The talk, titled “The Physics of Poetry” and organized by the Whitman College Council, provided a forum for students to hear the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet discuss the parallels between his art and seemingly unrelated fields.
“It was meant to be a slightly provocative title, I suppose,” Muldoon said. “But the basic idea is that poetry is in certain ways much more akin to construction — activities that involve construction, architecture, engineering — and that all of these activities are mindful of the laws of physics.”
Throughout the discussion, Muldoon demonstrated how poetry incorporates scientific concepts. “The word ‘poem,’ in fact, means nothing more than ‘a construct,’ ” he explained, “a piece of structural engineering that is subject to the laws of physics.”
Muldoon also linked poetry to chemistry, comparing poetic elements, like the components of a simile or metaphor, to the materials in a scientific experiment.
The literary units are like “chemical elements,” he explained, that fuse to create “a spark, a chemical reaction.” This spark is the fuel for poetry — “a little explosion. Or a big one,” Muldoon added in an e-mail.
Eight undergraduate students and two graduate students participated in the discussion. Some of the students were English majors who want to write creative theses, while others said they were brought only by their love of poetry.
Laura Fletcher ’10, a comparative literature major, questioned Muldoon about his creative process: “Do you find that more often you start out with the intention to construct or create or pull a poem out of nothing? Or do you start with that spark?”
For him, Muldoon said, a poem starts with a flash of unexpected inspiration. “One hopes that one has a bit of a spark, absolutely. The key is that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. It takes over,” he said.
This spontaneous creativity is also present in architecture, Muldoon said, looking around at the octagonal Whitman private dining room. “In the midst of all the building,” he said, “there has to be a spark of something that transcends the fabric of the thing.” Great buildings, he noted, combine technical skill and construction with the unpredictability of artistry, “something that goes beyond the mere ability to construct something in the world, something unexpected that I’m sure happens with great engineering, great architecture.”
Muldoon will continue to explore the nature of poetry in the fall in a course titled “The Prose Poem.” The course will be open by application to students who have taken a 200-level prose or poetry creative writing course and who are interested in extending their experiences in either literary genre.
The course will only be offered if a sufficient number of students apply, Muldoon added.
Because of the recession, he said, “We just cannot run classes anymore with two or three people.”
Jeanette Beebe ’11 said she found the dinner both worthwhile and enjoyable. “I was quite impressed at how insightful he was in pinpointing the mechanics of the creative process. It’s really encouraging to be in the presence of a scholar and an artist who seems to know so much about the craft.”
The satisfaction was mutual, Muldoon said in an interview after the dinner. “It’s lovely to see the students organizing things themselves, a sense that students want to be here and that they’re not forced to be here,” he noted, adding, “Not that one has that sense around Princeton anyway.”
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