Feeling stuck? Close your laptop, stop your field measurements and write a poem

Sam Illingworth explains how poetry can help to communicate and celebrate your science.
Sam Illingworth is a senior lecturer in science communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. You can find out more about Sam’s work by visiting his website:

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Vachel Lindsay with a nephew

Poet Vachel Lindsay reads with one of his relatives.Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

“There’s machinery in the butterfly;

There’s a mainspring to the bee;

There’s hydraulics to a daisy,

And contraptions to a tree.

“If we could see the birdie

That makes the chirping sound

With x-ray, scientific eyes,

We could see the wheels go round.”

And I hope all men

Who think like this

Will soon lie


‘The Horrid Voice of Science’, Vachel Lindsay (1919)

In reading Lindsay’s poem, it is easy to see why many people perceive poetry and science to be at odds with one another: the former searches for beauty in the enigmatic and the magical, and the latter seeks to explain this mystery. As a scientist who uses poetry in my research, I feel that these two disciplines are complementary, and we should embrace poetry as a tool for communicating our research and developing new understandings of our fields.

One of poetry’s most enduring qualities is its ability to consider a topic from a new point of view; see, for example, ‘A Brief Reflection on Accuracy’ by the Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub. This makes poetry an effective medium for disseminating scientific concepts to non-specialists. Initiatives such as the Sciku Project (which presents scientific discoveries and ideas in a haiku format), the Universe in Verse (an annual poetic celebration of science) and my own blog the Poetry of Science (in which I write a weekly poem based on published research) introduce new scientific ideas in a digestible form that is free of the jargon and technical language that can turn non-specialists away from even the most lucid abstracts. These projects do not aim to fully explain detailed scientific results through laboured rhyme. Instead, they introduce the reader to new research, encourage them to find out more about a topic and help to make science more accessible to a wider audience.

These science-communication initiatives all demonstrate how poetry can be used to communicate science to non-scientists. But they are limited in the direction of their flow of knowledge. Here, scientists are writing poetry for non-scientists — and are not necessarily concerned with how such an audience could influence their research. Poetry is arguably even more effective in developing dialogues between scientists and the broader public; for example, the Experimental Words project, funded by Arts Council England, has brought together poets and scientists to create works of art that explore the spaces between the two disciplines.

These dialogues can present researchers with insights into the direction and governance of future research. This sort of approach has been used to discuss topical issues, such as climate change and disaster resilience, with often under-served audiences (for example, religious communities, older people and those living with mental-health conditions). The experiences and needs expressed in this poetry can then be used to shape policy in these areas.

Many scientists might find this conversation-through-poetry approach either too resource intensive or outside their comfort zone — or both. But poetry can benefit researchers in another way.

There are times when scientists work on a problem that seems to be unsolvable. We stop thinking about it and focus on something else, only to return to the issue at a later date. Making time for this ‘incubation period’ has been shown to foster creativity in problem solving, and a study published last year highlights the idea that poetry might effectively target this incubation. In other words, if you find yourself stuck on a particular problem, leave your experiment, close your laptop, stop taking your field measurements — and try writing a poem about it instead. Doing so will help you to consider the problem from a new angle, and will likely lead you to fresh insights.

How to get started

1. Read some poetry. Just as you’d start any successful research project with an in-depth literature review to assess the field, begin by reading a wide variety of verse. This will help you to find your own poetic voice. There are many excellent examples of this art, both online and in print. Check out Magma, The Rialto, Rattle and The Poetry Review.

2. Consider using a specific format. Introducing structure to your poetry can help to reduce the anxiety of where to begin. The website Shadow Poetry offers a wide selection of poetic forms, along with examples that might provide you with scaffolding to build your poems on.

3. Edit, edit, edit. It is very unlikely that your first draft will represent the best form of your work. After you have written your poem, give it time to breathe, and then go back and remove any word that does not earn its keep.

4. Think about a title. Naming your poem can be a difficult task. The best advice I can offer comes from the excellent 2017 book How to be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commane, which recommends that you name the work after it has taken shape. Then consider how the title interacts with the final line. Use these as a pair of bookends to frame the poem as a whole.

5. Share your poetry. Even if this is only with a close friend or colleague, sharing your poem is a helpful way to get feedback, showcase your ideas and express your creativity.

Nature 574, 442-443 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02912-x

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