Robert Crawford (ed.), Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science

Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, edited by Robert Crawford
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 234 + xvi pp. £19.99 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-925812-3.

This is primarily a book about contemporary poetry, and what poetry can do now, as seen through its engagement with aspects of contemporary science. It is only fleetingly a book about ‘science and poetry’, where the relationship between two kinds of discipline might be propounded, and it is all the better for letting such moves remain incidental. Some parallels are suggested: Robert Crawford shares an appreciation of ‘poetry and science as kinds of discovery quickened by observation and imagination’ (53), for instance, while Adalaide Morris uses a contrast between Einstein and Heisenberg to frame the differing ‘thought experiments’ of Jorie Graham and Leslie Scalapino (149). But the volume’s distinctive contribution lies more in its unusual form, crossing genre and register to open up possibilities for thinking about the actions of poetry as they are revealed through specific encounters with science and technology.

The book itself is not aimed solely at readers of contemporary poetry or criticism, and its aspiration to a wider audience increases the vulnerability of individual contributions. Fruitful interaction between different areas of expertise does not automatically entail greater accessibility (an issue that has been explored in Marilyn Strathern’s work on ‘interdisciplinarity’), and while the editor has quite rightly sought material that will ‘make sense to poets, to scientists, and to readers who are neither one nor the other’ (4), this does multiply the grounds on which readers may experience dissatisfaction, as well as enjoyment, in what is offered. The collection as a whole has been carefully edited, however, juxtaposing the poems and essays in order to bring out conversations across genre, politics and discipline. Readers may pursue these according to their own interests: there is a debate to be had about code and information; one about the limits of humanism; another about the visionary power of contemporary poetry and yet another about its aural and oral qualities. Voices from Scotland help to re-frame such questions, offering alternatives to C.P. Snow’s ‘unhelpfully eccentric’ yet ‘catchy’ formulation (5-6).

Ten essays reflecting on poetic appropriation of scientific themes are interspersed with nine new poems, each of which has been generated following a lunch meeting between the poet and a scientist. The result is a gallimaufry of instruments, language, procedures and concepts drawn from cognitive psychology, climatology, pharmacology, palaeontology, solar science, biochemistry, oncology, cybernetics and mind-imaging, given searching and often provocative treatment by some fine poets. An Afterword from Gillian Beer reminds us that poems ‘multiply encounters’, and can thereby have an address to scientific practice: ‘They do not redirect research but place it and the person working to produce it in manifold positions simultaneously’ (210). Hints of how this might work are given in the introduction to each poem, written by the scientist in response to the finished piece and to the encounter itself. These are poems worth returning to, every one of them, and they stand as well on their own as in extended dialogue with the surrounding prose contributions. In her essay on the thought experiments of Jorie Graham and Leslie Scalapino, Adalaide Morris invokes Robin Blaser’s definition of ‘an act or event of the real, rather than a discourse true only to itself’. For me the poems that resonate beyond themselves the most are Don Paterson’s ‘As Above’, W.N. Herbert’s ‘The Working Self’, John Glenday’s ‘Circadian’ and David Kinloch’s ‘The Organ Bath’; these are also the poems that have yielded more oblique or diffuse answers to the work of their lunchtime scientist.

The essays are idiosyncratic and tendentious; the best ones are nicely balanced between care for the reader and a radical commitment to the topic in hand. Miroslav Holub, Edwin Morgan, Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, John Burnside and Simon Armitage reflect on some of their own poems and their reading, exploring the motivations, processes and consequences of drawing scientific themes into poetry; Adalaide Morris and Drew Milne provide more theoretically oriented discussions of work by contemporary poets, while Jocelyn Bell Burnell offers highlights from her professional astronomer’s collection of astronomical lyrics. I found Herbert’s ‘Confessions of an Informationist’ the most nourishing – for his forthright approach to complexities around authenticity and sensation in poetry, and for introducing me to John Davidson’s poem about a wasp finding freedom after its imprisonment in a railway carriage:

the world once more
In sight! She paused; she closed her wings, and felt
Resistance that she knew now must belong
To such mysterious transparencies.

It is conventional in an academic book review to praise the avoidance of reductive or schematic answers to complex topics; but readers surely also wants some crystallisation for their time and money, something that can be tucked under the arm. The wasp treading air for glass, differently free than she was before, has stayed with me as an image of the poetic persona engaging with a world that includes science and technology.

The book’s concern with how poetry works might possibly have been taken further, providing deeper insight into how the nine poems were drafted and crafted. Writing about the last poem in the book, David Kinloch’s ‘The Organ Bath’, pharmacologist Alison Gurney says that she ‘gained most insight into the process of creating poetry from the initial, much longer version of David’s poem, where the flow between ideas was more gradual and detailed than it is in the shortened, revised version published here’ (189). A ‘lighthearted poem 237 lines long’ has been reduced to just twenty-nine lines; these have retained a sense of humour but they also work hard to get from an opening, almost apologetic analogy between the flow of ions in the ‘organ bath’ and ‘transport / Across the gap junction of connected words’, to a concluding somatic sublime:

The world, the body, the poem
Breathed through the lungs of language
Steaming out its Calliope songs.

We are told that Kinloch and Gurney ‘discussed the use of language in science’ and I yearned to see some choice journal extracts to demonstrate the unseating of specialist terminology and ordinary language across the poem’s intermediate stages; I would also have liked an opportunity to compare these with notes from the other poets. Perhaps such content would have crowded out the poems themselves, and lessened the interest for readers who do not themselves write poetry; perhaps the poets themselves would have been shy of publishing fragments of their rough workings. A treat for the reader of Rebecca Elson’s posthumously published collection A Responsibility to Awe (2001), aside from the astonishments of the poems themselves, is the inclusion of some judiciously edited notebook material at the back. At 234 pages including the index, there might have been room for a modest Appendix to the present volume.

The editor surely had good reasons not to include such material; as he observes in the introduction, the volume already ‘goes against the present-day decorum’ of academic publishing by ‘mixing specially commissioned verse with … prose’ (4). But perhaps there is scope for future work along these lines. One refrain of the movement towards public engagement with science and technology (away from the ‘deficit model’ where communicators attempted to stuff their publics with items of scientific understanding deemed lacking) is an emphasis on conveying the processes of scientific work, its methods as much as its results. Crawford stands out among literary commentators on science and poetry in taking the trouble to acknowledge this shift in emphasis; his introduction uses ‘engagement’ at least three times (once pairing it, usefully, with ‘disengagement’). As I implied at the start of this review, a book that set out with the primary intention of comparing scientific and poetic practice would be dull. But it would be interesting to see whether a greater emphasis on the practices behind a finished poem, highlighted through the poet’s encounter with some aspect of contemporary science, could open up some of the more esoteric end of contemporary poetry to wider constituencies, helping to demythologise poetry as a vocation.

Katy Price, Anglia Ruskin University