- Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions ed. by John Holmes
Science in Modern Poetry, a collection of twelve essays by leading critics on modern poetry and on literature and science, amply addresses two specific critical blind spots. In the volume’s editorial introduction, John Holmes points out that, so far, studies of literature and science have concentrated far more on earlier literary periods and on prose texts, leaving modern and contemporary poetry doubly neglected. Furthermore, this collection challenges the relevance of the “two cultures” debate for contemporary literature; Snow’s idea, though discredited, might still keep talented students (and even researchers) from embarking on interdisciplinary projects. As Holmes puts it, “If C. P. Snow’s famous diagnosis of a rift between the ‘two cultures’ of science and letters has rarely been applicable to modern poets, today his model looks less apt than ever” (3). It can only be helpful to point this out in a scholarly way. [End Page 159]
The aim of the collection is “to give to scholars and students approaching the topic of science in modern poetry from either side—from an interest either in literature and science or in modern poetry per se” (5). It is also possible to hope that the volume could also address another audience: scientists interested in poetry. After all, the index allows one to search “by poet” or “by scientist/science,” and the introduction gives examples of scientists who have cited poetry in their work (including Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins and James Lovelock, and Nicholas Battey). To that end, the volume would be more interesting if it included a contemporary scientist’s perspective on twentieth-century poetry, if only as a counter to C. P. Snow. To Holmes’s credit, though, he did secure the perspectives of two contemporary poets, John Barnie and Robert Crawford, whose contributions enrich the collection.
Holmes, along with the volume’s contributors, remedies the critical neglect of poetry and the twentieth century within the study of literature and science. He accomplishes this, not by offering a theoretical primer for interdisciplinary studies of modern and contemporary poetry, but by providing a more engaging record of current research projects in the field. The book “embod[ies] certain trends in research on science and modern poetry” and points out new directions for future study (10). This means that its arrangement is not tied to chronology. Instead, it is divided into three specific sections, “Science and Contemporary Poetry,” “Science in Modernist Poetry,” and “Darwinian Dialogues.”
This arrangement seems to give considerable weight to Darwin, whose section is by far the strongest and most coherent. In fact, Holmes frames the collection by arguing that we now see a “biological turn” in scholarship on modern and contemporary literature (15), making this final section both the heart of the volume and the last word on the subject. While it would be impossible to dispute that much exciting work is going on in this area of Darwinian interpretations of literature and science, other biology-focused research is necessarily unrepresented (for example, the turn towards neuroscience in modernist studies, as evidenced by several recent conferences). Despite the individual strength of each of the chapters and the interesting diversity of sciences invoked, it would be interesting to envisage a volume that either dealt specifically with Darwin in modern poetry or that did not emphasize one specific trend in research over other trends.
Nonetheless, each section is rich and complex in unique ways. The first, “Science and Contemporary Poetry,” contains some fascinating essays: Helen Small examines the dual status (poet/scientist) shared by Miroslav Holub and Roald Hoffmann; Peter Middleton analyzes language writing and molecular biology; John Barnie looks at Edward O. Wilson and A. R. Ammons; and Robert Crawford discusses poetry and science in the contemporary university. Small’s and Crawford’s contributions are particularly interesting because they deal with direct interchange between poetry and science; both Holub and Hoffmann are poet-scientists (or scientist-poets), and Crawford’s essay offers an account of the poet Michael Donaghy meeting Kevin Warwick, the...