Poetry Night

By Sean Carroll | April 5, 2011 9:49 am

I’m participating in a fun program at the L.A. Central Library tonight — a conversation with poet Jane Hirshfield. It’s part of the ALOUD program, a great series of lectures, discussions and performances. Times are tough for libraries, but I do hope that they find away to stay vibrant; a good library offers an enormous amount to the community that other institutions simply don’t.

Why physics and poetry? For purposes of this discussion they’ve been united under the banner of “The Nature of Observation.” That’s not just a saucy provocation — there’s something substantive underneath. We observe the world all the time, in ways both automatic and reflective. Both physics and poetry have as a primary motivation the attempt to improve upon our superficial observations of the world. In physics we simplify and quantify, looking for formal patterns underlying how reality works; in poetry we illuminate and suggest, using the power of metaphor and imagery to draw connections that aren’t immediately obvious. In both cases, we’re trying to deepen our understanding by subjecting the world to closer scrutiny than it ordinarily gets.

That’s my line, anyway. Jane Hirshfield is a wonderful poet, and the discussion should be a lot of fun. I wanted to include one of her poems, but I couldn’t decide which one, so here are two. If you like them, there are more where those came from.


Balance is noticed most when almost failed of —

in an elephant’s delicate wavering
on her circus stool, for instance,
or that moment
when a ladder starts to tip but steadies back.

There are, too, its mysterious departures.

Hours after the dishes are washed and stacked,
a metal bowl clangs to the floor,
the weight of drying water all that altered;
a painting vertical for years
one morning — why? — requires a restoring tap.

You have felt it disappearing
from your own capricious heart —
a restlessness enters, the smallest leaning begins.

Already then inevitable,
the full collision,
the life you will describe afterward always as `after’.

The Illuminist

Even in his glass cabin you can see
the man driving the snowplow
is whistling, happy. He races
one road, then the next, moving new snow.

A monk patiently hammering gold-leaf,
before him the world grows pliably, steadily brighter.

And if more will fall again tonight,
no matter.
He will put on his hat, his gloves,
and make again order.

All day the plow’s sound rises,
a pre-Gregorian chanting singing its singer.
Gold of winter sun grows thinner and thinner.

he can lay it right with the little plow.

The scriptorium darkens over white vellum.
His puttering ink-stroke, lengthening,

  • WC

    Pretty average poetry. Balance is noticed most when almost failed of ? Ha! It is not the moments of imbalance that are rare, it is the moments of balance. All our lives we strive to reach that moment of perfect balance, perch there singing for a second and inevitably a new current comes and sweeps us away. When the painting on the wall is straight, the dishes are probably lying dirty in the sink – when the dishes are all stacked symmetrically and drying, the elephant in the living room has probably decided to start dancing on top of the sofa.

  • Jason

    I liked the poems; thanks for sharing them! Including varied disciplines in this blog is one practice I firmly support. I never quite understood studying physics to the exclusion of appreciating the arts or other works. In my department (back when I was school,) it saddened me to bring up favorite, contextually relevant literature or music and have it met with blank stares. Curiosity should run deep, as humility, and joy – art and science are on the same page there.

  • http://sievemaria.com sievemaria lucianus

    Its true : Simple observed realities are more beautiful/interesting then any forced or created imaginations.

  • Cholla45

    And yet, sievemaria lucianus, if you were more interested in literature you might have a better understanding of language and know that your word should be “imaginings” not imaginations.

    I contend that both have their beauty. It’s not a contest, it’s just different ways the human mind can work its miracles. A poet’s heart and imagination respond to the world, and the mind listens to their response in an ancient and sacred way, to make a poem. A scientist’s heart and imagination respond just the same, and his mind finds a way to illuminate that response within his own holy practice.

  • http://sievemaria.com sievemaria lucianus

    Cholla45, I indeed thought about using the word *imaginings* and you are correct – These pure thoughts are distilled as they pass down the stony path of hard considerations and land warmly in the cold cave of truth.

  • george briggs

    why SU(1)) is the symmetry of dark matter? for SU(3) there are 8 messenger particles, for SU(!) there are no messenger particls, hence you have dark matter. Do you need a better explaination?

  • Mike

    In a concerted effort to break myself away from the discussions about the nature of scientific explanation, foundations of QM, and of course my favorite, David Deutsch and the MWI, here is one of my other favorites: a poem from an angst filled youth:

    There are cemeteries that are lonely,
    graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
    the heart moving through a tunnel,
    in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
    like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
    as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
    as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

    And there are corpses,
    feet made of cold and sticky clay,
    death is inside the bones,
    like a barking where there are no dogs,
    coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
    growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

    Sometimes I see alone
    coffins under sail,
    embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
    with bakers who are as white as angels,
    and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
    caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
    the river of dark purple,
    moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
    filled by the sound of death which is silence.

    Death arrives among all that sound
    like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
    comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
    finger in it,
    comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
    Nevertheless its steps can be heard
    and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

    I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
    but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
    of violets that are at home in the earth,
    because the face of death is green,
    and the look death gives is green,
    with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
    and the somber color of embittered winter.

    But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
    lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
    death is inside the broom,
    the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
    it is the needle of death looking for thread.

    Death is inside the folding cots:
    it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
    in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
    it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
    and the beds go sailing toward a port
    where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

    “Nothing But Death” — Pablo Neruda, translated by Robert Bly


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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