Poems of Space: Pioneering Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell Reads “Halley’s Comet” by Stanley Kunitz
By Maria Popova
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary in 1871 as she was paving the way for women in science. Nearly a century and a half later, another pathbreaking astrophysicist — Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose revolutionary discovery of pulsars in 1967 forever changed our understanding of the universe — gave literal form to Mitchell’s lyrical sentiment: In 2008, Bell Burnell set out to explore the fertile intersection of poetry and science — something I, too, ardently espouse and am putting to practice with The Universe in Verse — by editing the marvelous anthology Dark Matter: Poems of Space (public library).
Three centuries after William Wordsworth’s proclamation that “Poetry … is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Bell Burnell collects 113 gorgeous poems inspired by astronomy. Among them are works by beloved poets like Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Thom Gunn, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Diane Ackerman, Paul Muldoon, and Seamus Heaney, as well as several original commissions for the volume by celebrated contemporary poets like James Fenton and Robert Pinsky.
Bell Burnell — one of a handful of rare people, alongside Jane Goodall, to hold the dual title Dame Doctor — writes in the preface:
Space has many meanings for me, but like other astronomers, I rarely use it to refer to the cosmos we study. As the daughter of an architect, space suggests for me the area defined by a building, or between buildings, or the layout of a town. As one of the generation of women who helped to change women’s role … I know about giving someone space (i.e. freedom) to achieve. Then there’s the emptiness, the space at the table, which also has connotations of opportunity.
Although I don’t use the word space to describe the Universe, it has for me suggestions of expanse and emptiness, and a blankness that gives scope for something.
And then there’s inner space, as hard to understand as outer space, and more intimate… As a Quaker, used to silent worship, the cultivation of one’s inner space … is important to me, and poetry helps here… The exploration of inner space, the articulation of emotions, the development of intuition and self-knowledge can be difficult. Just as the universe needs dark matter, we need “weight” to ground us, to hold together our experiences as we explore.
Bell Burnell recounts that despite a good education, she came to appreciate poetry late in life — after she delivered a lecture on the size and scale of the universe, in which she showed a digram of how long it takes light to travel various distances, a friend gave her a copy of Elizabeth Jennings’s poem “Delay”:
The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
And so Bell Burnell’s love of poetry arrived, with a delay but with undimmed radiance. She came to appreciate poetry for its healing properties, as something that offers solace at times of tragedy of tumult (as I too can attest after Verses for Hope), and to see astronomy-inspired poetry as something that “may woo those who are suspicious of science or scientists, and demonstrate that astronomy is part of our cultural heritage.”
In this excerpt from her 2006 University of Bath lecture on poetry and astronomy, she reads one of her favorite poems from the volume — “Halley’s Comet” by former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz (July 29, 1905–May 14, 2006):
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street —
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.
Complement this particular portion of rapturously relishable Dark Matter: Poems of Space (whose cover features not another astrophotography image but a painstaking charcoal drawing by the great artist Vija Celmins) with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan on the science and poetics of comets, then revisit the story of how Bell Burnell was excluded from the Nobel Prize for her own groundbreaking discovery.
For a live celebration of the transcendent intersection of science and poetry, join me for The Universe in Verse — an evening of poems about great scientists and scientific discoveries, read by beloved artists, writers, and musicians.
For other splendid readings of great poets’ work, savor Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, Cheryl Strayed reading Adrienne Rich, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings.
Published April 11, 2017