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Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

“What men are poets,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman asked in what may be the world’s most poetic footnote, “who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” Two centuries before him, the poet William Wordsworth had insisted that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”

I too have long cherished this unheralded common ground between poetry and science as complementary worldviews of contemplation and observation — a cherishment of which The Universe in Verse was born — and have encountered no more beautiful an articulation of it than the one Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) offered in the preface to her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Marine biologist Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the modern environmental movement and pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science, once asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” More than half a century after Carson, Le Guin considers how poetry and science both humble us to that elemental aspect of our humanity and train us to be better stewards of the natural world to which we belong:

To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.

Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beings — our fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things.

Decades after the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd contemplated the “intricate interplay” of the natural world in the living mountain, Le Guin adds:

Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocal — always at least two-way, back-and-forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way.

In this view, we humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everything — all beings — including what we generally class as things, objects.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In consonance with the recently uncovered astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Le Guin adds:

Descartes and the behaviorists willfully saw dogs as machines, without feeling. Is seeing plants as without feeling a similar arrogance? One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk.

In a sentiment that calls to mind quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr’s arresting meditation on subjective vs. objective reality, Le Guin reflects on the larger point:

I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.

PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
Art by Lia Halloran from Your Body is a Space That Sees

Le Guin considers the shared impulse beneath poetry and science, flowing across the valve between self and world from opposite directions:

Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both senses of the word “for.” A poem can do so by relating the quality of an individual human relationship to a thing, a rock or river or tree, or simply by describing the thing as truthfully as possible.

Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Each, Le Guin argues, is a mode of tending to the world — the outer world, the inner world — and, as such, trains us to be better participants in and protectors of the vibrant, vigorous interconnectedness of which we are but a tiny part:

By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.


The seventeenth-century Christian mystic Henry Vaughan wrote:

     So hills and valleys into singing break,
     And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue,
     While active winds and streams both run and speak,
     Yet stones are deep in admiration.

By admiration, Vaughan meant reverence for God’s sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. By admiration, I understand reverence for the infinite connectedness, the naturally sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.

Complement Late in the Day with an embodiment of that admiring delight in some beautiful poems celebrating science, then revisit Le Guin on growing older, the power of language to transform and redeem, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.

Published April 10, 2018




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