Poetry Wields Science In ‘Unaccountable’ Times

16:30 minutes

a woman with her hand on her cheek
Jane Hirshfield. Credit: © Curt Richter

Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result. 

As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017’s March for Science. Read a selection of her poetry from her new book Ledger.

What You Said

We asked you for your favorite poems about science. Here’s what you said!

Rissy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the SciFri VoxPop app:

My favorite poem was read to me as a child by my mother and it introduced me to the beauties of nature and the wisdom of animals. It’s called “Something Told The Wild Geese” by Rachel Field.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered,—‘Snow.’
Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
Something cautioned,—‘Frost.’
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,—
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

Further Reading

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Segment Guests

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield is a poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of “Ledger” (Knopf, 2020) and nine other books of poetry. She’s based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANDOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. And now we’re going to turn, as many of us do in times of stress or uncertainty, to poetry. Poet Jane Hirshfield has a long relationship with science, from her 2004 poem, “Global Warming,” to her many works about the natural world, physics, even proteins in the human body. And her newest book, Ledger, is no different.

From the International Space Station’s view of global warming to the small size and smaller cares of an ant, she examines crises in the biosphere, and brings them to human lives. Here to talk about what it means to bring science into poetry, how poetry can be a tool for observation just as much as science can, and hopefully, how poetry can help us find balance in this crisis, poet, essayist and translator, Jane Hirshfield. Her latest book is called Ledger. She lives in the Bay Area and joins us by phone. Welcome to Science Friday.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Thanks so much.

JOHN DANDOSKY: And thanks so much for this book, it’s beautiful.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: I appreciate that.

JOHN DANDOSKY: Your book came out last week and when we scheduled this interview, it was a little bit of a different world. We were thinking about talking about climate change. I want you to read your poem “Cataclysm,” and then maybe we can talk a bit about this idea of how the world has changed right after we hear it.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Absolutely. This is the first time I’ve spoken today, because I’m sheltering in place. So my voice is a little hoarse, I notice. OK, “Cataclysm.” It begins subtly, the magpie withdraws an inch from the birch tree. The porcupine wants nothing to do with the skink. Fish unschool, sheep unflock to separately graze. Clouds meanwhile declare to the sky they have nothing to do with the sky, which is not visible as they are, nor knows the trick of turning into infant tumbling pterodactyls.

The turtles and moonlight? Their long arrangement is over. As for the humans, let us not speak of the humans. Let us speak of their language. The first person singular condemns the second person plural for betrayals neither has words left to name. The fed consider the hungry and stay silent.

JOHN DANDOSKY: So, when I read this poem for the first time last week in the midst of all this, it kicked me directly in the stomach because of how prescient it seems to be about where we are right now. How do you think of this poem differently as you’re sheltered in place today?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, it absolutely startled me to realize that what began as a description of ecological unraveling became, in its metaphorical way, a fairly accurate description of social distancing. That’s just peculiar. But it also, as the whole book does, is a poem that was trying to take some account of what feels to me, absolutely unaccountable, and figure out, as art does, how can we navigate? How can we open our eyes the next day?

And in that way, the crises, the larger crisis of environmental, of close to catastrophe, is not at all disconnected from the current catastrophe and crisis, which is simply making a great deal more instantly visible, undeniable and unpostponable the fact that there are no borders between us. That we live in a world of shared fate.

JOHN DANDOSKY: And I think it just draws to my attention the tragedy of all of us pulling apart from one another, being forced to. I mean, you don’t you don’t think of the fish unschooling.


JOHN DANDOSKY: And when you do, it’s a sad and scary thought, isn’t it?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Yes it is, yes it is. And I think that one of the reasons I’m very glad to have art be part of the conversation, as now that we’re all settling in a tiny bit, it’s beginning more and more to be, is because art is a way that allows you even in solitude, to partake of community and to recognize that you’re not alone, that everything you’ve experienced, another human being has experienced and lived not only to survive, but to leave witness.

JOHN DANDOSKY: You call these unaccountable times. You said this already. Tell me more about what you mean for that.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, I am a child of the late ’60s, early ’70s. I remember the first Earth Day 50 years ago and everything we knew then 50 years ago, everything we hoped. And to me, it is unfathomable that so little has been done. That here I am, a lifetime from that young woman, and the sheer grief of all of the undone, the unaddressed, the ignored, the turned away from, the failure not of knowledge, but of taking knowledge seriously, that became very acute to me over the years that I was writing this book and these poems.

And so it permeates it. And when something is unfathomable, what does a human being do? I think the first thing you need to do is feel simply that. To break through the superficiality or the exhaustion or the distraction of our regular lives, and to say, no, I am going to respond to this. And when you respond to something, you begin to take responsibility for it.

JOHN DANDOSKY: Why did you call the book Ledger?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, there’s a great deal of accounting in it. There’s the numbers of species as they vanish. There’s the height of a five foot island threatened by sea rise. And there is the attempt to balance my grief and my despair with praise, with appreciation, with gladness that I can still wake up in the morning and there is my local mountain. And there are the cedar waxwings at last winter’s berries still on the cartoni aster. And finding that balance is the way you keep opening your eyes every day.

JOHN DANDOSKY: We’re talking with the poet Jane Hirshfield. And I’m wondering if you’d could read your poem, “My Debt,” for us.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Yes. So this is the last poem in the book. and In a way, this is the poem in which I did find that balance. That I realized I had been writing so much into the darkness of our current unraveling social and unraveling of justice and unraveling of compassion, as well as biological, and I suddenly was shaken by the realization that no, it is rude. It is simply rude not to praise the beauty of the world, which is still all around us. So here’s “My Debt.”

Like all who believe in the senses, I was an accountant, copyist, statistician. Not registrar, witness. Permitted to touch the leaf of a thistle, the trembling work of a spider, to ponder the Hubble’s recordings. It did not matter if I believed in the party of particle or of wave, as I carried no weapon. It did not matter if I believed.

I weighed ashes, actions, cities that glittered like rubies on the scales I was given, calibrated in units of sphere and amazement. I wrote the word it, the word is. I entered the debt that is owed to the real. Forgive, spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider, octopus lifting one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver that in such black ink I sat down your flammable colors.

JOHN DANDOSKY: We asked our listeners what some of their favorite poems about science were. And we had this response from Rissy in Milwaukee. Let’s listen.

AUDIENCE: My favorite poem was read to me as a child by my mother, and it introduced me to the beauties of nature and the wisdom of animals. It’s called “Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field. Something told the wild geese it was time to go, though the fields lay golden, something whispered snow. Something told the wild geese it was time to fly. Summer sun was on their wings, winter in their cry.

JOHN DANDOSKY: That’s beautiful.


JOHN DANDOSKY: What do you think poetry about the natural world speaks to in us?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: I think it speaks to the absolute indelible connection that even those of us who grew up in cities, as I did, on East 20th Street in Manhattan, we recognize in that the world we evolved to be in, and we recognize in beauty, everything that evolution set inside of us for survival of heart and spirit and mind, as well as a body. I have a theory that the reason we like shiny things is because in nature, it indicates very often, water. And thirsty people will find shiny things beautiful.

JOHN DANDOSKY: I think one of the things also that many of your poems do, and some of my favorite poems about nature do, is they describe the creatures that inhabit this world with us, animals, in a way that I feel is so much more real than the way popular culture has depicted them. I feel as though so often, popular culture takes animals and ascribes human characteristics to them. But in your poems or the poems of Mary Oliver, which I love so much, about birds, there’s a way in which you describe the birdiness of something, that is just observation of what it is. I’m wondering if you talk about that. Because in some ways, you have a very scientific view of animals.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, we are animals. And I think the simple recognition of that solidarity of existence really matters. That as we are mammals of a certain era and we recognize that we are not the center of the universe when we look at all of the others. The insects, the fishes, the birds and octopi, those gloriously intelligent creatures, who evolved their intelligence so differently than we did.

And we feel in a way, for me, I know this strikes some people as odd, but for me, it is a great relief not to feel myself the center of things. I am much happier when I can recognize my human existence as continuous with all of these other existences pursuing their own gloriously evolved lives in fascinating detail. And this goes down to the levels of molecules and atoms, not just animals. It is such an extraordinary panoply existence. And if I think I’m the center of it, what a burden that is.

JOHN DANDOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC studios. Jane Hirshfield, why does science keep making its way into your work?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, I have a long relationship to it, which I can’t really explain where that comes from. I was a curious child. But the earliest of my poems that I still have a working relationship to, was written in 1982, and it has the strong forces and weak forces of physics in it. Where did that come from? I wasn’t a physicist. But it was a vocabulary that allowed me both to appreciate it for its own fascination, and also to think about other things.

I’ve been a poet in residence for an Experimental Forest in Oregon, the HJ Andrews, and for a neuroscience program at UCSF. I ended up getting involved with the March for Science and starting an organization called Poets for Science, which people can find out about online at poetsforscience.org. They can participate in a global community poem, which is hosted on that website at Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center. So it’s just been a continuous conversation for me, which I think is in some ways, the byproduct of parallel curiosities. Science is an investigative art. Poetry is an investigative technology and science.

JOHN DANDOSKY: And how do you work then, science into your work? When you learn something new that inspires you, do you devour everything you can about it? Do you ask a friend who’s an expert in that field? How do you work through it in your work?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Well, it’s a little bit the other way around, in that I simply listen to everything. A great many of my friends are research scientists, and I also read the “Science Times” section and listen to Science Friday. And those bright shiny objects are something that the magpie poet will then sometimes many years later, suddenly need. And it will come into a poem, because I needed to think about what that poem is.

So one example of it is the “Science Times” had an article about the protein of itch, and another article about the microbiome. And I was thinking, I began writing about that, simply because it was so interesting. But it became a poem exploring where does self begin and end. What is the self when our microbiome says the self, you know, what is us? Which part of us is us? Which part of us is not us?

And this is the same question that any child who eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and wonders when does it stop being a sandwich and start being me. We all asks these things. But as a poet, I occasionally try to put it into relatively few words, trying to work their way through something and arrive at a conclusion or a discovery or a feeling or an emotional response that didn’t quite exist before.

JOHN DANDOSKY: Jane Hirshfield, this has been wonderful, and I thank you so much for spending some time with us, especially at this time in which it feels as though we need poetry more than ever. Thank you for being with us here on Science Friday.

JANE HIRSHFIELD: Thank you so much for having me on.

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