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A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Science

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Galileo is said to have muttered when he was forced to recant the heresy that the earth was not the center of an Aristotelian universe, “E pur si muove.” – “And yet, it moves.”

Muriel Rukeyser, in her essay “The Life of Poetry’ asks the reader, “What is our ‘E pur si muove?’”

This question is in the context of her conviction that poetry and science are similar processes, in which we seek to learn the true relations of things.  And in both cases, she believes that the answers come in the form of questions.

Science is not static; the universe is not static: poetry is not static.  Each moves. And the motion of a poem is motion in time, like music.  Science is not, properly speaking, a study of objects.  The poem is not words or images, which can be separated for study; it is a series of relationships between words and images.

These are a few of the stimulating ideas from Rukeyser’s “The Life of Poetry” first published in 1949 and reprinted in 1996.  By her title she suggests that poetry is living, organic.  Poems do something in the world.

The poet and the scientist are on parallel paths.  I think Rukeyser’s ideas are supported by some of the developments in science since she wrote; the poets may be having trouble keeping up.

Archimedes, Aristotle and Earthquakes

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I’ve been thinking about the Greeks and their science, as I try to pull together a chapbook of poems on themes related to Archimedes and his lever.  Archimedes is not the only Greek scientist who intrigues me.  Aristotle is one whom I like first for his ideas on rhetoric, still the basis of many classifications on that subject, but also for the ideas described in the middle stanza of the following poem.

The Search for Order

The ancient model,
in polished brass, expressed
proportions undisturbed
by motion.  Harmonic
spheres keep turning.
Had the world such music
there would be no static
on the FM radio.

Aristotle understood:
the world beneath
the moon is set apart
from celestial, perfectly
governed spheres.
We are the spoiled core
of an ideal cosmos,
its worm-eaten pit.

Aristotle stood at
the center.  My universe
runs away at light speed,
while beneath me tectonic
plates shift, collide.
I long for balance: spheres
encircling the stillness
of mere decay.

The idea that the ground beneath our feet is unstable is not new.  I grew up in California, where earthquakes are a fact of life.  I used that as an image in an earlier poem:

Fire At The Center

My mother came home
from a course on personality
with a slip of paper:
“Your dominant emotion
is rage.”  She went on being good
and dull as plowed dirt.
Where is sure footing
when ground shifts?
The San Andreas fault
did not run under the house,
but whether it lay east
or west I could not say.
Which way would the earth tilt?

When she muttered
“Death and transfiguration!”
I heard a danger
no “Damn!” could hold.
The fluid at her core
lay ready, like crayon
melting under an iron,
to stain us both.  Her fire
never broke the surface.

And I?  The astrologer
finds Mars at the nadir,
“fire in the depth of your being.”
Eighteen years we spent
adjacent, distanced
by unacknowledged fire.
It is safer not to ask
where the fault lies.

In this poem, the shifting ground is largely metaphoric.  Although I knew about earthquakes, it was more an idea than experience: I only recall one small quake from my childhood.  I missed the big ones that later toppled the Oakland freeway and broke the walls of my cousins’ home in the mountains.  My awareness of shifting ground was not in the body.

By the time I wrote “The Search for Order” I was in a more unsteady place psychologically, a more mature understanding of grounding and groundlessness.

I decided this was a theme worth exploring further.

“The Search for Order” was published in Bibliophilos, which has published several of my poems on Greek themes.
“Fire at the Center,” first appeared in Metis, August, 1995, and is included in my chapbook, Accidents, described on the Books page.

What Use Is Metaphor?

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I believe we think in metaphor.  I’m sure I do.  All the dead metaphors lying around suggest this: melting pot, wall of separation, war on drugs, information superhighway, to mention just a few.  Many people, unfortunately, discount metaphor and this limits their thinking.

If we think in metaphor, this would be the way we think about deity, about religion.  It was reading the work of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides which first made me aware of this.  He asserts that we can only talk about God by analogy.  If we say God is good, we are only saying that this attribute of God is in some way analogous to the qualities we admire in a person we call good.  It makes sense that, if we are creatures, our Creator is beyond our understanding.  Our ideas can at best be vague approximations.

The problem is that modern popular language dismisses metaphor because it is not “true” by which is meant that it is not factual.  The reduction of “truth” to “fact” is unfortunate, because it easily constricts reason to “thinking about facts.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, those who wanted to gain public attention for new religious ideas presented them in scientific language: the mediums of spiritualism tried to present their work as science; Mary Baker Eddy not only called her belief system “Christian Science,” her basic text is The Science of Health With Key to the Scriptures.  Similarly Madame Blavatsky presented her ideas, to which she gave the name Theosophy, as science.

In our time the dominant popular world view limits the reading of sacred texts because if the only truth is fact, then scripture must be either factual or false.

Fortunately one can escape this trap and think more broadly.  One can read one’s sacred text as human interpretation.  One can recognize that all language about God has to be metaphoric (including such terms as “Father” for God),.  But those who do read their scriptures in this broad way find themselves on one side of a very large gap between two kinds of believers.  And those who take their sacred text literally have the strength of popular scientific thinking on their side.

Some people who are raised in a literal belief system abandon it to find other levels of awareness through other traditions.  Those other levels inform all religions, including the one the former believer has left, knowing only the version diminished by reductive language.

I choose to stay in my tradition and explore its alternative meanings.  This is hard to explain to both literal believers and non-believers.  It is probably wiser to hint at it in poetry than to write explanations.