Poetry and Science: Fundamentally the Same
Poetry and Science: Fundamentally the Same
An important warning was voiced to me on the act of writing about an author’s intent. When one attempts to do such a thing as actively write about such a thing as the intent of the author, this person should know the intent of the author from the author him/herself. I have no such reference to aide me in knowing the exact intent of the author. I seek merely to claim an assumed intent in all pieces of literature based on the form in which the pieces were published. Since “… difficulty in the evaluation and application of artist’s intent was traced to ambiguity of the term “intent”, (Dykstra) I wish to clarify myself before I begin, by defining some of my terminology as quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:
Fiction-- The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.
Nonfiction-- Prose writing other than fiction, such as history, biography, and reference works, esp. that which is concerned with the narrative depiction of factual events; the genre comprising this.
Poetry—(1) The art or work of a poet; (2) Imaginative or creative literature in general; fable, fiction.
Science-- Knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning.
It is generally accepted that there is a fundamental difference between a piece of poetry (the art or work of a poet) and that of a scientific text—very much like that of the assumed gap between fiction and nonfiction. The difference we perceive between science and poetry may not be as large as that that we see between fiction and nonfiction, but is certainly one that would appear to be solid. Poetry is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being “imaginative or creative literature in general” while science is “knowledge acquired through study.” Interestingly, though, these definitions could very easily be applied to both science and poetry. Looking at Eliot’s The Wasteland and Darwin’s The Origin of Species it is easy to see where the line blurs. Eliot’s poetry becomes a science and Darwin’s science becomes poetry.
Just look at the first line of Darwin’s introduction, “When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past in habitants of that continent.” Darwin was “on board H.M.S ‘Beagle,’ and “struck” with these facts. Immediately, an image comes to mind of a wizened man on the deck of a boat suddenly having a moment of epiphany as the wind blows his hair in the wind. From the start of the text, Darwin is showing his creativity through not just his thoughts but his word choice. He describes a moment of revelation that could not possibly be completely factual. It is apparent later in the text that his conclusions required quite a bit of context and observations that could not have possibly come to him, fantastic naturalist though he is, in one great and powerful moment. Still, what could be more imaginative or creative than observing life around you and thinking of how all of life could have developed over time into what it is today? Choosing the right words to describe it?
Now look at this line from the notes from Eliot’s The Wasteland, “To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.” Does this not show signs of knowledge acquired through study? Eliot’s poetry is indebted to previous works that he has studied; “volumes” of books. But it is not just through Eliot’s notes that the observation that the entire poetic text is a result of study can be made. Any given line in The Wasteland can be looked at as a studied interpretation or statement. Even a line as simple as, “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain,” is a studied statement echoing Chaucer as well as the poet’s own observations.Eliot, in fact, seemed to understand poetry as trying to rid itself of personality, shown in this line from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.” So poetry, at least to Eliot, is at least striving to be science if it isn’t a science already.
In looking at the examples I’ve shown, either text could be considered under the definition of the other. What seems to make the singular difference in all of this is what we perceive each text to represent and set out to do. The only real perceivable difference between these two texts is the way the author’s observations about the world are presented visually. Where Eliot’s are in verse form, Darwin’s are in prose form. Eliot creates a deeply emotional mood in his work using tight, specific, and powerful words, where Darwin is more loose, repetitive, and verbose (a tool that seems to create an atmosphere of science for the reader). All in all, it is what the reader brings to the table that actually offers a definition of the text. What seems to guide our perceptions is difficult to pin down, however.
There is no exact difference between poetry and science, because people are a large variable in the equation—a messy and unpredictable variable—and make any exact definition impossible to find. Both science and poetry can be, and usually are, creative and imaginative as well as a representation of knowledge through study. They are subjects linked in the common goal of understanding the world. Yes, they present themselves as being very different from one another to the public, but in the end this difference is merely perception based on presentation and pre-conceived notions. Looking at these two fields as blurred and the same, as we have been instructed in class, it is easy to see where our pre-conceived notions fail. Poetry and Science are fundamentally the same.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. New York: Broadview P, 2003.
Eliot, Thomas S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Word: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London, 1960.
The Waste Land and Other Poems. Danbury: Barnes & Noble, Incorporated, 2005.