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Review of Scientific Papers
Michael Caines, Poetry Review, Issue 92-4, Summer 2005To the 'Scientific Papers' page...
In the traditional enmity between art and science, art has unfairly stood for any aspect of human behaviour that would seem out of place in the stereotypical physics lab. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss rightly argues that a separation occurred between science and "mythological thought" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that was essential to the progress of the former. Nevertheless, he observes, "natural and cultural phenomena" such as poetry, "may share formal characteristics, without reducing either science or art to merely a flat reflection of the other".
Charles Dodgson's 1879 mathematical paper, "Euclid and His Modern Rivals"; caught Robertson Davies's eye, as "a serious and excellent contribution to Euclidean geometry"; but the mathematical world was offended by it because it contained a number of jokes, and the mathematical world does not admit the existence of jokes. To Davies, "This seems to be a case in which Dodgson and [his literary alter ago, Lewis] Carroll became dangerously mingled". Usually, Dodgson's technical treatises on maths were received "with respect, if not rapture, by the people who could understand them". In Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the dichotomy is worse still, with morality taking the side of Dodgson/Carroll's sense of humour against mathematics and empirical investigation. "Everything about this is embarrassing" says a scientist (and former nun). "D'you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing". It is as if Wordsworth and Coleridge never wrote in their Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads that "poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in countenance of all science".
David Morley and Andy Brown, editors of a slim volume of poems called Of Science, take the 1802 Lyrical Ballads as the model for their "unmisted" poetic engagement with scientific phenomena, quoting these lines:
'If the labours of Men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but . . . follow the steps of the Man of Science . . .'
In this view, the act of "carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself" is poetry's mission. Poetry, in this assessment, must humbly take its place as the vessel of witness, not "material revolution"; and this is generally how the relationship between art and science has stood ever since - hence the resentful teasing. It is both a "useful" role and a scientifically sound one: accurate, meaningful observation. As Osip Mandelstam puts it in the epigraph to David Morley's first full-length collection of poems, Scientific Papers, "Here the demands of science correspond to one of the most fundamental aesthetic laws". But the "birdcall" of Of Science is one that would have troubled Robert Frost. For him, the modernist poetry of Eliot and Pound, according to Robert Bernard Hass in Going by Contraries: Robert Frost's conflict with science, was an unconvincing riposte to science's post-Darwinian supremacy. Hass reads Frost's most famous poem. "The Road Not Taken" in the light of the poet's vexed relationship with science - as "a poetic declaration of independence from a society that values utility more than it does aesthetics".
For David Morley, much more springs from the common ground between art and science than Frosty philosophical conflict and A Quark for Mister Mark, Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney's anthology of 101 poems about science. There is certainly no evidence here of a "Two Cultures"-style debate that posits a petulant and etymologically unsound rivalry between art and science. Nor is Morley's project a straightforward attempt to reinvigorate the poetic lexicon with cadenced equations or unlikely chemical neologisms. He merely treats the practices of science and poetry as "a single discussion" held in "the same laboratory of language":
'You must examine unsettled matters and relationships. Do not evade responsibility: you must discuss the implications of what you've done . . . Too often the significance of findings is not discussed or not discussed well.'
The epigraph by Mandelstam comes from his essay "On the Naturalists"; written in 1932 near the time of the poet's exile to the European Russian city of Voronezh. Several of the poems that follow take their cue (a line, an image, or an idea) from Mandelstam (who chose to serve his sentence in Voronezh on the advice of a biologist acquaintance): "Darwin's compositional method is the serial development of signs. Bunches of examples . . . lmagine a scholar-gardener leading guests around his estate, stopping among the flowerbeds to offer explanations; or an amateur zoologist welcoming his good friends in a zoological garden".
There are also purely practical resemblances: as the first of Morley's fifty "papers" declares (and this is the first book in a projected trilogy): "Without publication science is dead". The fiftieth consists of a quotation from Albert Einstein, seemingly set as verse:
Where the world ceases to be the scene
of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it
as free beings admiring, asking and
observing, there we enter the realm of art
As a practitioner of both kinds of literature, and a teacher of both scientific and creative writing at Warwick University, Morley is well placed to judge of such matters. The reader, in turn, should approach this book in the spirit of Mandelstam's scholar-gardener. Morley's specimens are best examined in strict order, however, and are not fit for haphazard buzzing. The concluding "Materials and Methods" are reassuringly short and, on the whole, not the difficult elucidations you might expect. So there is no cause for alarm; Scientific Papers consists almost exclusively of - would you believe it - aesthetically rewarding poems.
One of the first things that you notice about Morley's corner of this realm is its chilliness. From Romany encampments on the borders of society to deep seas, Kerensky's despondent days in the Winter Palace, and the call of Blackpool's wild bingo hall ("The Wakes"), the permafrost lies beneath:
On the blue, four and two.
On the white, your camera-light.
Blackpool queues, how do you do's.
Blackpool's wealth, the brain's on a shelf.
Knock it back. Bring it up.
But "The Wakes" is an atypical attempt at exuberant foot-stamping, not unlike Louis MacNiece's "Bagpipe Music". Elsewhere, Morley sounds closer to the 1930s Auden: "Low pressure over Voronezh. / The barometer held its breath". And in "The Goodnight", later Auden:
An owl unfolds across the bed:
its eyes, hungover can see the dead;
the swerving and the narrow hours
are no longer mine, no longer yours:
perfect ships of life and work
butt each other in the dark.
The poems in Of Science are anonymous, in homage to the Lyrical Ballads. This said, Morley follows the Romantic tradition further in Scientific Papers by reclaiming several of these poems as his own. They benefit greatly from being seen in sequence, forming the image of a life and history stretching out behind it, simultaneously defying and inviting accurate investigation. "Bamboo" beings with "trees [coming] out of their changing room in April / like green fighters, like players for a new season"; only halfway through does the narrator manifest himself as an "I", creeping through this spring crowd "to eye-spy what vexes him so". The next poem ("The Site") begins:
Why am I trailing you,
now through a pine-wood,
now through the words I write...?
Morley's enquiries produce numerous reasons to read this excellent book.
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