Physics, poetry, notes

In a discussion among some of my poetry-reading friends, two readers said they feel “stopped” when they encounter unfamiliar words or terms in a poem. They feel poets should avoid writing work that uses specialized knowledge as metaphor, in imagery, or to establish the poem’s context. Their argument is that when a reader feels stopped by anything in the poem–from an unusual line break or stanza structure to an unfamiliar word–a kind of alienation occurs between reader and text, and that when poets choose to employ the unfamiliar they need to explain somehow/somewhere (notes? prose headings?) to guide the reader. But then they added that referring to notes is, in poetry, distracting.

“Some vocabulary and allusions just make me feel inferior,” one friend says. I don’t think they’ve spent much time with Ezra Pound’s later work but imagine this statement by Sam O’Dell applies: “Now, whether or not Ezra Pound intended to make others feel less intelligent while pulling obscure outside references into his poems and essays is up for debate. The guy seems the type who may have enjoyed making sure others knew he was smarter than they were.” (Read the rest here).

Nerdy autodidact that I am, I rather like those stop-the-reader moments in poems–if there’s a payoff. If I learn something new, and if that thing I have learned enriches the poem’s meaning and also enriches me, then I don’t mind feeling surprised or puzzled or even interrupted. Some poems take more work to read than others, and that’s ok. Some novels prove less easy to read than others, and some movies make the audience-experience fraught, unnerving, or strange. For me, the essential work that artistic endeavor does is open new perspectives, present puzzles, invite inquiry. Make me curious!

Example: Recently I re-encountered the work of poet Daniel Tobin, whose collection From Nothing speculatively examines the life–the interior, intellectual, and spiritual life–of the Belgian priest and cosmological physicist Georges Lemaître. In the process, this series of poems covers war, genocide, the atomic bomb, physics. I haven’t read anything by Tobin since his book The Narrows (2005), and the Lemaître poems take considerably more work to comprehend. That work on the part of the reader is rewarded, I should add, especially a reader with more than a passing interest in cosmology and the cosmos itself. A reader who doesn’t mind a bit of theology or physics or history and quite lengthy notes at the end of the book, and who will actually read said notes. And then refer to her books on the expanding universe theory and Hubble Effect and look up more about Lemaître. [That reader would be me; but Tobin has many readers with all kinds of interests and expectations about poetry.]

In Tobin’s lovely poem “(Origin),” I found the word marver, and while looking up the definition learned that when molten glass is poured onto a slab for cooling, the process is called gathering the glass–and I love that use of the word gather. Maybe it will make its way into one of my poems someday. Even if it does not, I feel happier knowing that little fact.

But most of From Nothing contains allusions to cosmology, to Einstein and Planck, to World War II and conflicts of many other kinds, internal as well as external. I kept being wowed by Tobin’s research into Lemaître and by the poet’s imagination as he plumbs his subject’s complicated world of math, motion, and a conceptual physical universe that could also have room for God. I mostly remembered his earlier work that was so tightly crafted, often rhyming (or employing surprising and delightful assonance). In this collection, I didn’t notice the craft aspect until I went back and did some re-reading. I was too caught up in the complexities of physics and the momentum of the subject’s life-as-scientist/life-as-priest. The lines each have six strong beats, the stanzas are tercets, and there are eight stanzas in each poem. There’s more to the craft than that, but what I like is that–unlike some of Tobin’s earlier work–the craft takes a backseat to the narrative (though I think that’s also true in The Narrows, to some extent.)

Maybe this “difficult” book appeals to me because I like difficult books. Maybe it appeals because it reminds me of my father, a person invested in the world of reason and fascinated by science…who yet believed there can be faith, that god exists. Here’s an excerpt of Tobin’s “(Cinema)”:

You, who chose two ways equally at once, circuit 
the conferences, meetings fueled by enigma, mixing 
with the eminent and their sidereal regard,   

your morning Masses before library and lab.


My dad was not a Catholic, but the balance between faith and reason was one he wrestled with, too.