Boffins and bards in relative harmony

Dominic Cavendish discovers Channel 4's appliance of science to poetry, in a brief series of televised readings by poets and scientists
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The Independent Culture
"Lots of scientists are interested in poetry and lots of poets are interested in science. Maybe that's a surprise to some people...but it shouldn't be." It may be a scientifically-proven fact that scientists are just as likely to pick up a stanza or two at their local bookshop as the latest copy of Neutron Quarterly, but Edmund Coulthard, director of "Rhyme and Reason", an imminent poetry season on Channel 4, knows full well that viewers will be positively bombarded with little surprises. His televising of 14 poems, to be shown nightly from Sunday to Thursday like unexpected adverts, will tease us with words and images that put the age-old antithesis between the arts and science to the test.

Coulthard has selected works which traverse such disparate scientific territories as Newtonian physics, neutrinos, light, relativity and the first dog in space. He's got a range of voices: the poets themselves (Jo Shapcott, Roger McGough and Lavinia Greenlaw), actors (Zoe Wanamaker, Simon Russell Beale) and a reasonable crop of scientists (Professor Roger Penrose, Dr Paul Murdin, Director of Science and Gravity at the British National Space Centre and the Science Museum's very own Dr Brian Bracegirdle). A couple of the poems are by scientists, but "Rhyme and Reason" is not an academic tele-anthology, rather a fast-moving experiment involving contemporary poetic responses to late 20th-century science. Coulthard plays with different film speeds, his composer Al Lathbridge lays on eerie soundtracks.

"When we first started work, we were thinking along the lines of Wordsworth and Coleridge - an historical survey," says Coulthard, "but it became obvious that we should have today's poets because the concerns of science are so different now." Science, he believes, is currently "up for grabs". Having gone through a period of veneration in the Fifties in which it was regarded as a potential panacea, it is currently viewed with as much critical curiousity as awe. Although Coulthard insists that the choice is "whimsical and eclectic" (each film has a different style), "Rhyme and Reason" does provide an overview of sorts: whereas C P Snow, writing in the New Statesman in 1956, complained that the artistic and scientific communities were light years apart, here is a programme which seems to signal rapprochement. Channel 4's science editor, Sara Ramsden, hopes it will at least "make the artistic community feel guilty about not knowing about science".

The poets chosen are not afraid to take on the language of science and employ it to different effect: John Updike (Cosmic Gall) has the temerity to pour scorn on the billions of tiny neutrinos that pass through our bodies every second, "You call it wonderful; I call it CRASS" (the word descends into an imploding backdrop of quasi-atomic reactions); Brian McCabe's One Atom to Another humourously centres on a chance atomic encounter ("Don't tell me you don't recognise me?/ But we were in the same molecule together"), while archive footage accompanies Lavinia Greenlaw's elegy to the dog Laika sent up in Sputnik 2 ("Do not let yourself be fooled/ By the absolute stillness that comes only with not knowing/ How fast you are going").

But it is the way the poets can take science's clinical detachment and stand it on its head, so that equations and experiments become earthy euphemisms, that most surprises: Jo Shapcott's Love in the Lab or Alan Bold's A Special Theory of Relativity. And, best of all, is the Greenawayesque rendition of Fleur Adcock's tricksy tetrametric The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers. With its volte-face of an ex-queen boldly going where no ex-queen has gone before, it quietly reassures us that poetry will not submit to science without a fruitful struggle.

`Rhyme and Reason', a compilation episode, Thursday at 8pm, Channel 4

The Ex-Queen among the


By Fleur Adcock

They serve revolving saucer eyes,

dishes of stars; they wait upon

huge lenses hung aloft to frame

the slow procession of the skies.

They calculate, adjust, record,

watch transits, measure distances.

They carry pocket telescopes

to spy through when they walk abroad.

Spectra possess their eyes; they face

upwards, alert for meteorites,

cherishing little glassy worlds;

receptacles for outer space.

But she, exile, expelled, ex-queen,

swishes among the men of science

waiting for cloudy skies, for nights

when constellations can't be seen.

She wears the ring he let her keep;

she walks as she was taught to walk

for his approval, years ago.

His bitter features taunt her sleep.

And so when these have laid aside

their telescopes, when lids are closed

between machine and sky, she seeks

terrestrial bodies to bestride.

She plucks this one or that among

the astronomers, and is become

his canopy, his occultation;

she sucks at earlobe, penis, tongue

Mouthing the tubes of flesh; her hair

crackles, her eyes are comet-sparks.

She brings the distant briefly close

above his dreamy abstract stare.