Metaphors, Medicine, And The Poetry Of Science

23:16 minutes

woman in jacket standing in front of wall
Poet laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith. Credit: Shawn Miller/flickr/CC BY 2.0

logo that says 'best of 2019'April is National Poetry Month, a time of readings, outreach programs, and enthusiastic celebration of the craft. And for a special Science Friday celebration, we’ll be looking at where science and poetry meet. Tracy K. Smith, the current poet laureate of the United States, wrote the 2011 book Life On Mars, which touches on dark matter, the nature of the universe, and the Hubble Telescope—all as an elegy for her deceased engineer father, Floyd. Rafael Campo, a physician, poet, and editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association’s poetry section, writes poems about illness, the body, and the narratives each patient brings to medical settings. The two talk to Ira about where science fits into their work—and how poetry can inform science and scientists.

Read excerpts of Tracy K. Smith’s poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” and “Watershed.”

Read excerpts of Rafael Campo’s poems, “The Mental Status Exam,” “Incidental Finding,” and “Pathology.”

A Suggested Syllabus

Looking for the poetry of science? We asked Science Friday fans and SciArts producer Christie Taylor about their favorite poems with science themes. Here’s where they suggest you get started:

Segment Guests

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the U.S. Poet Laureate. She is author of several books including Wade In The Water (Graywolf, 2019) and Life On Mars (Graywolf, 2011). She is also director and professor in the Creative Writingprogram at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

Rafael Campo

Rafael Campo is an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a physician in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s also editor of the Poetry and Medicine section of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He’s based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, mathematician Steven Strogatz is here to talk about Infinite Powers, his new book about calculus. And trust me– this is the book you wish you had during high school math class. You might actually like calculus after this.

But first, it was the poet TS Eliot who wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” And as March wraps up and the new month begins, we want to take you, we want to take some time this spring to consider poetry.

Yes, poetry. April is National poetry month, after all. And it’s a time of reading, outreach, and celebration in the literary community. And plenty of those poems meditate at least somewhat on questions of science.

The late Mary Oliver famously incorporated observations of biology and ecology in her work, while other poets have looked to astrophysics or even the anthropomorphized the entire discipline as Edgar Allan Poe does in one sonnet, “science, true daughter of time thou art!”

Wish I were better at reading poetry, but we have to wait for someone better. And I have two of those people on the program right now. Two poets join us today to help celebrate the intersection of poetry and science.

First, the current US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. She is the author most recently of Wade in the Water, and her previous book, the Pulitzer Prize winning Life on Mars touches on dark matter, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the vastness of the universe. Welcome, Tracy.

TRACY K. SMITH: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And Rafael Campo is a poet and physician. He’s an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s poetry section, and his most recent book is Comfort Measures Only– New and Selected Poems. Welcome, Dr. Campo, to Science Friday.

RAFAEL CAMPO: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. And for our listeners, some further reading. You can check out excerpts from our guests and some listener suggestions on our website at sciencefriday.com/poetry. And if you have a favorite poem about science, give us a call. You make the call. 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. Or you can tweet us @SciFri.

Let me begin with you, Tracy. You’re a poet who sometimes works science into your work, like in your book Life on Mars. Your poems speculate on the nature of the universe, characterize dark matter. They bring us into the room where the Hubble Space Telescope was built. Where did the roots for that book come from?

TRACY K. SMITH: Well, some of my initial questions that drew me to science and what I really understand is also science fiction in that book came from wanting to ask questions like, who are we? What do we belong to? What are the effects that we have upon others?

And those questions can live in terms of nationhood or private realms, but they also can exist in terms of us as a species. So I began trying to imagine this thing that we belong to and to use it as a way of seeing ourselves differently. Maybe the future that we’re paving the way for as well.

IRA FLATOW: Now your father worked on the Hubble telescope, did he not?

TRACY K. SMITH: He did, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: That must have had some influence.

TRACY K. SMITH: You know, it’s really funny. I know it did, and I know that it informs the shape of my imagination. But it wasn’t until late in the process of writing that book that I remembered that that was a job that he had held when I was in elementary school.

It was when the poems in that book shifted toward elegy after his unexpected death that space became a backdrop for exploring questions of grief and, you know, maybe even a fantasy of the afterlife. And then this voice said oh, right. My dad worked on the Hubble.

And suddenly, everything became more private than I thought that it was. The universe became something that my father was connected to in a different way.

IRA FLATOW: So it was a personal story for you then.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Can you read us a little excerpt from your Life on Mars?

TRACY K. SMITH: Sure. I’ll read you one of the poems that is thinking maybe in terms of science fiction. It’s called “The Universe is a House Party.”

“The universe is expanding. Look– postcards and panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim, orphan socks and napkins dried into knots. Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file with radio waves from a generation ago, drifting to the edge of what doesn’t end, like the air inside a balloon.

Is it bright? Will our eyes crimp shut? Is it molten, atomic, a conflagration of suns? It sounds like a kind of party your neighbors forget to invite you to. Base throbbing through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk on the roof.

We grind lenses to an impossible strength, point them toward the future, and dream of beings we’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality. How marvelous you’ve come!

We won’t flinch at the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise, gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere. Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean. Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.”

IRA FLATOW: That is such a hopeful vision of aliens.

TRACY K. SMITH: Well, I don’t know. I think we come off poorly in that poem. You know, the last line for me is a way of saying oh, right. But somehow, we claim dominion over this infinite space. Which probably doesn’t speak too well to our nature as humans.

IRA FLATOW: Rafael, you’re the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s poetry section. I bet you it’s news to a lot of people that JAM even has a poetry section.

RAFAEL CAMPO: [LAUGHING] Well, it’s actually been part of the journal for quite some time. And it’s just an incredible forum for physicians who are encountering patients at points in their lives where we need poetry. We need a context for making sense of human suffering and the human condition. So poetry actually has a really, I think, important role for physicians and other care providers.

IRA FLATOW: And many of your poems are about the body, hospital settings, and your patients. I guess they’re a natural draw for you.

RAFAEL CAMPO: Yeah. You know, I started really writing poetry quite some time ago. It was always in some sense related to healing. This notion of repair, being the child of immigrant parents and hearing the poems of my homeland as a way of connecting across that wound, in a sense.

And so poetry, yeah, has always had that association for me. And so I am really interested in how poetry can help us become more located in our physical bodies. How it can help us be more present in the experiences of pain and suffering that we encounter. And so, yes. For a long time, that’s been a real attraction for me.

IRA FLATOW: Can you read us one of your poems?

RAFAEL CAMPO: Sure. This is a poem called “The Mental Status Exam.”

“What is the color of the mind? Beneath the cranium, it’s pinkish gray with flecks of white mixed in. What is the mind’s motif? Depends on what you mean– it’s either sex or it’s a box, release or pessimism.

Remember these three things, ball, sorrow, red. Count backward from one-hundred down by sevens. What is the color of the mind?

It’s said that love can conquer all– interpret, please. And who’s the President? What year is it? The mind is timeless, dizzy, unscrupulous; the mind is sometimes only dimly lit.

Just two more silly questions– can you sing for us? Do you remember those three things?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. What did you think of that, Tracy?

TRACY K. SMITH: Oh, wow. I think it’s so beautiful because those huge questions of being are peppered with these small questions. And it’s easy to imagine anybody getting lost between those two scales.

A body or a mind in distress would probably be even more befuddled by that simple request to remember these three things. I love the way that poem makes me think about the different contexts and versions of ourselves that we juggle just in being alive.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Rafael, what can your colleagues or other physicians get out of your poetry, or just poetry in general?

RAFAEL CAMPO: You know, I think a number of things, really. I mean, I think one is empathy. We talk a lot about empathy, but I think we often don’t really have a sense of what it actually is.

And to my mind, poetry really is a way of enacting empathy, or performing empathy. We enter into the experience of another person. We become immersed in another’s voice.

And that’s critically important for doctors who are struggling, I think, often with distancing, which actually used to be explicitly part of our training. You know, we were taught detached concern. That we needed this sort of scientific objectivity to be able to make rational decisions about next steps in patient’s care.

And it turns out, actually, that empathy can actually help us listen better. There’s some science behind this. That poetry, teaching poetry and other arts and humanities to medical students, not only helps us listen better, I think, but also improves patients’ perceptions of our care.

And then also, I think it provides this larger context for us. You know, we are dealing with people at the most difficult points in their lives. At the most difficult moments in their lives. And sometimes, also, the most joyous, the most ecstatic moments in their lives.

And so I think we need to be able to see our patients not as just their problem lists. Not as just their, what’s the potassium level? How many lymph nodes are positive on the CT scan? All important data, of course.

But we also need to be able to say, where is this person at in the story, in the narrative of this illness? What are the social determinants of disease, as we sometimes call them in medicine?

But what is that context? How is this person living with diabetes, or with whatever the health condition might be? So poetry I think can really help us locate ourselves in relation to some of those larger questions, as Tracy was saying.

And then also, I think one last thing, perhaps, is how it locates us in our physical bodies again. I’m particularly interested in the rhythms of the body. I spend all day listening to the iambic beat of the heart through my stethoscope.

And so poetry I think, especially for doctors, can remind us that we live in physical human bodies.

IRA FLATOW: Rafael Campo and Tracy Smith. We’re going to come back and talk lots more with them. Our number, 844-724-8255. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Next week starts National Poetry Month, so we’re celebrating poetry that has its roots in science. With my guests, US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, author of Wade in the Water and Life on Mars.

Rafael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Med School and editor of the poetry section in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s continue our discussion.

Tracy, you said in other interviews that poems are machines, and that, quote, “poetry is a kind of science you can practice.” Tell us about that.

TRACY K. SMITH: Well, you know, poetry is a subjective art form, because poets and readers bring different values and preferences to the practice of it. But it’s also a discipline. And whatever your formal principles are, they are principles.

And those guidelines and those technical aspects of this imaginative art give a kind of rigor and structure to the more expansive and speculative aspects of poetic exploration or inquiry. I think you need both, and they look different from person to person.

I find that when I’m writing poems that lead me into a place where I really have little to go on, form can help push me forward into the material. It requires my thoughts to follow a different path than they might follow in conversation.

And that’s useful. And poems, also– research is a part of the process for many poems as well.

IRA FLATOW: Rafael, it seems like Tracey is sort of equating science and poetry. As a scientist yourself, do you find that? The equivalence?

RAFAEL CAMPO: Oh yes, absolutely. I agree entirely with what Tracy is saying that there is a discipline. A discipline of the body in poetry. I think that it’s not this sort of simply visceral quality that attracts me to poetry, and I think attracts other physicians to the art of poetry.

But it also is that kind of rigor, that muscularity. That sense that the mind shapes the sounds on the page and the shape of the words on the page, the shape of the lines on the page.

And so it is this wonderful juxtaposition of the physical, of the innate rhythms of our body and the work of our minds. And in fact, that’s a bit about what that poem I read is about. That there’s a kind of formal structure.

It’s a sonnet. It’s about love in some sense. And it has the baggage of a sonnet. But it’s also about just the beating of the heart, and how the mind, perhaps in some sense, is the seat of what we understand is love. But also, love resides in our physical bodies and our hearts.

IRA FLATOW: Tracy, can I get you to read another poem for us?

TRACY K. SMITH: Sure. I’ll read you a poem from Wade in the Water that is– it’s driven by a metaphor. I think it’s a poem about the planet. It’s called “The World is your Beautiful Younger Sister.”

“Seeing her as seldom as you do, it doesn’t change. The ire, the shame, the fists you must remember to smooth flat, just thinking what they did. What they promised, then took. Those men who offered to pay to keep the clan of them, lording it over the others like high school boys and their kid brothers.

Men with interests to protect and mute marble wives. Men who let her beam into their faces, watching her shoulders rise, her astonishing new breasts, making her believe it was she who gave permission. They plundered her youth, then moved on. Those awful, awful men. The ones whose wealth is a kind of filth.”

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s very powerful.

TRACY K. SMITH: Thanks. I like poems that allow me to articulate my sense of a problem, but that also drag me into it in a way that I think is only honest. You know, our lives are and our choices are kind of like the men in that poem. And I think it’s important to think about that sometimes.

IRA FLATOW: And Rafael, I’ll give you a chance to read us another poem, please.

RAFAEL CAMPO: Oh, thanks. This is a poem called “Incidental Finding.”

“The sun through green leaf’s flesh recalls the X-ray– inner structures seen but imprecisely; branching veins and something like planned avenues all leading to the source of what we never cease to seek. Too few, too momentarily alight, these chance encounters with the truth.

The X-ray that permitted me to see both into you and through the glowing silhouette of your soft tissues like the swaddling soul still diagnosis it– ‘a mass,’ the radiologist in me could not help noting first– and then, your failing heart, terribly large.”

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s terrific. Thank you. Tracy, what is your research process like? What do you immerse yourself in to start building your images?

TRACY K. SMITH: Well, if it’s a poem that’s rooted in something real– an event or a phenomenon in the world– I’ll try and learn as much as I can about that so that my questions have something to push against. You know, real terms. Sometimes even a real vocabulary.

And I also might develop a sense of who is involved in this thing. Is it a conflict, or something other than that? And that is sometimes enough to get me started. My imagination begins to move and my questions will find their way into language.

And then I have to go back and learn more sometimes. And what’s exciting to me is that I don’t learn everything at the beginning and then write the poem as a way of demonstrating what I have discovered. The act of writing the poem is a kind of discovery process, so that by the end of the poem I’ve learned something that I didn’t know.

And that’s true even when I’m writing a poem about private experience that doesn’t really warrant research. Looking at that through the lens of metaphor. Thinking in terms of the music of the language, and allowing that to put pressure upon the actual, changes what I find within it.

IRA FLATOW: Rafael, how important is the accuracy of your poetry?

RAFAEL CAMPO: Hm. You know, accuracy is an interesting concept, I think. Hearing Tracy read her poems and just the utter precision of the imagery is just extraordinary. And so I think of accuracy in some sense in that way. That how closely can we can we look at an image? How clearly can we see a detail?

But I also think that metaphor can transport us through that close-looking process into a deeper understanding, perhaps, of what we see. And so I’m really interested in that kind of tension, too. That yes, our poems ought to be precise, precisely observed, precisely felt. Perhaps they also, as I was saying before, mimic or express the rhythms of the body in some sense. The rhythms of our imagination.

But then they also can transcend those kinds of observations, and again, through metaphor, I think really take us to another place and transcend what we can perhaps more simply see through or perceive through our senses.

And I’m just, again, fascinated by this way that our bodies can translate crude sensory data into this more nuanced, complex knowing.

IRA FLATOW: Tracy, as April and National Poetry Month kicks off, how would you encourage the rest of us to celebrate?

TRACY K. SMITH: Oh, I think reading poetry is something that should be done every day, but especially in National Poetry Month. I always tell my students and people who want to become writers– look how slim books of poetry are. They’re so slim, you could sit down and read one over breakfast or over lunch.

And it can really change your way of looking at yourself and other people. And so it’s worth doing that. So pick up a book of poetry this month and spend some time with it.

IRA FLATOW: Rafael, it could be therapeutic, it sounds like.

RAFAEL CAMPO: Yes, absolutely. I say to all those scientists out there listening to us, yes. Poetry can be therapeutic. I think for us, it can give us that larger context that we were talking about. And for our patients, I think it can really be a way of reclaiming a kind of authority over the story of the illness that in medicine, unfortunately at times is kind of appropriated by doctors.

And we take it and translate it into the medical record, and we’re checking all our boxes. And the poet– the patient’s story sometimes gets marginalized. And there are many instances, I think in which we silence our patients. And so, yes. Poetry can be a way of speaking that experience and reclaiming that authority.

IRA FLATOW: All right. So that’s how we’re going to kick off National Poetry Month on Science Friday. I want to thank both of my guests. US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Author of Wade in the Water and Life on Mars.

Rafael Campo. Poet and physician at Harvard Med School. Editor of the poetry section in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Thank you both, and happy National Poetry Month to both of you.


RAFAEL CAMPO: Thank you.

TRACY K. SMITH: Happy National Poetry month to you too.

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