Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

"Resistance to science in contemporary American poetry" by Bryan Walpert (Routledge, 2011)

He begins with "Contemporary American poets are obsessed with science" (p.3) which over-states the case I suspect, but there's a fair bit of science in poetry nowadays, even if some of it's superficial. Poets use words from science (it's a rich source of new, strange words), use metaphors (comparing the double-slit experiment with how people act differently depending how you look at them) and exploit the authority that an association with science provides. I think a truer statement is "As science has gained in authority, literature has largely been relegated to amusement, and poetry even further marginalized because it is now primarily associated with the lyric, which is in turn associated with personal 'expression' and, in the eyes of its least charitable critics, solipsism" (p.5).

Poets and literary theorists haven't all faced this situation by retreating. He goes back to Plato to trace the status of poetry, then winds forwards - "Poetry's twin aims, expressed eloquently in 20 BC by Horace but echoed through the generations, have always been to delight and to teach, the emphasis shifting from one to the other with the currents of fashion" (p.16). He points out that "Critics have long observed that romantic poets took a great interest in scientific developments" (p.75).


One tactic is to devalue science, though what is attacked is frequently an outdated version of science as if it were a pure, objective investigation of what Reality really is. Maurice Riordan is quoted as saying that "Science employs rational hypothesis and rigorous experiment in the attempt to arrive at objective laws. Typically its success requires repetitious mental activities and observation kept free of subjective interference ... science employs a language drained of suggestion ... The bulk of scientific activity, moreover, is routine and unexciting" (p.181). He selects these features to make a contrast with poetry. As generalisations I think they're true, but people working in science (Riordan too) know that

  • Science doesn't primarily seek to discover what reality really is, though it may be able to predict and control with great precision
  • Science is rich in metaphors - indeed, one could say that the value of t in a formula is like the temperature of a gas. Metaphors that are dead to scientists may be more interesting to outsiders.
  • There's more to science than Bacon's notion of collecting data and making deductions. Indeed, things can work the other way - a theory is proposed and an experiment is designed to test it. Scientists know that "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and that there's a risk that "Scientific instruments and experiments, then, create the reality they purport to observe" (p.156). As Bohr, said, "apparatuses are particular physical arrangements that give meaning to certain concepts to the exclusion of others"
  • There are assumptions (Kuhn paradigms) but there are also many people eager to break them - magazines like "New Scientist" frequently have iconoclastic articles about whether the speed of light is constant, etc.
  • Egos, politics and money can get in the way - scientists are only human.

A general tendency in these arguments is to suggest that all science is the same - but not all experiments are like the double-slit experiment where "The scientist's relationship with that is studied is in effect not study but entanglement", p.171 nor are they all like Evolution, where repeatability can be an issue

I agree though that science isn't as scientific as some people think. Ditto (though it's beyond the scope of this book) for maths.


To contrast with his broad-brush description of science, Maurice Riordan produces this description of poetry - "poets rely on their instincts and shape their 'truths' out of currents of personal experience ... poets only make their insights persuasive through the use of language that is rhythmically heightened or image-laden, in order to induce a fictional mimesis of lived experience ... dull and worthless are near synonyms in literary criticism" (p.181)

Walpert uses work from the Language poets to challenge this description. Also there have always been people who claim that poetry offers a special form of truth - "far from thinking that the imagination deals with the non-existent [the romantic poets] insist that it reveals an important kind of truth", Bowra, "The Romantic Imagination", p.92. And post Foucault/Derrida, perhaps "Poetry, [Retallack's] work argues, can - if it engages discourse - create new knowledge of the world by engaging with the world; it is a part of the world with which it engages", p.157

I sympathize with the notion that "it is in language that we construct what appear to us to be unified central selves and so it is language that poetry must scrutinize", p.182


The most interesting aspects of this part of the book for me were the examples of poetry (by Alison Hawthorne, Deming, Pattiann Rogers, Albert Goldbarth, etc), and some points made by Barad about the implications of a fetus as shown on a sonogram not being a faithful representation (how much of mother is shown? is it made to appear independent?).

I can see how the significance of the choice of apparatus could lead to a situation where "What twentieth-century innovative artists came to see is that the form that the experiment takes is not preliminary to the answer, not preliminary to the creation of the art object. It is the answer. It is the art." (programmatic art)

If one believes that language is all that there is, and that language creates what we "know", then scientific language and poetic language are on a similar footing. But I don't believe that. Assertions like Pattiann Rogers' "I think science is a form of investigation; so is art" have little value to me. The list could be extended to include Cookery, Chess, etc.

Ultimately, as he points out, "Two questions that underlie the tension between poetry and science might be summarized as "Does science matter in the way we think it does?" and "Does poetry matter at all?" ...[Science] has permeated because it works. Science saves lives", p.180.

Other reviews

  • Peter Middleton (For several decades, literary theory largely refused to talk to the social sciences, preferring to manufacture theory in-house and produce its own versions of knowledge – though this was a concept often abjured – of language, subjectivity, and society. ...Literary historians of poetry and science in the Romantic, Victorian and high modernist periods have begun to find methods for acknowledging the validity of claims to knowledge alongside recognition of the richness of poetic thought and affective reflection on the cultural efflorescence of the sciences. ... Walpert believes that poets such as Deming and Rogers are hampered by their poetics, by their tacit theories of language, subjectivity and epistemology. Poetry of the kind written by Rogers and Deming fails to respond persuasively to the challenge from science because it refuses to take into account the constitutive character of language in the creation of knowledge ... But Walpert’s argument rests on a questionable assumption about the character of scientific knowledge ... Walpert’s discussion of [Joan Retallack's AID/I/SAPPEARANCE] deserves to be widely read; it provides one of the best accounts available of this major poet. ... . I must admit to some doubts whether Barad can quite carry the weight that Walpert wants her theory to bear. ...Resistance to Science makes an important contribution to the study of contemporary poetry and science. )

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