POETRY IN A TECHNOLOGICAL AGE

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
— Edgar Allen Poe

On a damp and autumnal afternoon with leaves falling, I remembered how important poetry had been for me years ago and had had such a strong impact on my appreciation of nature and the beauty of the seasons. This led me, after a while, to wonder: What poetry do we have today to counter the spiritual vacuum of our techno-scientific age?

I began to wonder whether contemporary poetry could change us, motivate us, awaken us, or even please us? In ancient Rome poetry addressed such basic questions as how did the earth come to be and what is it made of? For example, Lucretius (99-55 BC) in his epic poem, On the Nature of Things, challenged his Roman readers by focusing on the atom which is at the basis of science. Twenty centuries later, while romantic poets were beginning to write about nature’s wonderful landscapes, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor, wrote The Temple of Nature, a poem presenting a theory of evolution which began with micro-organisms and ended up with Man. This poem also tantalized readers with questions about the possible relationships between earth and stones as well as bees and clover.

Today environmental poetry tends to be more focused on the negative effects of human advances on this consumerist planet. In Earthlines, the American poet Jorie Graham, whom I have much admired, articulates that eco-poetry risks being viewed as moralistic and didactic. Readers feel they “know this information already, so why do they need it in a poem?” The point being that they “know it” but are not “feeling it.” In Jorie’s Sea Change and Place she leads readers to advance “feelingly” into “the deep future — seven to ten generations hence.”

Looking beyond eco-poetry, on Google I searched for more “optimistic poems.” There were a good number but the first I enjoyed was Robert Rittel’s, Melody of the Poet:

The melody of the poet for the soul to please,
with it chords of truth in spoken breeze.

However, most of the “New Optimistic Poetry” did not fill me with confident strokes of insight, hope, or future advances which could move me optimistically. Yes, there were poets struggling to give humanity hope — but primarily through being humorous or sometimes just adventurous. For example, there were few harmonious musical sounds in Dan Hoeweler’s A Binary Love Poem (2018).

Your sensuous 01011001 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01110011 01100101 01101110 01110011 01110101 01101111 01110101 01110011 Logic 01001100 01101111 01100111 01101001 01100011 Your bright 01011001 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01100010 01110010 01101001 01100111 0110100 01110100 Pixels 0101000001101001 01111000 01100101 01101100 01110011 Light up my 01001100 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 00100000 01110101 01110000 00100000 01101101 01111001 00001101 00001010 Heart…

Well, I didn’t follow that poem to the end. Next came the poet G. Lars’ Tubular Times to Decide (2019).

The boob tube
Has morphed into YouTube
A vast wasteland
A potential waste of all your time
Into a depthless trance of misery and crime.

I then searched further in for optimistic approaches to technological advances but found only one which I enjoyed by Poet Dane: Virtually Nothing (2019)

We’re watching each other
with electric, all-seeing eyes,
cameras in our phones, our laptops, homes…
how long before we have them
implanted in our heads?
A third eye?

Oh, where were the superconducting “transmons” I read about in The New York Times mixed in with spooky entanglement where what happens to one qubit affects measurement of the other?

This was bravely advanced in a long poem by Lori Henrique (which I have no permission to quote but which, I hope, will stimulate readers to find and read a full version.)

An abridged version of Heisenberg’s Aha!

An electron looks like a particle
and it also acts like a wave,
and once I began to accept this
that electron began to behave

This is called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go

You can either know where the electron is
or where the electron and uncertainty
both exist, we must agree.
The future’s unpredictable
no matter how well is going —
but you can’t know both at the very same time
’cause the measuring affects what you’re knowing

Quite a few great physicists have turned to poetry to give them a respite from the demands of science. The great James Clerk Maxwell of electro-magnetic fame wrote:

I come from empyrean fires—
From microscopic spaces,
Where molecules with fierce desires,
Shiver in hot embraces.
The atoms clash, the spectra flash,
Projected on the screen,
The double D, magnesian B,
And Thallium’s living green.

The physicist Paul Dirac, when visiting my home years ago, questioned why I had so many poetry books in my library. Dirac had told J Robert Oppenheimer that “The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.” Oppenheimer, who himself wrote some poetry, said he did so in order to express ideas for which there are no equations: “The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty.”

In October 2019 the Lucy Cavendish College staged an event in which they paired eight scientists with eight poets and asked each pair to create a new work based on their academic theme: “Connections.” Then they had to follow with a proviso that “Poems can be of any kind — as long as they relate to research methodologies, outcomes or new research ideas — anything goes! The only stipulation is that it must be ‘connected’ to the theme.” This event was cross-disciplinary in all senses: science meeting art and creative writing. However in science any hypothesis must pass the test of “amenability to disproof,” but poetry never faces such a challenge.

The socio-philosopher Karl Popper once wrote that the poet needs to be in a state of uncertainty, not only working inclusively with ambiguity, but delighting in it. This was true in the case of the eight pairs cooperating in the Connections challenge. However the 8 poems they created have yet to be published. This leaves me wondering how far such an effort could ever go to handle emotions, beauty or the historical social impact of classical poetry? I shall await the results but in the meantime I have started to put together some techno-poetic pieces which I hope might make some of my readers smile. The tech expressions may cause some bewilderment but most are currently used by the science and technology reporters in The New York Times. The advances in their technological fields are so rapid that they have left poetry far behind!


I HOPE THAT MY THREE OFFERINGS WHICH FOLLOW ARE NOT WHERE POETRY IS HEADED!

1          QUANTUM SUPREMACY

Can the breakthrough electronic advances of G5,
With its post-quantum standards of cryptography, ever jive?
It’s with its Android giggle
Where mega hardware seizures begin to wiggle
That superconducting “transmons” they say
Will challenge quantum supremacy.

2          LOVE

How will binary love continue to slide
When between tech intrusions passionate circuits hide?
Can the yearning bonds of love survive on computers screens
When abrupt current changes disturb erotic dreams?
Overwhelmingly driven by quantum contradictions
Transgressive strip-search technology will push conflictions
With its existential threats to free loving tic-tocs.

3          HIGH END DEVICES

Cryptocurrency,  invasive Androids and face scanners
Strangle the moral imagination of the planners
Wearing electrodes with algorithm ability
“Authentic selves” without social mobility
Are crushed by mystic quantum woks
Assisted by high tech and atomic clocks
For we are running out of time,
As time is running out on clucks
When even AI cannot explain the weirdness of quantum states
While operations become exponentially crucial for all dates.


As provocative as these three tech-obsessed efforts might seem, are these not predictive of the wretched times ahead?


Scott Aaronson, “Google’s quantum supremacy milestone,” The New York Times International Edition, November 1, 2019.

NB: I found this one of the most complex introductions to quantum computers that I have ever seen.

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