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’.
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,
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,