Science and poetry

Perfect partners: science and poetry 

Poetry can warm up cold, analytical scientific concepts. It can add comfort, emotion, humor and imagination — flesh and blood  — to the scientific bones. For example, the subject of magnetism might seem daunting or dull to some. But if a poet focuses on one tiny magnet, writes about it in a way that we all recognize, and then takes an unexpected imaginative leap, magnetism is suddenly fascinating.

Magnet
by Valerie Worth

This small
Flat horseshoe
Is sold for
A toy: we are
Told that it
Will pick up pins
And it does, time
After time; later
It lies about,
Getting its red
Paint chipped, being
Offered pins less
Often, until at
Last we leave it
Alone: then
It leads its own
Life, trading
Secrets with
The North Pole,
Reading
Invisible messages
From the sun.

Poetry can provide a bridge to scientific concepts, which aren’t always easily grasped. Poets can also offer valuable insights into science that may be lost on everyone else. Poets and scientists have different standards for what is “truth” even though both love and study the natural world.

Karla Kuskin wrote this lovely “bridge” to the idea that we can’t feel the earth revolving around the sun at mind-boggling speeds because we are moving at precisely the same pace.

The flower’s on the bird
which is underneath the bee
and the bird is on the kitten
on the cat on me.
I’m on a chair
on some grass
on a lawn
and the lawn is on a meadow
and the world is what it’s on.
And all of us together
when the day is nearly done
like to sit and watch the weather
as we spin around the sun.
–Karla Kuskin

To make sense of life and our humanity, we need poetic as well as scientific explanations and interpretations. Scientists and poets look at things that other people see, and see something totally different. It’s valuable to hear both interpretations.

Rolling hills are well-eroded landforms to geologists. To Barbara Esbensen they are something else when they’re covered with snow. Here is an excerpt of one of her poems:

December Hills
by Barbara Esbensen

White fur
grows thick on the backs
of those green
those brown            those
grassy old animals
the hills.

Poetry needs to address the issues of our day to stay relevant — that includes science. Pluto was demoted recently to a dwarf planet. Douglas Florian must have found this bit of science news amusing and worthy of his attention.  This poem is from Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings.

Pluto
by Douglas Florian

Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn’t pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it’s lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Till one day it got fired.

Starter ideas for science poems

If you’re still a little unsure of how to put your arms around both science and poetry, here is a list of science poetry starters and a few examples pulled from my own experience and my own books:

A fascinating scientific fact

  • massive mountains do not last forever; they wear down and disappear
  • the continents used to be joined together, not spread apart

A scientific or natural wonder

  • The full moon always rises around the time the sun is setting–beautiful!
  • volcanic islands like the Hawaiian islands grow from cracks in the earth’s crust

A point of curiosity or confusion

  • how do migrating birds find their way back and forth?
  • how does the earth’s spin affect the earth’s winds?

A favorite animal or plant

  • great blue herons
  • lady’s slippers
  • oak trees
  • chickadees

Historical figure in science

  • Albert Einstein — can’t learn enough about him
  • Charles Darwin — a very curious guy for his entire life
  • Galileo — not sure I would have liked him

Emotional connection or reaction to science/nature

  • in three and a half billion years, life on earth has never once fizzled out, an awe-inspiring fact
  • the images from the Hubble space telescope never fail to astonish me

Personal observation

  • marine fossils at the top of a 9,000-foot mountain
  • mushrooms that spring up overnight
  • the moons of Jupiter through my brother-in-law’s telescope

Science in the news

  • earthquakes at Yellowstone National Park
  • meteorites that give us more clues about the origin of our solar system
  • new plant and animal species
  • plant and animal species going extinct

More Starter Ideas for Science Poems

 The Tree that Time Built by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston provides a wealth of science poems (including “Obituary for a Clam,” one of my poems from Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up). The poems might be inspiration enough to launch you on your own science poem, but sometimes we need a little help getting started.

In the notes below I briefly describe one or two things that each poem does, and my notes constitute a list of “starter” ideas for your own science poems. You can scan the list for an inspiring starter idea, or you can read the poems first, pick one that inspires, and then find the poem on my starter idea list. No excuses now. Write away and enjoy!

Got feedback? Contact me at lisawpeters AT gmail DOT com

Page/Starter Ideas

Oh, fields of wonder: poems about pondering mysteries and beginnings

4          marvels at the origin of things

5          admires a repeating shape in nature

6          wonders about the microscopic world

7          sees something profound in the tiny details

8          explores an unseen world; repeats sounds for emphasis

9          plays with the paradox of being two things at once

10        finds the extraordinary in the ordinary; leads to a larger metaphorical point

11        finds wonder in nature’s splendor

13        compares nature to our own activities; finding what we need in nature

15       asks ‘what if’ animals could speak; wonders about the different perceptions of animals and humans;

The sea is our mother:
poems about deep time, life’s origins and adaptability

20        personifies an element of nature; repeats sounds for a musical effect

21        uses irregular rhyme; the pacing and repetition convey a sense of persistence, determination; repeats sounds for a musical quality

22        uses similes and metaphors to paint a vivid picture; starts and ends a poem with the same word for an ‘echo’ effect

23        plays with words: ‘star’ is both an astronomical feature and a celebrity

24        connects humans to the history of life

25        uses humor; in this case the poet imagines a rivalry between species; celebrates the durability of uncelebrated species

26        uses a Q and A format; writes in an animal’s voice or point of view

27        uses a ‘borrowed’ form, in this case a ‘for rent’ ad; anthropomorphizes an animal

28        ponders imponderable things like deep time

29        ascribes human feeling to something inanimate

30        starts with something big and progresses to something small

31        surprises the reader with an unexpected conclusion; emphasizes meaning with the sounds of words

Prehistoric praise: poems about fossils

36        sings the praises of unsung heroes in nature; treats the ordinary and mundane as extraordinary

38        turns a writing convention upside down; in this case ‘once upon a time’ comes at the end instead of the beginning; writes about the relative nature of time

39        writes about the similarities between us and other species

40        directly addresses the subject in a ‘poem of address’

41        uses a ‘borrowed’ form, in this case, an obituary; backs up whimsy with research

42        uses an irregular pattern of rhyme; writes about extinct animals

43        marvels at an astonishing scientific fact

44        tries to reconcile what is known intellectually with what is felt emotionally

Think like a tree: poems about plants

50        provides instructions; in this case, tells how to be a tree

51        looks ahead to the future; rhymed couplets

52        uses unexpected and fresh combinations of words (autumns of patience); offers advice to the young in a fresh way

53        examines a paradox (in this case: if you dissect beauty, you can’t see it; if you stand back, you can)

54        observes a relationship between species in nature

55        comments on the endurance and stamina of life

56        uses an extended metaphor

57        advises how to accept our place in the natural world

58        personifies an element of nature; uses language that creates a mood

59        explores the relativity of time

60        uses assonance to create a coherent feel; uses repetition to emphasize a point;  persona poem, first person plural point of view

62        expresses gratitude for the beauty of something; rhymed couplets

63       examines our disconnect with nature in a child’s voice

65        asks a question, the poem answers it; in this case, the answer is an extended metaphor

67        explores cause and effect

68        reminds how we need nature’s inspiration; we’re diminished without it

Meditations of a tortoise: poems about reptiles, amphibians

74        uses humor to write about the uniqueness of each individual

75        modifies an existing document into a poem; ‘found’ poem

76        picks one example that illustrates a scientific concept, in this case, camouflage

77        expresses sadness at the extinction of a species; sets words apart to emphasize them

78        makes an ordinary thing extraordinary

79       observes something very, very closely; show, don’t tell

80        asks ‘what if…’; in this case, what if I were to become a snake?

81        provides instructions; a quatrain, rhyme scheme is ABAB

82       turns a storytelling convention on its head; an untransformed dead frog is the prince

83       provides a snapshot of nature; haiku; poem about a small discovery

84        focuses on wordplay, repetition and rhyme to create delight

85        focuses on one small aspect of a larger subject

86        juxtaposes science and origin tales; persona poem, an animal’s point of view

Some primal termite: poems about insects

92        just plain silliness

93        celebrates the mundane, the insignificant things in nature

94        focuses on a famous person/scientist, and the contribution he or she made to advance scientific knowledge

96        just plain silliness

97        whimsically compares insects to humans

98        focuses on a really odd aspect of an animal; asks ‘what if…?’

99        uses a regular and logical form to describe an animal ‘scientist’

101      discovers things in unexpected places

102      tells us how humans can learn from animals

103      haiku; describes the steps of a scientific phenomenon (in this case, in just six words)

104      uses enjambment to avoid a sing-song feel to a rhymed poem; reminds us that life is short, maybe predictable, but still worth living

105      expresses curiosity, asks Qs; poem of address

106      uses a title that carries two meanings; wonders about the meaning of death

108      describes a fascinating scientific fact

110      describes something odd or amazing in nature, then relates it to people

111      uses humor to help convey a scientific concept

112      describes the activities of animals in human activity terms

113      tells a story with great verbs; poem of address

Everything that lives wants to fly: poems about animals that fly

118      understands science from a Native American point of view

119      repeats lines to emphasize them

120      treats serious scientific subjects with humor and delight

121      identifies with wild creatures; in this case, the writer and the birds are seed eaters; fresh adjectives

122      expresses gratitude for the pleasure that nature offers us

123      provides a list with a texture theme

124      wonders about nature’s mysteries

125     inspires flight of fancy from real scientific fact

126      closely observes odd behavior; secondarily, an accessible introduction to a sophisticated scientific concept

127      offers fresh look at a slightly scary animal

I am the family face: poems about heredity, making connections

132      speaks from the point of view of an inanimate, abstract concept

133      borrows the appealing form, rhythm, and cadence of a well-loved poem

134      empathizes with a captive animal

135      empathizes with a captive animal; haunting simile

136      just plain silliness

137      uses free verse to describe the differences between us and other animals

138      offers a different take (from previous poem) on the differences between us and other animals

139      uses a refrain, varying it just a bit each time; wordplay enhances the experience of reading it

141      compares two seemingly dissimilar things, in this case, sheep and rocks

142      identifies with (or connects with) an animal

143      uses extremes: the smallest something, biggest something, tallest, shortest, etc.

144      thinks about how different creatures and things ‘see’ the world and perceive truth; in this case, an embryo can’t ‘see’ beyond the womb, therefore, the wider world doesn’t exist

Hurt no living thing:
poems about examining the present, contemplating the future

150      instructs (do this, don’t do that)

151       seizes the moment, enjoys each moment

152      presents a paradox about our brief moment on the planet

153      names symbols or markers for the seasons

154      suggests that beauty doesn’t last, is easily destroyed

155      mourns the loss of beauty in nature; uses alliteration to increase the impact of the message

157      describes an extinct animal

158      gets extra mileage out of words; in this case, takes advantage of the name of an endangered animal

160      marks the extinction of a species — with humor?

161      uses ‘circle’ writing; poem ends with the first line; uses assonance and alliteration to increase the beauty and poetic quality of the language

162      mourns the decline of a spectacular natural phenomenon

163      poses the question: how are we treating the earth?

164      poses the question: what’s to become of us?

165      suggests we are tied to the earth, can’t escape it

166     reminds us we often can’t understand home unless we’ve explored far-away places

167      tells us that even though one person seems insignificant, he/she is part of a larger world

168      modifies an existing document; found poem

171      reminds us we are part of a larger continuity, can’t escape it, but it can also comfort us

 

 

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