Perfect Partners: Science and Poetry
Poetry can warm up cold, analytical scientific concepts. It can add comfort, emotion, humor and imagination — flesh and blood — to the scientific bones. For example, the subject of magnetism might seem daunting or dull to some. But if a poet focuses on one tiny magnet, writes about it in a way that we all recognize, and then takes an unexpected imaginative leap, magnetism is suddenly fascinating.
by Valerie Worth
Is sold for
A toy: we are
Told that it
Will pick up pins
And it does, time
After time; later
It lies about,
Getting its red
Paint chipped, being
Offered pins less
Often, until at
Last we leave it
It leads its own
The North Pole,
From the sun.
Poetry can provide a bridge to scientific concepts, which aren’t always easily grasped. Poets can also offer valuable insights into science that may be lost on everyone else. Poets and scientists have different standards for what is “truth” even though both love and study the natural world.
Karla Kuskin wrote this lovely “bridge” to the idea that we can’t feel the earth revolving around the sun at mind-boggling speeds because we are moving at precisely the same pace.
The flower’s on the bird
which is underneath the bee
and the bird is on the kitten
on the cat on me.
I’m on a chair
on some grass
on a lawn
and the lawn is on a meadow
and the world is what it’s on.
And all of us together
when the day is nearly done
like to sit and watch the weather
as we spin around the sun.
To make sense of life and our humanity, we need poetic as well as scientific explanations and interpretations. Scientists and poets look at things that other people see, and see something totally different. It’s valuable to hear both interpretations.
Rolling hills are well-eroded landforms to geologists. To Barbara Esbensen they are something else when they’re covered with snow. Here is an excerpt of one of her poems:
by Barbara Esbensen
grows thick on the backs
of those green
those brown those
grassy old animals
Poetry needs to address the issues of our day to stay relevant — that includes science. Pluto was demoted recently to a dwarf planet. Douglas Florian must have found this bit of science news amusing and worthy of his attention. This poem is from Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings.
by Douglas Florian
Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn’t pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it’s lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Till one day it got fired.
Starter ideas for science poems
If you’re still a little unsure of how to put your arms around both science and poetry, here is a list of science poetry starters and a few examples pulled from my own experience and my own books:
A fascinating scientific fact
massive mountains do not last forever; they wear down and disappear
the continents used to be joined together, not spread apart
A scientific or natural wonder
The full moon always rises around the time the sun is setting–beautiful!
volcanic islands like the Hawaiian islands grow from cracks in the earth’s crust
A point of curiosity or confusion
how do migrating birds find their way back and forth?
how does the earth’s spin affect the earth’s winds?
A favorite animal or plant
great blue herons
Historical figure in science
Albert Einstein — can’t learn enough about him
Charles Darwin — a very curious guy for his entire life
Galileo — not sure I would have liked him
Emotional connection or reaction to science/nature
in three and a half billion years, life on earth has never once fizzled out, an awe-inspiring fact
the images from the Hubble space telescope never fail to astonish me
marine fossils at the top of a 9,000-foot mountain
mushrooms that spring up overnight
the moons of Jupiter through my brother-in-law’s telescope
Science in the news
earthquakes at Yellowstone National Park
meteorites that give us more clues about the origin of our solar system
new plant and animal species
plant and animal species going extinct
More Starter Ideas for Science Poems
The Tree that Time Built by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston provides a wealth of science poems (including “Obituary for a Clam,” one of my poems from Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up). The poems might be inspiration enough to launch you on your own science poem, but sometimes we need a little help getting started.
In the notes below I briefly describe one or two things that each poem does, and my notes constitute a list of “starter” ideas for your own science poems. Read the full list below, or download a printable PDF through the button link. You can scan the list for an inspiring starter idea, or you can read the poems first, pick one that inspires, and then find the poem on my starter idea list. No excuses now. Write away and enjoy!
Oh, fields of wonder: poems about pondering mysteries and beginnings
4 marvels at the origin of things
5 admires a repeating shape in nature
6 wonders about the microscopic world
7 sees something profound in the tiny details
8 explores an unseen world; repeats sounds for emphasis
9 plays with the paradox of being two things at once
10 finds the extraordinary in the ordinary; leads to a larger metaphorical point
11 finds wonder in nature’s splendor
13 compares nature to our own activities; finding what we need in nature
15 asks ‘what if’ animals could speak; wonders about the different perceptions of animals and humans;
The sea is our mother:
poems about deep time, life’s origins and adaptability
20 personifies an element of nature; repeats sounds for a musical effect
21 uses irregular rhyme; the pacing and repetition convey a sense of persistence, determination; repeats sounds for a musical quality
22 uses similes and metaphors to paint a vivid picture; starts and ends a poem with the same word for an ‘echo’ effect
23 plays with words: ‘star’ is both an astronomical feature and a celebrity
24 connects humans to the history of life
25 uses humor; in this case the poet imagines a rivalry between species; celebrates the durability of uncelebrated species
26 uses a Q and A format; writes in an animal’s voice or point of view
27 uses a ‘borrowed’ form, in this case a ‘for rent’ ad; anthropomorphizes an animal
28 ponders imponderable things like deep time
29 ascribes human feeling to something inanimate
30 starts with something big and progresses to something small
31 surprises the reader with an unexpected conclusion; emphasizes meaning with the sounds of words
Prehistoric praise: poems about fossils
36 sings the praises of unsung heroes in nature; treats the ordinary and mundane as extraordinary
38 turns a writing convention upside down; in this case ‘once upon a time’ comes at the end instead of the beginning; writes about the relative nature of time
39 writes about the similarities between us and other species
40 directly addresses the subject in a ‘poem of address’
41 uses a ‘borrowed’ form, in this case, an obituary; backs up whimsy with research
42 uses an irregular pattern of rhyme; writes about extinct animals
43 marvels at an astonishing scientific fact
44 tries to reconcile what is known intellectually with what is felt emotionally
Think like a tree: poems about plants
50 provides instructions; in this case, tells how to be a tree
51 looks ahead to the future; rhymed couplets
52 uses unexpected and fresh combinations of words (autumns of patience); offers advice to the young in a fresh way
53 examines a paradox (in this case: if you dissect beauty, you can’t see it; if you stand back, you can)
54 observes a relationship between species in nature
55 comments on the endurance and stamina of life
56 uses an extended metaphor
57 advises how to accept our place in the natural world
58 personifies an element of nature; uses language that creates a mood
59 explores the relativity of time
60 uses assonance to create a coherent feel; uses repetition to emphasize a point; persona poem, first person plural point of view
62 expresses gratitude for the beauty of something; rhymed couplets
63 examines our disconnect with nature in a child’s voice
65 asks a question, the poem answers it; in this case, the answer is an extended metaphor
67 explores cause and effect
68 reminds how we need nature’s inspiration; we’re diminished without it
Meditations of a tortoise: poems about reptiles, amphibians
74 uses humor to write about the uniqueness of each individual
75 modifies an existing document into a poem; ‘found’ poem
76 picks one example that illustrates a scientific concept, in this case, camouflage
77 expresses sadness at the extinction of a species; sets words apart to emphasize them
78 makes an ordinary thing extraordinary
79 observes something very, very closely; show, don’t tell
80 asks ‘what if…’; in this case, what if I were to become a snake?
81 provides instructions; a quatrain, rhyme scheme is ABAB
82 turns a storytelling convention on its head; an untransformed dead frog is the prince
83 provides a snapshot of nature; haiku; poem about a small discovery
84 focuses on wordplay, repetition and rhyme to create delight
85 focuses on one small aspect of a larger subject
86 juxtaposes science and origin tales; persona poem, an animal’s point of view
Some primal termite: poems about insects
92 just plain silliness
93 celebrates the mundane, the insignificant things in nature
94 focuses on a famous person/scientist, and the contribution he or she made to advance scientific knowledge
96 just plain silliness
97 whimsically compares insects to humans
98 focuses on a really odd aspect of an animal; asks ‘what if…?’
99 uses a regular and logical form to describe an animal ‘scientist’
101 discovers things in unexpected places
102 tells us how humans can learn from animals
103 haiku; describes the steps of a scientific phenomenon (in this case, in just six words)
104 uses enjambment to avoid a sing-song feel to a rhymed poem; reminds us that life is short, maybe predictable, but still worth living
105 expresses curiosity, asks Qs; poem of address
106 uses a title that carries two meanings; wonders about the meaning of death
108 describes a fascinating scientific fact
110 describes something odd or amazing in nature, then relates it to people
111 uses humor to help convey a scientific concept
112 describes the activities of animals in human activity terms
113 tells a story with great verbs; poem of address
Everything that lives wants to fly: poems about animals that fly
118 understands science from a Native American point of view
119 repeats lines to emphasize them
120 treats serious scientific subjects with humor and delight
121 identifies with wild creatures; in this case, the writer and the birds are seed eaters; fresh adjectives
122 expresses gratitude for the pleasure that nature offers us
123 provides a list with a texture theme
124 wonders about nature’s mysteries
125 inspires flight of fancy from real scientific fact
126 closely observes odd behavior; secondarily, an accessible introduction to a sophisticated scientific concept
127 offers fresh look at a slightly scary animal
I am the family face: poems about heredity, making connections
132 speaks from the point of view of an inanimate, abstract concept
133 borrows the appealing form, rhythm, and cadence of a well-loved poem
134 empathizes with a captive animal
135 empathizes with a captive animal; haunting simile
136 just plain silliness
137 uses free verse to describe the differences between us and other animals
138 offers a different take (from previous poem) on the differences between us and other animals
139 uses a refrain, varying it just a bit each time; wordplay enhances the experience of reading it
141 compares two seemingly dissimilar things, in this case, sheep and rocks
142 identifies with (or connects with) an animal
143 uses extremes: the smallest something, biggest something, tallest, shortest, etc.
144 thinks about how different creatures and things ‘see’ the world and perceive truth; in this case, an embryo can’t ‘see’ beyond the womb, therefore, the wider world doesn’t exist
Hurt no living thing:
poems about examining the present, contemplating the future
150 instructs (do this, don’t do that)
151 seizes the moment, enjoys each moment
152 presents a paradox about our brief moment on the planet
153 names symbols or markers for the seasons
154 suggests that beauty doesn’t last, is easily destroyed
155 mourns the loss of beauty in nature; uses alliteration to increase the impact of the message
157 describes an extinct animal
158 gets extra mileage out of words; in this case, takes advantage of the name of an endangered animal
160 marks the extinction of a species — with humor?
161 uses ‘circle’ writing; poem ends with the first line; uses assonance and alliteration to increase the beauty and poetic quality of the language
162 mourns the decline of a spectacular natural phenomenon
163 poses the question: how are we treating the earth?
164 poses the question: what’s to become of us?
165 suggests we are tied to the earth, can’t escape it
166 reminds us we often can’t understand home unless we’ve explored far-away places
167 tells us that even though one person seems insignificant, he/she is part of a larger world
168 modifies an existing document; found poem
171 reminds us we are part of a larger continuity, can’t escape it, but it can also comfort us