The Poetics of Science
By Associate Editor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky
Only fifty years after Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, or the “Starry Messenger,” which gave the first account of his telescopic observations of the moon and four satellites around Jupiter, his discoveries became a crucial metaphor in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost:
He scarce had ceas’t when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
How does science inspire the literary imagination? Can science writing be a literary art? In this special issue of KR, we explore the ways in which cutting-edge science becomes the inspiration for—and subject of—the literary imagination. Since C. P. Snow delivered his 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” it has been a cultural commonplace to imagine that science and literature speak two distinct and incompatible languages, as if poetry could have nothing to say to the analytical mind, while science could never move us to wonder. If only Snow had bothered to ask the poets, or the scientists. He would have found poets working late in their laboratories and scientists polishing their verses.
“The brain has always grasped itself, / sent current crying / to the heart’s back door,” Leah Falk writes in her poem “Turing at Lascaux.” Science writing isn’t only about science: it’s also about the way we think and the ways in which that process of thought is shaped by history, culture, ideology, even the language in which we express those ideas. What makes poetry different, in Falk’s poem, is its access to emotion: the way thought cries out at the heart’s back door. So should we trust this traditional distinction between the rational process of science and poetry’s appeals to emotion? Is poetry just the voice crying in the heart’s wilderness, as some scientists might dismissively claim? Is science, as some poets argue, just Satan’s highly polished shield?
If that were true, what are we to make of an essay like Jill Sisson Quinn’s “Begetting,” which gazes with a naturalist’s probing eye at both a microhabitat—a moss-covered log full of salamander eggs—and the fallacies that can lead mind and heart astray? Or Helen Betya Rubinstein’s delightful “On Not Eating the Marshmallow,” which transforms a famous psychological experiment on impulse control in children into a meditation on desire: “The marshmallow of more sleep. The marshmallow of another drink. The marshmallow of sex. The marshmallow of love. The marshmallow of stay with me. The marshmallow of leave.”
Reading submissions for this special issue was an exercise in what KR Editor David Lynn describes as “surprise and delight,” discovering—like a scientist—a sudden sunburst of beauty among the fields of data, a satisfying elegance in the math. Check out Bruce Snider’s lovely poem “Chemistry,” or Kelly Cherry’s “Radiation,” which helps us to see the ways in which our own bodies become “zones of alienation.” Or spend an hour with Anne Valente’s powerful story “Good-bye, Saint Louis,” which winds together the worst moments of our recent history with a young girl’s impulse to collect, to preserve, to comprehend. In these poems and stories, what inspires the mind also stirs the heart, while it is only through the mind that we can understand the complex chemistry that can send emotion coursing through every cell in our bodies.
In conjunction with this special issue, KR will publish more fascinating poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama inspired by science in its online journal—KROnline—in addition to hosting an online discussion of writers, editors, and scientists on the question of what makes science writing literary. Join us at www.kenyonreview.org/poetics-of-science for this provocative conversation.
On the Cover
Suzanne Stryk has exhibited her conceptual nature paintings in solo shows throughout the country, including the National Academy of Sciences (DC), the Taubman Museum of Art (Roanoke, VA), and Gallery 180, the Illinois Institute of Art (Chicago). Her work is in the Smithsonian’s Art and Flight Collection (DC), the David Brower Center (Berkeley, CA), and the D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson Art Collection (Dundee, Scotland). Stryk’s Genomes and Daily Observations series appears in the Viewing Program at the Drawing Center (NYC). She is the recipient of a George Sugarman Foundation grant and a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship.