When I was growing up, you were one thing – pretty, sporty, arty, nerdy – and even within those groups there were differences between, for example, the maths and science nerds and the literature nerds. I was thinking about this when I read Dr Adam Rutherford’s book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – The Stories In Our Genes. I cannot recommend this book enough; it’s beautifully written and is a clear and compelling description of our history and heritage from a biological perspective. One of the things that struck me about the book was that Rutherford often uses excerpts from poetry to underscore a point. I think back to school days, when science nerds often looked down on literature nerds - because, after all, everyone knows that science is hard and reading books is easy – and am so glad that these distinctions seem to be over.
Everything in our society and particularly the education system encourages us to pick a lane and to consider certain specialisms in different ways. Writers of fiction, drama and poetry seem to have claimed creativity for their own, and yet some of the most creative thinkers of recent times have been scientists and mathematicians. Logic and specificity have been claimed for science but as someone who pulls apart a draft of a poem like it’s a faulty engine or spends a long time getting the exact word needed in a line, I’d challenge that too.
One of the (many) things I love about A Brief History… is that it challenges so many ideas about what we consider to be our racial identity and our heritage. Anyone who argues against racism is automatically on the side of the angels but the fact that it is done on a factual, not an ideological basis, makes it so powerful. The only things that really divide people are social constructs and the more we can learn to break such things down, the better. I am not saying that factual accounts are the only ones that matter – recent poetry titles such as Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade examining her identity as a woman of mixed race combines emotive lines with intellectual curiosity. Considering a different area of science, Pluto by Glyn Maxwell balances creative and emotional chaos and control in the context of the decommissioned planet, which is both a presence and an absence throughout the book. To better understand the status of Pluto, you would of course be wise to consult an astronomer, but to understand what those details mean for us so many light years away, poetry has a role to play.
One of my favourite haiku from Jack Kerouac is this:
As writers, we are steeped in literature but if, as RS Thomas asserts, poetry reaches the intellect by way of the heart, then we have much to learn from the many talented non-fiction writers who have so much to teach us about the mechanics of living. This, I feel, is the concern of the poet. Next time you’re in a bookshop, come down from the ivory tower of the fiction and poetry sections and find the science section, browse through the history titles or pick up a biography. Just as I am creatively fed by Rutherford’s knowledge and writing, I believe that if books from science writers, historians and more can make their way to the shelves of poets, the art will be the richer for it.