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.
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.