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Kurt Brown

     ... poet. Founder of the Aspen Writers' Conference and Writers' Conferences and Centers (WC&C), Kurt Brown is editor of The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science and Verse & Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics as well as The True Subject, Writing It Down for James, Facing the Lion and others. He is author of three award-winning chapbooks, and two full-length collections of poems, Return of the Prodigals and More Things in Heaven & Earth. He and his poet wife live in New York City.


Love of the unknown unites science and poetry, Kurt Brown discovered. It's a passion strong enough that it enables both poets and scientists to overcome humanity's inherent fear of the dark, creating new stories that eclipse older ones, embracing the reality and discomfort of uncertainty in both external and internal universes, he says. Recognition of these similarities, as well as obvious differences, is grounded in Mr. Brown's experience editing an anthology of poems about science and mathematics and a collection of essays that brings poetry and science together.

Himself a poet, Mr. Brown sees two overlapping universes shared by science and poetry. Scientists search the unknown outside of themselves, in the physical world. Poets focus inside, exploring the unconscious, subconscious, unknown self.

And in both pursuits, Mr. Brown says, surprisingly similar questions arise. They are to him crow bars that pry open a little rift in the mind, in what one thinks about the universe and the world, about experience. These are, not surprisingly, The Big Questions. What is the nature of the cosmos? Who am I? How did I get here? What is life? What is love? These are the questions that mean the most to us, he says, but get lost in the everyday of small talk, paying bills and running errands, things that fill the vast majority of our lives but divert our attention from what we know is important though we rarely explore or articulate them.

Both today's scientists and poets bear a striking resemblance, he says, to humanity's ancient need, the hero. Whether a Native American on a quest or one of the thousand other faces of Joseph Campbell's hero, this is the person who goes out into the unknown, does whatever it takes to get a glimpse of possibilities, then -- and this is critical -- comes back. S/he articulates what she or he has glimpsed, uses shared language to open up possibilities, to avoid certainties and absolutes. This is the job of the poet, Mr. Brown says unequivocally, seeing the role of scientists in the same light.

Of course, science and poetry are also very different, reflected in part in their languages, one using mathematics, the other words. Or consider approaches to ambiguity. Mr. Brown says poets are trying to fix a moment in time with words. But words are imprecise. Slippery. Full of connotations and ambiguities. The poet revels in it, trying to make a sentence or a phrase mean more than one thing, possibly 2, maybe 3, even better if it's 4. But, of course, this would drive a scientist crazy, he says. Scientists try to get rid of connotations, stick with denotations, because they need to replicate their results, over and over again, anywhere.

But in the end, uncertainty takes the day, Mr. Brown believes. Long before Heisenberg and his (commonly misunderstood) uncertainty principle, Keats was saying, famously, "I am not uncomfortable with not knowing." Why? Because, Mr. Brown thinks, poets like scientists know it will lead farther than certainty does, will open up a way to get farther, in short, open one to possibilities, to the universe.

[This Program was recorded March 3, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]



Conversation 1

Science is today's cosmology, Kurt Brown tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russelll. He compares the languages of science and literature.


Conversation 2


Scientists and poets both love the unknown, Mr. Brown asserts, then describes what poets are trying to do in their work. Surprise and going to the unknown are critical in a poem, Mr. Brown says, then tells his story of creating an anthology of poets paying attention to science. He describes eras when there was no split between science and literature, then brings us to the present. Humans will tell stories until the end, Mr. Brown believes. We'll create new ways, means and media for those stories, he's sure, and offers examples.


Conversation 3

The effect of committing a story to paper is explored. Mr. Brown compares the way scientific truths are revised by new discoveries to what happens when we re-read a text after some years. While a poet uses language to try to fix a moment in time, he or she is both challenged by and reveling in language's imprecisions and ambiguities, Mr. Brown says, comparing how scientists and poets deal with imprecision and ambiguity. Dogma has no place in poetry, he believes, describing scientists' and poets' two universes and how they overlap. He considers the role of uncertainty in both arenas.


Conversation 4

Mr. Brown urges everyone to approach poetry in the same way he calls on poets to approach science or math -- understand what you can. He gives personal examples. Acknowledging people's hunger for certainty, Mr. Brown is confident neither poets nor scientists will ever be able to grasp absolutes. He suggests that most writers would agree with Keats, "I am not uncomfortable with not knowing." This approach is discussed. Dr. Stuart Kauffman’s application of the concept of "the adjacent possible" is explored. The idea of "breakthrough" is important in both poetry and science, Mr. Brown says, then addresses universes and multiverses.


Conversation 5

Building on how much we do not know, Mr. Brown amplifies on a D.H. Lawrence image to characterize the unknown, respectful of how disconcerting and unsettling it is in any arena. He acknowledges the power of stories that explaining everything, mindful that however gripping, they remain competing stories. The ideas of the hero, quest and vision are applied to scientists and poets. The job of a poet, Mr. Brown says, is to glimpse possibilities and articulate them in the language everyone uses, so we will pay attention to what's genuinely important but rarely addressed. Silences are honored, then Mr. Brown recites "Marigold."


Conversation 6

Science's and poetry's questions are a sort of crow bar that can pry open a little rift in your thinking about the universe, the world and experience, Mr. Brown says. Uncertainty will lead one farther than certainty, he believes, describing the role of leaps of faith. He ends with Albert Golbarth's poem, "The Sciences Sing a Lullaby."



Poet and teacher Thomas N. Lux not only has built the wonderful “Poetry@Tech” program at Georgia Institute of Technology, with the able assistance of Ginger Murchison, the many ways that Mr. Lux is extraordinary include his passionate generosity in sharing his love of poetry. We thank Thomas for revivifying poetry for us as well as for introducing us to Kurt Brown.

John McLeod at the University of Georgia Press went far beyond the call of duty to assure that we had The Measured Word in hand in preparation for this program. We appreciate John’s eagerness and responsiveness and thank him for both.

Related Links:

The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science is published by The University of Georgia Press.
Verse & Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics is published by Milkweed Editions.

Thomas Lux, like Kurt Brown, uses poetry to find and share incisive truths for which we often didn't know we were searching.  In his translations and by using the ancient Islamic poetic form of the ghazal (“GUZ-el”) to experience the modern world, Robert Bly has extended the experiences available to us. Former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins makes poetry personal, humane and often funny.

In The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, Curtis White pleads for us to revitalize our imaginations.

The late Danish condensed matter physicist Per Bak argued (he always did that) that science had now reached a point at which it is necessary to use narrative to describe our physical world.

Ray Kurzweil asks us to consider what happens when machines exceed human intelligence and become in some sense alive. Many other scientists and technologist have examined the complex, evolving relationships between humans, machines and science, including John Seely Brown, Stuart Kauffman, Edward O. Wilson and the late Michael Dertouzos.

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