Astronomy and Poetry

Last night I went to a lecture about Astronomy and Poetry by Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of the country’s leading astronomers and a champion of women in science. As a graduate student she discovered pulsars, opening up a new branch of astrophysics. As a hobby she collects poetry about astronomy and space.

Astronomy is a fast moving subject, with new discoveries rolling in regularly. How have poets responded to these discoveries? What topics have caught their attention and what have they not written about? Are they pro-science or anti?

She was introduced along with the idea that art is science and science is an art.  That the two strands, which our society holds separately, were until recently considered parts of a whole rather than distinct paths where one is often seen as more superior than the other.

She touched on many things, obviously given the lecture was only an hour she was unable to go into much depth but it was a great lecture and I’m so pleased I went.  My notes involve half formed ideas which is pleasing.  Hopefully these thoughts will be turned over in my mind, observed from different angles, questioned, prodded until they tumble out as poems.

She mentioned the electromagnetic spectrum and emphasised how little of it we can see with the naked eye.  How different would our experiences be if we could see more of the spectrum?

Orion, the mandatory constellation, was rolled out.  This felt a bit cliched but apparently it is a good one to use from a teaching perspective – it includes stars that are going out and stars that are being born.  Did you know that Betelgeuse (the name of the top left star in Orion) translates as sexy armpit? (Wikipedia disputes this but there you go, make up your own mind).

There were a few readings from poets who have written about astronomy and she looked at themes poets tend to focus on:

  • radiotelescopes
  • the scale of the universe
  • the big bang
  • black holes
  • space exploration
  • comets
  • the moon
  • planets

Apparently in her research into astronomy and poetry she struggled to find many.  There are a few poets who write a lot about astronomy but in the last 50 or so years she managed to find a hundred and something poems about astronomy (discounting those where it makes a passing entrance and those where the science was wildly incorrect).  I really would have expected it to be an overdone topic.  It made me feel better about my own astronomy poem:



A heart

Twice as dark

As coal.

Creator and destroyer.

A tail of chalkdust

Writing history.

Fade to dust.

Burn to catastrophe.

One of the poems read about the size of the universe was Antler’s ‘On Learning on the Clearest Night Only 6000 Stars are Visible to the Naked Eye’ which is well worth a read.  There are about a hundred, thousand, million stars in our galaxy and about a hundred, thousand, million galaxies in the universe.

Do the one hundred

Thousand millions of stars

Scare or liberate?

She also touched on the amount of time it takes for light to travel across a galaxy which bought to mind this poem:

All things pass

All things pass

Stars, even

Constellations now ghosts of myths

Rock solid North Star

Guiding sailors for lifetimes

No longer hangs

In the tapestry

Of the sky

All things pass

The lecture was really interesting and sparked off some thoughts which will hopefully turn themselves into something creative.  I’m really interested in the interplay of science and art and would love to do more to intertwine them.  Five years ago I completed a masters in mathematics and I’ve always wanted to bring this into my writing and the creative aspect of me, I’ve got close a few times but it’s always felt forced and that never brings out the best poems.  I shall keep pondering it.

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