Twitter Doesn’t Want to Let the Poets Find Out About Science
There's a new social media refrain any time there's a discovery about the moon, or trees, or a strange animal: "Don't tell the poets"
Ask a group of poets what their least favorite subjects in school were and it won’t be long before they start listing scientific disciplines. Whether it’s math, physics, chemistry or biology, historically, the perception—both within and without literary culture—has been that the artsy-fartsy minds of creative writing types just can’t hack the left-brained fields.
And while it’s neither universally true nor especially useful, it persists as a perception. So it’s interesting to note that, in the space between poetry and pop science, a new joke has emerged. Now the gag is that poets cannot be stopped from converting scientific facts into verse—they can only be contained. Lately on social media, it seems like every time there’s a discovery about the moon, or trees, or a particularly strange kind of animal, someone says “don’t tell the poets!”
On Twitter, for instance, you’ll find variations of that phrase used in tweets about: a newly discovered species of fish; a picture of a book whose pages have all crystallized; a fire raging inside a tree that had been struck by lightning; a Wikipedia page saying that elephants have been observed engaging in “moon worship”; an article with the headline “Your Brain And The Universe Are More Similar Than Previously Thought”; and a video of a chunk of forest moving back and forth as though the ground beneath it were breathing in and out.
It’s unclear to what degree any of the above discoveries has led to actual poetry, but clearly science is a common enough source of inspiration that everyone’s worried they might. To a degree, this is just a case of the poet as omnivore, a sort of textual magpie making a nest out of the shiny things it comes across, and where better to come across new and shiny things than the never-ending waterfall of a social media feed? As a poet friend of mine named Jake put it, in his work, “literally anything is fair game—a song lyric, a meme, a headline.” Why shouldn’t science facts fall under that rubric?
Still, it seems to me that there’s something unique about the relationship between poetry and science facts. Laura Mota, another poet I spoke to, referred to the “don’t tell the poets” genre of scientific marvels as “things that make my brain tickle,” and that rang true to me. Did you know that—as Twitter user @dgt211 put it, joking about the phenomenon—stars are “the past rendered visible”?
How could you not see the poetry in that? And then, how could you not put it in a poem?
That stars tweet was penned in response to poet Hannah Cohen’s exquisite lachryphagy tweet, perhaps the best example of the form:
For Cohen, there’s an aspect of poetry to some of these pop sci tidbits. “Being a writer on a social media platform intended for small bites of (sometimes dubious) information, it takes the right sequence of words to stop your endless feed scrolling and engage with the topic,” she explained. “How weird science or pop science tweets are worded absolutely applies to the poetry craft. It makes you double-blink and reread it again.”
Sometimes, the thrill is in explaining a scientific concept in the poet’s own language; for others, all it takes is a particularly apt name for a term, where the STEM community has landed (deliberately or not) on a kind of poetry of their own. In poet Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 debut novel No One Is Talking About This, for instance, she mentions the medical term “fluid shift,” which she describes as “one of those accidental diamonds of hospital language that sometimes shone out from the dust.”
I recognized exactly what she was talking about. I’d recently come across the term “rain shadow”—the term for a region that receives little precipitation by virtue of being just on the other side of a mountain range—and had vowed to work it into a poem. I wasn’t sure how or where, or even why, really, but I knew that the name itself felt like it held a kind of poetic energy.
I was far from alone. When I polled actual poets I knew—not just the broad-strokes idea of them from people’s joke tweets—about science facts that had made their way into their own poems, or that they’d at least recognized as poem-worthy, I got a veritable smorgasbord.
They mentioned beautiful new cloud types, the mechanics of how light works, the development of black-hole photography. I heard about a whole zine about deep-sea fish, and a book named after an obscure marine worm that bores into the bones of whale carcasses. They mentioned studies where scientists got cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses, the Latin name for the reflective tissue lining behind the retina in cows, a viral story about a case of live bees living in a woman’s eye, the role of mycelium networks in plant wellbeing, the reality of arctic marine ecosystems existing at sub-zero temperatures, and storm clouds on Jupiter.
All stacked together like that, the mix of entomology, astronomy, physics and biology started to take on the resonance of Harper’s magazine’s Findings column, a last-page feature in each issue that packs together recent scientific discoveries at a rapid-fire, ratatat pace, that blurs the line between journalism and conceptual poetry. Take this representative sample from the May 2021 issue:
Rivers of gold in the illicit mining pits in Madre de Dios were observed from space, and exploding craters were proliferating in the Siberian permafrost. The trunks of ancient kauri trees indicated that the Laschamp Excursion caused major extinctions. Humans and woolly mammoths coexisted in Vermont.
It’s a mish-mash of unconnected factoids so diverse and decontextualized that it verges on the perverse, and the wildest part is there’s a new litany of these every month, a relentless churn that over time sort of desaturates the beauty of any single finding.
Which, of course, is exactly the danger with turning science facts into poetry: One implication of the “don’t let the poets see this” framing in particular is that we just can’t help ourselves. As Cohen put it, following the appearance of any sufficiently juicy science tidbit on the timeline, there can be a sense of “Oh boy, here’s some weird thing in nature that we’ll all want to write about because it could be applied to any sort of personal subject in our poems.”
A host of overly online writers will pop up, each of them eager to use the detail to help the writing pop a little bit more, lending a veneer of the natural to their poems about their feelings, a sort of literary greenwashing. That’s not just conjecture—per Cohen, “there are at least five poems out there on the internet describing lachryphagy and other symbiotic animal behaviors.”
There is a real appetite for this kind of stuff in contemporary poetry, but it’s one that rarely seems to go past the surface, a trend of scientific discoveries, jargon from various scientific fields and and other sort of shallow science-y ephemera becoming easy fodder for contemporary online-facing poetry as a kind of vague gesturing towards the natural world, for a culture of poetry mainly written by people who may have no special relationship to it, and who may not even like science, either.
Typically, the primary sources for such poems, real or imagined, are merely headlines from scientific journals, screenshots of small bits of contextless text, or worse, tweets from accounts like @Weird_Animals or @ScienceIsNew, whose sole raison d’être is to use pop science to work the levers of online virality, a process so close to antithetical to that of actual natural sciences that it borders on self-parody. In short, you tend not to see the poet poring over the raw data.
(That’s not to say this relationship never goes deeper—Jake noted he felt there’s “an entire contingent of annoying Science Bros in poetry,” who he characterized as “almost always white and male,” using deeper investment in science as a bulwark against the criticisms lobbed at softer poetry, describing it as an ethos of “‘this is poetry about Real Stuff, not Feelings.’”)
The shallowness of most contemporary online poetry’s engagement with the natural world may give rise to a pleasing-feeling poetry in a world where the reader, too, craves a connection to a natural world. But the sheen can wear off pretty quickly, as one tweet I saw recently suggested:
On the other hand, when our existing models for education feel like they’re staggering through the last days of an empire that can no longer sustain itself, without a real successor poised to replace them, it seems crass to mock or belittle any source of investment in learning about the natural world and how it works.
Shouldn’t we be exalting art that translates potentially dry science courses into the language of wonder—or at least suggests that such a transliteration is possible? Most people are not going to devote themselves to entomology, but these days, you might find insect facts in a poem about racist violence (“what the cicada said to the black boy” by Clint Smith), or in a poem about faith (“Praying” by Noor Naga, which mentions the fig wasp). It’s a reminder that scientific discovery is an access point to the natural world, not a boring category set apart from it.
Certainly the opposite trajectory—our current education system convincing curious and passionate kids that science is too dull or too hard—is more common, and worse for science and poetry alike. For her part, Mota described to me a childhood marked by fascination with the natural world (“when I was a child I would take National Geographics about cute animals and try to absorb all the information. I wanted to know everything about the pandas!”) and a complete 180 when it came to similar content within an academic setting (“It’s hilarious—I was always awful in biology, I could never memorize those things, which always made me frustrated”).
Creative writing about science could inspire excitement (or at least the possibility of excitement) around these subjects, which might open them up to students as worlds to get lost in. As Mota told me, “When I was learning about speed and physics and electrical things, I didn’t really connect to that, but now when I hear about or read about people being passionate about scientific things, I approach them in a different way.”
Would working poems about science into a physics course’s curriculum function as a teaching aid, or would it only serve to hinder the students who thrive in those settings but founder in the humanities? I know it would have helped me get excited, but then again, I myself am a poet.
In February of 2020, over my last sit-down restaurant dinner, a few weeks before the pandemic hit Canada, a friend of my partner’s told me about young beavers raised in captivity using baseboard wood for nests and I rushed to get it down on my phone for later use. It wasn’t my first brush with injecting a ~science fact~ into my work. Years earlier, I’d stocked a poem about an ex with things I’d read in science articles: how all the gold on earth was implanted under its surface via meteor crashes, and how some scientists were reconsidering whether the speed of light really was the fastest that things could travel.
Most recently—in fact, between pitching this piece and delivering my first draft—a poem of mine called “Aeroelastic Flutter” was named a finalist for Canada’s 2021 National Magazine Awards. Commemorating the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940, the poem explores the titular phenomenon—where wind can cause an otherwise static object like a bridge to literally undulate—as a sort of metaphor for gender, while also exploring whale evolution, dog neurology, artificial reefs, and the general infallibility of physical laws.
Writing it, I was conscious that it felt like a “prize poem,” in some sense, though I had no aspirations or expectations that it would be a finalist for anything at the time. But the sexy throuple of the highly personal, the historically curious, and the obscurely scientific seemed to evoke some Platonic ideal of somber and meaningful poetry. In a sense, after I got over the initial shock of seeing my name on the finalists list, it sort of made sense. Science poems were all the rage these days, after all.