Blending Science into Poetry

Jeannie WoodJeannie Wood is a junior at the University of Arizona studying poetry, astronomy, and Latin. She’s from Northern Arizona and spends her time writing for the Daily Wildcat, playing rough with UA’s Derby Cats, and biking. She enjoys disappearing into different areas of the state, and parts of California, on weekends.

I often hear in the academic world that science and poetry no longer intertwine -- that we have split off into completely different disciplines and not many mix the line anymore. We all have a natural assumption that the Humanities hate the Sciences and vice versa. But already in my classes, I’ve studied just the opposite: it seems the language of science is making a comeback, if it hasn’t just always been lurking around.

Two science-poets that I’ve studied together are the wonderful Katherine Larson and Jeffrey Yang. What is neat about reading these two next to one another is how opposing they are. Sure, they both incorporate science in their writing, but they do it differently. Larson’s poems are emotional, warm (even when they’re devastating), and very human. Yang’s work is more detached, quick, and has sharp undertones; his work always remind me of  deep sea fish: small, odd, and effective.

<--break->First, though, we should talk about what it means to bring science into poetry. Writing poetry has everything to do with word choice -- we have a fine tooth comb running through each piece of work to get to the essential words, to the essential meaning of the poem. We’ve developed different methods of bringing in varied topics of study into poetry (in this case, science). We can write an out-and-out science poem that describes a chemical reaction, or dissecting a cat, or how the Sun is a burning ball of gas. That’s logical, right? As poets, we want to have levels, though, or layers within our work. We want to challenge our readers, and ultimately ourselves. These layers are developed in the words we use, or our diction.

Diction is one of the most important things you will ever learn as a writer. What this whole post comes down to, what all my babbling about cross-disciplinary poems is really diction. The Oxford English Dictionary (the second most important thing you’ll ever know as a writer) defines diction as “the manner in which anything is expressed in (spoken or written) words; choice or selection of words and phrases; wording, phrasing; verbal style.” Diction is most simply, word choice. What world are you taking your words from, what dialogue? Technological? Natural? Religious? Academic? The list goes on...

If poetry is all about diction, what’s diction all about? Balance. Larson uses words like cephalopod, pheromones, dissected and brachial in her poem “Love at Thirty-two Degrees.” These words are very much biological, but the whole poem isn’t biology terms; it’s mixed in with colloquial language. This mixing is where we get some layers, and it makes the poem more interesting.

We have to be careful though. Too many different kinds of words can confuse the reader and make it difficult to understand the poem. Listen to “Love at Thirty-two Degrees”:

Larson’s view of science in this poem is very romantic. It’s not just cut and dry dissections and experiments; she used some scientific language to convey a greater feeling and meaning throughout the poem. Now, listen to “Study for Love’s Body” -- again, Larson uses modern biology to describe abstract ideas. It’s an intriguing way to bring meaning to the poem, and Larson challenges her reader to understand the world, love, etc. in a different way.

Jeffrey Yang uses science in his work with a more historical background. He is very much interested in the history of a society and what it did. His poem “Abalone” has a stunning phrase, “iridescent pearl/ nebular swirl." The words iridescent and nebular are pretty sciencey, and in the same work he also uses gonads. In “Kelp” he uses nutrients and ecosystem, giving us a more utilitarian view on what is going on, and not just the visual of a kelp forest. What Yang has done in his abecedarian is opposite, or the other side of Larson. By choosing topics of biological interest and writing through history and politics, Yang gives us a different understanding beyond the creatures’ biological nature. His works are more cultural explorations through science than Larson’s.

Listen to Yang’s reading here:

Yang uses other languages, like Chinese, in his work. And since his poems are so short and condensed, it’s quite different hearing him read than say, us. He creates a lot of music with his words, partly because of his diction.

Now it’s your turn! Take your cat dissection poem and use technological terms to describe it. Take your poem about your friend reading and describe it through the seasons. Play with diction, add those levels and layers to your work -- intrigue us!

Created on: 
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents