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Poetry of the Unknown, Robert Hass and E.O. Wilson in Conversation
Yesterday, NewScientist reported on a recent conversation between former US poet laureate Robert Hass and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson that took place last week at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. As Amy Maxmen reports, “Though the pair ended up in very different ends of academia, both men spent their childhoods wandering in nature – Hass in northern California and Wilson in the Alabama countryside. Now, after successful careers, they both seek to inspire a similar sense of wonder for the natural world in the next generation.” Of course their conversation would turn to poetry at some point. Maxmen notes:
In the course of the discussion, which also ranged to human nature and how best to educate children about the natural world, the pair also wound their way to perhaps a more obvious topic, given their disparate realms of expertise – the role of art in exploring science and nature. Hass made a compelling case that art and music give us unique ways to explore things we cannot know through science and to examine tensions in nature, such as that between selfishness and altruism. Emphasising an idea he has flirted with for years, he said that science cannot answer what it cannot know, but the humanities flourish in zones that remain open to interpretation. “Science progresses,” he said, “but the humanities have remained in the mystery since the beginning.”
After the discussion had wrapped up, Hass delved a bit more into the ways in which the natural world has influenced his poetry. I asked him about On the Coast near Sausalito, a poem he wrote at 21 years old, about a boy who catches a prehistoric-looking fish in a sea “the color of sour milk”. One stanza ends with the line “here filthy life begins” (read the full poem below). When I inquired why he had imparted such darkness to a poem about a boy gone fishing, he said the poem arose from the tension between vitality and death. The tide was the shade of decomposition, and by calling life filthy, he meant that the boy was grappling with the twisted notion that life arises from killing.
Paraphrasing American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell, he added, “The origin of art is in the shock of the food chain.”
Surf over to read the poem and to find out how and why altruism evolved!