Contemporary Poetry And Contemporary Science, edited by Robert Crawford

Experiment to mix arts and science lacks a certain chemistry

Like two chemical reagents missing the necessary catalyst, science and poetry remain largely unreacted, despite well-meaning efforts on both sides. This broad-ranging attempt demonstrates some of the reasons why, and perhaps suggests a way forward. The idea was to commission pieces, both prose and poetry, from poets and scientists, and also to arrange encounters between the two. The brief accounts of these meetings betray an excessive anxiety on each side to defer to the other.

Fortunately, as an antidote to this politesse, the book has a magnificent piece by Miroslav Holub, written just before he died in 1998. Holub is so trenchant, so undeferential, so at home in the lab and on the page, he makes you wonder why the rest of the book contains so many stilted interactions, the obvious answer being that, alone among the contributors, Holub was distinguished both in immunology and poetry.

His piece tends to undercut the enterprise by stating that "Scientists tend to avoid the terrifying word 'science'". A real interest in science implies curiosity about specifics. But, as Holub points out, "it is a lot easier to chat about something so... personal as poetry. I utterly dislike this sort of intellectual chatter." Not everything here is that kind of chatter. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, famous as the discoverer of pulsars, has a deep feeling for poetry; she writes of it with real insight.

The book has a strong Scottish contingent and the (Scottish) editor claims that Scotland has a better record of poetry/science exchange than England. This is probably true, but both traditions pale beside the Italian, from Lucretius (who receives warm treatment from Edwin Morgan) through Galileo to Calvino and Primo Levi.

It is a shame the editor is still giving credence to the excesses of the early Modernists, who liked to claim a spurious kinship with Einstein's relativity and the quantum revolution. Relativity is a precise science concerning effects that kick in around the speed of light; it has nothing to do with human relativism. But one subject does have an obvious relationship with poetry: neuroscience. Kay Redfield Jamieson discusses work on bipolarity which shows that people in the manic phase have enhanced verbal and associative abilities. Some even "spontaneously write poetry and speak in rhyme". As she says, the study of mood is the natural meeting place of poetry and science.

Peter Forbes's 'The Gecko's Foot' is published by Harper Perennial

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