science and poetry, when each discipline is practiced with integrity, use language in a fundamentally different manner. Both disciplines share the attempt to find a language for the unknown, to develop an orderly syntax to represent accurately some carefully seen aspect of the world. Both employ language in a manner more distilled than ordinary conversation. Both, at their best, use metaphor and narrative to make unexpected connections. But, as Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub points out, “for the sciences, words are an auxiliary tool.” Science–within the tradition of its professional literature–uses language for verification and counts on words to have a meaning so specific that they will not be colored by feelings and biases. Science uses language as if it were another form of measurement–exact, definitive and logical. The unknown, for science, is in nature. Poetry uses language itself as the object–as Valery said, “poems are made with words not ideas”–and counts on the imprecision of words to create accidental meanings and resonances. The unknown, for poetry, is in language. Each poem is an experiment to see if language can convey a shapely sense of the swarm of energy buzzing through the mind. The elegance and integrity of a scientific theory has to do with the exclusion of subjective, emotional factors. The elegance and integrity of a poem is created, to a great extent, by its tone, the literary term used to describe the emotional hue of a poem conveyed by the author’s style. The aim of scientific communication is to present results to the reader, preferably results that could be obtained by another researcher following the same procedures; the aim of poetry is to produce a subjective experience, one that could be obtained through no other means than the unique arrangement of elements that make up the poem. Perhaps, among scientific specialties, the work of evolutionary biologists comes closest to that of poets, because its object of study (the biological past) is intangible, its method narrative: to tell the story of life on earth.

While the two disciplines employ language in different ways, they are kindred in their creative process. W.I.B. Beveridge, a British animal pathologist, has written several useful books about the mental procedures that lead to new ideas, whether in science, art or any other imaginative enterprise. “Most discoveries that break new ground,” he asserts, “are by their very nature unforeseeable.” The process is not purely rational, but dependent upon chance, intuition and imagination. He analyzes the part that chance plays by delineating three different types of discovery in which it is a vital factor: intuition from random juxtaposition of ideas, which is an entirely mental process; eureka intuition, which results from interaction of mental activity with the external world; and serendipity, which is found externally without an active mental contribution.

Random intuition links apparently unconnected ideas or information to form a new, meaningful relationship. It is like those children’s books with the pages split in half. You combine a lumberjack’s torso with a ballerina’s legs, and–presto–a chimera is born. Eureka intuition is best represented by two classic examples. While visiting the baths, Archimedes suddenly awoke to a significant principle that would enable him to measure the volume of an object based upon the amount of water it displaced. At the time he had been wrestling with a royal problem. The ruler Hiero suspected that he had been cheated by the goldsmith who had crafted his crown. Archimedes’ job was to determine the volume of the crown, so as to learn, from its weight, whether or not it had been made of pure gold. The Roman architect Vitruvius recounts the eureka moment of Archimedes’ discovery:

When he went down into the bathing pool he observed that the amount of water which flowed outside the pool was equal to the amount of his body that was immersed. Since this fact indicated the method of explaining the case, he did not linger, but moved with delight he leapt out of the pool, and going home naked, cried aloud that he had found exactly what he was seeking. For as he ran he shouted in Greek: eureka, eureka.

The second classic example is that of Isaac Newton who watched an apple fall from a tree and saw in its motion the same force that governs the moon’s attraction to the earth. Eureka intuitions occur, Beveridge explains, when one “seeks random stimulation from outside the problem,” and they “evoke the exclamation ‘I have found it!'”

In serendipity one finds something one had not been looking for: an unusual event, a curious coincidence, an unexpected result to an experiment. The term was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 after an ancient fairy tale that told of the three Princes of Serendip. “They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of . . . you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for ever comes under this description.” Examples of serendipity are Columbus finding the New World when he was seeking the Orient, and Fleming discovering penicillin when mould accidentally grew on his discarded staphylococcus culture plates. For discoveries to be made by serendipity, more is required than luck. Beveridge emphasizes that “accidents and sagacity” are involved: one must be keenly observant, adventuresome, ready to change one’s mind or one’s goal.

I think of poetry as a means to study nature, as is science. Not only do many poets find their subject matter and inspiration in the natural world. But the poem’s enactment is itself a study of wildness, since art is the materialization of the inner life, the truly wild territory that evolution has given us to explore. Poetry is a means to create order and form in a field unified only by chaos; it is an act of resistance against the second law of thermodynamics that says, essentially, that everything in the universe is running out of steam. And if language is central to human evolution, as many theorists hold, what better medium could be found for studying our own interior jungle? Because the medium of poetry is language, no art (or science) can get closer to embodying the uniqueness of a human consciousness. While neuroscientists studying human consciousness may feel hampered by their methodology because they never can separate the subject and object of their study, the poet works at representing both subject and object in a seamless whole and, therefore, writes a science of the mind.

I find such speculation convincing, which is probably why I became a poet and not a scientist. I could never stop violating the most basic epistemological assumption of science: that we can understand the natural world better if we become objective. Jim Armstrong, writing in a recent issue of Orion, puts his disagreement with this assumption and its moral implications more aggressively:

Crudely put, a phenomenon that does not register on some
instrument is not a scientific phenomenon. So if the
modern corporation acts without reference to ‘soul,’ it
does so guided by scientific principles–maximizing the
tangibles (profit, product output) that it can measure,
at the expense of the intangibles (beauty, spiritual
connectedness, sense of place) that it cannot …

Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry. In many respects we cannot enter one another’s territory. The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations. But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality.

One danger to our collective well-being is that language continues to become more specialized within professional disciplines to the extent that we become less and less able to understand one another across the many divides, and the general public becomes less and less willing to try to understand what any of the experts are saying.

Writing the Lowell lectures at Harvard in 1925, Alfred North Whitehead foresaw the dangers of specialization. In his work on the metaphysical foundations of science, Science and the Modern World, the mathematician cautioned that with increasing scientific and technological refinements

“the specialized functions of the community are performed better and more progressively, but the generalized direction lacks vision. The progressivism in detail only adds to the danger produced by the feebleness of coordination … in whatever sense you construe the meaning of community … a nation, a city, a district, an institution, a family or even an individual … The whole is lost in one of its aspects.”

The whole that we are losing is the belief in the integrity of life. We may have confidence in the earth’s fecundity, its cleverness in reinventing life even after cataclysmic extinction spasms. But we are coming to suspect that the future of humanity is a detail that is at odds with the well-being of the whole. “If present trends continue,” Beveridge wrote in 1980, “only about one per cent of the Earth’s surface will remain in its natural state by the turn of the century and a large proportion of the animal species will be doomed to extinction.” Civilization is speeding up the process of evolution so fiercely that species counting on their genes to keep up lose ground as fast as we either claim or ruin it.

In addition to widespread species loss, the planet is experiencing widespread loss of cultures and languages. Jared Diamond, in a 1993 article, wrote that at the present rate of loss the world’s 6,000 modern languages could be reduced within a century or two to just a few hundred. He estimates that it takes over a million speakers for a language to be secure. The majority of languages are “little” ones having around 5,000 speakers, and they are fostered by geographic isolation. The Americas at the time of the Conquest had 1,000 languages; Diamond speculates that there may have been tens of thousands of languages spoken before the expansion of farmers began around 8,000 years ago. As remote regions become less remote, the little languages erode. Since each language represents not merely a vocabulary and set of syntactical rules, but a unique way of seeing the world, these losses diminish our collective heritage.

Yet one can take some heart that specialized vocabularies within the large languages are burgeoning, and in no field are they doing so with more gusto than in science, providing fresh instruments for seeing the world. And as Whitehead wrote, “a fresh instrument serves the same purpose as foreign travel; it show things in unusual combinations. The gain is more than a mere addition; it is a transformation.”

For both science and poetry the challenges lie in taking on the complexity of the most interesting questions (formal, technical, theoretical and moral) within our fields without losing connection with people outside of our fields. The idea of poetry with which I grew up was, I suppose, a particularly American one–that is, as an escape from the burdens of community into extreme individuality, a last bastion of rugged individualism from which one could fire salvos at an ever more remote, corrupt and inane culture. Historically, however, the voice of poetry has not always been construed to be the heightened voice of individualism. Among the original forms of humanity, art was unified with prayer and healing science. Poems and songs were manifestations of a collective voice, of spells and visions, of spirits returning from the dead. Such poetry transcended individualism, rather than celebrating it. We may have gained much in terms of technical and artistic refinement through our specialized disciplines, but we have lost the belief that we can speak a common language or sing a common healing song.

If poetry today needs anything, it needs to move away from its insular subjectivity, its disdain for politics and culture and an audience beyond its own aesthetic clique. A poem reaches completion in finding an audience. The challenge today is to reach an audience not comprised solely of members of one’s own tribe. We must write across the boundaries of difference. A poet finds a voice by holding some sense of audience in mind during the process of composition. It is one of the questions most frequently asked of poets: For whom do you write? And the answers range from writing for posterity to writing for (or against) one’s literary predecessors, from writing to an intimate other, to, as Charles Wright once said, writing for better part of oneself.

I write with an inclusive sense of audience in mind, hoping to cross the boundaries that separate people from one another. I would like to write a poem that other poets would appreciate for its formal ingenuity, that scientists would appreciate for its accuracy in attending to the phenomenal world, that the woman at the check-out counter at Safeway would appreciate for its down-to-earth soul, and that I would appreciate for its honesty in examining what troubles and moves me.

The great biology-watcher, Lewis Thomas, once raised the challenge:

I wish that poets were able to give straight answers to straight questions, but that is like asking astrophysicists to make their calculations on their fingers, where we can watch the process. What I would like to know is: how should I feel about the earth, these days? Where has all the old nature gone? What became of the wild, writhing, unapproachable mass of the life of the world, and what happened to our panicky excitement about it?

And if science today needs anything, it needs to move out of its insular objectivity, its pretense that it deals only with facts, not with ethical implications or free-market motives. What science creates is not only fact but metaphysics–it tells us what we believe about the nature of our existence, and it fosters ever new relationships with the unknown, thereby stirring the deepest waters of our subjectivity. The critics of science are wrong in saying that because of its requirements for objectivity, rigor, and analysis science has robbed us of wonder and reverence. The methods may at times be deadening, the implications spiritually and morally unsettling, the technology frightening, but nowhere can one find more sources of renewal than in the marvels of the material world, be they stellar or cellular. As Karl Popper put it, “materialism has transcended itself” in unveiling mystery after mystery of process and velocity and transformation in even the dumbest rock.

The problem is the speed at which scientific knowledge is growing and the widening distance between those who have a grasp of that expansion and those who have not a clue as to its significance. During the past 300 years, E.O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden point out, science has undergone exponential growth, meaning the larger its size, the faster it grows. In 1665 there was one scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London; now there are 100,000. In the 17th century there were a handful of scientists in the world; now there are 300,000 in the U.S. alone, and scientific knowledge doubles every 10 years.

J. Robert Oppenheimer–theoretical physicist, head of the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, opponent to the nation’s postwar nuclear policy–was a man who had good cause to contemplate the ethical implications of scientific advance. In 1959 he delivered an eloquent talk titled “Tradition and Discovery” to the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies, in which he spoke of

the imbalance between what is known to us as a community, what is common knowledge, what we take for granted with each other, and in each other, what is known by man; and on the other hand, all the rest, that is known only by small special groups, by the specialized communities, people who are interested and dedicated, who are involved in the work of increasing human knowledge and human understanding but are not able to put it into the common knowledge of man, not able to make it something of which we and our neighbors can be sure that we have been through together, not able to make of it something which, rich and beautiful, is the very basis of civilized life.  … That is why the core of our cognitive life has this sense of emptiness. It is because we learn of learning as we learn of something remote, not concerning us, going on on a distant frontier; and things that are left to our common life are untouched, unstrengthened and unilluminated by this enormous wonder about the world which is everywhere about us, which could flood us with light, yet which is only faintly, and I think rather sentimentally perceived.

Another point of contact: sentimentality is the enemy of both science and poetry.

I have in recent years been interested in the idea of the sequence, both as a poetic form, and metaphorically, as the word is used to describe both the life-cycle of a star and the arrangement of genes within the chromosomes. The poetic sequence, as a contemporary form, aims for a kind of fragmented connectedness in a long series of poems or a combination of poetic lines and prose; perhaps it exemplifies the idea that within chaos there is an inherent propensity for order. My book, The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence, was inspired by the migration behavior of monarch butterflies and is an extended meditation on intelligence in nature and the often troubled relationship our species has with itself and others. This excerpt will stand as my evidence that careful examination of fact yields easily to contemplation of the miraculous, that a mode of questioning we associate with science can become a nest for poetic delight:

A caterpillar spits out a sac of silk
where it lies entombed while its genes
switch on and off like lights
on a pinball machine. If every cell
contains the entire sequence
constituting what or who the creature is,
how does a certain clump of cells
know to line up side by side
and turn into wings, then shut off
while another clump blinks on
spilling pigment into the creature’s
emerald green blood, waves of color
flowing into wingscales–black, orange,
white–each zone receptive only to the color
it’s destined to become. And then
the wings unfold, still wet from their making,
and for a dangerous moment hold steady
while they stiffen and dry, the double-
layered wing a proto-language–one side
warning enemies, the other luring mates.
And then the pattern-making cells go dormant,
and the butterfly has mastered flight.

In ecology the term “edge effect” refers to a place where a habitat is changing–where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field. These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies. We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identity. Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once. Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences. Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades and a little more whole. And poets are, or at least wish they could be, as Robert Kelly has written, “the last scientists of the Whole.”

Mastery for human beings is no mere matter of being the animals that we are; we will always push the limits of what we are because it is our nature to do so. The human soul is an aspect of being that comprehends no boundary, no edge. And while the world’s nature will always remain evanescent to us, no matter what we do to pin it to the page, we will always find new instruments, such as electron microscopes and literature, with which to gauge the invisible.

About the Author

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Alison Hawthorne Deming works as director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Her previous books include Science and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1994), which won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy  of American Poets, The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), Temporary Homelands: Essays on Nature, Spirit, and Place (Picador USA, 1996), Stairway to Heaven (Penguin 2016) and Death Valley: Painted Light, a collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom (George F.

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