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October 2018

The poet and the scientist, part II:
wild territory

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Following on from yesterday's post, here's another passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's award-winning essay, "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide." Once again, her words can also apply to the writing of fantasy literature, that most poetic of literary forms; specifically, to the kind of fantasy that is rooted in a strong sense of place and deeply engaged with the wild world (including imaginary wild worlds).

Deming writes:

"I think of poetry as a means to study nature, as is science. Not only do many poets find their subject matter and inspiration in the natural world, but the poem's enactment is itself a study of wildness, since art is the materialization of the inner life, the truly wild territory that evolution has given us to explore. Poetry is a means to create order and form in a field unified only by chaos; it is an act of resistance against the second law of thermodynamics that says, essentially, that everything in the universe is running out of steam. And if language is central to human evolution, as many theorists hold, what better  medium could be found for studying our own interior jungle? Because the medium of poetry is language, no art (or science) can get closer to embodying the uniqueness of human consciousness. While neuroscientists studying human consciousness may feel hampered by their methodology because they can never separate the subject and object of their study, the poet works at representing both subject and object in a seamless whole and, therefore, writes a science of the mind.

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"I find such speculation convincing, which is probably why I became a poet and not a scientist. I could never stop violating the most basic epistemological assumption of science: that we can understand the natural world better if we become objective.
Jim Armstrong, writing in a recent issue of Orion, put his disagreement with this assumption and its moral implications more aggressively:

" 'Crudely put, a phenomenon that does not register on some instrument is not a scientific phenomenon. So if the modern corporation acts without reference to "soul," it does so guided by scientific principles -- maximizing the tangibles (profit, product, output) that it can measure, at the expense of the intangibles (beauty, spiritual connectedness, sense of place) that it cannot....'

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"Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry. In many respects we cannot enter one another's territory. The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations. But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality."

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The subject of "borders" is especially relevant to creators of fantasy, for ours is a field that borders on others, and one that is often most fertile in those places where the edges meet. Border-crossing is thus part of a mythic artist's vocation, but it's not always a simple or comfortable one. As Sergio Trancoso writes poignantly: "I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone."

Some previous posts on borders and edgelands: On the Border, Crossing Borders, The Borders of Language, Twilight Tales, Crossing Over, and We are Storied Folk.

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Words: The passage above is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. The quote by Sergio Troncoso is from Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011). The Jim Carruth poem in the picture captions is from Envoi, #138, June 2004. All right reserved by the authors. Photographs: A walk with husband, hound, and a herd of cows on the top of Meldon Hill.


The poet and the scientist

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If, like me, you are a working artist striving to combine a love of nature with the creation of fantasy literature (or other forms of mythic art), it is sometimes a challenge to overcome the cultural divide between science and the arts -- in which knowledge of the flora, fauna, and biological processes that make up our world is deemed the domain of scientists, while artists working with the tropes of myth and fantasy are relegated to more ethereal realms.

When I need help crossing the barriers that convention (and my humanties-focused education) placed between the two, I turn to the increasingly-poetic field of contemporary nature writing for inspiration. The following passage, for example, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," an excellent contemplation of the subject by American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"Historically, cultures have been informed by places, by the natural features and resources available to people living in a specific geographic habitat. The 'globalization of culture' is the term in fashion for the phenomenon of everyone becoming more contiguous, contingent, more like us. We lament the dilution of local cultures in the floodwaters of global capitalism, feel a justifiable panic about the pace of this change, and wonder how we will know ourselves and others in the future if our nationalistic and ethnic identities melt away. It is not a contradiction that people by the droves are looking for their own cultural roots, castigating others for past cultural injustices, and documenting difference wherever they can find it, at a time when place-based culture is fading fast. We know something archetypal and precious is leaking from the world.

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"But culture is not only place-based. Culture is also based on discipline, profession, affinity and taste, and in these forms has been around since the beginning of civilization. The problem with the future is that it is difficult to know what will happen there. But it seems likely that these non-place-based forms of culture will become increasingly important. Culture will become more and more our habitat, as cultural learning continues to supplant the poky genetic code. I'm not suggesting we relax our vigilance in protecting actual places and preserving the knowledge acquired by deeply place-based cultures, only that our motivation and ability to do these things may change -- may even improve -- as new cross-cultural affinities emerge. My affinities for literary writers and natural scientists probably say as much about who I am as the geographic fact that I am a tenth-generation New Englander, and nourish me in ways that make my best work possible. Cultural exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can be as fruitful as those across geographic ones. Unlike C.P. Snow, I do not see 'the intellectual life of the whole of western society being split into two polar groups,' literary intellectuals at one pole and scientists at another. I have always been struck, perhaps naively, by the fundamental similarity between the poet and the scientist: both are seeking a language for the unknown....

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 "The view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of facts; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well-wrought urns, and more and more like misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in Western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet."

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A little later in the essay, Deming notes:

"Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists' warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their scepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist's prodding, 'Well, we just don't know the answer to that question.' ... What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, 'The incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of art or science is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves through both physicists and poets.' Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

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As a poet, Deming finds herself drawn to the precise language of science:

"...the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as 'hemolymph,' 'zeolite,' 'crytogram,' 'sclera,' 'xenotransplant' and 'endolithic,' and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most scientific writing imprisons them."

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 Likewise, science writers like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Jay Gould demonstrate how researchers can use literary tools to describe scientific processes:

"...in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints -- for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one's findings. Ethnobiologist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that 'narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal's life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.'

"Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature, and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. "

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The challenge for a poet, says Deming, is "not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or a paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."

And that, I believe, is the challenge for fantasists and mythic artists whose work is rooted in the natural world. The divide between art and science doesn't help us here. We, too, must breach the wall.

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Words: The passage above, and the poem in the picture captions, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. Photographs: Our village nestles against two hills -- one behind my studio, where the hound and I walk most mornings, and the other, pictured here, rising high above the village Commons.


Magic in hand

Falconer's Joy by Tom Hirons

Over at Hedgespoken Press, my Dartmoor neighbours Tom Hirons & Rima Staines are making magic again. The press has just published Falconer's Joy,  a hand-size chapbook of new poetry by Tom (following The Nettle-Eater and Sometimes a Wild God)...and there's another project coming out very soon which I've had a bit of a hand in, along with Sylvia Lindsteadt and several other good folks. All will be revealed later this month.

You can keep up with the mythic rumblings via the Hedgespoken Press newsletter.

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Magic in hand

Rima Staines and Sylvia V. Linsteadt in my studio

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Magic afootRima and Sylvia in my studio last month, and Tilly with a copy of their book, Tatterdemalion.


Art and angels

Madonna del Parto by Pierro della Francesca

Since we were discussing angels last week (at least in metaphorical terms), I was reminded of this post from 2013 on Madonnas, angels, and inspiration:

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto," so I smiled to read this in "Heaven on Earth," Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York (Feb-May 2013):

"One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the 'Legend of the True Cross' frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous 'Resurrection of Christ' ('the best picture in the world,' according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual 'Madonna del Parto.' An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic."

Monterchi, Italy

A detail from Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity

A detail from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True CrossSome years ago I made the same pilgrimage to Arrezo, Sansepolcro, and the Tuscan hilltown of Monterchi -- but unlike Schjeldahl, I was already under Piero's spell when I did so. Although what I really wanted was to see the Madonna del Parto freshly painted on the wall of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (which would have required travelling back in time to the 15th century), it was a deeply moving experience nonetheless to stand before the Lady at last, even in her rather sterile new home in the small Museo della Madonna. 

A print that I purchased that day in Monterchi hangs framed beside my drawing board still, where I draw and paint underneath the Lady's calm, enigmatic gaze. I am not Christian, so for me Piero's luminous figure represents the feminine and maternal mysteries, and the fecund spirit of creativity. This is not, of course, what the painter intended...but works of art, if they have any power, take on lives of their own once they leave our hands.

The Lady of the Studio

As Samuel R. Delany once wrote (in his ground-breaking novel Dahlgren): 

"The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

Indeed. But I do trust magic. Especially the magic of art.

The other lady of the studio

The sketch on the drawing board

Paintings above: Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto" in Monterchi, a detail from "The Legend of the True Cross" fresco cycle in Arezzo, and a detail from his unfinished "Nativity" -- which is now in the National Gallery in London.

Drawing: A close-up of the "bunny sisters" sketch which is on the drawing board in the photos. The completed drawing eventually ended up in a collage, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep."

Photographs: Monterchi, The Lady of the Studio, and the canine lady of the studio. The latter photos were taken five years ago -- so the furniture has moved around since then; Tilly and I have both grown older; but the Madonna still hangs by the drawing board, gazing down on bunny girls, bird boys, and other beasties.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Irish migrants to North America

Folk music has long been used to tell raw, honest stories about what it is to be human. Today, our theme is migration, exile, and displacement -- for the old stories remind us to have compassion for those facing such journeys today.

Above: "The Maid of Culmore," a traditional ballad performed by Cara Dillion, from County Derry in Northern Ireland. "“Having lived outside of Ireland for most of my adult life, I identify with songs of departure and longing for home on a very personal level," she says. The ballad appeared on her first solo album, Cara Dillon (2001).

Below: "Leaving Saint Kilda" by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts and poet Robin Robertson, from the album Hirta Songs (2014). The islands of St. Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia, until its last residents were officially removed in 1930.

Above: "Adrift, Adrift" by English folk singer Rosie Hood. "I started writing this song," she says, "when I read about the Ezadeen and Blue Sky M in the news -- two large ships that had been abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea carrying hundreds of Syrians fleeing the civil war. Each person on board had paid around £4,000 to reach Europe on ships that the crews set to auto-pilot (risking them running aground) and abandoned." The song appears on Hood's first solo album, The Beautiful & the Actual (2017).

Below is a festival performance of songs drawn from a revival of The Transports, the great folk opera by Peter Bellamy: a harrowing story about a man and woman unjustly exiled to Australia in the 1780s. The performers are Matthew Crampton, The Younguns, Rachael McShane, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, and Faustus. To learn more about this updated version of the opera, watch the introductory video, visit the Transports website, or listen to the show's CD.

Above: "Ballads of Child Migration," from a project based on Britain's shameful history of forced child migration. The performers here are John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick, Boo Hewerdine, O’Hooley & Tidow, Chris While, Julie Matthews, John Doyle, Jez Lowe, Andy Seward, and Andy Cutting. The narrator is Barbara Dickson. To learn more, read Helen Gregory's review of the project, or listen to the show's CD.

Below: "Ghost" by the Anglo-Scots duo Winter Wilson (Kip Winter and David Wilson) -- a song about a different kind of exile that happens to countless young people every day.  (It's close enough to my own experience at an even younger age that I get a lump in my throat every time I hear it.) "Ghost" is from Winter Wilson's new album Far off on the Horizon: twelve songs about "love, emigration, and everyday people."

Above, in a shift of mood: "Traveler's Curse" by the irrepressible Ben Caplan, from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The song is from Old Stock: an album, music show, and stage play about two Jewish Romanian refugees fleeing to Canada in 1908. For more information, visit the Old Stock website, watch the introductory video, or listen to the show's CD.

Below, let's end as we started with music from Cara Dillon: "Lakeside Swans," from her new album, Wanderers -- a song about the decisions we make throughout our lives to go or to stay.

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Pictures: The drawings above are by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Related music posts: "Stone's Throw" from Rachel Taylor-Beales' poignant album, Lament of the Selkie; "Here" by Sengalese singer Awa Ly; and The Lost Songs of St. Kilda. Also recommended: "The Stranger's Case" (from Shakespeare's last known play script, Sir Thomas More). In a short video produced by London's Globe Theatre and the International Rescue Committee, refugees from Syria, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan recite Shakespeare's text alongside renowned actors. It's a powerful piece.