Poetry and Science

Jo Shapcott - 6 July 2007

I used the archive's excellent search facility to find poems which use science. Only two came up (both mine!) but there are many others which touch on the subject listed here under topics like 'nature' and 'environment' which we've looked at in the other blogs. But today I'm going to look at a few reasons why I think science and poetry have always been bedfellows.

Poets are curious about almost everything: there is nothing that is not interesting. Any aspect of the world - humans, our interaction with what's around, who's around - is likely to grab my attention. The things that scientists know and the way they know is fascinating. For example, contemporary findings in neuroscience and in physics are changing long-help philosophical views about identity, and about time and space. Who we are and where we live. How could this not be of cutting-edge interest to writers? I think this is why poets are seeking more opportunities to talk to scientists, resulting in anthologies like Lavinia Greenlaws 'Signs and Humours' containing poems responding to medicine and the human body.

Contemporary science has changed our understanding of what we write - if not the form itself - because we know more about how the brain works, and about the self. Identity, from what neuroscience and contemporary philosophy tells us, seems to be located in an embodied self, rather than one existing in a dual world of mind and body. The work of women writers, in particular, and their use of the body in poetry shows how the poets have probably understood this all along.

All this shows how science, whether we know it or not, is having a huge impact on philosophy and all kinds of writing, including poetry. I don't think poets have to understand science but I'd be amazed if their curiosity didn't lead them into wanting to know more. I'm actually against writing that claims to be about science - for the poet it is more that anything urgent within the consciousness will emerge in poems. Because of what the contemporary human knows about herself, inside and out, and knows about the Earth - and because of what humans do it - it would be amazing if some of these urgent nudgings didn't relate to science. Any thoughts, anyone?

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Glossary term


A form that uses six six-line stanzas, each using the same six words at the end of its lines in different orders, followed by an envoi of three lines using two of those words to each line. They tend to be written in iambic pentameter, and without rhyme.

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