Poetry of Knowledge

At The University of Victoria I designed and taught a course on what the handbooks call “didactic poetry”, though I prefer the term poetry of knowledge" – i.e. poetry which engages directly and extensively with a systematic body of knowledge. The paradigm of the genre is Lucretius’ magnificent De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which expounds the atomic theory of matter as it was known in antiquity. Always interested in interactions between the ancient and modern worlds, I began to think and write about the current situation in which there is in effect a divorce between poetry and systematic knowledge. This divorce seemed to me highly regrettable; on the one hand poetry is cut off from important areas of human thought, and on the other hand the beauty and imaginative power of science is not adequately expressed.

For many years I wrestled with a manuscript that combined a theoretical discussion of the poetry/knowledge issue with a full critical analysis of Lucretius and of Vergil’s Georgics. This combination never gelled, and I eventually put the manuscript aside. But in 2016, at the urging of my colleague Keith Bradley, I undertook a drastic revision and abbreviation of the manuscript, orienting it more definitely towards the current situation. After another substantial revision in 2017, focussing still further on the contemporary situation at the advice of John Holmes, the book was published in 2018 with the title The Poetry of Knowledge and the ‘Two Cultures’.

While working on the critical book, I also felt that I should “put my money where my mouth is” by attempting to write some poetry of knowledge. What should the subject be? My late wife Linda had introduced me to the study of wildflowers and birds: she combined detailed observation with great persistence in leafing through the field guides until she was sure of an identification. So I began a series of descriptive botanical poems on the wildflowers of the Pacific Coast of British Columbia. After many stops and starts, the poems were eventually published in 2013 as a collection with the title Wildflowers of the Coast. Two examples of the poems can be found here.