Bryan Walpert, Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry

Bryan Walpert, Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry (Routledge, 2011), 220pp.  $141. ISBN 978-0415893348

Despite the rapid expansion of scientific research after the second world war into every corner of the world, animal, vegetable, mineral and human, studies of the impact of this growing scientific control of knowledge on poetry remain scarce. This is not the fault of the poets. They have made physics and genetics their subject matter, constructed plausible and implausible analogies between such scientific concepts as fields or black holes and poetic forms, and claimed that poetic inquiry can emulate the methods of the sciences, from field work to the laboratory experiment. Scholarly studies of poetry and science over the past seventy or more years appear to have lagged behind. One reason is that unlike high modernist poetry where a consensus on the central figures emerged early on and led to a concentration of research on their poetry, there is little or no consensus as to which poets of the period since 1945 are deserving of close study.  Another is the character of the sciences themselves. The plural is more than ever deserved. The classic natural sciences of physics, biology and chemistry have mated freely and produced biophysics, molecular biology, and biochemistry, to name only a few of their offspring, and continue to produce further progeny with unfamiliar names. Previously philosophical disciplines like sociology and psychology have claimed kinship with the hard sciences, proliferating new social sciences that tramp all over the flora of poetic subject matter. Cognition, emotion, imagination, love, death, and language are all mapped and authorised by one or more social sciences. For several decades, literary theory largely refused to talk to the social sciences, preferring to manufacture theory in-house and produce its own versions of knowledge – though this was a concept often abjured – of language, subjectivity, and society. Here and there, in gender theory, in postcolonial studies, and ecological criticism literary studies did sometimes manage to negotiate uneasily with a few areas of the social sciences. It was only with the expansion of historicist criticism into the study of science, law, economics and other disciplines with unyielding epistemological commitments that things began to change. Literary historians of poetry and science in the Romantic, Victorian and high modernist periods have begun to find methods for acknowledging the validity of claims to knowledge alongside recognition of the richness of poetic thought and affective reflection on the cultural efflorescence of the sciences.

In this tricky situation for the understanding of how recent poetry has consorted with science, Bryan Walpert ventures an ambitious study of four contemporary American poets who avow an interest in writing poetry responsive to the sciences. Faced with these many difficulties he has decided to offer what amounts to a three-for-one offer. Within the covers of Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry are three distinct accounts of science and poetry: a series of comparative close readings of poems by Alison Hawthorne Deming, Patiann Rogers, Albert Goldbarth, and Joan Retallack; a history of English poetry and science since the seventeenth century; and a speculative theory of how poetry can intervene positively in scientific research. The result of such inclusiveness is mixed. This width of its survey enables the book to offer those unfamiliar with this material what amounts to an excellent introduction to the whole field of studies of science and poetry, but it cannot always be relied upon for up to date information on the current state of knowledge about the history of poetry and science, current positions in the history and philosophy of science, nor for a convincing theory of the inner workings of the interrelations of contemporary poetry and science.  The close readings will whet readers’ appetites to follow up these poets, especially Goldbarth and Retallack, but here too the interpretations of specific poems can be questioned.

The first book within a book is the study of the four poets. Three of them are prominently included in Kurt Brown’s excellent collection Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics, now regrettably out of print. A publisher who brought out a second edition would surely find many buyers amongst university teachers of science and literature courses, let alone poets and readers of poetry. The key to Brown’s choice of poems is in the title; these tend to be poems ‘about’ bones and brains, planets and atoms, or sperm and spores. Science is a theme in poems which are on the whole discursive, narrative, and tend towards the closed end of a spectrum from open field to metrical personal lyric. Brown has located many interesting poems, including Deming’s  ‘The Woman Painting Crates’ and ‘Mt Lemon, Steward Observatory, 1990’, Rogers’ ‘Achieving Perspective’ and ‘The Rites of Passage’, and Albert Goldbarth’s ‘Tarpan and Aurochs’, all of which are given careful attention by Walpert. As I read Resistance to Science I found myself wishing that the anthology itself (and perhaps others) had been given more attention. Verse and Universe has made a significant contribution to our awareness of a range of poets, such as Emily Grosholz, Roald Hoffman (a nobel prize-winning chemist), Denise Duhamel and Arthur Sze, whose writing about science might not be known outside the circles of those who study poetry and science. Brown’s occasional forays into open-field poetry are also interesting. Mingling with the realist poets are a couple of late modernist poets not usually read in such company,  Ronald Johnson and Cole Swensen, whose inventive play with science deserves far more attention.

Walpert’s readings of Rogers and Deming proceed on the assumption that these poets are searching for a ‘subjective knowledge’ or ‘subjective alternative to scientific facts’. This starting point enables Walpert to offer an incisive interpretation of Rogers’ poem ‘Achieving Perspective’ and its treatment of the theme of poor little me cowering from the vast universe. This theme, which has been much explored by poets as different as A. R. Ammons and William Bronk, is helpfully placed in the context of Thomas Nagel’s work on the ineliminability of subjective perspective in the constitution of the universe. Walpert’s more extended analysis of Deming’s ‘The Woman Painting Crates’ is intended to demonstrate his overall thesis that many poets who avow a belief in the value of the sciences in their essays and interviews, actually resist the idea that science has an exclusive contract to produce knowledge. Deming and Rogers remain at heart Romantics.

Deming’s narrative account of the author’s self engaged in an activity, in this case painting empty crates ‘a new colour / closer to a certain blue’, is typical of narrative of self-consciousness that is widespread in contemporary lyric poetry.  She writes as if she can look in the mirror of self-consciousness and describe her thoughts and actions from some objective point outside, from some poetic vantage point of mind unaffected by this process. In ‘The Woman Painting Crates’, she recalls having gone the day before to a lecture on the new physics, presumably string theory, and learned that the physicists now believe ‘matter / disappears into haloes // of transforming unexpected / connectedness’. Today she finds herself trying to imagine both her body and the crates (which function as Austin’s middle-size dry goods version of what we mean by an ‘object’) first in terms of the older atomic particle model of matter, and then as the ‘accidental assembly’ of these new and elusive rings of energy.  Walpert interprets this poem as evidence of an only partially admitted resistance to science. Deming is trying to replace the physicists’ version of her body and self as constituted of particles or haloes of energy, with her own subjective version of herself as being as solid as a crate painted ‘a certain blue’. She wants her own certainty.

I wonder if this is quite fair to the poem. There is resistance certainly but the poem offers more than simple denial. The speaker experiences ‘terror’ at the thought of being made of nothing more than high-energy particles as the older physics pictured the world, and then pushes back at the string theory’s emphasis on randomness, insisting on self-invention as a form of resistance to contingency. The terror and the pride in self-creation are valued as signs of what it is to be a centre of subjectivity. In its final stanzas the poem talks about the difficulties of finding expression, both as utterance and as poem, for her own existential intuitions about existence, in a manner that would retain their integrity:

but to say it, is like trying

to copy the curved face of the Earth

on a flat map. If I could know

 

that process of energy in myself

I could know what continues.

But knowing is what I try

 

to train myself out of,

painting these crates a new colour

closer to a certain blue.

By likening her problem to that of the cartographer she implies that her own insights have a scientific heft, just as the three dimensional Earth is a reality that the flat map cannot wholly represent. The physicist is also trying to represent current research and to do so is having to resort to ‘flat’ images, the haloes. The poet tries to move past the state of ‘knowing’ not necessarily in order to settle comfortably into a state of self-consoling illusion but in order to try to be open to new information about what really does exist. Scientists have to put aside what they ‘know’, the dogmatic assumptions about what is happening that are often encoded into flat images, in order to be better able to be open to what their researches reveal. Poets and scientists face a similar dilemma. As she paints the crates blue, she allows herself to think of the paint as an analogy for any attempt to make the intangible foundations of matter somehow more visible. Deming’s resistance might be better understood not as resistance to science, but a contention or negotiation with scientific ideas. It is resistance but more in the sense that she wants her experience to be a part of the eventual scientific picture not a replacement for it.

Walpert believes that poets such as Deming and Rogers are hampered by their poetics, by their tacit theories of language, subjectivity and epistemology.  Poetry of the kind written by Rogers and Deming fails to respond persuasively to the challenge from science because it refuses to take into account the constitutive character of language in the creation of knowledge. Words not only enable us to pick out things, they help create those things. ‘Deming argues that both poetry and science use the imagination and that language is the means by which both poetry and science know the world. But Deming’s poetics act as a kind of restraint on the enactment of this critique of scientific authority, a critique that rests on the linguistic basis for scientific knowledge—that is, that scientific discourse is a performative rather than constative text.’ By not writing a performative poetry, her poem can only describe science, it cannot reveal the performative nature of scientific discourse. Describing science will never be an adequate engagement with it.

This is an interesting line of argument. Certainly those who find open field poetry and other recent poetries more subtle in their handling of speech acts, inference, assertoric force, discursive registers, textuality, and other features of writing, are likely to be sympathetic. But Walpert’s argument rests on a questionable assumption about the character of scientific knowledge, which largely begs the questions it wants to investigate. No evidence is presented that scientific knowledge has a fundamentally linguistic basis, and indeed I doubt that this could be done. Scientific knowledge uses linguistic communication as a tool of investigation and one of its modes of dissemination, but it also uses craft knowledge, sensory familiarity with the epistemological materials of investigation, mathematical abstractions, conceptual modelling, and many other tools. It reads its texts with interpretive strategies that extend far beyond rhetorical analysis. Walpert says that ‘scientists must still assume that language can be sufficiently purged of its ambiguities and distortions to allow for both transparency of observation … and transparency of communication’. This misrepresents scientific practice, as a glance at one of the several guides to scientific communication would confirm. No serious research scientist believes that language is simply a neutral tool. Rhetoric, hedges, metaphors, images, neologisms, and a range of other devices are knowingly used in professional scientific writing. As the history of quantum physics amply demonstrates, scientists have agonised over the whole problem of how to represent observations and entities that resist analogy, let alone referentiality.

Having argued that Romanticism addles the brains of many contemporary poets, Walpert then moves on to poets who have had the wit to look to the modernists for a more effective poetics for thinking about the sciences. Albert Goldbarth’s strength as a poet of science is to recognise that science is a form of ‘poeisis’.  It is to Walpert’s credit that he devotes a chapter to this highly entertaining poet who deserves a wider readership. Goldbarth’s witty, conversational, fast-moving poems bring out the best in Walpert. He offers persuasive close readings of several poems in which Goldbarth ties together personal observations with commentary on science and scientists. By ‘offering imaginative insights into the minds of scientists, Goldbarth argues that they fail to escape subjectivity’. Walpert argues that the poem ‘Tarpan and Aurochs’ aims to demonstrate that emotional experience is a valid form of knowledge of the world that is intrinsically different to scientific knowledge. In this subtle poem, which starts with an alamanac’s popularisation of the idea that it might be possible to bring extinct species back to life, Goldbarth eerily imagines what it would be like to travel back in both bodily and evolutionary time to the worlds of the Auroch or go much further back still to the primitive algae from which life developed. Images from the religious literature of reincarnation are layered onto images from popular science and from intimate memories. The main preoccupation of the poem is to reflect on why it is so hard to fully understand the immensity of evolutionary time in relation to any measure of which a human being is capable.

In the face of the crowded excitements of Goldbarth’s poem, Walpert has to stretch things a little to make his argument stick. Goldbarth writes: ‘That the fetus’s eyelids correspond / to one of those idling butterflies, I know, the way / we all know the travel of light though not perhaps its formula’. Walpert thinks this means that our intuitive understanding of light is equivalent to scientific understanding. I would disagree. I think Goldbarth is saying that he knows there is a connection between the biochemistry of butterfly wings fluttering and the flickering of a foetus’s eyelids (suggesting that the pre-conscious infant is dreaming in REM sleep), just as he knows about the speed of light, but that the way he knows both of these things is similar: a knowledge dependent on the communication of authoritative knowledge from others. Walpert’s conclusions about Goldbarth are also a little disappointing because they feel forced. Eventually modernist poetics is also found wanting. Goldbarth’s modernism is not capable of revealing the performativity of scientific discourse.

The final poet to be given close attention in Resistance to Science is Joan Retallack. Her moving elegiac poem ‘AID/I/SAPPEARANCE’ is treated as an example of her commitment to writing poems that are as experimental as good scientific research. Walpert’s discussion of this poem deserves to be widely read; it provides one of the best accounts available of this major poet. He gives Retallack’s poetics his full approval, and so is more attuned to the nuances of her poetry than I feel he is with the poets whose poetics he disapproves of. He interprets ‘AID/I/SAPPEARANCE’ with great care, showing how her step by step dismemberment of a seven line stanza of long lines in which statements about quantum physics and ruminations on continuity of experience play a fugue with remarks about dying from AIDS, ‘takes scientific authority to task’. Her work ‘enacts rather than merely asserts’ its critique of the limitations of scientific inquiry.  Even the sometimes implausible attribution of schematically abstract reasoning to the poetry – ‘The poem’s argument with the language of science, then, is an argument for attention to subjective experience and an argument that poststructuralist poetry can help us to do just that’ – does not detract from the analysis.

These discussions of a handful of poems by contemporary poets form the first and most compelling book within the book. The second nested book is a history of science and poetry offered as a series of ghosts behind the attitudes and strategies adopted by the contemporary poets. Walpert takes us on a jog through the history of science and poetry, beginning with Donne, on the somewhat flimsy justification that ghosts of romanticism steer the writing hands of poets like Rogers and Deming, while the ghost of modernism whispers in Goldbarth’s ear. Walpert is surely right to see a need for a new history of English science and poetry.  Douglas Bush’s overview is now long out of date. But being dated is too often the problem with Walpert’s own accounts of Donne, Richard Blackmore, Coleridge, Shelley, and others, which do not draw enough from the extensive new scholarship of the past decade on the history of poetry and science. Although he does better with the modernists, making good use of Michael Whitworth and other commentators on the impact of Einstein on modernist culture, the discussion leaves out too much for it to be possible to treat this as an addition to our understanding of modernist poetics and science. Overall this dimension of the book is something of a disappointment, though perhaps an inevitable one. It is hard to imagine anyone managing to write an accurate, fully up to date account of the history of science and poetry as a backdrop to the critical study of contemporary poetry. I just wished that this space had been devoted to a fuller account of the contemporary poets, to their wider bodies of work, to their relations with other poets, and to some further historicist contextualising of the moments when the key poems were written.

The third nested book is a speculative investigation of the convergences and divergences between scientific thought and poetic imagination. Walpert is keen to disabuse us of cosy sentiments of easy rapprochement between scientists and poets. He quotes the poet Kelly Cherry saying that the ‘interchange between scientist and poet’ can be ‘like strolling across a shrinking suspension bridge flung over the endless drop into our unknowing’ only to dismiss such images as nonsense. Poets may say such things in front of the camera, but privately and in their poems they tell a different story of hostility to science. Walpert therefore canvasses a wide range of opinions from poets, philosophers, critics, and theorists about the possible interrelations between poetry and science, always on the lookout for signs of resistance to science and the belief that there can be different kinds of knowledge. He doesn’t as he might have done pursue this theme into the work of Peter Burke or the New Critics, who all believe that this is the case, nor consider the arguments of those philosophers of science and literature who contend that ultimately there is only one universe and all knowledge claims have to be answerable to it. Instead he turns to a thinker he calls ‘post-constructivist’, Karen Barad.

Barad, according to Walpert, wants to restore materiality and agency to the understanding of science, and move beyond a sterile opposition of realism and social construction as the only two options for understanding the character of science. Knowledge, from the new standpoint, ‘is a form of intervention’. I must admit to some doubts whether Barad can quite carry the weight that Walpert wants her theory to bear. When she says ‘knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world’, one can hear Heidegger as well as Andrew Pickering, but also many contemporary philosophers whose analyses are considerably more subtle than this. Walpert devotes many pages to an exposition of Barad. Readers will want to follow up his enthusiastic exposition. The usefulness of this lengthy discussion of Barad is not entirely clear, since she is frequently paraphrasing the ideas of others (Walpert mentions Hacking), and a reader would want to pursue the debate about scientific realism into the work of philosophers of science such as Philip Kitcher, Bas Van Fraassen, Andrew Pickering, Nicholas Jardine, Bruno Latour, Larry Laudan, the neo-pragmatists John McDowell, Robert Brandom, the new ontologists such as Markus Gabriel, and not to mention the work of Isabelle Stenger and others who have been reinvigorating Whitehead’s metaphysics. Barad’s work on its own does not do enough of the work of sorting through the complexities of ontology and epistemology that have to be investigated if we are to claim a better understanding of science. Otherwise we are back with the hubris of telling other disciplines what they can and can’t know. I can’t share the enthusiasm for claims like this from Barad – ‘agential realism challenges the divide between epistemology and ontology and suggests a new approach which I label episteme-onto-logy, referring to the inseparability of being and knowing’. I want to ask ‘what divide’, what is meant by the big abstractions of epistemology, ontology, being, and knowing, and to ask for examples from the sciences. At moments I feel Walpert himself wobble in his allegiance to Barad. Commenting on a particularly unconvincing series of arguments about the role of perception in the theorisation of boundaries for objects, he says ‘there is a sense in which this might not seem wholly persuasive’. He then tries to retrieve her authority by a somewhat circular argument about scientific realism, that the things physicists handle have a reality because they handle them as real.

This third book within a book of Resistance to Science will probably affect readers differently, depending on their allegiances to different modes of literary theory. As an introduction to Barad, and an original reading of Retallack through Barad, it is a significant contribution to science and literature studies. But I would urge readers to go beyond Barad to the rich and varied debates on which she is drawing for her synthesis.

Resistance to Science makes an important contribution to the study of contemporary poetry and science. Readers will value its introduction to Deming, Rogers and Goldbarth, and his thoughful discussion of Retallack. The book takes on a massive task in trying to assemble a debate between the history of poetry, contemporary poets of science, and recent developments in science studies. It is broadly persuasive that poems about the sciences can reveal beneath the surface considerable ambivalence towards the dominance of the sciences over knowledge. At times the book overreaches itself and tries to cram in far too much. At others it relies too much on one or another figure to represent a vast field. I would have liked the thesis that contemporary poets are fighting off the encroachments of the sciences to be more historically rooted and less dependent on a schematic of failed modes of poetics.  Sometimes the book does not play fair with science. Too often science becomes little more than an anatomical skeleton made of straw. At times I found myself wishing for a different book, a single book in which the introduction to the history of poetry and science had been replaced with far more discussion of the four contemporary poets in their historical moment, alongside a fuller picture of how Barad and other historians and philosophers of science have engaged in dialogues with the sciences. I would have liked to be allowed to listen in more closely to what the poets, literary critics, philosophers and scientists might be saying right now as new ideas of atomic forces and genetic currents sway the suspension bridge on which they teeter between cultures.

Peter Middleton, University of Southampton

  1. Mark Underwood’s avatar

    Excellent review. I would be interested to know more about how you feel this topic should be covered. With a colleague, I are contemplating such a book that would include previously unpublished work as well as treatments of “legacy” poetry at this intersection.

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