Friday, June 12, 2009

Venturing Into Poetry

Britain’s new poet laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, the first woman poet laureate – huzzah! Her new position is a largely thankless job with the expectation (which she might not honor) that poems will be written about such scintillating things as events in the lives of the members of the royal family. In its article on this appointment, the New York Times included this poem entitled “Mrs Darwin” –

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him — Something about that chimpanzee over there
reminds me of you

A ditty, somewhat amusing, and presumably part of Duffy's volume of poems about the unsung women behind the men. Initially, I was prepared to dismiss this poem as frivolous and wholly incorrect. I mean, by 1852, Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution had long since gelled and Emma Darwin knew it intimately, so if Duffy is playing for a laugh by suggesting Emma Darwin was responsible for the genesis of Darwin’s theory then, it’s just plain misguided.

Yet, as I thought about this poem and considered other comments on it, I found a little more. Perhaps Duffy’s Emma Darwin is teasing her husband by tossing a mild barb in his direction, anticipating a criticism of his theory. Adam Gopnik in a recent book (Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, 2009, p. 106) speculates that she may have acted as a sounding board for his ideas, bringing a faith-based perspective to bear on them. Or is Duffy being ironic in attributing to Emma some responsibility for Darwin’s theory, given that that was not something she, Emma, would ever claim?

Ultimately, I wonder if what I question about the poem is the tone of the voice. It’s too light. None of this seems to be something Emma Darwin would tease her husband about. Among the proffered explanations for Darwin’s long delay in bringing his magnum opus to publication was his concern about the pain it would bring to religious believers, including his beloved wife. She also took his lack of faith quite seriously. In one letter, she gently chided him for letting his science push aside his own religious faith,

May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, and which, if true, are likely to be above our comprehension?
(Another reason suggested for the long delay in publication is that very trait of wanting such full proof. Ironically, On the Origin of Species was published without it.)

I find that Duffy’s venture in this direction (that is, natural history) frees me to extend my amateur reach in her direction (that is, poetry). What follows is a poem of mine, inspired by, but certainly not faithful to, an incident described by Stephen Jay Gould in an essay entitled “In a Jumbled Drawer” (in the collection entitled Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991).

One 19th Century Afternoon in the Museum of Comparative Zoology

A drawer of calcite-eyed stone trilobites
On table in museum Agassiz.
A careless stroke of sweeping broom, and flights
Of ancient “bugs” into the floor’s debris.
Like dice, they’re rolled into their drawer anew,
Slip-slotted in a cabinet’s dark space.
Inside, a century they rest, askew,
Until discovered out of proper place.
The human thrust – diminish chaos – seize
The flux, impose our own intelligence.
The drawer with care restored. A full reprise?
No. Learning’s not held in dusty suspense.
This science is not kind to what’s thought known,
Upsets drawers, genera all on its own.

Emma Darwin's letter is contained in Emma Darwin, a Century of Family Letters, 1792-1896, 1915, p. 174.

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