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I worked for a decade at a STEM university. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That doesn't immediately sound very poetic, but poets do write about all those fields at times, and there were poets at the university.
The first "science" poem I remember reading in a school anthology is "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" by Walt Whitman which is basically an anti-science poem.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
We have all probably sat through some of those lectures and wanted to walk out and just look up at the sky.
There were metaphysical poets, like Donne and Marvell. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, etc. Not physics in the scientific sense but with some science in the conceits of their philosophy.
Sarah Howe writing about the poetry of astrophysics wrote "It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots."
Howe's poem titled "Relativity" is dedicated to Stephen Hawking and begins:
When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.
Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows...
In "The Sciences Sing a Lullabye," Albert Goldbarth lets the sciences sing.
Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now...
Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean...
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow...
All these are model poems for this month's call for submissions, but I chose Nick Flynn's "Cartoon Physics, part 1" as our example on the website in which he plays with physics the way cartoons play with physics.
...that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries
will crash into the rock...
Cartoon physics teaches us that
that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall
until he notices his mistake.
Physics seems to attract more poets and I had a physics course in college for non-majors that was nicknamed "physics for poets." We were all theoretical physicists in that lecture hall talking about time travel, quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and the physics that interests the writers of stories and makers of films of science-fiction.
Of course, science doesn't always get it right. I wrote elsewhere about some "wrong science" which can be funny in retrospect and might even be poetic.
Submission Deadline: November 30, 2022.
Nick Flynn is an American writer, playwright, and poet. His writing is characterized by lyric, distilled moments, which blur the boundaries of various genres. Many of his books are structured using a collage technique, which creates narratives with fractured, mosaic qualities. He is the author of five poetry collections, including I Will Destroy You (Graywolf Press, 2019). Flynn was born in Scituate, Massachusetts in 1960. His debut poetry collection, Some Ether (2000), won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He has also published several memoirs including Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston, and Brooklyn, New York. His website is nickflynn.org
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