William D. Waltz
from A Guy from My Hometown Walked on the Moon while I Climbed a Tree of Heaven Searching for Praying Mantis
As asteroids and aphids, we are both the subject and object of the laws of physics and nature. My childhood was spent in overgrown backyards, weedy wastelands that lined the railroad, cracked parking lots, and forgotten meadows. As a boy, I crept through scrubbrush trying to spy a cicada or a walking stick or a praying mantis. It didn’t matter what, as along as it was bug. Entomology possessed me for years. Persistence was rewarded with glimpses of wildness. The summer Armstrong walked on the moon my days began with insect safaris which entailed hours of collection and study. By the time autumn had overtaken Ohio, I’d filled four cigar boxes with specimens of various beetle and butterfly species, pinned each to cotton batting, and labeled each in Latin. Even after the reluctant dusks of summer, I would spread out a white bed sheet on the damp lawn to attract luna moths. No moth ever lit on my linen, but those hours of waiting resembled meditation, communion, poetry. Nature lead me to science; science lead me to poetry. The biologist Edward O. Wilson has said that the urge to affiliate with other forms of life, biophilia, is innate.
Science and Poetry share an obsession with wonder, and it is wonder’s glint that draws us toward mystery. Like a jellyfish’s tentacle, imagination undulates in the dark waters of the unknown, searching. An agile imagination stings and rewards the mind with morsels of sustenance. Invention and innovation capacitate both scientist and poet to discover, to breakthrough. Not surprisingly science works its way into the work of poets and artists (and bricklayers and economists and farmers) who matter most.
There are at least two ways for science to be integrated into poetry. The common method is as content: ideas, images and language. A poet might alluded to sub-atomic particles in a sestina or a poet’s understanding of photosynthesis might lend itself to a metaphor of insomnia. The more ambitious path is to allow knowledge of the universe to alter the very form of poetry. Essentially scientific concepts are imported into the universe of poetry and asked to reproduce their laws in and on the composition. Of course, these attempts are highly theoretical and the results range between hackneyed mimicry to paradigm exploding genius. William Carlos Williams, inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, conceived his notion of the variable foot, which attempted to reconcile free verse with measure. More recently, Alice Fulton’s "fractal verse" builds original patterns of language and rhythm within an irregular whole, approximating the fractals found in nature.
Can poetry return the favor to science? Those moments of intense concentration spent watching a gang of carpenter ants carry a katydid over a sandstone sidewalk felt a lot like the vigorous contemplation of a pack of black letters running across the white matrix of a page. It is mystery and wonder that sustains us. On those warm July nights when my childhood friends and me camped out under the old mulberry tree, our imaginations searched for the night, the moon, the luna moth. Science and poetry share alpha and the search for omega. A poem is a biology experiment.