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Twenty Conjectures

- Peter Middleton



Science and new technologies have influenced poetry more during the past half century than any other social, economic, or political forces. Of course this shaping is most evident from within those forces.


Christian Goldbach’s conjecture: Every even number is the sum of two prime numbers.


Poets and philosophers have sometimes claimed that influence runs the other way. Poets get there first. Friedrich Schlegel said in one of his “Ideas” (99) in 1800 that “if you want to penetrate into the heart of physics, then let yourself be initiated into the mysteries of poetry.” (103) In a Voice of America lecture in 1964, the poet May Swenson repeats this theme:  “atomic physics (the most exact of the sciences) is uncovering a factual foundation for many intuitions of existentialist poets and philosophers.”(192-3). In the same series of lectures, Robert Duncan, a regular reader of the Scientific American, suggests that poets and scientists get there together because both seek to “discover” the “divine order or natural order” in the surrounding world. Duncan repeats several of Erwin Schrödinger’s statements about the capacity of living organisms to resist entropy, and then says that “this picture of an intricately articulated structure, a form that maintains a disequilibrium or lifetime—whatever it means to the biophysicist—to the poet means that life is by its nature orderly and that the poem might follow the primary processes of thought and feeling, the immediate impulse of psychic life.” The parenthetic remark whatever it means to the biophysicist is an acknowledgement that the poet cannot claim to have understood exactly what it is that scientists believe about a specific phenomenon, because the poet works outside the scientific community.


Scientists appear not to have noticed that poetry precedes physics. “The traffic between science and art is […] almost always one-way,” according to the editors of an anthology of poems about science, A Quark for Mister Mark (Riordan and Turvey). Even a scientist-poet like Miroslav Holub keeps his nude mice well away from the cheese of poetry. You could read the whole monograph for which he is best known as a geneticist and not realise that he is also a poet.


Schrödinger himself shows us quite unselfconsciously why scientists keep away from any taint of the poetical. In what is probably the single most influential scientific book of the past half-century, What is Life? (1944), this famous physicist who also published poetry, reveals in passing that scientists think of poetry as the opposite of rational, careful inquiry. He is attempting to convey how extraordinary it is that a tiny substance like a chromosome can reverse the law of entropy basic to physics. “In biology we are faced with an entirely different situation. A single group of atoms existing in only one copy produces orderly events, marvellously tuned in with each other and with the environment according to most subtle laws. […] And look at the way they are actually distributed. Every cell harbours just one of them (or two, if we bear in mind diploidy). Since we know the power this tiny central office has in the isolated cell, do they not resemble stations of local government dispersed through the body, communicating with each other with great ease, thanks to the code that is common to all of them.” At this point he pulls back from his elaborate analogy, apparently embarrassed by its rhetorical ambitions, and disowns the image though not the idea. “Well, this is a fantastic description, perhaps less becoming a scientist than a poet. However, it needs no poetical imagination but only clear and sober scientific reflection to recognize that we are here obviously faced with events whose regular and lawful unfolding is guided by a ‘mechanism’ entirely different from the ‘probability mechanism’ of physics.”(79) Poetry is a pre-scientific form of discourse.


Paul Wignall, R.J. Twitchett, Michael J. Benton and others conjecture that the worst mass extinction of life occurred two hundred and fifty one million years ago. The combined effects of a vast, prolonged volcanic eruption in the north of the single continent of Gondwana, and the consequent release of large quantities of methane from the newly heated undersea hydrates into the atmosphere, led to the destruction of almost all plants and animals on the planet. Evidence is found in the reduction of carbon isotope 12 found in the rock strata bordering the Permian and Triassic eras.


What sort of evidence of scientific influence are we looking for. Scars? Robert Duncan interpolates a short prose paragraph into “Passages 25: Up Rising” published in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam and Cold Wars: “--back of the scene: the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesised diseases eager biologists have developt over half a century dreaming of the bodies of mothers and fathers and children and hated rivals swollen with new plagues, measles grown enormous, influenzas perfected; and the gasses of despair, confusion of the senses, mania, inducing terror of the universe, coma, existential wounds, that chemists we have met at cocktail parties, passt daily and with a happy ‘Good Day’ on the way to classes or work, have workt to make war too terrible for men to wage” (Duncan 1968, 82). At much the same time Robert Pack wrote a poem called “Burning the Laboratory,” about one of those labs where cousins of Holub’s nude mice were sampling the toxic vials vividly enacting a widely held fantasy of bombing one of the sites where the new science was carried out.


Appropriations?  Citations of scientific discoveries? Charles Olson mentioning the “monogene”, or Michael Palmer picturing the discovery of the W particle in “Facades for Norma Cole.” Many poets would echo Alice Fulton: “I often lift scientific language for my own wayward purposes. That isn’t to say I play fast and loose with denoted meanings. I’m as true to the intentions of science as my knowledge allows. But my appropriations from science are entwined with other discourses, other ideas, so that a term such as ‘cascade experiment’ comes to stand for more than the laboratory event that it is.” (181) The poem in which she uses this image of the cascade experiment is a love poem about the power of passion to make love possible, reimagined in terms of the way “faith in facts can help create those facts” (surely a belief that a scientist would be unlikely to admit to openly). The poem is meant as a reminder that scientists also need imagination, because without it they could not conceive of such events as “electrons / vanishing on one side / of a wall and appearing on the other,” or other seemingly counter-intuitive phenomena. It’s hard to believe that any scientists are listening, let alone that they might care enough to be influenced in their work. And surely her engagement with science is superficial, the scientific language a rhetorical decoration making the poem seem up to date. The ordinary poetry of science large confirms the irrelevance of poetry for science.


Poems about quantum mechanics or aliphatic hydrocarbons are the exception. Science’s influence has sunk much deeper than this into the fabric, or I could say, into the DNA of the poem if that were not to give away too much precedence to science.  Explicit influence is relatively uncommon, as is explicit opposition.


Science takes hold of poetry in at least four ways. Science is the measure of intellectual inquiry; it offers the most advanced forms of deliberate socially organised knowledge; it provides the fabric for intellectual fashions in poetics; and its varied, subtle ways of controlling the degree of surety and assertion in its written forms prefigures much of the treatment of statement in poetry.  Inquiry, organisation, metaphors of knowledge, and the fine measurement of conjectural potential: these are the influences to look for. 


Inquiry. The biologist Stephen Rose defines science in the opening paragraphs of his book on scientific research into memory: “What I mean by science and its methods is […] a commitment to a unitary, materialist view of the world, a world capable of exploration by methods of rational enquiry and experiment.” (4) The problem for poets is that the scientists seem to want total control over all legitimate intellectual inquiry. Susan Greenfield, a Professor of Pharmacology and leading expert on the human brain, explains in a newspaper article in 2003, that “scientific enquiry” is the only truly defensible form of curiosity. “Science is about being curious,” she tells the readers, it “offers a way of finding out about, and changing, the world around you.” And she adds provocatively, “I’ve often wondered how you might prove something unscientifically.” Her immediate example is the use of scientific claims in advertising, but the implication extends much more widely: proof is confined to science. If you want to change the world you need to be scientific. These are the ordinary beliefs of many if not most scientists, and have been widely promulgated during the second half of the twentieth century. For many artists and writers they present a major problem: does this mean that art can no longer consider itself a significant form of curiosity capable of sustained inquiry into the nature of the world that could be the basis of change? A newspaper report on research into the hormone oxytocin, nicknamed the “hormone of love” says that “the discovery of this natural love potion and how its levels fluctuate means that what used to be the preserve of poets can now be studied by scientists.” (Feinmann, 14.) Is art a science that has failed?


Some artists would say that they can keep up with the researchers, they can tell their hormones apart.  The author of Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology, Stephen Wilson, is one of the few who respond to such challenges by rolling up their sleeves and becoming involved. Like Greenfield he thinks of science as institutionalised curiosity: “Let us define science as an accumulation of worldviews, questions, metaphors, representations, and processes that attempt to understand the nonhuman world. It is also the accumulated body of knowledge that these inquiries have generated.” The question then is “What must artists do differently than they always have done to prepare to participate in the world of research?”(39) Easy. They need to inform themselves about science and talk to scientists. Those who have done this can produce an art that “explores technological and scientific frontiers” and therefore supplement scientific research by pursuing “different inquiry pathways, conceptual frameworks, and cultural associations than those investigated by scientists and engineers.” (3) Poets could work in close parallel along these other inquiry pathways.


Another response would be to argue that inquiry can take many forms, not just hang around at the frontier with the scientists. This is what Heidegger argued and is one reason why he became the patron saint of American poetry for several decades. At the very start of Being and Time Heidegger insists that Dasein realises itself in the form of inquiry: “Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, access to it—all these ways of behaving are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of Being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers are ourselves. Thus to work out the question of Being adequately, we must make an entity—the inquirer—transparent in his own Being. The very asking of this question is an entity’s mode of Being; and as such, it gets its essential character from what is inquired about—namely, Being. This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term ‘Dasein’.”(26-7) By making this move at the start of his argument he is able to avoid conceding any primacy to science, without having to oppose it altogether. Humanity is naturally curious about the world and its condition within that world, and inquires into it in many different ways, including science. The idea that the poet is an inquirer therefore remains influential, not just because of Heidegger’s own continuing influence but because his solution to the problem posed by science is still thought to be effective. Charles Bernstein goes so far as to say, “it is just my insistence / that poetry be understood as epistemological / inquiry; to cede meaning would be to undercut / the power of poetry to reconnect us / with modes of meaning given in language / but precluded by the hegemony of restricted / epistemological economies”(17-18). Lyn Hejinian called her collection of poetics essays, The Language of Inquiry.


I shall say nothing about the influence on the arts of the clever way science shares out the tasks of creating knowledge, nor shall I talk about the economies of trust and recognition that make it possible. Nor shall I go into the shifting influence of atomic models, the concepts of relativity and uncertainty, and the genetic code, on the way poets plan their projects. Even disavowal can be assertive.


Assertion. Scientific discourses provide the finest calibration possible for measuring the force, scale and applicability of a statement. Modern poems emulate these complexities in the way that they underaffirm their statements.


In Pythagorean Silences Susan Howe uses short lines, the isolation of single words, the omission of verbs, broken narratives and verbal ambiguity, to reduce the power of the proposition. She writes about the ascendancy of science in a typically oblique, terse manner: “Dithyrambs / into axioms accurate / / as air (refraction) / water / (reflection) / Transcendent could be whis // buried // Or as snow fallen”(30). The verb is missing that takes dithyrambs, “wild, inspired, irregular” according to Webster, through the prepositional transformation into those axiom foundations of modern mathematics and the sciences it assists. Without this verb, the phrasing “dithyrambs into axioms” need not endorse Vico or Schlegel or the latest historian of science. We only reach half way towards whatever could be whispered/whistled/whiskey/whiskery/whisked away to the transcendent. Argument is hinted at, ghosted in, intimated. This is a minimal mode of saying consonant with so much conjectural research. Is modern poetry a discourse of intimations? Of unstated projections? Its diminished warrant shadows the elaborate caution of science’s conjecturing.


“This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level” (25) begins John Ashbery’s poem “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”, but we don’t believe it, we know how tricksy his poems are, how they turn inside out from one metaphor to the next, setting us down in a fine landscape with a butterfly in a parking lot only to turn us around to face a stockade and stars. If this poem were concerned with language on a very plain level it would not say so, it could not say so. Is it the reflexivity that is so unsettling? Or the metaphor of levels that belongs to literary theorists and not to poets? Or the homonymic pun on plain with an I and plane with an E? This conjecture is concerned with language on a level plain the page.


Bruce Andrews Lip Service is mock-heroic Dante, a display of phrases auratic with the blandishments of advertising, pornography, opinion columns and all the many other usurpers of the public spaces of discourse. If someone didn’t say “simonise that ideal” they surely will if the wax goes on selling. The short section “Sun 9” begins: “every dog has his day / insolently curtailed deflation harbinger wants / how poisons work, what miscegenation is -- / I take back all I say. / Stiff interrupts petulant aspiration / connubial punctual ails”. Apart from the joke about the dog in the word “cur-tailed”, and the insistent sexual double-entendres, this is not obviously held together by an expository theme. The poetry continually takes back what it says, because its interest lies in the needs, desires, hopes, aspirations, nascent justice and equality underneath the screams of those damned to the flesh and shopping. Each phrase arrives trailing some of its assertiveness from its sources in the emporium.


These poets give much of their creative attention to the status of the propositions and histories in their poetry. A sentence cannot just be offered direct to the reader, it must situate itself, and this situatedness usually takes the form of a measured withholding of warrant for what is stated. The degree and mode of this retraction or uncertainty becomes the densely imagined subject of what is said. Poetry becomes conjectural.


Twenty is the sum of the two primes seventeen and three, as well as the two primes seven and thirteen. Goldbach’s conjecture holds at least for this moment, even if this example yields two different answers. 



Ashbery, John. Shadow Train. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Andrews, Bruce. Lip Service. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001.

Benton, Michael J. and R. J. Twitchett. “How to Kill (Almost) All Life: The end-Permian extinction event.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18:7, 2003, 358-365.

Bernstein, Charles. “Artifice of Absorption”. A Poetics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Duncan, Robert. “Towards an Open Universe”. Howard Nemerov ed. Contemporary American Poetry: Voice of America Forum Lectures. Washington D. C.: Voice of America, 1965.

----------. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Du Sautoy, Marcus. The Music of the Primes. London: Harper Collins, 2003.

Feinmann, Jane. “Love is the Drug”. The Guardian G2, November 24, 1998, 14.)

Fulton, Alice. Feeling as a Foreign Language. St Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press, 1999.

Greenfield, Susan. “A New Kind of Literacy”. The Guardian 10 April 2003.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Holub, Miroslav. Immunology of Nude Mice. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1989.

Howe, Susan. Pythagorean Silences. New York: Montemora, 1982.

Pack, Robert. “Burning the Laboratory.” In Walter Lowenfels ed. Where is Vietnam? American Poets Respond. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.

Palmer, Michael. The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Riordan, Maurice and Jon Turvey. A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Rose, Steven. The Making of Memory. London: Vintage, 2003.

Schlegel, Friedrich. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Schrödinger, Erwin. What is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Swenson, May. “The Experience of Poetry in a Scientific Age”. Howard Nemerov ed. Contemporary American Poetry: Voice of America Forum Lectures. Washington D. C.: Voice of America, 1965.

Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002.


Peter Middleton



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