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Poetry Lessons from Scientists
Copyright©2006 by Nathan Harms


*Ideas in this article are based on podcast interviews of Alan P. Lightman, author of The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-century Science, Including the Original Papers (Pantheon 2005, ISBN: 0375421688)

Mr. Lightman during a recent podcast interview was asked what similarities there were between the 25 discoveries recounted in his book, The Discoveries. He explained that he found three similarities among the discoverers. They are:

#1. Preparation
Each discoverer had done his or her background work. In other words, they knew the basis of the science in their respective fields, and they had completed the preparatory work which could reasonably be expected to assist them in their discovery.

#2. Problem
In the process of inquiry each discover had come up against an insurmountable problem. They were stumped and had no idea of how to proceed to solve the problem.

#3. Revelation
Each discovery was made when the discoverer—intentionally or inadvertently—tackled the problem from a different angle, or thought about the problem in a completely different way.

Poets as Scientists

Writing poetry is a great deal like making a discovery. A discovery is something that already exists. A creation or invention is something that does not already exist. Realistically a poem is a combination of a discovery and creation.

Mr. Lightman's first assertion regards background work. Both scientists and poets need to do background work or preparation. What does this mean? To me it means that we have thought a great deal about what it is we want our poem to communicate. Writing great poetry is no more a process of sitting down with an "inspiration" and beginning to write whatever occurs to us than scientific discovery is a scientist going into his laboratory and tossing a few test tubes and chemicals around. Neither poet nor scientist is likely to discover anything great in such a haphazard process.

The prepared poet thinks about his subject matter. Moreover, if the poet is unsure of his subject matter he may go to a library, use the internet or speak with knowledgeable persons to be sure that his grasp of the idea is sound. More often, the poet's preparation is deep consideration of his subject. What is it that he wishes to communicate in the poem? Is it an idea? Is it an emotion? Are there particular images appropriate to the purpose?

Of course the preparation also requires that the poet be skilled in the use of language, and that he or she be willing to utilize the common tools of language. These common tools are a dictionary, a thesaurus, a knowledge of correct grammar and perhaps an internet connection.

So to recap the first step of poetry discovery, the poet has done his background work, understands his subject and has the tools at his disposal with which to discover the poem. Let's stop and ask ourselves: have we done our background work? Can we say as workers/poets of God that we have invested in the thinking, training or tools that equip us to discover a great poem?

The Dead End

Author Lightman's assertion is that the second commonality he noted among great discoverers was the point of an insurmountable problem—a place from which the scientist saw no way forward. Keep in mind that this is no mere "difficulty." This was an abject failure of the scientist to achieve his goal.

Many poets become "blocked" during the discovery of a poem. I have often been one of these blocked poets, stuck part way into a poem and unable to proceed for any number of reasons. Perhaps I have chosen a particularly attractive metaphor for my poem, but midway into the poem I have realized that the metaphor is inconsistent with my concept or actually contradicts my purposes. Occasionally I have discovered that what I thought my poem would say is not what it is really saying. My poem is not going to become the poem I sought. There are any number of ways in which a poet might be blocked, stumped or stuck while writing a poem.

How do we deal with this dead end? There is a sense of hopelessness that can overwhelm any poet who, prompted by a tremendous inspiration or idea, has sprung into action with pen or keyboard, then found that there simply is no way to continue. The euphoric inspiration that prompted the commencement of the poem makes the helplessness of being stuck even more profound.

Would we discard the discovery of a poem? How many potential poems have we left abandoned because although our initial inspiration was great, we simply could not see any way forward?

I think it's worth considering that our inspiration, our muse—even God—is using the dead end of our poem to prompt us in a different direction. A dead end is not supposed to make us lie down in the road and give up on our poem. We are not meant to shove the half discovered poem into the back of a drawer and strike it from our memory. A dead end can indicate not a termination, but a complete change of direction. As poets we dare not throw up our hands in despair at every difficulty our poetry encounters.

As God-inspired poets we recognize our inspiration, we have faith in the gift, we trust in the Giver and we look for another route to discovery. We do not discard our half-completed poems like poor starving orphan children just because we do not see any immediate way forward.

Let us keep this point in mind—and write it on the walls of our minds—being stuck or stumped or blocked in a poem is a gift the process of the poem brings to us. It ought not be the death of the poem. When we are stumped and see no way forward it's because we are likely headed the wrong direction.

Something Completely Different

The Discoveries author Alan P. Lightman's third commonality among great discoverers is that their discoveries came to them when they completely changed directions or thought about their problem in a new way. In the scientific world this change of direction could mean anything from discussing a problem with a scientist in a different field of science to having a dream in which a new way to proceed is revealed or hinted at.

The same principles apply to poets. When we are stumped by a poem, there are a thousand and one different ways in which to deal with the block. About the only way guaranteed to fail is smashing our heads against the blockage. When we do this we find ourselves writing and rewriting the same lines of our poem over and over, toying with words, toying even with punctuation.

What we need is something different. For every poet and every poem this "something different" may be unique. Perhaps we ought to see a movie which has absolutely nothing to do with our poem. Perhaps a visit to an art gallery will lead us to the solution. It's not impossible that discussing the poem with a friend could lead us to the answer. In fact, a person who does not understand your poem or what it's trying to say is just as likely to help you surmount your problem as a learned poet who knows exactly what you're trying to do.

In my case I have often found that listening to a sermon or a lecture that has nothing whatsoever to do with my poem will open a door to a new approach.

As Christian poets we must not discount prayer as a means God has provided to overcome our writing difficulties. I do not mean that we might expect God to divinely dictate or explain the way around our writing problem—though that is possible. What I mean is that when we turn to God and turn the problem over to him, he is able to have a free hand in directing us.

There is a sort of "giving up" on our poem that is okay: it's a giving up of our own preconceived notions of what our poetic discovery/creation will be! It's a surrender the poem, not only to divine God, but to our own subconscious mind which God can direct. This "giving up" on our poem assigns the problem to a different part of our mind where it can be dealt with more efficiently and creatively than we can possibly imagine.

The Conclusion

So here are the lessons we can take as poets from a book about 25 great scientific discoveries:

#1. Make sure we are prepared.
This means learning the skills, practicing them regularly, and having the tools at hand to accomplish the task. I consider minimal tools to be a good dictionary, a thesaurus and a collection of poetry books that we enjoy and aspire to emulate.

#2. View a problem as gift, not death.
This means we do not bang our heads futilely against the problem, but we understand that the problem is a sign to us that we need to change direction.

#3. Be alert for a novel solution.
This means we have open minds—not locked into a preconceived idea of where our poem is supposed to go. It means we are ready to take what seems unlikely as a solution and test it in faith.

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