April 30, 2012

3 Simple Steps to Celebrate STEM and National Poetry Month

by Christine Hoekenga

National Poetry Month Logo

April was designated National Poetry Month in 1996.  Image courtesy: American Academy of Poets

Today marks the last day of National Poetry Month (NPM) 2012. Each spring since it was created by the American Academy of Poets in 1996, NPM has offered an opportunity for people to “band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.”

On the surface, science and poetry may seem like polar opposites and the poet and the scientist like two different breeds. But the two realms have a deeply entwined past, and there are some interesting similarities. Both poetry and science require keen observation skills and precision in word choice. Both are outlets for exploring and describing the world around us. And both have elements of creativity and inspiration. (More on this in our module Creativity in Science.)

Even in modern society, where we tend to specialize in a particular field of study and professional practice, there have been notable scientist-poet crossovers, as well as poets who have written beautifully about science. Among the many examples are:

  • Lewis Thomas, the “poet-philosopher of medicine” and former president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who wrote popular essays (eventually compiled into two best-selling books) and poetry about cells, disease, medicine, and evolution;
  • Chemistry Nobel laureate, Roald Hoffmann, who pens poetry and plays tackling a variety of scientific and nonscientific topics; and
  • Philip Appleman, one of the world’s leading experts on Charles Darwin, who is well known for his celebrated volumes of poetry illustrating Darwin’s life and theories.

While the official NPM celebration is wrapping up, there’s no reason to stop exploring the connections between science and poetry–on your own or in the classroom. Here are three simple steps to get you started:

1) Draw inspiration from some accomplished science and nature poets using resources from The Poetry Foundation and the American Academy of Poets. For starters, try:

Ten Poems to Get You Through Science Class This Year (we’re not crazy about the title given to this collection, but the selected poems from across several generations and scientific disciplines can certainly inspire before, after, or during science class)

The Sciences Sing a Lullabye  by Albert Goldbarth

Darwin’s Bestiary  by Philip Appleman

Haiku Journey by Kimberly Blaeser

2) Try your hand at writing a science poem. We suggest beginning with the short, powerful haiku form, which the Poetry Foundation describes as:

A Japanese verse form of three unrhyming lines in five, seven, and five syllables. It creates a single, memorable image, as in these lines by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Jane Hirshfield:

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.
(In translating from Japanese to English, Hirshfield compresses the number of syllables.)

Developing a talent for writing haiku, like any form of art (or science), takes effort, thought, and practice. Capturing a moment is difficult enough, let alone distilling it down to 17 syllables. But beginners in all fields must start somewhere, and the short, flexible form of a haiku can be less intimidating than penning a sonnet, a ballad, or a even a limerick. And whether it’s your first attempt or your 400th, haiku is always a great work-out for the creative muscles.

3) Share your poem. Swap haikus with a colleague, classmate, or friend. And please inspire others by posting it in the comments section here or on our Facebook page. To break the ice, I’ve posted a couple of my own attempts below. I’m sure you can do much better, so get writing!

Happy National Poetry Month!

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.