BOOK REVIEW by RALPH DUMAIN

Bonnie Bilyeu Gordon. Songs from Unsung Worlds: Science in Poetry. (Science 85.) xxiii + 230 pp., illus., apps. Boston/Basel/Stuttgart: Birkhäuser, 1985. $14.95 (cloth); $11.95 (paper).

This unique anthology contains 142 poems by 77 poets, a handful of whom are scientifically educated and ten of whom are or were practicing scientists. Among the scientists are the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffman, the immunologist and distinguished poet Miroslav Holub, and the anthropologist Loren Eiseley. The preponderance of the poets are contemporary (e.g., Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich), but older moderns and noted poets of previous centuries are represented: W. H. Auden, e. e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and John Donne. The biographical notes at the back of the book include references to the individual poems and cite the motives of many of the living writers for writing poetry and using science in it. The introduction features a dialogue between the physicist Alan Lightman and the poet George Starbuck. They ponder the effects of science on modern poets (T. S. Eliot, Auden, William Empson) and, most interesting of all, speculate about what types of poems scientists write and why.

The anthology is divided into four sections: "The Subject Is Science" (about science and scientists), "Observations of the Natural World," "Science as Metaphor," and "Satire and Criticism of Science." The scientific subject matter of the first section’s poems comprises, in roughly descending order of frequency: evolution, physics, cosmology, astronomy, biology, medicine, space flight, mathematics, geology, meteorology, archaeology, and psychiatry. Aspects of science treated include scientific discovery, proof, invention, laws, and epistemology. In Section 2 all but three poems are straight nature poetry or reflections on nature. One poem is ideological, favorably comparing a snake to the military. There are only two with any hint of scientific language. The poets in Section 3 use the language of genetics, cosmology, microbiology, physiology, ethology, psychology, astronomy, space travel, natural history, chemistry, mathematics, and especially physics and scientific law as a source of metaphors to comment on human affairs. Section 4 is not aptly named: only one sixth of the poems are actually critical of science. The others are whimsical, humorous, or satirical poems about nuclear war, medicine, computers, philosophy, and other subjects entirely.

Aside from quibbles about the relevance of many of these poems to science, I am dissatisfied primarily with the selections in the last section. Most of the "critical" poems use the stock device of juxtaposing direct experience of nature and the sense of wonder with the heartless world of theory, experiment, and number crunching. Walt Whitman’s "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" is thematically cloned over and over, and each poem is as emotionally counterfeit and philosophically insipid as Whitman’s. The inclusion of at least one poem by William Blake that is philosophically challenging to science—say, "Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau"—would have been far more thought provoking. From a philosophical and aesthetic standpoint Section 3 is the most interesting, in my view. This section certainly proves that ideas from science can provide vivid metaphors and images. Only in a few cases is the language too prosaic, dry, or dull—or too abstract. In "The Causes of Color" (Ann Rae Jonas) and "The Monkish Mind of the Speculative Physicist" (Bin Ramke) the juxtaposition of everyday life with the science results in striking poetic ideas.

The scientists are the poetic equals of the other humanists, in my judgment. Their poetry is characterized by vivid imagery and precise use of language. Oppenheimer and Eiseley are nature poets. Roald Hoffman makes verbally audacious observations of nature. "The Stethoscope," by the physician Dannie Abse, is haunting and original. Lucille Day creates interesting imagery and viewpoints using biological themes. Anselm Parlatore’s topics are scientific research and natural history. Holub mixes scientific themes—for example, the process of discovery—with ironic observations about nature and humanity. It is difficult to generalize about the nonscientist contributors, but interesting to compare the poems of the protagonists of the book’s introduction. I find the poet Starbuck gaudy, noisy, bombastic, and sloganeering, whereas the astrophysicist Lightman is more organized, focused, quietly poetic, and subtle—and he has more to say.

Lack of space limits me to mere mention of these excellent poems: "Hominization" (Miroslav Holub), "In Computers" (Alan Lightman), "Waiting" (Judith Skillman), "Two Sorrows" (David St. John), "Natural History" (Adrienne Fargas), "The Weather of the World" (Howard Nemerov), "Artificial Intelligence" (Adrienne Rich), "On Zero" (Alan Dugan) (partially quoted in the introduction), "Tumor" (Lucille Day), "Surgery" (Carol Burbank), "The Doctor Rebuilds a Hand" (Gary Young), and "The Parents of Psychotic Children" (Marvin Bell).

This anthology will prove worthwhile to the general reader and indispensable to the scholar interested in the relation between science and literature.


SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. Review: Bonnie Bilyeu Gordon, Songs from Unsung Worlds: Science in Poetry, Isis, 78 : 4 : 294 (1987), 658-659.

(c) 1987, 2001 Ralph Dumain



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