Writing Science Poetry

Science poetry or scientific poetry is a specialized poetic genre that makes use of science as its subject. Written by scientists and nonscientists, science poets are generally avid readers and appreciators of science and “science matters.” Science poetry may be found in anthologies, in collections, in science fiction magazines that sometimes include poetry, in other magazines and journals. Many science fiction magazines, including online magazines, such as Strange Horizons, often publish science fiction poetry, another form of science poetry. Of course science fiction poetry is a somewhat different genre. Online there is the Science Poetry Center for those interested in science poetry, and for those interested in science fiction poetry The Science Fiction Poetry Association. In addition, there’s Science Fiction Poetry Handbook and Ultimate Science Fiction Poetry Guide, all found online. Strange Horizons has published the science fiction poetry of Joanne Merriam, Gary Lehmann and Mike Allen.

As for science poetry, science or scientific poets like science fiction poets may also publish collections of poetry in almost any stylistic format. Science or scientific poets, like other poets, must know the “art and craft” of poetry, and science or scientific poetry appears in all the poetic forms: free verse, blank verse, metrical, rhymed, unrhymed, abstract and concrete, ballad, dramatic monologue, narrative, lyrical, etc. All the poetic devices are in use also, from alliteration to apostrophe to pun to irony and understatement, to every poetic diction, figures of speech and rhythm, etc. Even metaphysical scientific poetry is possible. In his anthology, The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, editor Timothy Ferris aptly includes a section entitled “The Poetry of Science.” Says Ferris in the introduction to this section, “Science (or the ‘natural philosophy’ from which science evolved) has long provided poets with raw material, inspiring some to praise scientific ideas and others to react against them.”

Such greats as Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe either praised or “excoriated” science and/or a combination of both. This continued into the twentieth century with such poets as Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost and Robert Hayden (e.g. “Full Moon”–“the brilliant challenger of rocket experts”) not to mention many of the lesser known poets, who nevertheless maintain a poetic response to scientific matters. Says Ferris, “This is not to say that scientists should try to emulate poets, or that poets should turn proselytes for science….But they need each other, and the world needs both.” Included in his anthology along with the best scientific prose/essays are the poets Walt Whitman (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”), Gerard Manley Hopkins “(“I am Like a Slip of Comet…”), Emily Dickinson (“Arcturus”), Robinson Jeffers (“Star-Swirls”), Richard Ryan (“Galaxy”), James Clerk Maxwell (“Molecular Evolution”), John Updike (“Cosmic Gall”), Diane Ackerman (“Space Shuttle”) and others.

Certainly those writing scientific poetry like those writing science fiction need not praise all of science, but science nevertheless the subject matter, and there is often a greater relationship between poetry and science than either poets and/or scientists admit. Creativity and romance can be in both, as can the intellectual and the mathematical. Both can be aesthetic and logical. Or both can be nonaesthetic and nonlogical, depending on the type of science and the type of poetry.

Science poetry takes it subject from scientific measurements to scientific symbols to time & space to biology to chemistry to physics to astronomy to earth science/geology to meteorology to environmental science to computer science to engineering/technical science. It may also take its subject from scientists themselves, from Brahmagypta to Einstein, from Galileo to Annie Cannon. It may speak to specific types of scientists in general as Goethe “True Enough: To the Physicist” in the Ferris anthology. (Subsequent poets mentioned are also from this anthology.)

Science poetry may make use of many forms or any form from lyrical to narrative to sonnet to dramatic monologue to free verse to light verse to haiku to villanelle, from poetry for children or adults or both, for the scientist for the non scientist or both. John Frederick Nims has written for example, “The Observatory Ode.” (“The Universe: We’d like to understand.”) There are poems that rhyme, poems that don’t rhythme. There’s “concrete poetry” such as Annie Dillard’s “The Windy Planet” in which the poem in in the shape of a planet, from “pole” to “pole,” an inventive poem. “Chaos Theory” even becomes the subject of poetry as in Wallace Stevens’ “The Connoisseur of Chaos.”

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