quinta-feira, 26 de dezembro de 2013

Astronomy and Poetry by Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The radiance of that star that leans on me Was shining years ago. The light that now Glitters up there my eye may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how
Love that loves now may not reach me until Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
Elizabeth Jennings
In spite of a good education I came to appreciate music late in life, and to appreciate poetry even later. The turning point can be identi­fied: I had done a talk on astronomy for a group of women, showing slides, explaining the size and scale of the universe, and how long it took light to travel the huge distances. Afterwards, Jennifer, a friend in the audience, gave me a copy of Elizabeth Jennings’s poem ‘Delay’, and its power and its appropriateness immediately hit me.

I have given many talks on astronomy to lay audiences; I believe I make the subject accessible, explain things clearly, and hold the audi­ence’s interest. In such talks it is easy to play the wow, gee-whiz element of astronomy, it is easy to raise the hairs on the back of the neck talking about our place in the universe and the origin and future evolution of the universe. And there are photos of many won­derfully beautiful galaxies, nebulae, and groups of stars to give visual impact. As a woman I probably seem more approachable and less threatening than a male speaker, and I certainly get lots of very interesting questions on all manner of topics after each talk (pro­vided the Chair does not get twitchy and close it down!). To draw others, especially women, into science, I would like to give fair space to the human side of science, but lack vehicles with which to do so in these talks. So I have always been left a little unsatisfied by the exclusively scientific content of my own talks.

Elizabeth Jennings’s poem (which opens her 2002 Carcanet New Collected Poems) is not only powerful and appropriate, it is brief as well—just eight lines long. As such I could quote it in its entirety in one of my talks. And more and more I have done so, and included other non-scientific pieces of writing in my talks. I suspect the more ‘nerdish’ members of my audience do not know what to make of these pieces but, consistently, female audience members will come up to me afterwards and speak appreciatively of their inclusion. Such material should help the non-scientists in the audience relate to the topic, may woo those who are suspicious of science or scientists, and demonstrate that astronomy is part of our cultural heritage.
From those eight lines has grown a whole new interest, and a new dimension to life. I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme to use in my talks, and found it was speaking to something in me. The collecting acquired its own impetus. I compared my collec­tion with those of others, and at tense times (such as waiting for the outcome of a job interview) when I could not concentrate on work, found that the poetry soothed and steadied me. I have always loved words and have always appreciated the richness and diversity of Eng­lish vocabulary. Rhythm has also always appealed to me—expressed usually through dancing—so perhaps it is no surprise that poetry appeals.

The collecting has been quite challenging. Some poets (Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Diane Ackerman, for example) frequently write on astronomical themes, but the majority appear only to write one or two poems, and my impression is that those one or two are rarely included in general anthologies or selections. Word of mouth and casual references have led to research on the World Wide Web and the tracking down of many poems (blessings be to Google!). Tracking down the full reference has been as much work again!
Science is great—I would have difficulty living without it, and yet I could not live by science alone. There are other dimensions to life, other ways of thinking and behaving besides the scientific that ideally I need in my life in order to feel reasonably rounded. I like poetry because of its complementary nature, because it is so different from doing science. In saying this I do not want to give the impression that science is totally aseptic, mechanistic, and lacking in imagination. I have long argued that the scientific method as currently taught to our students underplays the role of imagination, synthesis, and cre­ativity; we focus on how hypotheses and models, once created, are tested, and do not give enough attention to how they are created. Scientists do not always recognize the imagination needed to be a good scientist!

I also appreciate poetry for its healing properties, and clearly am not alone in this. It was striking how, in the days following Septem­ber 11, people were turning to poetry, sharing quotations with each other, displaying snippets of verse and using them as memorials. But what is this healing? I believe it is more than giving comfort, in the sense of easing or making comfortable (although it does that too). It is closer to the original meaning of comfort—making strong. It strengthens because it recognizes and articulates hurt that many of us experience but may not be able to express. That recognition, that confirmation that others have similar experience, is reassuring. This is the start of the healing.

Behind the complementary nature of science and poetry there is of course a divide. My computer’s ‘spell checker’ symbolizes that for me. Spell checker does not like abbreviations like ‘o’er’, it does not recognize classical illusions, it prefers a capital letter after a line break, and it desires verbs at regular intervals. It is methodical, con­sistent, and logical—and most of the time I am grateful for that. But we lose a lot if we can only express ourselves in spell-checker- approved language; we lose the less tangible, the phrasing and breathing, the rhythms and urge and patterns and shape, some of the allusions and illusions, indeed the very power of poetry. Poetry addresses the heart as well as the head, the emotional as well as the rational, and seems to me to do so better than prose. It reaches where no other words can reach; and the assiduous spell checker is blind to its nuances.

Modern astronomy started after World War II, when technologies such as radar and rocketry, developed during the war, were applied afterwards in the expanding field of astronomy. Our vision widened as the new astronomies, especially radio and X-ray, enabled us to see not just in visible light, but in other wavebands as well. Radar quickly became radio astronomy, often using actual radar dishes and reflectors as well as many of the same techniques. In Britain V2 rockets developed into the Skylark rocket programme, through which small pieces of equipment could be given brief flights above the Earth’s atmosphere. The rockets then became the launch vehicles for artificial satellites. These launch vehicles opened up the far infra­red, ultra-violet, X-ray, and gamma-ray astronomy bands, which are normally blocked for us by the earth’s atmosphere. The intellectual stimulus was huge. It was fuelled in the late 1950s by the Soviet launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, the realization by the West that we had fallen behind, and the consequent emphasis on science.

I have taken 1950 as the start date for this essay. Since then astron­omers have discovered quasars and pulsars, black holes and brown dwarfs, dark matter and dark energy. We have come to accept that there was a Big Bang, and have detected microwave radiation left over from that explosion. The size of the universe is appreciated (although we still have trouble envisaging such large scales) and we have an understanding of how stars are born, live and die. We can predict the future of our Sun, although are on less certain ground when we try to predict the future of the Universe.

Gathering and reflecting on one hundred and twenty or so post- 1950 astronomy poems it has become apparent to me that while radio telescopes feature in several, none of the other new wavebands do. X-ray astronomy which, arguably, has had as much impact on astro­physics does not get a mention, although objects like black holes discovered by that branch of astronomy do. Why the distinction? Perhaps it is because radio telescopes are on the ground while most of the telescopes that operate in the other new wavebands have to be launched into space. Furthermore, radio telescopes are frequently big structures, like Jodrell Bank, and highly visible, whereas telescopes to be launched by rocket have to be compact (or fold up compactly). We are familiar with tuning into the radio waves broadcast by a particular station, but understand less well that similarly we can tune into other wavebands. So perhaps the choice of subject for poetry reflects visibility and familiarity.

Though their work predates the period covered by this essay, it is worth remarking that Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and Robert Frost were keen amateur astronomers, each possessing a telescope. Highly developed skills in poetry and in astronomy are rarely found in the same person, but there have been some noteworthy familial links between poets and astronomers. Robinson Jeffers had a brother, Hamilton, who was an astronomer at Lick Observatory, California, and Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was the daughter of an astronomer; her father was Director of the Flower Observatory, University of Pennsylvania. Percival Lowell, the astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, was a distant cousin of Robert Lowell (1917-77), but died the year before the poet was born. The dedication of Gwyneth Lewis’s (1959- ) book Zero Gravity reads, in part, ‘to commemorate the voyage of my cousin Joe Tanner and the crew of Space Shuttle STS-82 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope’. Rebecca Elson (1960-99) was of that rare class—a professional astronomer who wrote poetry. Why, one wonders, are there not more Rebecca Elsons? I know scientists who paint, sculpt, dance, sing, play musical instruments, and one or two who write science fiction, but Rebecca apart, none who write poetry (or will admit to it). Why? Most of my collection of astronomical poetry is written by non-scientists.

When I first read it, I thought Frederick Seidel’s poem ‘The New Cosmology’ was referring to a major new array of millimetre radio telescopes about to be built in Chile (called ALMA—the Atacama Large Millimetre Array). However, having checked the date of publi­cation (1989) I suspect Seidel is referring to an earlier Swedish- European telescope. His poem will get even better with time, for ALMA will have many ‘dishes’ and will look more of an invasion, perched on a high plateau. One plan is to have the telescopes arranged in a spiral pattern on the ground, which will look intriguing to God or anyone else viewing from above.
Above the Third World, looking down on a fourth:
Life’s aerial photograph of a new radio telescope Discolouring an inch of mountainside in Chile,
A Martian invasion of dish receivers.
The tribes of Israel in their tents Must have looked like this to God—
A naive stain of wildflowers on a hill,
A field of ear trumpets listening for Him,
Stuck listening to space like someone blind ..
The poem concerns the imaginable and the unimaginable, and how the latter is ousting the former; it is about how our growing know­ledge is demolishing myth, and there is a touch of the classic science and religion debate here too. Seidel struggles to take all these in, but gives up and lapses into silence. Silence is an appropriate response in such circumstances. While it is always nice to have a positive, well- turned ending, an unresolved, open, searching end is nearer where we, the astronomers, are. Arguably it is where society should be too.

The theme of listening is one which might well appeal to poets tuned in to the precise calibrations of language, but radio astron­omers also ‘listen’. Diane Ackerman puts this elegantly in her poem ‘We Are Listening’:
As our metal eyes wake to absolute night where whispers fly from the beginning of time we cup our ears to the heavens.
We are listening
on the volcanic rim of Flagstaff and in the fields beyond Boston, in a great array that blooms like coral from the desert floor, on highwire webs patrolled by computer spiders in Puerto Rico.
We are listening for a sound beyond us, beyond sound,
searching for a lighthouse in the breakwaters of our uncertainty an electronic murmur, a bright, fragile I am.
Small as tree frogs
staking out one end
of an endless swamp,
we are listening
through the longest night
we imagine, which dawns
between the life and times of stars.2
What wonderful use of language, and what fun for the professional astronomer to be able to recognize and see afresh each of the tele­scopes she alludes to! The somewhat Churchillian ‘We are listening I on the volcanic rim of Flagstaff I and in the fields beyond Boston’, with its echoes of his proclamation ‘We will fight them .. .’, contrasts wonderfully with the faintness of the whisper of a signal that is being searched for. Diane Ackerman writes confidently and authoritatively on astronomical subjects. As a Ph.D. student at Cornell she wanted to work with the arts and the sciences, so on her doctoral committee had both a poet and the astronomer Carl Sagan. She later worked as a researcher for his ‘Cosmos’ TV series. The arts-science divide is not something she admits to, and her work combines superb imagery, excellent use of words, a sense of wonder and scientific accuracy. She is perhaps best known for an early book of astronomical poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, which included accurate and up-to-date material on the planets, often presented in a novel way (see, for example, her ‘Saturn’).3 We don’t have to listen that hard to hear the existential questions. Ackerman does not seem too bothered by them however, but is prepared to work with them rather than strive to have dominion over them and find ‘solutions’ that might be premature. As Rilke said in a letter of advice to a young poet, she is prepared to live the questions.

Miroslav Holub’s ‘Night at the Observatory’ contains one of the earliest references to a radio astronomy observatory. It forms an atmospheric background for a courting couple. Gradually the ‘cam­era’ pulls back from the couple to note their surroundings, and then pulls back even further to consider the on-going-ness of the universe, independent of life. For me the most telling line in Holub’s poem is ‘Above the fields the wires hissed like iguanas.’4 A purely descriptive line, what is the attraction? It is the identification, the articulation of something I knew but had never managed to express—for me that is a large part of what poetry is about. As one who spent most of her graduate student years in a cold, windy field surrounded by the posts and wires that formed a radio telescope (and did some courting there), I can affirm that that is exactly how it sounded. Neither the sound, nor the phrase, is an obvious one, so he must have been writing out of experience; I wonder which observatory it was that he visited? But you and I are dated, Miroslav. They no longer make radio telescopes from strands of wire—they’ve gone sophisticated, up-market, with dish-like structures, and it doesn’t sound the same!

‘Jodrell Bank’ by Patric Dickinson starts confrontationally, with echoes of the Old Testament God’s challenge to Job ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’5 The poem is somewhat anti-science, or at least directed against the arrogance of scientists. Dickinson feels that science has blown our comfortable world apart, destroyed our myths, and, in presenting ‘spaces beyond the span I Of our myths’, revealed our loneliness for what it is.6 In certain ways his poem continues a note heard sometimes in Victorian poetry where astronomy could be seen as what Tennyson called one of the ‘Terrible Muses’, but other more recent poets have sensed an excitement in the science and its revelations.7 The radio astronomy theme is continued by Adrienne Rich in her ‘Planetarium’. This poem has the lengthy subtitle ‘Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), astronomer, sis­ter of William; and others’, and I have to declare an interest, since I suspect that as the female radio astronomer who discovered pulsars I might be one of the ‘others’. This poem was apparently written in 1968, the year the discovery of pulsars was announced, so it was based on very topical material. It is said to have been written following a visit to a planetarium, hence the title.
Heartbeat of the pulsar Heart sweating through my body The radio impulse pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand I have been standing all my life in the direct path of a battery of signals the most accurately transmitted most untranslatable language in the universe ... I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.8
There is a progression through the poem from the first two lines, ‘A woman in the shape of a monster I a monster in the shape of a woman’ to ‘an instrument in the shape of a woman’, and from ‘a woman’ and ‘she’ to ‘I’. It moves from holding at a distance women doing unusual or peculiar things like science (monsters) to affirming them at the end; arguably it moves from a male perspective to a female one. Given the author’s feminist track record, one half expects this; however, 1968 was early in the feminist movement, even in the USA.

Linking Caroline Herschel with a monster has other resonances for me. I was one of several female astronomers trying to ensure that at least one female was included in a series of lectures about famous astronomers; we proposed Caroline Herschel. We lost the argument, on that occasion, because it was judged the only surviving picture of her was not flattering—she looked ugly! I would agree; it is not a flattering picture. As a young girl she had been told by her father that since she was not pretty and the family was not rich, she should not expect to marry and should resign herself to being housekeeper to one of her brothers. A woman of lesser character would have curled up and died. She became housekeeper to her brother William. On nights when he was away on business and she was left on her own, she used a telescope he had given her to search the sky for comets, discovering eight in total! Living at a time when women were not always recognized, she was eclipsed by the male astronomers in her family, her brother William, and his son John.

She has been rehabilitated in recent years, and is being written back into history, as well as into verse. I am reassured that this pro­cess is an ongoing one, for not only is there Adrienne Rich’s poem about Caroline Herschel, Jennifer Clement has a recent one too, ‘William Herschel’s Sister, Caroline, Discovers Eight Comets’. Adrienne Rich implies that the body senses the signals from space; Jennifer Clement is more direct: ‘I feel the dust tails I hear them rustle I in my fringed sleeves.’9 More humorously, as we shall soon note, Michael Longley picks up similar vibrations in his poem ‘Halley’s comet’.

At least since Sappho and Hesiod poets have responded to the stars, but there are two astronomical phenomena which are so spec­tacular that they will grab even the modern, academic astrophysicists and get them out there, under the sky, looking upwards. These phenomena are comets (well, some of them!), and total eclipses of the Sun. Only if one can travel each time to that small patch of the earth where there will be totality does one see many total solar eclipses; for most of us they are rarely or never experienced. So, not surprisingly, there are few poems about eclipses; however, Simon Armitage has written a complete poetic drama, ‘Eclipse’, set in Cornwall at the time of the 1999 solar eclipse.10

Comets are more widely seen, and can be wonderfully spectacular; they have found their way into contemporary poetry. Halley’s comet is a periodic comet, returning every seventy-six years, and is the subject of several poems. Its 1910 apparition was remarkable and remembered by many. Its 1986 apparition, especially for those of us in the northern hemisphere, was extremely disappointing. As Sheenagh Pugh puts it in ‘The Comet-Watcher’s Perspective’, ‘look as he might, it was just a blue smudge.’11

The poor show in 1986 to a degree wrong-footed people like the poet Kenneth Rexroth who, having seen ‘that long-haired star’, the glorious comet in 1910 (when Rexroth was aged five), pictures its next return. But whether it actually happened like that or not, his descrip­tion of a great comet, ‘its plume over water I Dribbling on the liquid night’, is magnificent. At the same time he confronts his own mortal­ity (the theme is similar to that in Hardy’s ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’) and there is an interesting mix of the cosmic perpetual and the human temporal. Rexroth’s poem is addressed to his children, and by having children he is saved the full agony of his own death and can ponder the continuation of the human race as ‘vessels’ of a ‘billion- year-long I River’.12 Where Patric Dickinson sees astronomy as des­troying myths, and so as threatening, Rexroth regards it as consonant with great rhythms of the universe which scientists, poets, and all humans may sense, and in which they participate.

Stanley Kunitz, born the same year as Kenneth Rexroth, lived long enough to see both apparitions of Halley’s comet, and after the sec­ond wrote a charming poem recalling the first. In his ‘Halley’s Comet’ he recalls his boyhood self attending both to his first-grade schoolteacher, Mrs Murphy, writing the words ‘Halley’s Comet’ in chalk on a blackboard, and to her saying that if the comet strayed off course it might smash into the earth; this memory is juxtaposed with the words of a wild preacher who urged the schoolchildren to repent. Kunitz’s poem concludes with the boy stealing in secret on to the roof of his parents’ house, ‘searching the starry sky, I waiting for the world to end’.13 Again a wonderful picture is drawn—one can just see it happening, and we are reminded of similar ‘preachers’ who flour­ished before recent cometary appearances. The poem’s whimsical charm fades into sterner stuff in the last few lines when he addresses his dead father, hoping that the father can see the son on the rooftop. It is interesting that Stanley Kunitz, who must have been in his eight­ies when he wrote this poem, can recall or maybe even still feels the loss (through suicide) of his father at an early age. On the other hand, if one really did believe the world was about to end, a missing father would be more strongly missed. Mother apparently is no use in these circumstances.

Observing what she poignantly calls the ‘only-coming-once’ of comet Hale-Bopp and drawing lessons for us all from its coming and its going, the poet Gwyneth Lewis writes of how ‘It’s no accident that leave I fails but still tries to rhyme with love’.14 These words are from her ‘Zero Gravity: A Space Requiem’, written in 1997 while her sister- in-law was dying of cancer and an astronaut cousin was launching into space. This is the kind of juxtaposition that life sometimes sends us, and she rises to the challenge. The poem melds life and love, death and loss, comets and space flight, with a particularly good interplay between the human and the astronomical. In contrast to some other authors, Lewis is drawing upon the transitory nature of the comet. Entitled ‘Zero Gravity’, her poem nonetheless possesses a gravitas, as indicated by the word ‘requiem’ in its subtitle. Lighter, more beautifully featherlike, is Michael Longley’s ‘Halley’s Comet’. This poem is subtitled ‘Homage to Erik Satie’, but perhaps ‘Teasing Erik Satie’ would be nearer the mark! In a poem whose speaker gets drunk, the lines about how ‘inside my left nostril I A hair kept buzzing with signals from Halley’s comet’ give a surreal feel, and one is far from convinced that nothing similar will happen ‘for another seventy-six years’!15

Longley’s is a clever, tantalizing piece of writing, with some of the lovely imagery characteristic of this poet. Its light tone may make it relatively unusual among poems dealing with astronomy. Pascal was speaking for many when he said, ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’.16 Part of this unhappiness comes from an appreciation of how small and insignificant we humans are. Some are depressed by this thought; others look at how large the universe is and are thrilled. William Empson’s ‘Letter I’ not only quotes part of Pascal’s statement—‘The eternal silence of the infinite spaces’—but also captures some of Pascal’s general discomfort. In part this is through the incompleteness of the truncated Pascal quotation, but it is also through the structure of the poem with its uncomfortable seven-line stanzas, the dangling incompleteness of the Pascal quota­tion emphasized by a clear rhyme pattern that rhymes ‘spaces’ with ‘pointless places’ and sees ‘galaxies’ as ‘void’.17 A sense of anxiety and discomfort is again present in Leo Aylen’s poem ‘Orbiting Pluto’, which addresses several of the issues around space travel. In ‘Orbit­ing Pluto’ we hear the voice of one of the first humans to leave our Solar System for another star and its planet. At the point of writing they have reached Pluto, which represents the edge of the known world. Pluto, in ‘this last I Beyond of all beyonds’, cannot be described as homely, but compared with the long, black, empty cold­ness ahead it is.18 The poet calls on classical imagery of Charon, ferryman of the river Lethe, and of the journey to the underworld to articulate how the space travellers in frozen sleep go over the rim of the known universe into the ‘private consciousness’ of the beyond. Our fears, our discomfort, our anxieties about the cosmos seem in recent years to have been focused in the poetry about space travel. Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘The Space-Ship’, with its tenor of death and blackness, is another example.19 Perhaps the focus is thus because with space flight we are now entering into that cosmos (although our penetration is a mere hair’s breadth). More scary and more signifi­cant, to me, is the future of our planet and the future of our universe. Are we seeing here poetry driven by the personal, the local, and the immediate, rather than engaging with what the scientific subject is telling us? Or is it just that the big picture is too big?
I was putting the finishing touches to this section when news of the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle accident broke. Have we become too confident, too familiar with space flight? Is the ominous note struck by several of the authors quoted here justified? Rebecca Elson seems to have the right words for this occasion in her poem ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ with its troubled yet lyrical imagery of stellar lights juxtaposed with space debris, ‘a lost screw I Losing height, I Incandescent for an instant’.20 The setting of such a tiny detail against the hugeness of space is quickening, but also frightening.

One thing we now know better than ever is that the sheer size of the universe is both startling and incomprehensible. That it is expanding, and maybe even accelerating in its expansion, makes it no easier. That we cannot directly see at least 95 per cent of it (the dark matter) leaves us floundering. That we, human beings, are made from the stuff of star death, means we cannot ignore it—in an intim­ate and ultimate way we too are stars. That its future is hostile to life and will eventually wipe us out, makes us want to ignore it; largeness and largess do not seem to go together. How do poets handle these issues? My impression is that North American authors are more willing to engage than British. This could be for one of several reasons: there are more of them, giving the impression of greater engagement; NASA is conspicuously better at publicity than are the British, so North Americans are more aware of astronomical devel­opments (although it has to be said that NASA publicity crosses the Atlantic); we are less sympathetic, more hostile towards science; and the pragmatic reason—US authors use the World Wide Web more, and hence perhaps more of their poems have come more to my attention!

Who are the main players? The American poet Antler, in ‘On learning that on the clearest night only 6000 stars are visible to the naked eye’ approaches the big questions in an amusing, almost flip­pant way, but keeps his feet on the ground and holds the reader well. His concern is entirely with the effect on the individual of the attempt at comprehension of an unpunctuated blur of ‘stars galaxies universes I pastpresentfuture’. Though he uses playfully the language of percentage, suggesting that if scientists claim we use only ten percent of our brains’ potential, then that ten percent is ignorant of ninety-nine per cent of the universe, his conclusion may be comfort­ingly, evasively human with its suggestion that perhaps a wine flask under the deep night sky can be ‘more powerful I than the largest telescope’.21

The universe is so large that light takes an appreciable time to travel across it, and starlight seen tonight may have started its jour­ney tens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years previously. Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Jennings both have poems about this, but the two poems are very different in feel. The latter part of Mac­Neice’s ‘Star-gazer’ speculates on the long years taken by light to travel to a human perceiver. Light may take longer to travel than even the lifetime of the human species, so that, by the time some light reaches earth there may be no one left alive ‘To run from side to side in a late night train I Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.’22 Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘Delay’ treats of a similar theme with its align­ment of love that may be perceived only after ‘Its first desire is spent’ with the light of a star that shines years back and takes years to arrive, its ‘impulse’ waiting ‘for eyes to claim it beautiful’.23 When I include Jennings’s poem in a public lecture on astronomy, it draws from the audience a gentle, appreciative ‘mmmh’—that involuntary note of recognition that is the sound of a poem striking home! It is a much more effective poem than MacNeice’s because it is shorter, using fewer, well-chosen words. In MacNeice’s poem the profusion of words befuddles the reader—they trip each other up. Elizabeth Jennings has good interplay between the cosmic and the personal, but nonetheless it is the personal element—not least in its last line, ‘And love arrived may find us somewhere else’—that is ascendant. Once again the cosmic is used as the vehicle for the personal.

Poetry often articulates personal emotion, but rarely is it able to ‘keep up’ with modern astrophysics. Astronomy has moved a long way in the past fifty years. There has been the move in the profession away from stargazer to astrophysicist. This is well articulated by Robert Francis in his poem ‘Astronomer’. Here the poet situates the figure of his title ‘Far far I Beyond the stargazer’ in a condition where he ‘goes out of his mind’ in pursuit of a ‘Beyond’ which has both scientific and spiritual overtones. Alluding perhaps to ‘the peace that passes understanding’, yet restating that in a scientific context, Francis’s poem takes its astronomer to a zone where, strangely going beyond himself, he exists
Where no comfort is
And this
His comfort is
His irreducible peace.24
There are many poems which use astronomical topics as a novel way of illustrating or illuminating human dilemmas but there are few, I feel, that really engage with modern astrophysics. In this respect I am disappointed, for should not poetry engage with the wider world? And does that not include our understanding about the birth and life and death of the universe? The last few poems quoted here are ones that do seem to me to make this engagement; they are in a sense a connoisseur’s choice, and may not have much appeal to those unfamiliar with the astrophysics. I appreciate them; it feels good to see one’s professional area of work recognized, comprehended, and honoured by being set forth like this.
John Haines in his ‘A Little Cosmic Dust Poem’ captures beauti­fully, and with scientific accuracy, how star death and the chemical elements produced thereby become new stars and human life. Writ­ing of the rain of particles produced by the debris of dying stars, he sets out how ‘In the radiant field of Orion’ new and huge hordes of stars are forming, and finds emerging from ‘the cold and fleeing dust’ of the cosmos a renewed sense of individual human identity in ‘my voice, your face, this love’.25 Similarly, Pattiann Rogers demonstrates a good technical understanding of the nature of the expansion of the universe and couches it in some lovely images in her ‘Life in an Expanding Universe’ with its ‘cosmic I pinwheels’ expelling matter and light as if they were ‘fields of dandelions’ in a summer wind, ‘creating new distances I simply by soaring into them.’26 John Sokol also contemplates the expanding universe in his ‘Thoughts near the Close of Millennium’, and handles well the conundrum that the explosion which produced the expansion was ‘everywhere’ and had ‘no centre’. Moving jazzily from Dizzy Gillespie to ‘the furthest qua­sar’ the poem punningly mingles loved day-to-day routines with awe, and scientific with colloquial vocabulary as ‘We’re forever blown away by that first Big Bang’.27

Entropy and the heat death of the universe have been written about by several poets. John Updike’s ‘Ode to entropy’ is probably the best known, but, contrasting with Updike’s more external approach, Neil Rollinson (‘Entropy’) has a domestic one as he writes of how, as he watches an ice-cube melting into his glass of wine ‘the heat of the Chardonnay passing into the ice I . . . means the universe is dying’ and links this to a lover’s ‘dress that only this morning I was warm to my touch’.28

The amount of dark matter in the universe determines its future. It is not yet known what form the dark matter takes (there may be several components) but the quantity fixes the amount of gravity in the universe and hence the nature of the expansion. Rebecca Elson’s research was into dark matter. I give her the last word, for she handles the biggest of issues in a wonderful way. How sad she died so young—I would have liked more of her work. Here she is with ‘Let there Always be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)’.
For this we go out dark nights, searching For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:
To weigh us down.
To stop the universe From rushing on and on

                              Into its own beyond
                              Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
                              Its last star going out.
                              Whatever they turn out to be,
                              Let there be swarms of them,
                              Enough for immortality,
                              Always a star where we can warm ourselves.
                              Let there be enough to bring it back From its own edges,
                              To bring us all so close that we ignite The bright spark of resurrection.29


    1. Frederick Seidel, ‘The New Cosmology’, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Uni­verse (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 23.
2.   Diane Ackerman, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 1991), 7.
3.   Diane Ackerman, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (New York: Morrow, 1976).
4.  Miroslav Holub, Selected Poems, trans. Ian Milner and George Theiner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 47.
5.   Job 38.4 (Revised English Bible).
6.  Patric Dickinson, ‘Jodrell Bank’, in N. Albery (ed.), Poem for the Day (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 377.
7.   Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, Tennyson Poems and Plays, ed. T. Herbert Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 810.
8.  Adrienne Rich, Collected Early Poems 1950-19/0 (New York: Norton, 1993), 361.
9.  Jennifer Clement, ‘William Herchel’s Sister, Caroline, Discovers Eight Comets’, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Universe (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 301.
10.    Simon Armitage, CloudCuckooLand (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 113.
11.     Sheenagh Pugh, Stonelight (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1999), 57.
12.    Kenneth Rexroth, The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: New Directions, 1966), 237.
13.    Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (New York: Norton, 1966), 256.
14.    Gwyneth Lewis, Zero Gravity (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1998), 23.
15.    Michael Longley, ‘Halley’s Comet’, in A. Motion (ed.), Here to Eternity (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), 364.
16.    Blaise Pascal, Pensees sur la Religion, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Collier, 1909-14), part 3, 206.
17.    William Empson, Collected Poems (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), 19.
18.    Leo Aylen, Dancing the Impossible: New and Selected Poems (Salzburg: University of Salzburg Press, 1997), 142.
19.    Iain Crichton Smith, Love Poems and Elegies (London: Gollancz, 1972), 17.
20.   Rebecca Elson, A Responsibility to Awe (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), 11.
21.    Antler, ‘A second before it bursts’, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Universe (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 42.
22.   Louis MacNeice, Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 158.
23.   Elizabeth Jennings, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002), 1.
24.   Robert Francis, ‘Astronomer’, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Universe (Min­neapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 26.
25.   John Haines, in Timothy Ferris (ed.), The World Treasury of Physics, Astron­omy and Mathematics (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 770.
26.   Pattiann Rogers, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Universe (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 49.
27.   John Sokol, in K. Brown (ed.), Verse and Universe (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1998), 258.
28.   Neil Rollinson, in M. Riordan and J. Turney (eds.), A Quark for Mister Mark (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 41; see also John Updike, Facing Nature: Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1986), 86.
29.   Elson, A Responsibility to Awe, 14.

In: Contemporary poetry and contemporary science. Edited b Robert Crawford. Oxford, 2006, p.125-140.

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