Physics and Poetry,' from Adam Frank's 'Cosmos and Culture' column. Since one of the biggest complaints we hear about poetry is that 'I can't understand it' -- same as physics! -- he begs a very good question:
But what does it mean for a poem to be hard? Is it the same thing as when science is hard? Should we expect to need a class to help us understand poetry, just as we expect needing one for electromagnetism? Where, exactly, do we expect to find our truths and how hard should we expect to fight for them?He works his way through this, coming to a conclusion that makes him 'sad' -- that while one doesn't need a class, or a guide, to help one understand a poem, one does need that class or guide to understand physics:
If he is right, then even "hardest" poems like The Waste Land can be accessed, to some degree, by any reader intent on listening to its internal music (Beer suggests hearing The Waste Land first, rather than reading it). But are the only ones who can truly "hear" the music of electromagnetic theory the technically trained?It seems to us that this really depends on where one's gifts lie, doesn't it? Some people grasp science effortlessly. Some math. Some athletics. And some, such as us, get poetry. We might need help understanding the theory of relativity, but grasp what Keats is saying right away:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
(On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer) (haha. That's a Cliff's Notes link.)
Not so bad, huh? Try this next:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Which is why we like reading John better than T.S. Elliot, but that doesn't mean we don't appreciate the latter. Or understand it. Also, you don't escape college with an English degree without taking literary criticism...but you can escape without taking physics.