The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, January 18, 2010

Science and Poetry

The Social Sessions 03: Base Pairs and Couplets on Wednesday 13 January was a big success, with over fifty people in attendance - a capacity crowd for the venue, the mezzanine of the Scottish Poetry Library.

After half an hour for people to get their drinks and start talking, the Library's director, Robyn Marsack, welcomed us and introduced the event. I then introduced the members of the panel and outlined what the event was about: science as an inspiration for poetry. I mentioned Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan, and contrasted Morgan's enthusiastic and unabashed drawing on space exploration and science fiction with the more guarded attitudes shown by mainstream novelists. 'What I love about poetry is its ion engine' is a line from Morgan displayed on the wall of the library. Is science more inspiring to poetry than to prose?

Ron Butlin kicked off by questioning the dichotomy of science and poetry, arguing that the same human consciousness (and the unconscious) produces both, and that the early twentieth-century shock of the new was present in science, music, art and politics - a point he illustrated with a reading of his poem on Stravinsky. Brian McCabe followed this up with two or three poems - one on ants, another on eels. Tracey Rosenberg read Stories, her new poem on genetics and Jewish heritage (in both senses). Kelley Swain, the Forum's guest for the week, vividly remembered being a poet in a roomful of marine biology students dissecting dogfish, and read from her collection Darwin's Microscope and Jargon. Russell Jones talked about the science fiction poetry of Edwin Morgan (the subject of the PhD thesis Jones is working on) and read a Morgan-inspired poem, 'Star', from his own collection, The Last Refuge.

We then had a ten-minute break for refills and fresh air.

The Poetry Library's own Reader in Residence, Ryan Van Winkle then kicked off the second half with some comments, and a lively discussion followed - about whether the language of science may be more excluding than inspiring, about Ross's poem on discovering the malaria plasmodium, about the effect of a bang on the head on MacDiarmid's sense of rhythm, and much else.

Thanks to all who took part, and to Peggy Hughes, Emma Capewell, Isabel Fletcher, Margaret Rennex and Jo Law for all their work in making it all work.

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Tracey Rosenberg's poem is quite nice (haven't read the rest yet, but shall). Reminds me of how, whenever a new medical problem pops up, my mother blames it on "5700 years of inbreeding". Her parents were Jews and their parents and so on. She broke the chain by marrying a non-Jew. My older brother got the better genes out of that, I think, and he's adding to the diversity. He and his wife, a lovely Kurdish woman, just had a baby. A bit early, but doing well.

all i can suggest about science and poetry dichotomies is "Last chance to see" book by douglas adams and not the infuriating documentary series with stephen fry.

if you read it you will see what i mean.

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