The poet and the scientist, part II:
wild territory

Meldon 1

Meldon 2

Meldon 3

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.

Meldon 4

Meldon 6

"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....'

Meldon 7

Meldon 8

Meldon 9

"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."

Meldon 10

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.

Meldon 11

Meldon 12

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

P1500507

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.

Meldon 2

"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....

Meldon 3

 "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."

Meldon 4

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.

Meldon 5

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."

Meldon 6

 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. "

Meldon 7

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.

Meldon 8

Meldon 9

Meldon 10

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.

Lapwing Stars

Magic in hand

Rima Staines and Sylvia V. Linsteadt in my studio

Tattermalion

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


Words and acorns

Tilly and oak

These are words I am living by right now, pinned to wall above my desk:

"Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.'' - Vincent van Gogh (Letters)

Oak leaves & acorn

If you haven't yet read The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, I highly recommend them. I have the old Penguin edition, edited by Ronald de Leeuw; but if you can afford the six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: the Letters, published by Thames & Hudson, it's extraordinary.

Oak leaves & words

Fabric art card by Michele Campling

The lovely art above is a card made by my friend Michele Campling, who is a fabric artist here in Devon. The poem in the picture caption is from Selected Poems by Barbara Guest (Sun & Moon Press, 1995). All rights reserved by the author and artist.


On the power of beauty

Poets Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna

Rise: From One Island to Another is an extraordinary film project featuring two poets -- Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands (between Hawaii and the Philippines) and Aka Niviâna from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland -- using their words to link their homelands, each on the front line of climate change.

Please go here to watch this stunning little film, so rich with the beauty of the language of "sacred rage" that it makes my heart beat fast.

Then go here to learn more about the making of Rise: the ethos, the poem, and the journey.

Just yesterday I read an interview with the great American writer Terry Tempest Williams discussing the power of beauty in a changing world: grounding us, healing us, giving us the courage to keep fighting for our planet.

Black bear (artist unknown)"What I love," she says, "is that, in spite of everything, beauty holds us, in whatever form we seek it. Last week, I was so depressed; I cannot believe what is happening in this country. I’ve been in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for the last month and the state of Wyoming is now opening permits so that if grizzly bears get outside Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park, they can be shot. We tried to organize, buy out the permits, 'shoot them with a camera, not a gun.' All this is political, right? And I thought, stop, too much noise. Too much rage. And I went into the park and drove through Willow Flats. On the edge of the Snake River, I saw the willows move. And there in the clearing emerges this immense being -- a grizzly bear. And I thought, first and foremost, above all politics, here is beauty on four legs. I just wept. My heart calmed, my eyes opened, and I found a compassion that I had lost. I went out and sat by the river, and all of a sudden there were millions of caddis flies, about the size of your little finger, a constellation dancing on the surface of the Snake River. Grizzly bears eat caddis flies, and I thought, here, now, this is beauty, this is the strategy for survival. The earth, the world, bears: on some level I truly believe they will survive us. I have to believe in those moments of beauty that take us to a place of transcendence where anything is possible. We have to hold on to that."

I couldn't agree more.

Terry Tempest Williams

I highly recommend Terry Tempest William's new book, pictured above...and all of her previous work. She inspires me constantly.


To sleep, perchance to dream

Extreme Poetry at Dartington, 2018

To friends & poetry lovers in the West Country:

You are invited to join two of Britain's finest poets, Alice Oswald and Peter Oswald, along with my dramatist husband, Howard Gayton, for an unusual and extraordinary night of Extreme Poetry.

When: Wednesday, 7 March, at 8 pm
Where: Dartington Hall, Space Studio 3, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EN
Tickets: Here, or phone the number above.

(Tickets will also be available on the night; you don't have to pre-book.)

I'm not sure how widely Dartington has publicized the event, so I'm doing my bit to spread the word. Please pass it on to all who might like to come. It will be deeply mythic and rather special.

To learn more about Alice's work: "Is Alice Oswald our greatest living poet?" (by Charlotte Runcie). Her most recent book, Falling Awake, won the Costa Award for Poetry and the Griffin Prize.

To learn more about Peter's work: "Rhyme and Punishment" (by Lyn Gardner). His play "Mary Stuart" runs until April 14th at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

The Sleep-Cycle at Dartington

This is the first event of series, with the next coming up on April 4th. More info soon.

Extreme Poetry at Dartington, 2018Howard in rehearsal for the first evening of the Sleep-Cycle Series at Dartington, 2018. Full masking & body-painting on the night will be by Angharad Barlow.


Saint Valentine's Day

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima Staines
Epithalamium

by Adam Zagajewski
translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Without silence there would be no music.
Life paired is doubtless more difficult
than solitary existence -
just as a boat on the open sea
with outstretched sails is trickier to steer
than the same boat drowsing at a dock, but schooners
after all are meant for wind and motion,
not idleness and impassive quiet.

A conversation continued through the years includes
hours of anxiety, anger, even hatred,
but also compassion, deep feeling.
Only in marriage do love and time,
eternal enemies, join forces.
Only love and time, when reconciled,
permit us to see other beings
in their enigmatic, complex essence,
unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement
in a valley, or among green hills.

It begins in one day only, from joy
and pledges, from the holy day of meeting,
which is like a moist grain;
then come the years of trial and labor,
sometimes despair, fierce revelation,
happiness and finally a great tree
with rich greenery grows over us,
casting its vast shadow. Cares vanish in it.


* An Epithalumium was composed to celebrate a wedding in ancient Greece and invoke good fortune from the gods.

My valentines

Today's post is for my valentines, one of whom is off doing theatre work in Edinburgh and London right now, while the other (furry and four-footed) pines for his return.

Happy Valentine's Day to each of you too, and to all the people, animals, trees, birds, books, fictional characters and magical places you've given your heart to.

Howard & Tilly 2015

Pictures: The beautiful art above is by Rima Staines, who spreads art, music, and magic all across the UK through Hedgespoken, the house-on-wheels she shares with poet & storyteller Tom Hirons. They're out on Dartmoor for the winter months, close to their community here in Chagford, preparing for further adventures. Go here to see more of Rima's artwork.

Photographs: husband and hound, in the garden and in my studio on World Book Day.

Words: "Epithalamium" by Adam Zagajewski is from The Atlantic magazine ( June 2010).  The poem excerpts in the picture captions are from: "The Country of Marriage" by Wendell Berry, from his book of the same name (Counterpoint, 1971/2013); "The moon rose over the bay, I had a lot of feelings" by Donika Kelly (The American Academy of Poets, November 2017); "Separation" by W.S. Merlin, from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); and "Wedding Reading" by Ben Okri, from his collection Wild (Rider, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Related post: "The Narrative of Marriage."


The Peace of Wild Things

8

Today is National Poetry Day here in the UK -- a day to celebrate and share old and new works of poetry. The theme this year is "freedom." Here's my own favourite poem on the subject:

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

6

What are your favourite poems about freedom, in any sense of the word? Please share in the Comments...or post one of your own.

4

1

The poem above is from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press, 1999). The poem in the picture captions is from The Armless Maiden (Tor Books, 1995) and The Poets' Grimm: 21st Century Poems from the Grimms Fairy Tales (Story Line Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


The words that matter

Charles Robinson

“For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

 - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

Aesops illustrations by Charles Robinson

"Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require -- it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.''

- Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry)

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Heath Robinson

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

N. Scott Momaday (Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets)

William Heath Robinson

The art today is by brothers Charles Robinson (1870-1937) and William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who were raised in a family of artists in Finbury Park, north London. 

The Little Mermaid by William Heath Robinson