Monday, November 1, 2010

November 2010 Poetry Challenge

Science plays an important role in modern societies, as do many of the phenomena which scientists attempt to describe and understand. Sometimes we may be tempted to think everything that can be known is known, but biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and the other sciences keep evolving. The wedding of science and poetry can create very interesting results.

Larry Turner’s sonnet, “Biology Class: Her High-School Teacher is Filled with Certainty (1985)” is part of a small chapbook entitled The Girl with Blue-Eyed Parents (Fredericksburg VA: 2001). This collection has ten poems, all about Susan and her family. Two of the poems, including “Biology Class,” were reprinted in Turner’s later collection, Eden and Other Addresses.

Biology Class: Her High-School Teacher is Filled with Certainty (1985)

Another student, Tim, lifts up his hand.
“You talk of dominant, recessive genes,
And which is which, but I don’t understand.”
The teacher speaks, “I’ll tell you what it means.
Since brown is dominant, if parents’ eyes
Are brown, their child’s can still be blue.
From blue-eyed parents never will arise
A brown-eyed child. That should be clear to you.”
Then Susan says, “I mean you no defiance.
But sometimes when the parents’ eyes are blue…?”
“No. Never could that be. We’re talking science.
What science says is absolutely true.”
Stifling sobs, she turns her young face down,
And tears flow from her eyes of deepest brown.

~ Larry Turner

Used by Permission of the author. From Eden and Other Addresses (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing Company, 2005), p. 55.

Turner, a retired physicist who worked many years at Argonne National Laboratory (a U.S. Department of Energy lab run by the University of Chicago) drew on the science of genetics for “Biology Class.”

The next poem, “Inertia,” is by Robert M. Chute, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Bates College. For this poem, Chute draws on a theory from physics. The collection in which it appears has poems dealing with chaos, chance and randomness. Evolution, quantum theory and geology inspired Chute to write some of the poems. Ants and homing pigeons appear together in one poem; the human heartbeat and a mating Mayfly, in another. Chute reveals in the introduction that he goes to the periodical section of the library not to read Poetry, but to read the British periodical, Nature (and its North American cousin, Science). It was difficult to select just one poem from his book, Reading Nature.


It doesn’t take a Newton
to know nor a Sartre to see
how my life might go if
the universe were frictionless,
if I were free—a little push
and then eternity.

~ Robert M. Chute

Reading Nature (Topsham ME: Just Write Books, 2006), p. 14.

Permission granted by the publisher and the poet, Robert M. Chute.
To buy the book:

Robin Chapman, Professor Emerita of Communicative Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has won a number of awards for her poetry, including the Posner Poetry Award for her collection, The Way In, and the 2007 Cider Press Review Book Award for Abundance. Julien Clinton Sprott, a plasma Physicist, at UW-Madison, is the author of hundreds of papers on such topics as chaos, fractals and complexity. He has also published as several books. Chute is also known for his video series, Wonders of Physics, a total of 22 hours of programming.

At UW-Madison, Chapman and Sprott partnered in a weekly interdisciplinary Chaos and Complex Systems Seminar, in which many colleagues participated over the years. Topics taken up ranged from chaos in plasma and the spots on buckeye butterflies to chaotic compositions for string quartets and the dynamics of happiness. The seminar led to collaboration on a book filled with Sprott’s stunning computer-generated images that follow from chaotic attractors and dynamical systems along side Chapman’s arresting poems, inspired by the seminar, Sprott’s images and scientific theories. The authors help the scientific layperson by including definitions of such terms as dynamical system, attractor, bifurcation and entropy. However, you don’t have to understand fractals to appreciate the beauty of Sprott’s images, nor do you have to be a Ph.D. scientist to appreciate Chapman’s poems in this amazing coffee table book.

Dynamical Systems

What’s not changing in time?
The glass in the window pane
sags slowly, the sunlight
streams through the glass, the cat
washes her face with her paw,
the house gathers dust motes,
the geraniums we brought in
before frost take root and flower.
Outside, a wind is blowing the leaves about.
The universe we once thought steady-state
is flying apart. Inside, we are waltzing,
laughing, to the music of the nickelharppe.
And you, reader, anchored by gravity
and oxygen and eye, thinking now
of the sky full of stars, dancing, house repairs –
what strange, unpredictable pattern is yours?

~ Robin Chapman

Used by permission of the author. From Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos, by Robin Chapman and Julien Clinton Sprott (World Scientific, 2005), p. 4.

A different kind of collaboration led to Two Off Q: a conversation in poetry, by June Nirschl, a retired English teacher, and Judy Roy, retired from careers as a psychologist and then as a French teacher. Two Off Q received an Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Award from the Wisconsin Library Association.

Many of us have tried to understand what we have heard about string theory, and have contemplated what it might mean in practical terms. Judy Roy put her thoughts into a very interesting poem which takes us from contemplation of her parents and grandmother to a surprise ending.

String Theory

Physics proposes seven or perhaps eleven
dimensions which may mean that you,
Mother, around an unseen corner,
are dusting the very toby jugs
which I have just dusted. Daddy
is once again, or still,
smoking his pipe and reading Life magazine,
stretched out on the green couch
which I gave to Goodwill years ago.
Grandma is adding a pinch of lemon peel to her cake batter,
and I, aged four, am sitting on Grandpa’s lap
during a WWII air-raid drill,
all of us trailing strings which vibrate
in a celestial music which one of us hopes
may be God’s voice, singing.

~ Judy Roy

Used by permission of the author. Two Off Q: A Conversation in Poetryby June Nirschl and Judy Roy (Marshfield WI: Marsh River Editions, 2008), p. 13.

Other unions of science and poetry:

* Judith Strasser’s collection, winner of the 2006 Lewis-Clark Expedition Award from Lewis-Clark Press, The Reason/Unreason Project.

* Kurt Brown, ed., Verse & Universe: Poems About Science and Mathematics

* Roald Hoffmann (Nobel Prize Chemist), Gaps and Verges (Contemporary Poetry Series)

* Song of the World Becoming: Poems, New and Collected, 1981-2001
* Kimiko Hahn, Toxic Flora: Poems

* “Science Experiment,” from Breaking the Mapby Kim-An Lieberman.

* I Marveled at How Generally I Was Aided,” from The Best of It: New and Selected Poemsby Kay Ryan.

* “String Theory,” from Broken Strings, Missing Notes: ...Strengthening Democracy and Seeking Justice inby Larry J. Eriksson. Republished in Peninsula Pulse at

* Ronald Wallace, “String Theory,” Redactions (2009).

* Website of the Center for Poetry and Science, University of Liverpool, at

The November Poetry Challenge

The poetry challenge for November is to write a poem related to, responding to or reacting to, a scientific theory or principle. You may write a formal poem or free verse. The deadline is November 15, 2010.

Poems published in books or on the Internet are not eligible. If you poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send your poem to wildamorris [at] ameritech [dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces). Or you can access my Facebook page and send the poem in a message. Be sure provide your e-mail address. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog, if it is a winner. The deadline is November 15. Winning poem or poems will be published on this blog.

© 2010 Wilda Morris