Dan Post's Blog

Science & Poetry / Oil & Water

A few weeks ago, I attended a reading by poet Adam Dickinson at the final session of the Play Chthonics reading series in Graham Hall at UBC, where he read excerpts from his latest manuscript and I learned that he is still as fascinated with the relationship between science and poetry as he was when he wrote his previous book Kingdom Phylum (Brick). He read from Kingdom first, a collection of poems that he wrote around the science of taxonomy, and explained to the audience how his poetics and the nature of poetry as a whole, reflect this systematic naming of things. Both poets and scientists try to create meaning and explain remarkable concepts with an often-limited vocabulary of human language, and it is this shared methodology, that compels Adam to explore poetry and science’s unlikely bond.

As he introduced the excerpts from his latest unpublished manuscript that centres around plastics and their impact on human life, (and on a more minute level, the polymers that form plastics and their repeating structural units), Adam exuded the kind of reluctant enthusiasm that scientist’s often do when they talk particulars. As his mini-lecture on plastics branched off like the very chemical compounds he was discussing, he tried to relate the complexity of covalent chemical bonds to a room full of poetry fans and proved that his hours of research couldn’t be summed up or understood easily. But any poet could say the same for their own work, a science in its own right, with a methodology that seeks to understand the world in very specific and often undiscovered ways.

The commonalities in methodology between poetry and science are what draw Adam to recognize and sometimes create a relationship between the oil and the water. He sees how both streams incorporate metaphorical thinking; how scientists and poets are forever using metaphors to make their findings/revelations understandable to the layman. He recognizes too, the resistance of science to harbour a kinship with poetry claiming that science is “productively interrupted by poetic thinking.”

In Adam Dickinson’s world there is value in both practices. Science can tell us how the jackpine cone opens only when burned, but it doesn’t explain the ironic genius of life after death. Poetry amps up our imaginations and emotions, but it can’t tell us why biopolymers play a crucial role in biological processes. Somewhere in the middle is Adam Dickinson’s poetry which eases the cultural pressure of authority placed on both scientist’s and poets, and affords them the freedom to continue discovering new ways of interpreting the world.



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