A Poet and a Physicist Walk Into a Bar…

Richard Feynman was a very astute fellow. His imaginative powers were so well suited for the wonders of the physical world that he was able to create a graphical method for solving the mathematics associated with quantum electrodynamics, a body of physics that he maintained it was absolutely impossible to develop intuition for. Feynman had a powerful belief that both scientific and artistic study fuels curiosity and sensitivity towards life and the world, and pursued both with help from his friend, Jirayr Zorthian.

Being a physicist myself, I am familiar with a large portion of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. I enjoy listening to them, and find them to be helpful not only for study, but for distilling the same kind of clear-headed scientific and creative aesthetic that characterized Feynman’s work. Eminently quotable, Feynman was the first to come to mind when Little Patuxent Review needed something for the Science issue’s call for submissions. However, since I made my suggestion, a different remark of Feynman’s has been sticking in my head.

Science_Submissions

At the end of a brief survey of the relationship between physics and the other sciences, Feynman concludes, “A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood.” He goes on to explain with his usual insight and humor the truth of the poet’s claim. As a poet, I couldn’t help but feel slightly burned by Feynman’s quip. He was often dismissive of those he perceived to be intentionally opaque in thought or obscure in meaning, such as philosophers and clergy.

How to handle meaning has been a problem that has plagued my studies and practice in poetry, including critiquing the work of peers. Despite deemphasizing meaning or message in my mind while I am working, and encouraging other poets to pursue narrative over argument, I cannot help but feel like some poems ultimately say something while others do not. I also cannot help but feel that my poems that do not succeed in saying something are somewhat pointless. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel Feynman is correct, whether he meant his comment to be a dig or not.

I maintain that poets do not (or at least should not) write to be understood. The poet’s obligation is to tell the story with the most beautiful and thrilling language possible, to extend and expand even what is possible with language. If the language engages the reader, then the reader will be reading something important. That important thing that the reader sees will most likely not be anything the poet can predict, let alone successfully write about.

These opinions, of course, do not originate with me, and are not universally shared among writers. However, by way of anecdotal evidence, I recently read an article by poet Hannah Gamble about her experience working with children and teenagers, in which she gives examples and her thoughts about the relatively exciting language employed by younger students that is absent in the work of students who have had time to have their language normalized and constrained. Even if the poetry her younger students produced was not exactly masterful, the language is undeniably more exciting than that of her older students, and it does not come at a cost of content despite the fact that it is difficult for me to truly and fully relate to their mind state.

My view is my own rationalization made to fit my models of good scientific aesthetic (i.e. Feynman) with my artistic aesthetics. Scientific aesthetic runs as broad as artistic aesthetic, often intersecting as they have here. Max Planck saw science as politically bound, requiring the birth of new generations to advance new ideas. Politicians often tout science as a democratizing force. Science fiction writers write as if science was behind on the times. Other quotes offered for the call for submissions found Bradbury and Einstein both appealing to a romantic interest and curiosity in the infinite possibility of the universe.

What will the dialogue in the LPR community about science look like? What do you want out of the Science issue? Your ideas could lead to a piece posted here, or in excellent poetry or prose for the issue. Get thinking, then write back to let us know how this chapter will go.

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11 thoughts on “A Poet and a Physicist Walk Into a Bar…

    • Thanks, Clarinda! That definitely seems like sound advice, especially since such publications sometimes already present the content in a socially oriented way. It may be time for me to revisit some particularly good articles I’ve read and see if I don’t feel a poem coming on.

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  1. Science 

    Man, introverted man, having crossed 
    In passage and but a little with the nature of things this 
         latter century 
    Has begot giants; but being taken up 
    Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts can- 
         not manage his hybrids. 
    Being used to deal with edgeless dreams, 
    Now he’s bred knives on nature turns them also inward: 
         they have thirsty points though. 
    His mind forebodes his own destruction; 
    Actaeon who saw the goddess naked among leaves and 
         his hounds tore him. 
    A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle, 
    A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this 
         infinitely little too much?

    – Robinson Jeffers

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  2. I believe LPR has taken on the ultimate challenge exploring science from a literary and artistic point of view. That is what makes the upcoming issue so tantalizing. Certainly, without poetry, fiction, essays and the arts, we are left without creativity and intuitive insight. Those impulses are what prompt scientific exploration to look into unexplainable places to find what is discoverable. Perhaps exploring the mysteries underlying Creation with a sense of ceaseless wonder is what all creative folks share. Bring on the Science issue. I am ready for its twists and turns.

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    • Well said, Mike! I agree that literature and the arts share a lot of creativity in common with the sciences, and I’m very excited to see what kind of creativity contributors will exercise at their junction.

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  3. Pingback: Print Issue Preview: Science Under the Microscope | Little Patuxent Review

  4. Thanks, Dylan Bargteil, for your post last year as referenced to the astuteness of Richard Feynman, a hero of many physicists who also wrote some poetry. Only today did I come upon your post, which obviously, then, is too late for the purposes of the present issue of LPR. But an idea for a possible future issue exploring an overlooked aspect of the theme of poetry and physics which often finds itself exercised in the thinking of a physicist, of which I am one (Ph.D., 1974), could be called “Dueling Opposites” or “Lightning Rods.” That is, poetry which is at high enough a standard of excellence to be published in quarterlies, chapbooks, and volumes is crafted, made by human hands. Arguably, then, a good poem is the work of a human mind. However, physics is not about a work that human beings create, it is about a reality that has been created long before we came along and is still being created and will be created in the future. The dialectic between poetry and physics then is about one wanting to be God himself vs. wanting to see and understand and wonder at what God had wrought – and to put that latter into mathematical language if at all possible. Therefore, the suggested theme of “Dueling Opposites” or “Lightning Rods” unavoidably would bring in religion and spirituality in which a main tenet is that God is Creator – a tenet which many physicists reject but one that I accept.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Harold.

      My own outlook is that science and artistic pursuits are actually very similar activities, and that the idea that they are somehow opposed or irreconcilable (i.e. the view promoted by The Two Cultures) is mistaken. Science is, in my view, far from purely descriptive. Scientists constantly create models, pictures, and stories (be they in mathematical language or not). If you review the writings of physicists over the years, much effort has been expended not only on the mathematical description, but the interpretation or story that accompanies it. Faraday felt that references to matter in physics were unnecessary and that the correct way to think about the universe was the operation of forces. On the other hand I have read that Helmholtz felt oppositely, that matter was the fundamental feature of the universe. That these arguments could even exist indicates that physics is absolutely created by human hands.

      That said, I think both fields hold interesting opportunities to examine approach to God (if that is what you believe) or the universe. Spirituality, Doubt, and now Science have all been themes for LPR’s issues touching on your suggestion. I hope you’ll take advantage of the LPR community’s work if you’re interested in exploring others’ thoughts on these themes further.

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      • In reflective response to the same-day reply of Dylan Bargteil to my comment of April 2, 2014 to his blog, I let my reply stand as is. By the way, I did not say nor imply that the opposing views intrinsic to a work of human hands such as a poem crafted by a man, woman or child vs. a work of God such as a human being created by God are “irreconcilable.” Nor is it “mistaken” to live with opposites and the tension that comes with that. I did, however, use the term “dialectic” which therefore implies a dialogue of logic with an ending – and learning — phase of resolution of apparent opposites into a new whole about what reality is within which the apparent conflicts vanish. In fact, physics itself is often dialectical, as with its wave-particle duality posed within the framework of quantum mechanics. This dialectic is given flesh and blood, however, when one lives with it, such as with the dialogue that ensues internally when one writes poetry as well as does physics, not compartmentalizing these two activities but allowing crossover and crosstalk between them. Furthermore, writing poetry and doing physics are activities that emanate from the same human person. Their similarity, as Mr. Bargteil expresses it, is thus apparent if they both have a common origin. Their “similar” nature becomes even more evident, though, when one views the dialogue, within an ontological framework, of who one as a human person really is as being. For example, is one simply self-made or is one made by God? What does it matter who one really is or how one got there? Inevitably such dialogue blossoms out with both material and spiritual dimensions, and delves into what meaning itself is.

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