Nick Laird writing in the Guardian review’s book column wonders why more poets haven’t engaged with the insights into human behaviour that science gives us.


“In general” he says “modern poets have taken more easily to Freud than Darwin.” But should we hope for a poetry of science and what would it be like? “Will it engage with scientific vocabulary? Or register the possibility of new vistas?”


Laird refers to Miroslav Holub as the great scientist-poet of modern times – but I’m not sure this is right – Holub was certainly a great poet and I’m sure he was a great scientist, but while he draws upon a scientific vocabulary, his use of it is essentially metaphorical.


Take this from his poem ‘Heart transplant’:


After an hour


there’s an abyss in the chest

created by the missing heart

like a model landscape

where humans have grown extinct



Atrium is sewn to atrium

aorta to aorta

three hours of eternity

coming and going


And when the heart begins to beat

and the curves jump

like synthetic sheep

on the green screen,

it’s like a model of a battlefield

in which Life and Spirit

have been fighting


And both have won


The language here is scientific, specifically medical, but it is used to reflect upon love, alienation and the fear of death as conscious experiences not as unconscious processes. Crucially the heart is used metaphorically in its romantic incarnation as the seat of emotion – not literally as a muscle that pumps blood round the body – indeed the latter usage is subordinated to the former….


So I’m still left wondering what a poetry of new scientific vistas would look like. Perhaps it is a category error. Perhaps poetry and science explain us in such different ways that they cannot fully merge. Or maybe there are other examples from Holub or from other poets that come closer?



One response to “Neuro-poetry?

  1. The first poem in David Morley’s booklength sequence, ‘Scientific Papers’ (Carcanet 2002), perhaps meets your criteria a little more closely:

    “An acceptable scientific paper must be the first disclosure containing sufficient information to enable other people to do three things: assess your observations, repeat your experiments, and evaluate your intellectual processes. Your position has everything to do with a system of reporting that is concise and readily understandable. Each paper must be susceptible to sensory perception and essentially permanent. Without publication science is dead.”

    Also poem 26, ‘Two Haiku Pennants’, described as ‘after Einstein, after Minkowski’, perhaps diverges less from preconceived ideas of poetry and art.

    David is very noticeably influenced by Holub and I would think that neither poet would see a problem with the ‘subordination’ of a medical account of the heart for a metaphorical account, as long as both are on display. They are both narratives, and they can coexist in different relative positions in each given telling of what the heart is, or can be.

    I’m very interested in how poetry and science can or can’t fully merge. One of my discussions with poet-ecologist Mario Petrucci was about how to find the poetry in science, and if there was a vice versa to that, or where the two do merge.

    The one hint was at the end of the film version of Mario’s ‘Heavy Water’, which narrates the half-lives of various metals, ending with uranium. Within the context of Mario’s poetic sequence based around Chernobyl, the raw facts are elevated to an aesthetic beauty that I’d call poetry.


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