Poem Sampler

Ten Poems to Get You Through Science Class This Year

Stars and trees and birds, oh my!

by Karen Glenn
Ten Poems to Get You Through Science Class This Year

1. “Winter Trees” by William Carlos Williams
Deciduous trees, “attiring” and “disattiring,” are the main characters in this short poem. Just why do these “wise trees” shed their leaves in the autumn? The poem contains at least the hint of a scientific answer—and a lovely basis for further discussion.

2. “Astronomy Lesson” by Alan Shapiro
While their parents watch TV shows in different rooms, two brothers stand on the front porch, staring at the night sky. The older boy talks about the numberless stars and the black space that goes on forever, a space that may go on in their lives as well. Scientific metaphors include light-years, solar winds, black holes, and the cooling sun. What will happen to these two “sad Ptolemies”—and to all of us—if everything turns cold?

3. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman
In this classic poem, the speaker hears a scientist lecturing, presenting proofs, charts, and diagrams about the stars. Soon the poet grows weary and ventures outside to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.” The poem, while valuing scientific knowledge, speaks to the value of direct experience, both in science and in life.

4. “Poker Star” by Richard Brautigan
Everyone learns about the constellations in school, but who first named them? In this whimsical poem, Brautigan makes up his own story about a constellation, imagining a poker game among sheepherders. Students may want to invent their own constellation myths as well!

5. “Information” by David Ignatow
In this prose poem, Ignatow spoofs—and celebrates—the scientific method, as his speaker counts all two million and seventy-five thousand leaves on a single tree, proving that one tree is finite. Is this as meaningful as counting stars, as astronomers do? Why or why not? And should we count the hairs on our heads as well? Bombarded as we are by information, how do we decide which facts are important and which are not?

6. “Who Has Seen the Wind” by Christina Rossetti
No one has seen the wind, the poet says, but we all know it’s there. This is a perfect introduction to the ways in which scientists explore the unknown, the seen and the unseen—from wind to atoms and viruses. It also speaks to the different varieties of scientific and sense-related experience. How do we know the wind exists? What about unseen stars or insects?

7. “The Bear” by Susan Mitchell
A choosy female bear dominates this poem, as she wanders from log to log looking for a place to sleep for the winter. She finds it finally, as we find a sweet epiphany—and an introduction to a science lesson on hibernation.

8. “The Blue Booby” by James Tate
Here we get a description of the life and habits of that denizen of the Galapagos, the blue booby. Is Tate’s blue booby the same animal as the blue-footed booby? If so, how much of what Tate writes about the bird is true? And how much comes from his imagination? Are his details the sort that scientists actually collect? Ask students to research the blue-footed booby on their own. What do they learn? Do they prefer the basic facts or Tate’s version?

9. “Damselfly, Trout, Heron” by John Engels
This beautiful poem, more difficult than the others on this list, explores the food chain, as the damselfly is eaten by the trout, which is in turn eaten by the heron. By the end of the poem, even the heron has died, “beyond reach on the far side of the river.” The poem can lead to discussion of natural enemies and the necessity of both predators and prey in our ecosystem.

10. “The Meadow Mouse” by Theodore Roethke
Prey and predators come into focus once again in this moving poem about an orphaned baby mouse rescued from a field. By poem’s end, the mouse has escaped from its nursery shoe-box into the wild, where it will live or die, courtesy of the hawk, the great owl, the shrike, the snake, and the cat. Yet a greater predator looms over this poem—humanity itself. How is man affecting the natural world today? And how is nature answering back?

Originally Published: September 15, 2006

COMMENTS (7)

On March 5, 2009 at 12:21pm Derek Sheffield wrote:
As someone who fancies himself knowledgeable in the field of "science poems," I applaud your choices. Clap, clap, etc. Some other stars in this sky include Pattiann Rogers, Robert Wrigley, Alan P. Lightman, Emily Dickinson, A.R. Ammons, and Miroslav Holub. Thanks for your good work.

On August 16, 2009 at 6:19pm bilbo wrote:
I agree with the clear consensus that this site is very valuable. I use it frequently with my poetry students. Many thanks.

On September 16, 2009 at 4:29pm frank wrote:
i love this story

On March 29, 2010 at 9:53pm allie wrote:
none of these help me at all in sceince

On November 10, 2010 at 4:03am adamnieman wrote:
Good collection. I would include WH
Auden's 'History of Science', which does a
good job of explaining what makes science
special. It is discussed here:

http://adamnieman.posterous.com/how-w-
h-auden-reconciles-a-respect-for-scienc

On March 10, 2011 at 5:27pm Edmeron,Canface wrote:
No one has seen the wind, the poet says, but we all know it’s there. This is a perfect introduction to the ways in which scientists explore the unknown, the seen and the unseen—from wind to atoms and viruses. It also speaks to the different varieties of scientific and sense-related experience. How do we know the wind exists? What about unseen stars or insects?

On May 29, 2011 at 8:27am Arthur J Stewart wrote:
Excellent examples of excellent poems incorporating elements of science! But it’s a shame that more contemporary examples are not included – I observe that 7 of the 10 poets whose work is showcased are dead. Science is multifaceted and ever-changing, and it’s on an exponential growth curve. Let’s not forget Roald Hoffmann, Sarah Lindsay, Allison Hawthorne Deming, Jennifer Gresham, Peter Goldsworthy, John Latham, and yes – even me.

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Biography

Karen Glenn is a poet and freelance writer in Colorado. She has been the editor of several classroom literary magazines for Scholastic, the educational publisher, as well as the writer for Parade Magazine’s newspaper-in-education program and the judge of its annual nationwide teen poetry contest. She has worked as a poet-in-the-schools and holds a master’s degree in library science. Her articles have appeared in magazines from . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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