I found an article the other day, while looking for a quote on crafting CNF, titled “Poetry and Science: a view from the divide.” Being the person that I am, I’ve been playing with and reading this article for a good week now, trying to decide what parts of it to respond to. Truth be told, this may be an article that I write multiple blog posts about.
One of the things that Alison Hawthorne Deming does in this article is try to define science and poetry in terms of each other to figure out what is different about them. One of my favorite paragraphs on this subject, which I’ve quoted at the bottom of this post, compared them in terms of language and word use. Deming says that the two disciplines “use language in a fundamentally different manner.” She claims that science uses it as “a tool of measurement” and an “auxiliary tool.” Language, for poetry, is at the forefront of everything. It is the emotion and driving force behind a poem. In both cases, though, scientists and poets use language carefully to tell stories and to explain. The stories they create and explain are very, very different.
Over the summer I had to write a proposal for a directed study. In this proposal, I was talking about pits in the Laki lava flow, a large lava flow in Iceland, and one of the comments that my professor wrote back was about the precision of language. He told me that I could not call some of the pits, which I hypothesized where formed by a collapse of the rock, collapse-pits, because it implied that I already knew they were collapse features. I did not know this, obviously, it was what my entire study was going to be on. Likewise, I find myself reaching for precision when writing poetry, because every word counts when you only use 83 of them. My take away, at least from this part of the essay, is that language use is one of the ways we can define disciplines. Furthermore, the way language is used for interdisciplinary writing requires care, because it combines the original disciple, the everyday understanding of that word/ discipline, and whatever metaphor/ wordplay the poem is suggesting. Scientific words sometimes require that you unpack and understand them to use them. Poetry words require that you think about them within the context of the poem. Both ways, language asks its users to remember that they are part of a subgroup, to use the language of this class, and that they and their poetry doesn’t exist within a void.
“But science and poetry, when each discipline is practiced with integrity, use language in a fundamentally different manner. Both disciplines share the attempt to find a language for the unknown, to develop an orderly syntax to represent accurately some carefully seen aspect of the world. Both employ language in a manner more distilled than ordinary conversation. Both, at their best, use metaphor and narrative to make unexpected connections. But, as Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub points out, “for the sciences, words are an auxiliary tool.” Science–within the tradition of its professional literature–uses language for verification and counts on words to have a meaning so specific that they will not be colored by feelings and biases. Science uses language as if it were another form of measurement–exact, definitive and logical. ”