Poet's notebook: Poets and scientists unite

Hermann Helmholtz said the problem facing
the scientist is this:
reduce a creek a kiss
a flaming coal from this random tracing
to some irreducible final text
dancing to the air
of the inverse square
and we are left with the question: what next?

After the past presidential election, it was widely noted that President Obama had been elected by a greedy lot of special-interest voters looking for “gifts” from mushy-hearted Democrats. These groups include those made famous by Romney’s 2012 quote about “the 47% who will never take personal responsibility for their lives,” plus a handful of communist professors who put Obama over the top.

Two other minorities that went in heavily for President Obama have been less publicized: scientists and poets.


While numerically small, these men and women create works that in one way or another affect millions (OK, I admit: these days, scientists touch more people than poets do — but we’ll be sorry). Both groups are overwhelmingly Democratic: a Pew poll showed 6% of scientists were Republicans; poets apparently (and typically) refused to be polled, but their Republican number is surely even smaller. Tellingly, in America they both work in the same arena: colleges and universities.

Our struggling public school system is flawed, particularly in not helping those children locked in poverty (of the 35 “developed countries,” the U.S. rates next to last in terms of relative child poverty, above only Romania). But our shining beacon in the world of education is the American university system, where the free flow of pure information — polluted elsewhere by advertising and skewed political reporting — makes it about the only forum where truth on any subject has a chance to rise to the top. But for Republicans, the typical university campus is a no-fly zone.

The Republicans’ disbelief in climate change has been catastrophic for our future, and is the result of their distrust of science in general. Correspondingly, their party’s belief in belligerency as foreign policy, flaring up once again in criticism of President Obama, is dangerous for our present; and is at least partially the result of not listening to poets. Of course, one big reason Republicans like to fight wars and science at the same time is money. Big oil, big NRA, and the big Koch brothers support them; forget about scientists and poets.

Poetry’s a minority taste, though many Americans turn to it in times of need. Symbolic of Republican disdain, only Democratic presidents have had poets read at their inaugurations: Robert Frost at Kennedy’s, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams at Clinton’s, James Dickey at Carter’s, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco at Obama’s, their diverse backgrounds representing the wide embrace of the Democratic party.

Scientists and poets may be dorky human beings like everyone else, but science and poetry instruct the mind and heart of the world, and we should listen to what they tell us.

About today’s poem: Our scientific children were surprised I’d even heard of Helmholtz, a German physicist; I was embarrassed to confess what attracted me was his name — a perfect trochaic pentameter line: HERmann LUDwig FERdin ANDvon HELMholtz (which matches the rhythm of King Lear’s last exclamation, “NEVer NEVer NEVer NEVer NEVer”).

But there is always another layer
above beyond below
the last answer: we know
the scientist and poet shape their prayer
with Newton and Frost who searched for order
instead of answers and found
such grace in number and sound
they glorify the spell of light on water

—both quotes from “Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand Von Helmhotz,” from Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems by Peter Meinke (U. of Pittsburgh Press 1991) 

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