Alex’s Favorite Poems
by Alex Gilmore, Lifeology Summer Intern
I have chosen three different poems that I hope you will enjoy, and that might serve as inspiration for you to attempt the July challenge of the month to write a science poem for yourself.
1. ‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’
The first poem I have chosen is ‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’ by American poet Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892). It was published in his 1865 poetry collection ‘Drum-Taps’.
The poem is written from the perspective of a student who is disinterested in the analytical study of astronomy, and prefers to look up and the stars in silence, on their own terms.
This might seem a surprising poem for a science-lover to choose, since it does not paint science in a particularly favourable light. But oddly, the way the student in the poem feels about science is a bit like how I have often felt about poetry.
My first experiences of poetry were in the classroom. In preparation for intimidating exams, I would analyse and interpret what the poems we were assigned really meant. I saw it as trying to decipher what the poet was trying to do; trying to find the correct interpretation. There was a right and a wrong, I thought, just like trying to solve for X.
But sometimes, if I am honest, I didn’t get much from reading a poem. No covert hidden deeper meaning jumped out at me. This would lead me to think I’m not clever enough to “get it” and feel disconnected and even intimidated by poetry.
Since then, however, I have stumbled upon poems in my own time. I realised I enjoy a poem in a different way if I’m not trying to understand and analyse it. I’m just feeling it, and letting the words sink in, and thinking about how I feel when I read it.
I “wander off by myself” like the student in the poem. Where does it make my mind wander? What does it remind me of from my own life? Maybe it’s okay if a poem means something different to me than to other people, or even to the author. It might even take on new meanings for me on different days depending on my mood and what has been on my mind.
As a science communication student, the poem makes me wonder if the problem for the student protagonist is really about the way the astronomer analyzes the stars, or if it is about how the astronomy is communicated? If it were communicated in a different way, might the science add to the magic of the stars?
Does knowing the proofs, mechanisms and calculations behind nature make you see more or less? It has often been argued that analyzing nature destroys its beauty. But some, like theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, have made the counter-argument that science in fact reveals hidden beauty that couldn’t be otherwise seen. To me, the two poems below demonstrate how this is possible.
You can listen to Feynman share his views on the topic in a beautifully animated video shown at The World Science Festival.
The second poem I have selected is written by a modern, living poet Marie Howe who was named the state poet for New York in 2012. It’s called ‘Singularity’, and it was inspired by Stephen Hawking following his death.
This poem touches on science; from the geology of rock formation, to the biology of human evolution and even to the physics of the big bang. But It is nothing like a science lesson. It isn’t laborious to read, and the language is simple, thought-provoking, and human.
In April this year, a video of an animated reading of this poem was made for “The Universe in Verse”, an annual festival celebrating science and nature through poetry (which had to be online due to the pandemic). This was produced by SALT and Maria Popova, with music by Zoe Keating and illustrations by Elena Skoreyko Wagner, in what they describe as a “multi-woman labour of love”.
Having already read the poem myself, I found that listening to it being read by someone else – and brought to life by the beautiful visuals – meant the poem took on new levels of meaning. She read it slower than I had read it in my head. Where the reader paused was different to where I paused. Different words were emphasised, and I noticed details I had missed before.
Reading aloud can provide a fresh perspective. Science poets Dom Conlon and Rachel Rayner both included reading your poems aloud as one of their top tips for writing your own poem in our science poetry Q&A.
3. ‘The Stuff of Stars’
My final choice is “The Stuff of Stars”. This is a picture book aimed at children, written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Ekua Holmes.
The first page of ‘The Stuff of Stars’, found alongside more of the text on Brain Pickings.
In some ways it is similar to the above poem, ‘Singularity’. It deals with big-picture themes of the origin of life and our significance within the universe. It prompts reflection on how improbable and precious life is.
One reason I chose this poem is because it is accompanied by striking visuals. As with ‘Singularity’, it is presented alongside enticing artwork. The marbled backgrounds are abstract, dreamy and ethereal. They could be indicative of huge galaxies or stained microscopic cells, and they add to the deep sense of wonder of the words.
If you do feel inspired to try our challenge of the month and write your own science poem, be sure to check out our science poet Q&A for expert tips. You might consider reaching out to an artist, asking them to respond to the poem in a visual way.