VIEWPOINT: The Poetry of Science

In 2000, Paul J. Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate, coined the term “Anthropocene.” The word designates the epoch in which human activity shapes ecosystems and where its presence registers in the geological record. Crutzen’s coinage comes as a response to decades of scientific data supporting anthropogenic climate change: The idea that, by polluting natural spaces and burning fossil fuels, humans are warming the planet, altering our world for the worse.

Poetry in North America has come to terms with this prospect in various ways, some of which are aesthetic. As American poet Brian Teare writes in “Transcendental Grammar Crown,”:

doubt          entered the field
in the form of a body
always         grass at edge
calf-high     then rising
as heat         midday does

The poet uses both white space on the page and unconventional syntax to fracture the poem’s language for the reader. This textual fracturing mimics subjectivity in the Anthropocene: If the epoch challenges the philosophic divisions between “man” and “nature,” or “nature” and “culture,” our understanding as a species of ourselves in relation to our environment must change too.

Other responses to climate change have been more concrete. In 2012, Ahsahta Press, an independent publishing house based in Boise, Idaho and one of the foremost publishers of experimental poetry in the United States — published a 544-page anthology, “The Acadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral.” The book collected poems by over 100 poets on topics ranging from “Textual Ecologies” to “Necro/Pastoral,” a literary mode that imagines the planet’s death and elegizes the world on such terms. Like the Teare poem, which is included in the anthology, these poems serve as humanist responses to the revelations of hard data, modeling a variety of possible rejoinders to the prospect of climate catastrophe.

But poetry offers more than mere aesthetics. What many people do not realize is that North America boasts a robust poetry community, one with a long history of political activism. Georgetown’s own Carolyn Forché, university professor and director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, collected what she called poems of “witness” into an influential 1993 anthology, “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness.” The anthology framed the act of recording extremity — surviving the Holocaust or living through Soviet era repression, for instance — as a poetic one, allowing many who had seen poetry as merely ornamental to consider its political and historical import. That poetry has a political purpose is, today, taken as a given by most humanists, in part because of Forché’s work.

The poetry community often finds itself working closely with specialists from diverse fields, from political activists to scientists, and with increasing frequency they blend the discourses common to those fields with poetic techniques. American poet Juliana Spahr, for instance, has imitated the vast logs of scientific data in her 2011 book “Well Then There Now,” which forges poems out of lists of extinct species. Poets often find themselves appropriating scientific language and even numerical data into their poems, pressing the boundaries of what poetic language can be and the kinds of lexicons it can encompass.

Such is the aim of a series of pop-up writing workshops being offered this Saturday, April 22, at the March for Science on the National Mall. The march itself is aimed at celebrating science as a non-partisan issue that promotes the public good, calling on the Trump administration to ground its policies in empirical knowledge rather than “alternative facts.” The workshops have been organized by Jane Hirshfield — author most recently of 2015’s “The Beauty: Poems” — and address such topics as “Writing the Storm,” “Poems on Insects,” “Poems on Global Warming” and “Writing Poems with Data and Glue Sticks”. Workshops are aimed at various ages and levels of experience.

Poetry probably cannot save the world, nor should it be tasked with such a burden. What it can do is bring people together in ways that create a confluence of knowledge and expertise. In its ability to aesthetically mimic such confluences, perhaps it can inspire us to build a world that is greener and more conscious than the one we currently inhabit.

John James is a graduate student in the School of Continuing Studies.

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