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Poetry and Science

Poetry and Science

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach; With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds, and volumes of worlds.

-         Walt Whitman in ‘Leaves of Grass’

Is there a link between science and poetry? Certainly the New Scientist seems to think so. In the article ‘Where science and poetry meet’ . Simon Armitrage writes (August 2006):

“AT THE university where I once taught creative writing, the physics department offered a course known in the common room as Astronomy for Poets. Being somewhat interested in both subjects, I got curious and phoned up the admissions secretary, who sent me a glossy brochure “

So do science and poetry meet?

Geoffrey Landis, rocket scientist and poet wrote ‘Five Haiku about Astrophysics’. Here is one of them:

Interstellar planet
ice glistens in star-lit dark:
Does it dream of spring?


Here is an extract (source: http://www.sff.net/people/Geoffrey.Landis/poetry.htp) from Geoffrey Landis’s writings about science and poetry:

“In the modern imagination, the scientist and the poet stand as opposites, the very embodiments of polarity: the cold of rationality versus the heat of emotion.

I, however –speaking as both a scientist and a poet– think it would be more accurate to see science and poetry as two aspects of the same human drive.

As a poet and a student of poetry, I’ve found that one of the most powerful tools of the poet is the metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison of two things which are outwardly unlike, to show some hidden underlying similarity. A poem, more likely than not, compares one thing to another, sometimes explicitly– Shakespeare comparing a lover to a summer’s day; Burns comparing his love to a red red rose–and sometimes symbolically–Frost writing about choosing a path in the woods as a metaphor for the choices we make in life.

But is not science just the search for metaphor? The physicist may say, for example, that the motion of a vibrating string (a violin string, perhaps) is described by a certain equation relating the frequency of vibration to the tension, the mass, and the length of the string. But this is precisely a metaphor; it is a statement that the motion of the string, a real physical object, is “like” the behaviour of the mathematical equation, an imaginary construct on paper. –and then having solved that problem, the physicist will go on further, and use that equation to say that the motion of the air in an organ pipe is like that of the vibrating string, and the behaviour electromagnetic waves in a vacuum is yet the same, and so on. The vibrating string–and its mathematical image, the harmonic oscillator–is a metaphor used all through physics, right through quantum field theory, and even, yes, superstring theory.

Science, like poetry, is experience crystallized.

But there is yet something even more fundamental, I think, in the similarity of science and poetry. Science is not merely the search for truth; to a large extent it is also a search for beauty. Nature is endlessly inventive and casually magnificent. Much of the beauty of the universe, of course, you can see without any knowledge of science; who isn’t moved by the wild power of a waterfall or the innumerable majesty of the stars, seen far from any city lights? But some of the beauty of nature is hidden away. Who would have expected that the mysterious invisible forces of electricity and magnetism would be related by such a simple yet elegant formulation as the four Maxwell’s equations, as intricately intertwined as a sonnet? Who isn’t amazed by the complexity of the interrelationship of the myriad living things that form an ecology?”

So both scientists and poets ‘search’.

Watch the videos below, and listen to four poets who use science as inspiration for their work

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Five ways to use poetry in lessons

1. You say, I say …

Split the class into pairs. One of the pair reads a short poem to the other person. The person sits quietly, listening carefully. At the end of the (short) poem the listener is to write down what (s/he thinks) has been heard.

Purpose: to encourage attentive listening. Listening is a skill.

All pairs read the same poem – but do all listeners ‘hear’ the same poem?

2. Vocabulary

Select a poem that uses difficult vocabulary. Perhaps make one up using words such as “furfuraceous” (covered with dandruff), “omphaloskepsis” (meditation while gazing at one’s navel) or “blabagogy” (a criminal environment). If tailoring the poem to a particular subject, e.g. Biology, then put scientific terminology in the poem. In pairs pupils have to try and establish what the meaning of the words is. Look for clues in the poem – the sound of the word, the context. Pupils write down their definition. At the end of the lesson compare the pupils’ definition with the real one.

3. Explorers

Read a poem to the class. Tell the class who the poet is. Split the class into three groups.

Group 1: Using Google (or similar) find other poems by the author. Do all the poems follow the same theme?

Group 2: Is the poem quoted or referenced by any other writers? Any recommendations?

Group 3: Does the poet have a blog?

Re-group and share what has been learned.

4. Jonathan Ross

(It doesn’t have to be ‘Jonathan Ross’ – it could be ‘Michael Parkinson’ or any other famous interviewer.)Select 5 people from the class (or ask for volunteers.) Give a poem to each of the five. These poems may be by five different authors – or all by the same author. The rest of the class are the interviewers. Whilst the ‘authors’ read through the poems, the ‘interviewers’ prepare questions.  Questions may be about the mood of the writer at the time of the composition, the meaning of certain words, why the poem was written, why that subject was chosen or whether any verses were omitted.   Poems may be modern and relatively unknown – or older and famous. Perhaps even ask the pupils (the ‘authors’) to write the poems themselves. Here is an example of a modern poem by Mark Merriman:

Roman Knows

Ultimate hatchet job
from stony faced Roman,
more or less forcing Jose
to fall on his sword.
No longer special,
Mourinho quips his way
out of Chelsea,
thanking fans, players, teachers
everyone bar the Russian.
Premiership will be the poorer:
no more amateur dramatics,
nor arm-waving histrionics;
no more kisses blown
to the masses;
no more fingers pressed
to lips to hush the fans;
no more post-match interviews
both charismatic and enigmatic;
from the touchline
knuckles gnawed no more.
No More Rinho


5. Fours

The teacher reads out a poem – twice (or you listen to a recording or YouTube presentation etc.) Whilst listening, pupils have to write down:

  • Four things they like about the poem
  • Four things you dislike about the poem
  • Four things you are not quite clear about in the poem (Why? What? Where? When?)
  • Four reasons you think others should listen to the poem
  • Four things you’d like to know about the author

What you are looking for: very specific answers. Which word’s? Why did you like that stanza? What exactly would you ask the writer?

Purpose: to encourage critical listening and thinking.

Books to help you assess poetry:

Andrews, Richard (1991) The Problem with Poetry, Buckingham, Open University Press

Atkinson, Ann, Cashdan, Liz, Michael, Livi and Pople, Ian (2001) ‘Analysing the Aesthetic: a new approach to developing criteria for assessment of creative writing in Higher Education’, Writing in Education, Issue No 21, Winter 2001, York, NAWE pp 26-28

Bearne, Eve (2002) Making Progress in Writing, London, RoutledgeFalmer

Black, P. (1998) Testing: Friend or Foe? London, Falmer Press

Carter, Dennis (1998) Teaching Poetry in the Primary School, London, David Fulton

Curtis, Tony (1990) How to Study Modern Poetry, London, Macmillan Press

D’ Arcy, Pat (2000) Two Contrasting Paradigms for the Teaching and Assessment of Writing, Sheffield, NAAE / NAPE / NATE

DfEE (2001) Key Stage 3 National Literacy Strategy, Framework for teaching English: Years 7, 8 and 9, London, DfEE publications

Dymoke, Sue ‘Taking Stock of Poetry’, The Secondary English Magazine, Vol 4, No 2 December 2000 pp 28-32

Dymoke, Sue ‘Taking Poetry Off its Pedestal: the Place of Poetry Writing in an Assessment-Driven Curriculum’, English in Education, Vol 35, No 3, Autumn 2001, pp 32-41

Dymoke, Sue (in press due Jan 2003) Drafting and Assessing Poetry, London, Paul Chapman Publishing

Myhill, Debra (2001) ‘Writing: Crafting and Creating’, English in Education, Vol 35, No 3, Autumn 2001 pp 13-20

National Writing Project (1990) Ways of Looking, London, School Curriculum Development Committee, Thomas Nelson

Riley, Jeni and Reedy, David (2000) Developing Writing for Different Purposes, London, Paul Chapman Publishing

Simpson, Peter (1999) Original Writing, London, Hodder & Stoughton

Smith, John and Elley, Warwick (1998) How Children Learn to Write, London, Paul Chapman Publishing

Stibbs, Andrew (1981)’Teaching Poetry’, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol 12, No 1 pp 39-50

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