Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Whispers and rhymes

There was a time in my youth -- my 30s -- when I aspired to be a poet. I typed out sheaves of poems on my manual Underwood and even sent off one or two that were published. I would be embarrassed to come across them now. It is easier to write bad poetry than bad prose, but harder to write good poetry than good prose. At age 15, Franz Wright sent off a poem to his father, the poet James Wright. The father wrote back: "You're a poet. Welcome to hell." The Wrights are the only father/son poets to have independently won a Pulitzer Prize. I took the easier prose road and never looked back.

But the roads traverse the same landscape. Franz Wright calls it "my country/ where night/ rhymes with light, death/ with breath." The country I have chosen to write about is science, where light and dark are part of a continuum, and the boundary between life and death is maddeningly indistinct.

There are no absolutes in science: no unalloyed good and evil, light and dark, spirit and matter, soul and body, supernatural and natural. No capital letters. We make our halting way in a land of whispers that time has composed of an alphabet we have only begun to learn -- a land where everything rhymes with everything else. Here is the rest of that little poem by Franz Wright: "And from childhood on the gift/ of seeing the world the way/ the dying see/ it: things shining/ in the light of their imminent disappearance."