York Festival of Ideas 2: Poetry, Science and Imagination

The second event in the series under the ‘Festival Focus’ title ‘Science, Imagination and the Big Questions’ brought together a panel of poets, scientists and musicians to explore the deep connections between the poetic imagination and the scientific imagination.

One of the questions treated in this fascinating discussion, which I was so very privileged to chair, was ‘How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?’ The expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet, historian and broadcaster Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University, who has recently founded Consilience, a new, on-line journal of science and poetry, and of science-poetry.

The panel at the Science and Poetry Event

The discussion was profoundly moving, if only because it represented an act of massive disciplinary reconciliation between the sciences and the humanities, and at the most profoundly incisive and surgical act of language – poetry itself.

The combination of intense imagination and intense observation became a common theme, as the discussion threaded though field theory (Porteous), Shakespeare and Coleridge (Guite), the tension of perfection and imperfection (Illingworth), the roles of science and art in changing perceptions along with emotions (Phoebe), launched a rich discussion of the entanglements between science, poetry and the imagination. Malcolm Guite launched the connections through Shakespeare’s Theseus in A Misummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, 
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; 
And as imagination bodies forth 
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen 1845
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing 
A local habitation and a name

Anna Phoebe’s space poetry made Malcolm Guite think about the connection between the universe ‘out there’ and the imagination, ethics and reflection ‘in here’ that breaks the sad educational separation between art and science, through a memory of a personal and aesthetic reflection on the colour change of a litmus paper, and the embedded observer. We are, at last, learning that science can no longer pretend to exist through the passive voice – all science depends on the observer, her choices, constructions, imagination and emotions.

Sam Illingworth riffed off my introduction of Goethe, who swam against the divisive tide of the early modern choices around how we conceive of an artless science and a science-free world of art. Goethe recognised that science and poetry had a common origin, and would ‘meet again one day as friends.’

Thanks to the questions from the on-line audience, the discussion moved into intensely important and practical questions of technology, consciousness and the future.

This deeply moving and personal discussion did not take place in isolation: there is a global conversation between science and poetry that is now revived, and developing in very interesting directions. The Madelaine L’Engle seminars are also developing this narrative, for example. There is already a follow-on from this event bringing Coleridge and MacDonald together at the nexus of science and poetry, and developing ideas in the education of early-career scientists in taking care of the development of their imaginations, as well as their scientific techniques.

Here is just one upcoming event.

There is a very exciting future to the discussion of science and poetry!


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