Thursday, 4 April 2019

No 81 - Two cultures? Science in South Africa's poetry

Science, we are regularly assured, is based on rationalism, repeatable experiment, hard fact, and mathematical certainties – rising loftily above mythical beliefs, cultural biases and individual vagaries. Poetry, on the other hand, is supposedly about our inner worlds – unrepeatable experience, individual emotions, and the unpredictable imagination. Science seems so crisp and defined, whereas no one I know has come up with a decent definition of poetry; it’s something you just learn to recognise when it strikes the ear, rather like the “unparaphrasable meaningfulness of music” (the phrase is critic George Steiner’s from The Poetry of Thought).

Almost all discussions I’ve seen start with this alleged dichotomy, these silos of human thought, or the “two cultures”, as CP Snow famously termed the division. And almost all the discussions I’ve seen – mostly launched by poets, to be sure – go on to assert that this is just not the case. The argument might go like this: not only is “science” a social construct like any other human thought-system, it is, like poetry, founded in fundamental ways on metaphor. They are both languages of understanding. And if one goes beyond the simplicities of Newton’s objective laws of motion, into the subatomic realms of quarks, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Schrödinger’s Cat, a realm in which the presence of the observer is inseparable from the experiment, one is back in the dizzy whirl of the individual and the immeasurable.  So why should poetry and science not be speaking to each other, cross-fertilising? – and perhaps they always have done, actually.  Here’s the poet  Alison Hawthorne Deming on the subject:

[T]he view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another.  Scientists are seekers of fact; poets revellers in sensation.  Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well wrought urns, and more and more like the misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber.  The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness.  Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces.  We are made to embody the mythic split in western civilization between the head and the heart.  But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet.

Ruth Padel is another American poet who has written on the topicindeed, as the granddaughter of one of Charles Darwin’s granddaughters, she has published a whole poetic life of her famous evolutionary predecessor. In this, she is echoing Charles’s own father, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote a lengthy treatise on the science of his time in resounding heroic couplets.  The early nineteenth-century Romantic poets were fascinated by the scientific discoveries of their own day; and many scientists and naturalist-travellers, including those to Southern Africa, felt it was de rigueur to enliven their accounts with snatches of quoted verse and Classical allusion. The divide, it would seem, has become stricter, along with more intense specialisation in the academy. Yet, as the anthology A Quark for Mister Mark (edited by Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney, 2000) shows, poets have continuously written about science and its theories, which sometimes can seem as outlandish as any dreamscape, and to use science as metaphor in wild ways. There is, as South African poet and literary mentor, the late Lionel Abrahams, titled his last volume, a “chaos theory of the heart”.

Abrahams is just one of any number of South African poets who have found in scientific discovery rich imagery for topics not strictly scientific. Cosmological, botanical, zoological, medical, geological, chemical terminologies, aesthetics and ideas work their way into poems in obvious and subtle ways. Just as John Donne, back in the seventeenth century, got poetically excited by the new cosmological theories of Galileo and Kepler, so do modern poets in the age of moon walks, the Hubble telescope, the discovery of black holes and dark matter, which are as mysteriously untouchable as any poetic implication.

No doubt many scientists appreciate poetry – and some even write it. Pre-eminent among such South Africans is Douglas Livingstone, a professional microbiologist whose last volume of poems, A Littoral Zone (1996), is structured around the various measuring stations he established to monitor pollution levels along the South Coast. As one might expect, the imagery of cells, molecules and chemical reactions feature strongly.  Don Maclennan always reminded us as students that poetry as poetry comes not from raw emotions, or the ether, or scientific knowledge, but out of other poetry. Livingstone wittily demonstrates this in one of his poems by ‘Giovanni Jacopo’, a sort of comic alter ego he invented. In “Giovanni Jacopo Meditates (on the Passionate Bacteriologist to his Love)”, he rips off a famous seventeenth-century poem by Andrew Marvell – which was so gloopy and romantic it had almost immediately been satirised by Walter Ralegh. In Livingstone’s self-mocking version, the speaker invites his lover up to his laboratory, promising not Edenic gardens and unrealistic happiness, but

Bacilli with a sunset Hue
Will form a little Chain for you,
& Cocci on a Culture-plate
Will make your heart gyrate

You’ll see fresh Eggs infected by
The virus from a bloodshot Eye.
For your Delight, my Lover Doll,
I’ll flourish Spleens in Alcohol.

In more serious vein, Livingstone uses the microscopic to reflect the essentially destructive side of human nature. In “A Natural History of the Negatio Bacillus”, he mimics the terminology of a medical handbook – definition, epidemiology, aetiology, diagnosis, prophylaxis – to map a kind of mythic evolution of the human-as-disease, obliquely critiquing pride, aggression, and intellectual separation from a sense of wholeness with the earth. We are, Livingstone repeatedly recalls, ineluctably part of the material world – especially at the molecular level, where interchanges between our ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are happening continuously. Not least after death: in “Cells at Station 11”, the poet-speaker, taking his ocean-water samples, wonders if cells from a “blackened corpse” tumbling beyond the surf line have found their way into his test-tube. At that level, we have always been, in common, infiltrated by

Billion-year invaders
– the silent mitochondria –
[which] propel our mobile tower, shared cells
sparking, colonised by vandals:
a fifth column of DNA ...

We might “claim autonomy”, but the independent “self” is something of an illusion; Livingstone returns to that phrase “shared cells” to assert, basically, that to kill your brother is to hurt yourself. For all the science (he draws explicitly on Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock), it is almost religious.

In the same way, Livingstone, caring deeply about the health of the planet and distressed at humanity’s accelerating capacity to poison it, sees that the earth is us: it is like a “bright blue cell”, uniquely hanging in space, and our relationship with it boils down, bluntly, to a choice: “symbiosis or death”.

Many other poets work with scientific material, language and disciplines. Scientists themselves can be subjects.  Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary theories are foundational to all the natural sciences, inevitably appears. Basil du Toit, in his poem “Darwinism” (in Older Women, 1996), wonders how he is to survive in Darwinism’s tough world of unrelenting competitiveness and “searing wispy airs” – “you who are so inhospitable to love”. Loveless and irreligious Darwinism might be but, as du Toit notes in “Eye & Ocean”, it has also helped alert us to nature’s complex bounties:

the Darwin-rich deeps
supporting genus after genus
ocean hierarchies:
whales, jellyfish, plankton
rejuvenating the blue organ.

Gus Ferguson, in my view our finest comic poet, explores the evolutionary migration of once-upon-a-time land mammals ‘back’ to the sea to become whales, in his lightly ironic but affecting poem, “Poetry at the Whale Well”. (As it happens, a transitional, 42 million year-old “hoofed whale” skeleton has just been unearthed in Peru.)

Another, related popular discipline, then, is palaeontology. South Africa is so rich in fossil remains, from the most ancient ammonites through the dinosaurs of the Karoo to the early hominid skeletons of Gauteng’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’, that many poets have had a go at fossils. Ruth Miller, for example, riffs off Broom’s discoveries in “Sterkfontein”, though her concern is less on the science than on the remains’ implication that we all, as it were, descend into the cave of death; we will all be blown to “the kingdom of shared graves”. In a quirky essay, “The Hippo and the Moth”, Miller shows her familiarity with several sciences, including zoology, relativity and the physics of light, although, as she says, “the moth must remain a symbol at all costs”: that is the heart of poetry.

Brian Warner, a bit like a Livingstone-Ferguson cross, produced a volume of witty rhyming poems (Dinosaur’s End, 1996) satirising scientific discoveries, especially of the ancient dinosaurs and the fossil remains of early hominids. Among the lighter squibs is his clerihew on the discoverer of ‘Taung Man’:

Raymond Arthur Dart
Gave anthropologists a start
When out of nowhere he sprung
And stuck out his Taung.

Don Maclennan, who shared with me an amateur interest in science, wrote repeatedly of his particular fascination with Stone Age tools, the flakes and cores we could find lying all over the Eastern Cape, even in Grahamstown’s gardens –  “handaxes that obtrude/ to challenge who we are/ after a million years of progress” (from Reading the Signs, 2005). Also in Grahamstown, Chris Mann is particularly assiduous in exploring zoological and galactic subjects, and marrying them with a sacralising reverence for life and its ecological interdependencies.

All the above is only to scratch the surface of a potentially vast subject – a book for someone to write. Certainly, as Riordan and Turney say in their introduction to A Quark for Mister Mark, poets, whatever they are up to, are not ‘doing science’, their references to science “often oblique, glancing, wry, or sardonic, or it is so much a part of a way of seeing that the reader, and even the writer, may not be conscious of its presence.”  That’s crucial: science has come to dominate and structure so much modern thinking that a poem may be surreptitiously ‘scientific’ even where no technical terms are used. Douglas Livingstone once asserted that “science is man’s search for truth, that art is man’s interpretation of it”. However, in a 1985 interview with Michael Chapman (in Green in Black-and-White Times), he blurred the distinction. He noted that the science philosopher Kuhn saw science as creative, that a scientific philosophy’s “new way of looking at things can alter our perception of reality – a kind of poet’s way”. The final lesson for him, whether through science or poetry, was “how to feel variously, how to admit ambiguity, how to understand the equal attraction of opposing truths, or to know when to mistrust ‘truth’ altogether.”

A mantra for our own times.



  1. Are science and poetry incompatible? What have South African poets made of scientific developments?

  2. Fascinating, Dan. I'm not sure that I agree with the characterisation of Thomas Kuhn, who saw scientists, during periods of "normal science", as mere articulators of the paradigm within which they work. Only during periods of crisis, which are few and far between, do scientists become truly creative. Karl Popper, a philosopher of science whom Kuhn opposed, would be a better choice of an advocate of the scientist as creative.