Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Poet Rita Dove on the chemistry of art and science

Asking a poet to give a commencement keynote seems like “both a no-brainer and a curious dare,” Rita Dove told Emory’s class of 2013.

A Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, Dove spoke of “the interconnectedness of all knowledge.” She warned that institutions of higher learning that diminish liberal arts programs in favor of business, law, medicine and scientific research are making a big mistake:

“How did we end up in this tug of war anyway? When was it decided that the sciences and the arts were adversaries? I myself come from a family of left-brainers. Two siblings are in computer sciences, another has a chemistry degree, and my father broke the race barrier in the rubber industry in the early 50s as the first African-American research chemist at Goodyear Tire and Rubber. 

“Our house was littered with scientific paraphernalia. And if I got stuck in math homework, and asked my dad for help, he’d whip out his slide rule. I bet many of you don’t even know what a slide rule is, but trust me, it was daunting. And he would demonstrate three different ways to solve for X. Even though I was in fifth grade, I wouldn’t study trigonometry for many years, and didn’t even know how to spell 'cosine.' I might not have fully realized it at the time, but my father was trying to show me there can be several different ways to assess and interpret a situation, and multiple approaches to a solution. Math could have different points of view, just like characters in a Shakespeare play.” 

Years later, Dove recalled, she was sitting on an overcrowded train pushing through snowbound New England. After some small talk, her seatmate asked her what she did for a living. She hesitated, then told him she was a poet. He was silent.

 “And what do you do?” she retorted.

“The same hesitation until he replied, ‘I’m a microbiologist.' And then he blurted out, 'I don’t usually tell people that. They just freeze up and say something like, gee, that’s heavy, as if I was going to ask them to recite the periodic table.’ 

“And I said, ‘That’s pretty much the way people react when I tell them I’m a poet.’ 

 “So we had a good laugh. And then I suggested, 'Okay, let’s give it a shot. Explain to me what your research is like, and then I’ll tell you what I’m working on now.' 

“So we exchanged stories. And his was a perfectly poetic description of taking a walk along a strand of DNA, to look for anything that was out of place among the scenery. Those were his very words.” 

We would all languish without our imaginations, and the language to bring it to life, Dove said.

“The mind is informed by the spirit of play and every discipline is peppered with vivid terminology. Fractal geometry has dragon curves and physics has Swiss cheese cosmology. There are lady slippers in botany. Football has wing backs, buttonholes and coffin corners. There are doglegs on golf courses and butterfly valves in automobiles. And when there are no words for what we need, we make new ones up… 

“Here at Emory, you’ve been trained in your individual fields, but you’ve also been exposed to a range of disciplines and encouraged to explore new ideas. 

“Whether you end up as a politician or a painter, a novelist or a nurse or a neurologist, this you all have in common. You have learned how to pursue thoughts and ideas and, hopefully, you’ve grown to love that pursuit.” 

Dove concluded by reading her poem “Dawn Revisited,” which included the line:

“The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page.” 

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