Poetry for Physicists?

The Chronicle of Higher Education had a great piece this week about A. Van Jordan and his new book of poetry, Quantum Lyrics. Unfortunately, I think you need a subscription to read the article online. It’s the June 22, 2007 issue, p. A48, if you have access to the print version.

“Physicists talk in metaphor all the time,” says Mr. Jordan, 41, who weaves theories and theorems into his latest poetic examinations of history, race relations, memory, and grief. The centerpiece of Quantum Lyrics is a lengthy cycle of poems about Albert Einstein, but the book is alive with a wide array of supporting players — including comic-book superheroes (the Flash, the Atom) and the brilliant and ebullient popularizer of science, Richard Feynman.

Yet the greatest superhero in Quantum Lyrics is the brilliant yet fallible Einstein, who wrestles with his marital infidelities as he both reinvents physics and becomes a pioneer in race relations. In Mr. Jordan’s poems, the reader finds Einstein befriending figures such as the actor Paul Robeson and the singer Marian Anderson and writing letters to President Harry S. Truman decrying the persistence of lynching.

Mr. Jordan, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, apparently spent a year listening to the Feynman lectures as part of his prepatory work on these poems, to get the feel of Feynman’s voice and speaking rhythms.
The Chronicle article also describes another work of his, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, about MacNolia Cox Montiere, who was the first African-American to reach the National Spelling Bee finals. This was in 1936, and a Southern judge ended up contributing to her defeat by giving her a word to spell that was not on the approved list of words.
I am very intrigued, and anxious to get my hands on both these books.

  1. Thad
    June 25, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Some of the best Physics poetry was from a few years back when the APS had their limerick contest:
    http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/features/limericks/finalists.cfm

  2. June 26, 2007 at 1:32 am

    Limericks? That’s light verse. There are millennia of actual Science Poems awaiting your observation!
    Do please read my article of Science Poetry, including Physics Poetry, in the context of Science Fiction Poetry at:
    The Ultimate SF Poetry Guide: 2.1 The History of Science Poetry
    We must not ignore these significant works of poetry on “New Science” from half a millenium ago:
    1. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) writings such as “Tertius Interveniens” and the fragment “Somnium” which is often cited as the first work of modern science fiction;
    2. Joachim Camerarius’ (1500-1574) poems on Astronomy;
    3. Jakob Kobel (1470-1533);
    4. Sir John Davies (1569-1626): Orchestra: A Poem of Dancing (stanzas 34-37 on The Cosmic Dance);
    5. John Donne (1571/2-1631) An Anatomy of the World (The First Anniversarie, 203-214 & 247-304 on “The New Philosophy”, The Second Anniversarie, 261-280 on the Body);
    6. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) The Alchemist;
    7. Claude-Gaspar Bachet (1581-1638);
    8. Michael Drayton’s “Poly-Olbion” (1612);
    9. Phineas Fletcher’s (1582-1650) “The Purple Island” (1633) (anatomy);
    10. Sir William D’Avenant (1606-1668) Gondibert (stanzas 15-20 on “The Optick Tubes” i.e. telescopes);
    11. John Milton (1608-1674) often in Paradise Lost;
    12. Henry More’s “Democritus Platonissans” (1646) (Copernican astronomy), Psychathanasia or The Immortality of the Soul (III.iii.59-60 on The Sun as Logos), The Infinity of Worlds, and Insomnium Philosophicum;
    13. Samuel Butler (1612-1680) The Elephant in the Moon;
    14. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) Ode upon Dr. Harvey and Ode to the Royal Society;
    15. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) The Definition of Love;
    16. Isaac Barrow (1630-1677);
    17. John Dryden (1631-1700) Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings, To my Honour’d Friend, Dr. Charleton on Stonehenge, and Annus Mirabilis (stanzas 155-166 on The Progress of Navigation).
    Also, I have coauthored Physics poetry with Richard Feynman himself, and with Ray Bradbury.
    * “Footnote to Feynman”, Jonathan V. Post and Richard Feynman, [Engineering & Science, Caltech, Pasadena, CA, Vol.XLVI, No.5, p.28, ISSN: 0013-7812, May 1983; reprinted in Songs from Unsung Worlds, ed. Bonnie Bilyeu Gordon, intro by Alan Lightman (award winning author of Einstein’s Dreams), Birkhauser Boston/AAAS, hardcover ISBN: 0-8176-3296-4, paperback ISBN: 3-7643-3296-4, 1985
    Music/Libretto:
    * “Starscapes” for Chamber Choir, Three Woodwinds, Piano and Magnetic Tape;
    Composer: Van Decker; texts by Jonathan V. Post & Richard Feynman, “Footnote to
    Feynman”, University Music Center, California State University, Long Beach, CA, 18 May 1990]
    * “To Sail Beyond the Sun”, co-author Ray Bradbury, shorter version as cut by David Brin [Project Solar Sail, ed. David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jonathan Vos Post, New American Library (Penguin USA), 1990] paperback ISBN 0451450027, $4.50,
    * “To Sail Beyond the Sun”, co-author Ray Bradbury, complete version,
    [The Rhysling Anthology 1991, ed. William Daciuk, pp.3-9, Schenectady, New York: Science Fiction Poetry Association, 1991]
    * “Quatrains from The Martian Chronicles”, Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post,
    [Space and Time, No.81, Spring 1993] ISSN 0271-2512, published twice a year by
    Space & Time, 138 W. 70th St. (4B), New York, NY, 10023-4432, in association with
    Emerald City Publishing (C.E.O.: Jonathan V. Post)

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