Savannah Poets

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?

The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part—perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it.

For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

That’s a real question, there on the last line—what kind of poet can write about Jupiter the god, but not Jupiter the immense sphere? Whether or not Feynman meant the question rhetorically, it has a real answer:

If Jupiter is like us, he can fall in love, and lose love, and regain love.

If Jupiter is like us, he can strive, and rise, and be cast down.

If Jupiter is like us, he can laugh or weep or dance.

If Jupiter is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, it is more difficult for the poet to make us feel.

There are poets and storytellers who say that the Great Stories are timeless, and they never change, are only ever retold. They say, with pride, that Shakespeare and Sophocles are bound by ties of craft stronger than mere centuries; that the two playwrights could have swapped times without a jolt.

Donald Brown once compiled a list of over two hundred “human universals,” found in all (or a vast supermajority of) studied human cultures, from San Francisco to the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert. Marriage is on the list, and incest avoidance, and motherly love, and sibling rivalry, and music and envy and dance and storytelling and aesthetics, and ritual magic to heal the sick, and poetry in spoken lines separated by pauses—

No one who knows anything about evolutionary psychology could be expected to deny it: The strongest emotions we have are deeply engraved, blood and bone, brain and DNA.

It might take a bit of tweaking, but you probably could tell “Hamlet” sitting around a campfire on the ancestral savanna.

So one can see why John “Unweave a rainbow” Keats might feel something had been lost, on being told that the rainbow was sunlight scattered from raindrops. Raindrops don’t dance.

In the Old Testament, it is written that God once destroyed the world with a flood that covered all the land, drowning all the horribly guilty men and women of the world along with their horribly guilty babies, but Noah built a gigantic wooden ark, etc., and after most of the human species was wiped out, God put rainbows in the sky as a sign that he wouldn’t do it again. At least not with water.

You can see how Keats would be shocked that this beautiful story was contradicted by modern science. Especially if (as I described in the previous essay) Keats had no real understanding of rainbows, no “Aha!” insight that could be fascinating in its own right, to replace the drama subtracted—

Ah, but maybe Keats would be right to be disappointed even if he knew the math. The Biblical story of the rainbow is a tale of bloodthirsty murder and smiling insanity. How could anything about raindrops and refraction properly replace that? Raindrops don’t scream when they die.

So science takes the romance away (says the Romantic poet), and what you are given back never matches the drama of the original—

(that is, the original delusion)

—even if you do know the equations, because the equations are not about strong emotions.

That is the strongest rejoinder I can think of that any Romantic poet could have said to Feynman—though I can’t remember ever hearing it said.

You can guess that I don’t agree with the Romantic poets. So my own stance is this:

It is not necessary for Jupiter to be like a human, because humans are like humans. If Jupiter is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, that doesn’t mean that love and hate are emptied from the universe. There are still loving and hating minds in the universe. Us.

With more than six billion of us at the last count, does Jupiter really need to be on the list of potential protagonists?

It is not necessary to tell the Great Stories about planets or rainbows. They play out all over our world, every day. Every day, someone kills for revenge; every day, someone kills a friend by mistake; every day, upward of a hundred thousand people fall in love. And even if this were not so, you could write fiction about humans—not about Jupiter.

Earth is old, and has played out the same stories many times beneath the Sun. I do wonder if it might not be time for some of the Great Stories to change. For me, at least, the story called “Goodbye” has lost its charm.

The Great Stories are not timeless, because the human species is not timeless. Go far enough back in hominid evolution, and no one will understand Hamlet. Go far enough back in time, and you won’t find any brains.

The Great Stories are not eternal, because the human species, Homo sapiens sapiens, is not eternal. I most sincerely doubt that we have another thousand years to go in our current form. I do not say this in sadness: I think we can do better.

I would not like to see all the Great Stories lost completely, in our future. I see very little difference between that outcome, and the Sun falling into a black hole.

But the Great Stories in their current forms have already been told, over and over. I do not think it ill if some of them should change their forms, or diversify their endings.

“And they lived happily ever after” seems worth trying at least once.

The Great Stories can and should diversify, as humankind grows up. Part of that ethic is the idea that when we find strangeness, we should respect it enough to tell its story truly. Even if it makes writing poetry a little more difficult.

If you are a good enough poet to write an ode to an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, you are writing something original, about a newly discovered part of the real universe. It may not be as dramatic, or as gripping, as Hamlet. But the tale of Hamlet has already been told! If you write of Jupiter as though it were a human, then you are making our map of the universe just a little more impoverished of complexity; you are forcing Jupiter into the mold of all the stories that have already been told of Earth.

James Thomson’s “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton,” which praises the rainbow for what it really is—you can argue whether or not Thomson’s poem is as gripping as John Keats’s Lamia who was loved and lost. But tales of love and loss and cynicism had already been told, far away in ancient Greece, and no doubt many times before. Until we understood the rainbow as a thing different from tales of human-shaped magic, the true story of the rainbow could not be poeticized.

The border between science fiction and space opera was once drawn as follows: If you can take the plot of a story and put it back in the Old West, or the Middle Ages, without changing it, then it is not real science fiction. In real science fiction, the science is intrinsically part of the plot—you can’t move the story from space to the savanna, not without losing something.

Richard Feynman asked: “What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

They are savanna poets, who can only tell stories that would have made sense around a campfire ten thousand years ago. Savanna poets, who can tell only the Great Stories in their classic forms, and nothing more.

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew L. Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 3 vols. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1963). ↩︎

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