restricted access Poetry, Physics, and the Scientific Attitude at Mid-Century
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Poetry, Physics, and the Scientific Attitude at Mid-Century

The Mid-Century Poet

The mid-century American poet “is part of this world, socially aware,” and therefore able to “construct an image around a bomb-sight and employ test tubes, tabloid headlines and X-rays as the natural props of poetry.”1 Poetry as news of war and peace was not news; what Rolf Fjelde, an editor of Poetry New York, thought was new was the expectation that a poet would be something of a scientist, perhaps what W. V. O. Quine drily called the “lay physicist.”2 Revealingly, Fjelde did not see any need to elaborate on what cultural changes had drawn poets to science; he apparently shared the widespread view endorsed by Wallace Stevens in his 1948 essay “Imagination as Value” that American poets were living in “a civilization based on science.”3 There was considerable evidence for this belief amongst poets. Fjelde was reviewing John Ciardi’s anthology of Mid-Century American Poets, one of whose contributors, Karl Shapiro, writes as if to be an American is indeed to be a lay physicist. His “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” envisions the American future now lost to the dead man as: “The quantum of all art and science curled / In the horn of plenty” (perhaps echoing Ezra Pound’s opening sentence to Chapter One of the ABC of Reading: “We live in an age of science and of abundance”).4

Fjelde’s optimism about the rapprochement between science and poetry looked well-justified at the time. He had after all, along with the other three young editors of the magazine, Keith Botsford, Roger Shattuck (who later edited the ’Pataphysics issue of Evergreen Review), and Harvey Shapiro, all Yale graduates, [End Page 147] chosen to publish in the same issue of Poetry New York an essay with the title “Projective Verse” by the then unknown poet Charles Olson calling for a new poetry based on “FIELD COMPOSITION.”5 This essay relied heavily on extended tacit analogies between poetry and nuclear physics to argue that poems should arrange their elements to create a field of forces held together in a “high energy-construct,” a construction that sounds similar in principle to those other high-energy structures of the time, the synchrocyclotron and the atom bomb.6 In addition to Olson’s concept of the nuclear poem, Fjelde could look to plenty of other proximal examples of poetry engaging with science; the same issue of the magazine also contained an extract from Book IV of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson comparing money to uranium, and arguing that we have a choice whether to employ its radioactivity as a destructive energy (a “hurricane”), or to use its “Beta rays” constructively in medical practice to “cure the cancer/—the cancer, usury.”7 Never mind that Williams had misremembered his physics, confusing the fluorescing electrons once called Beta Rays by their discoverers Ernest Rutherford and Paul Villard at the beginning of the twentieth-century shortly before Williams went to university, with the gamma rays or electromagnetic radiation actually used in nuclear medicine, the orientation of his metaphorics was clear. Poetry should look to the new physics for inspiration. Fjelde might also have been struck that one of the contributors to the Ciardi anthology, Richard Eberhart, wrote that through their reliance on imagination, “science and poetry join, as in Einstein’s Unified Field Theory.”8 And another contributor, Muriel Rukeyser, had not only written a biography of the American chemist Josiah Willard Gibbs (whom Daniel Kevles describes as “one of the major theoretical physicists of the nineteenth century”),9 in which she contended that “the world of the poet…is the scientist’s world,” she had also published in 1949 a book-length defense of poetry, The Life of Poetry, that called for a poetry modern enough to work with “the methods of science.”10 Olson, Williams, and Rukeyser were part of a wider trend: Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and others were also actively exploring the affinities and dissonances between poetry and the sciences.

In this article I shall trace three intersecting histories: the epistemological and discursive claims being made by and...