Fulcrum / Writing a World

Author: 
Jonathan Dawes

Our exhibit is one of the few to include poetry. I'd been meaning to write about this for a while, but time has flown by, and the day-to-day running of the exhibit stand has interrupted the generation of blog posts to describe it!

The poem is one out of the set of six 'Science Poems on the Underground' organised in February/March 2010 by the Royal Society in collaboration with Transport for London. The poems appeared on the Tube and can be printed off from the Royal Society's website here:

 

http://royalsociety.org/poems-on-the-underground/

 

We've reproduced one of these on our yellow board facing the Royal Society's information desk in the centre of the Ballroom floor. The poem is by David Morley and is titled 'Fulcrum/Writing a World'. Prof Morley is Director of the Warwick Writing Programme at Warwick University and has a website about his poetry and activities which can be found at

 

http://www.davidmorley.org.uk/

 

He also, naturally, has a blog.

 

Back to Fulcrum/Writing a World. I've reproduced the text below, for reference:

 

``While I talk and the flies buzz,
a seagull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon,
a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness,
a man sneezes in Germany,
a horse dies in Tattany,
and twins are born in France.

 

``What does that mean? Does the contemporaneity
of these events with one another,
and with a million others as disjointed,
form a rational bond between them,
and write them into anything
that resembles for us a world?''

 

The source of the text is interesting, and openly discussed by Morley himself. The text is taken, almost verbatim, from a public lecture delivered by William James (1842-1910), an American philosopher. You can find a reasonably concise biography of William James in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here:

 

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james/

 

 

This public lecture by James, titled 'Reflex Action and Theism' was later published in the Unitarian Review of October 1881, and contains the lines that Morley has selected for the poem. There is one change, as far as I can see: in line 5, Tattany has been substituted for 'Tartary' in the original. You can read the whole address online, here:

 

http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/23342/

 

As an aside: this change in the text has caused me a slight worry - I understand, vaguely, that Tartary is the land of the Tartars, i.e. Central Asia. But I don't know where Tattany is! If anyone can help here, I'd be very grateful.

 

My opinion of the text overall is that it has a wonderful cadence to it, and some lovely juxtapositions. For example, the the last line of the first stanza finishes the stanza with an air of certainty that is immediately removed by the question that the second half begins with. And the question that the second stanza goes on to pose, I would say, is difficult to answer.

 

Scientifically, we understand that 'correlation is not causation', i.e. simply because events occur together there need not be any connection (i.e. a `rational bond') at all. But then our (scientific) mind looks for rational bonds and is constantly attempting to build `a bigger picture'. Perhaps this is a central part of our individual experience: the world that each of us lives in is defined by whatever bigger picture we individually manage to assemble from these pieces. We may, at a certain point, experience a collection of the same events but these events then provoke different responses from each of us, through our previous associations and memories. The existence of these differing responses is an integral part of being human: each of us does live in a world 're-assembled' through events, but those re-assembled worlds are different for each of us.

 

The final observation I'll make is that Newton, as a Unitarian himself (a fact he needed to keep quiet about during his time as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge), would hopefully approve of his mosaic-tiled image being displayed underneath this particular poem, since it echoes a particularly well-known remark attributed to Newton:

'' I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

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