The following is a guest post written by Caitlin Rizzo, a staffer at the Poetry and Literature Center and a blogger for the Library’s From the Catbird Seat. Caitlin and I decided to swap blogs for the week. She wrote this piece for Inside Adams and I wrote a piece about the first, and only, poem I ever memorized. Check out From the Catbird Seat’s for my guest post Stay Gold: First Poems and Robert Frost.
It may seem strange to see the name Emily Dickinson pop up on a blog about science, technology, and business, but as a poetry-lover and an avid reader of Scientific American (and the Inside Adams blog!). I can’t help but complicate the divide between the hard sciences and the fine arts. For me, there’s no better poet to understand the far-reaching arm of the humanities than Emily Dickinson.
Like many of the transcendentalist authors of the 19th century, who were her contemporaries, Dickinson was fascinated by science. She saw the study of nature as part of a larger need to understand the universe and the human role within it. I think the best poets are like scientists—asking questions and seeking truth, however uncomfortable it may be.
To me, Dickinson’s poem “632” is the epitome of the spirit of scientific inquiry. Each quatrain begins with a line of hypothesis, followed by a line of experiment and two lines to analyze the results. The poem is a triumph of the scientific method.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
Poems speak in a language of ambivalence that reveals what the author, the speaker, even the reader is most afraid of saying. Emily Dickinson was devoutly religious all her life; she even composed her poems in a distinct rhythm we now call “hymn meter,” modeled after the syllabic counts of the songs she would have heard in church every week. Yet here, as in other poems, she walks a dangerous line. In saying that the brain is the mechanism which contains its own universe, she risks committing to a spiritually and philosophically dangerous viewpoint.
Dickinson uses metaphors from the physical and natural sciences when, in stanza after stanza, she compares the brain to the sky and the ocean, even the physical properities of water; she begins to evoke the science of linguistics in her final line, a science that is more contemporary with today’s reader than with Dickinson herself. She must rely on nature as an empiric guide, to show the brain’s power: to perceive and derive meaning from the existence of whatever is around it.
Dickinson is not alone in mixing poetry and science—Adrienne Rich explores the experiments of Marie Curie in her poem “Power” and later astronomy in her “Planetarium”; Kimiko Hahn focuses intensely on the mysterious world of botany in her Toxic Flora; and Rosmarie Waldrop interrogates the givens of mathematical philosophy in her “Zero, the Corrosive Number.” Rae Armantrout even takes on the complicated economic theory and socio-political commentary in her “Soft Money.” In the end, there’s no real division at all. There’s a poet for every scientist, and a scientist for every poet!