Thursday, 29 October 2009

Dark matter – clear poetry

The Royal Observatory Greenwich is holding a public event on 10 November to discuss poems about astronomy. The astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the poet Kelley Swaine, and I will be speaking at it.

There is a lot of poetry written about astronomy, and I find this surprising for a couple of reasons.

First, because there’s hardly any literary fiction (I’m only singling out literary fiction because, with its emphasis on language, it’s the nearest thing in prose to poetry) inspired by astronomy. There are the wonderful books by John Banville, ‘Copernicus’, and ‘Kepler’, which are fictional accounts of these astronomers’ lives. There is ‘The Discovery of Heaven’ by Harry Mulisch. And that’s it. (Is it? Tell me I’m wrong)

Second, poetry likes to restrict itself in terms of space, and numbers of words. It likes to be concise, condensed. Astronomy, by its very nature, attempts to explain the entire universe. How can there be any sort of dialogue between such a constrained art-form and such a sprawling subject? What can poetry meaningfully say about astronomy?

Looking at the anthology of poetry about astronomy, ‘Dark Matter’, what strikes me is how many of the poems use people to investigate the subject. As I’ve said before in previous blogs we can’t seem to escape the human-sized in literature. So is astronomy just being used as a metaphor for human activities and emotions? Or is it being explored as something interesting in its own right?

Rebecca Elson managed to write very concise poems that convey an accurate sense of the science – her poem ‘Explaining Relativity’ describes how, according to the theory of general relativity, space is distorted by matter, and the way matter moves is correspondingly affected by this distortion.
‘What if There Were No Moon?’ describes how the Moon affects the Earth; not only tides and eclipses, but also human constructions such as the calendar.

Perhaps poetry has similarities to mathematics, in that discipline’s desire to explain and describe as concisely as possible. Euler’s identity is much loved by mathematicians, because it links the fundamental arithmetic operations to irrational, transcendental, and imaginary numbers in one very simple equation. e to the i pi plus one equals zero. When you say it out loud it sounds like poetry.


  1. I have plans to go to the talk in Greenwich, and I hope to meet you there. I've been interested in the cross-over between science and literature, and my novel, "Tangled Roots," uses cosmology as its main conceit. But it is difficult to use science as something other than just a metaphor. I'm very interested in seeing new ways to incorporate the two.

  2. HI This fascinates me. I write poetry and short fiction, studying for an MA, but I work in a Maths and Stats department and used to be a geologist. So i relate to your blog a lot. thanks!

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