Dazzling in White
on Darwin’s Ark, science, and poetry
There exists an illusion in society today, an infatuation with nothing, and it is the idea that at some level, the scientific and the poetic are incompatible—that science is a poison that saps life of beauty with its soulless numbers and equations and theorems. This dichotomy is an easy one—it is simpler, after all, to learn to prefer mystery or mysticism over truth than it is to pursue that truth—but it is also destructive; when we view ourselves as somehow immune to the natural processes only scientific inquiry can lead us to, our hubris (a product of our highly-evolved brains) can quickly turn rancid, staunchly self-destructive. Science is humility, the opening of ourselves to a reality that does not revolve around or cater to us, and it is only in humility that we can find the clarity to see what is most beautiful. Although for centuries, many poets—well-known and skilled poets such as Keats and Blake—have derided science, there are some who embrace it, turning away from the lofty language of religion and rapture and instead to, in the case of modern poet Philip Appleman, Darwin’s Ark. Originally published in 1984, Darwin’s Ark is a collection of Appleman’s poems, many of which center on Darwinian evolution, and some of which are broader in scope. Two in particular, “So Full of a Number of Things” and “How My Light is Spent,” speak to a sense of enlightenment through science and challenge the idea that poetry and science are mutually exclusive.
Poet Wallace Stevens wrote that, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” Indeed, “So Full of a Number of Things” snaps with a sort of joy often associated with religious awakening but remains very grounded in the secular, the scientific, the realistic. It is a feeling “better than Plato or Revelation” (26), one that Appleman isolates as “the feeling, / here in the afternoon sun, / that our grimy street is opening up / to one long windy beach, / and every pigeon on the block / is already a soaring gull” (17–22). This calls up the idea of evolution, of one species adapting to a new environment. The “grimy” street can be seen as representative of human society, with its layers of misinformation and willful ignorance, and with the move out of that setting and into a more natural, unpolluted place comes the change to a freer creature, generations of selection condensed into a bird’s transformation. “[W]e’re standing out here on the sand,” Appleman writes, “and we suddenly feel sure, / without any doubt at all, / … / that tomorrow the taste of sunrise / will be better than crabs in curry, / better than icy beer / or tangerines.” (24–31) This speaks to progress independent of human inventions or indulgences, and indeed, the statement has been made over and over, in one case by psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson, that “God didn’t make man; man made gods.” In spite of this, however, the sun will rise—a delicious experience, one that is wholly natural—and make other trivialities pale in comparison.
Appleman uses the sunrise image again in the close of “How My Light is Spent” with “a woman in a crimson sweater / rising like the sun” (30–31). The poem features an epigraph from Darwin’s Origin of Species: “Eyes are certainly not necessary to animals having subterranean habits,” and revolves around the experience of light and vision in a time of crisis. The second-person speaker is suggested to have had a brush with death; the poem opens with, “On the subway you thought / it couldn’t happen to you” (1–2) and periodically mentions doctors and waiting rooms. Interestingly, in the third line, we are told that “the doctors are dazzling in white,” and further in, that “Science / [is] dazzling in white” (15–16). The connection is not accidental and plays off the image of near-death experiences and the bright white light—“Science / burns in your eyeball” (3–4). The line from Darwin ties in through the speaker witnessing such animals with subterranean habits: “you see moles, bats, / fins in the murk / of a thousand fathoms; now / you know better” (18–21). That “now / you know better” is crucial. In the stereotypical tale of a near-death experience, the near-dead returns to life a changed man, with renewed faith and appreciation for his short time. In “How My Light is Spent,” where the idea of light starts off as analogous to life, the speaker comes to understand it differently, in a broader sense that truly recognizes the blind creatures as living, although they may not experience in the same way “a woman in a crimson sweater / rising like the sun.” The dazzling white reveals what the speaker, although given sight in a way others are not, was unable to see because habit gave him no reason to look.
Literary theorist Victor Shklovsky warns that “[h]abitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. ‘If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.’ And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life …” (778) All art, he explains, serves to defamiliarize—to express the essence of things beyond the conception of them we have adopted through rote—“to make the stone stony” (778). This is the sentiment of the adage show, don’t tell—that is, in poetry, it is not enough to state the existence of a stone; the poet must establish the stone as a fully-formed thing. Science operates on a similar principle: anyone making a baseless claim of stone would be ignored by geologists working to capture the stone as accurately as possible.
Another parallel appears in that word—accurately. A sloppy poet is no more effective than a sloppy scientist, and arguably does his field an equal disservice. For every poorly-conceived experiment that yields inaccurate results and shakes the public’s confidence in the scientific method, there is a poem bemoaning the ache of first love lost whose vapid and nondescript language perpetuates the misconception that poetry is emotional fluff. “Our weapons,” writes Christopher Hitchens, “are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation”—it is the poet-scientist’s dedication to a specific sort of accuracy that gives the work strength. If Shakespeare’s immortal eighteenth sonnet had opened, “Shall I compare thee to a nice day? Thou art better: sometimes the day can be windy,” it wouldn’t have survived through a first draft. Instead, we get “a summer’s day” and “rough winds [that] shake the darling buds of May” (1, 3)—and one of the best-known sonnets even today.
Drawing on the writings of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser expresses a similar idea this way:
Truth is … not a stream that flows from a source, but an agreement of components. In a poem, these components are, not the words or images, but the relations between the words and images. … All of these words were known, as the results leading to a scientific discovery may have been known. But they were not arranged before the poet seized them and discovered their pattern. This arrangement turns them into a new poem, a new science. Here, as everywhere, the arrangement is the life. (167)
Rukeyser suggests that the process of the poet and the process of the scientist are in fact essentially the same. Essentially here does not mean just basically or more or less; it means at heart, in essence, the poet and the scientist have the same calling—and are in many ways more closely related than the poet and the romance novelist or the scientist and the sci-fi writer.
The nature of the most effective poetry is well-captured in a line from The Demon-Haunted World: “There are no forbidden questions … no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths” that cannot be tested (Sagan 31). Poetry, put bluntly, goes there. It does not shy away from taboos or compromise itself to satisfy the sensibilities of the populace. However, The Demon-Haunted World is a lesser-known work of astronomer Carl Sagan; it is not a book that claims to be about poetry—although it could be made to appear so by simply replacing “science” with “poetry” in the subtitle Science as a Candle in the Dark.
All of the poems in Darwin’s Ark express a fascination with the scientific, and indeed, in Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins—known to many as “Darwin’s Rottweiller”—remarks that “The impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism … are precisely those that lead others of us to science” (17). Unweaving the Rainbow functions as a response to the claim that science rids the world of beauty, and thus of poetry, drawing its title from Keats’ claim that in offering a scientific explanation for it, Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow. Dawkins refers to a famous quatrain of Blake’s:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
(“Auguries of Innocence”)
Dawkins proposes that this could be read as entirely about science. “Our interpretation,” he then says, “is different but what excites us is the same” (17). This is where many people get lost, to their own detriment—in the idea that this excitement is destroyed through inquiry. Philip Appleman’s collection crackles with excitement, however, and awe, and reverence, and beneath that, as the steady force driving it all, a fascination with the beauty of science.
On dark energy, Christopher J. Conselice writes of “matter on a cosmic scale … in a cobweb-like pattern—a filigree of filaments … interspersed with voids” (“The Universe’s Invisible Hand” 41). If that image—and the scientific work it is drawn from—is cold, emotionless, and lacking beauty, so too is the work of every poet.
Appleman, Philip. Darwin’s Ark. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2009. Print.
Conselice, Christopher J. “The Universe’s Invisible Hand.” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 (Advance Reading Copy). Ed. Jerome Groopman. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2008. Print.
Dawkins, Richard. Unweaving the Rainbow. New York: Mariner Books. 1998. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Message to American Atheists.” The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. RichardDawkins.net, 22 April 2011. Web. 15 July 2011.
Keats, William. “Auguries of Innocence.” The Literature Network. OnlineLiterature, n.d. Web. 17 July 2011.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. 2nd ed. Ashfield: Paris Press. 1996. Print.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. 3rd ed. New York: Ballantine Books. 1997. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18.” Shakespeare Online. ShakespeareOnline, 4 February 2010. Web. 1 August 2011.
Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. 774–784. Print.
Stevens, Walace. Opus Posthumous. New York: Vintage Books. 1957. Print.
Thomson, J. Anderson. “Science and Religion.” Los Angeles Times. LATimes.com, 18 July 2011. Web. 27 July 2011.