Science people and literature people don’t usually mix. We use different languages – dew and anguish for the lit types, water vapor and comorbid anxiety disorder for the science folks.
But there is a kinship.
Environmental activist and poet Jane Hirshfield, who knocked out crowds at a 2007 reading for HoCoPoLitSo at the Howard County Conservancy, showed that science and poetry should march hand in hand more often.
On April 22, Earth Day, at the rain-soaked March for Science in D.C. to support the scientific community, Hirshfield read a poem from the main stage (photo). Cheers and whoops broke from the crowd of hundreds of thousands who crammed the park below the Washington Monument and spilled over into Constitution Avenue.
She prefaced her poem with this statement: “On Jan. 25, when the federal scientists were told to be silent, this march was first conceived. By the afternoon, I began writing the poem I’m about to read you.”
“On the Fifth Day” begins:
“On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.”
A few hundred yards from the main stage, through the crowds with their creative signs (Got Smallpox? Me neither! Thanks, science!), the March for Science community had set up tents to hold science teach-ins. Marchers crammed into sessions about the benefit of preserving nature in cities, about efforts to save the bees and manage stormwater. In a tent sponsored by #Poets for Science – a popular place on the rainy day – people popped in to write poems. The tent was surrounded by a collection of eight-foot-tall signs printed with verse by writers such as W.S. Merwin and Linda Pastan, each poem chosen by Hirshfield.
The activities inside the tent were directed by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center and its Traveling Stanzas program. As the rain pattered on the tent’s ceiling, hundreds of people created “emerge” poems, striking out some words in long paragraphs of scientific language. Copies of the speeches given on the stage that day were handed to anyone who came in – from four-year-olds to gray beards. Using markers, the authors crossed out blocks of words, leaving poems to emerge from the blackness.
The intrinsic value
of diverse and abundant plant and animal species
That value has been shared
The Wick Poetry Center site features more photos and emerge poems.
In Washington last Saturday, the crowd was exposed to the connections between poetry and science, demonstrating the ideas that many activist poets are trying to express — that art and science are not expendable, they are intrinsic to survival in the world.
As many signs read: “There is no Planet B.”
Hirshfield explains in her statement on the #Poets for Science site:
“Poetry and science are allies, not opposites. … Observation and imagination, the microscope and the metaphor, the sense of amazement— you need all of them to take the measure of a moment, of a life. Poetry and science each seek to ground our lives in both what exists and the sense of the large, of mystery and awe. Every scientist I know is grounded in curiosity, wonder, the spirit of exploration, the spirit of service. As is every poet.”
Many signs at the march were lettered with the March for Science’s slogan: “Science, not silence.” I would add, though the rhythm isn’t quite as sublime, “Poetry and science, not silence.”
Susan Thornton Hobby