Nine Poets Walk Into An Institute of Technology
Nine poets walk into an institute of technology. If this sounds like a joke, that's by design, for in modern times there seems to be something funny about the poet who moves among technologists—not funny ha ha, but funny strange. And yet, in 1962-3, nine poets did walk into an institute of technology. And not just at any institute of technology, but a pre-eminent example of the type: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more popularly known as M.I.T. One after another, John Ciardi, Robert Graves, David Ferry, X.J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, Mark Van Doren, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Weiss, and Richard Wilbur rose up and held forth: sometimes reading original poems, or poems by others, sometimes speaking about the vocation of the poet, or about poetry more generally. A few of these poets were younger, a few older. Some ignored the context of their appearance at M.I.T., but others addressed that context directly, and, in some cases, rather provocatively. If these occasions were notable and unusual, so too was their further promotion via the airwaves of GBH, Boston's public radio affiliate. This media event occurred at a signal moment in the collision between American poetry and an increasingly scientifically-oriented public culture: after Frost appeared at Kennedy's inauguration, but before their respective deaths; after Hiroshima, Sputnik, and the Pill, but before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Earth Day, and the Asilomar Conference. In this setting, poets like Graves, Van Doren, and Warren took up the rare opportunity to speak as poets, on behalf of poetry, while confronting one of the primary seats of science and technology. Their remarks in the Poetry from M.I.T. series continue to resonate in our own times, with the relationship between poetry and science in flux now as then. In the following collection, we'll examine some of the key themes and representative poems that emerged from this remarkable reading series.
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Nine poets walk into an institute of technology. If this sounds like a joke, that's by design, for in modern times there seems to be something funny about the poet who moves among technologists—not funny ha ha, but funny strange. And yet, in 1962-3, nine poets did walk into an institute of technology. Not just at any institute of technology, but a pre-eminent example of the type: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more popularly known as M.I.T. One after another, John Ciardi, Robert Graves, David Ferry, X.J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, Mark Van Doren, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Weiss, and Richard Wilbur rose up and held forth: sometimes reading original poems, or poems by others, sometimes speaking about the vocation of the poet, or about poetry more generally. A few of these poets were younger, a few older. Some ignored the context of their appearance at M.I.T., but others addressed that context directly, and, in some cases, rather provocatively.
If these occasions were notable and unusual, so too was their further promotion via the airwaves of GBH, Boston's public radio affiliate. This media event occurred at a signal moment in the collision between American poetry and an increasingly scientifically-oriented public culture: after Frost appeared at Kennedy's inauguration, but before their respective deaths; after Hiroshima, Sputnik, and the Pill, but before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Earth Day, and the Asilomar Conference. In this setting, poets like Ciardi, Graves, Van Doren, and Warren took the rare opportunity to speak as poets, on behalf of poetry, while confronting one of the primary seats of science and technology. Their remarks in the Poetry from M.I.T. series continue to resonate in our own times, with the relationship between poetry and science in flux now as then.
Fifty years later, in the M.I.T. of 2013, one would be hard pressed to attend so many poetry readings in such quick succession. Indeed, in 2010, the Advanced Poetry Workshop was cut from the budget and struck from the M.I.T. course catalog, in what one student editorialist regarded as "a travesty" (Ruppel). But in the early 1960s, gatherings devoted to American poets and American poetry were cropping up all over the continent, including watershed events at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (1963), the University of California-Berkeley (1965) and Fisk University in Nashville (1966). In this "golden age of poetry and power" (424)—as Frost put it in "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"—even institutes of technology celebrated the poetic act, and when a rapid succession of poets stepped up to the M.I.T. rostrum to speak, the engineers listened.
One of the most distinguished figures to appear at in the Poetry from M.I.T. series was Robert Penn Warren, then a Professor of English at Yale University. In a portentous opening gambit, Warren initiated his talk by confessing that he had "considered the invitation to come to M.I.T. with some trepidation." That's "trepidation," from the Latin, defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as "tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation," with a usage example from Fanny Burney's novel Camilla (1796) presenting the governess Miss Margland as one proceeding "in equal trepidation from anger and from fear" (135). If Warren's trepidation also consisted of part anger and part fear, the proportions of his trepidation proved more difficult to reckon, and elements of agitation, alarm, confusion, flurry, and perturbation likely factored in as well.
Why trepidation, in whatever combination? Warren explained that he had recently read C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures (1959), leaving him unsure of how to respond to M.I.T.'s invitation, or how he would be received upon accepting. In The Two Cultures, Snow diagnosed a "mutual incomprehension" and "lack of understanding" between research scientists and literary intellectuals, grounded in a "curious distorted image of each other," with "attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground" (Two 3-4). Though Snow came down on the side of the scientists in The Two Cultures, he also insisted that the best-educated individuals would "be trained not only in scientific but in human terms" (Two 47), and bemoaned that modern society had "lost even the pretence of a common culture" (Two 60). Refusing to sugarcoat the situation, he feared that "between these two groups—the scientists and the literary intellectuals—there is little communication and, instead of fellow-feeling, something like hostility" (Two 60), concluding that these two cultures were finally "devoid of understanding and sympathy" (Two 61).
In the early 1960s, M.I.T. provided something of a bulwark against this divide. Uniquely among peer institutions, its curriculum mandated that "all students must take a two-year course in the Foundations of Western Civilization; after that most of them take up to half their courses in the humanities" (qtd. in Levine and Thomas 110). Indeed, Snow himself had praised M.I.T. as an institution "where students of the sciences are receiving a serious humane education" (Two 69). But however broadly the undergraduates were trained, the gulf between the faculties had grown ever wider. As one commentator put it in an Atlantic Monthly article of the same period, "to his colleagues in the university the scientist tends to seem more and more like a man from another planet, a creature scattering antibiotics with one hand and atomic bombs with the other" (qtd. in Levine and Thomas 143).
In the poems he read at M.I.T., Warren made a point of drawing some sharp contrasts between these two cultures. With "Country Burying, 1919," he evoked the belatedness of a rural church funeral, "where heads bend in duty in sparse rows" in stark relief against the line of parked cars outside—"Chevrolet, T-Model, a Hudson or two"—standing as gleaming symbols of modernity, coolly personified in opposition to these last rites, such that "what goes on inside is no concern of theirs" (Collected 116-117). Meanwhile, in an elusive poem titled "So You Agree With What I Say? Well, What Did I Say?" Warren sketched a life of the ironically named Mr. Moody, "albino-pale, half-blind," whose
Between his Bible and the cobbler's bench
With all human complexities resolved
In that Hope past deprivation, or any heart-wrench.
Or so it seemed ...
The pity of this affectless, open-and-shut life inevitably ends in death, and the poem concludes with a cryptic reflection on the nature of Moody's demise, with Warren asserting that
If God short-changed Mr. Moody, it's time for Him
To give up this godding business, and make way
For somebody else to try, or an IBM.
Well, what did Warren say? Was Mr. Moody short-changed? Should God yield to another power, or an IBM? As Warren prefaced the poem to his audience at M.I.T.: "Here's a little poem that has an IBM machine in it; in fact it ends with one. You can take that as a tribute if you like." In combination, Warren's cryptic framing and titular interrogation would seem to puncture any illusion of consensus between humanists and scientists, positing nothing so much as a failure to communicate.
Despite a few jarring moments of this kind, Warren's performance at M.I.T. was genial enough on the whole, and almost anodyne in places. Ending with several poems from a sequence devoted to "Delight," Warren emphasized emotion over and against understanding, positing that "Delight knows its own reason, / A reason you will never know," insisting that "Your will, nor hand, can never seize on / Delight," and concluding that "I may not divulge the rest: // Nor can it be guessed" (Collected 215). Lines like these demonstrate that beneath Warren's courteous evenness and the polished veneers of his verse lurked much deeper senses of disquiet and mystery. In Dave Smith's view, Warren stands as a poet whose "dullness in scene masks deep contention" (27), and this was certainly true at M.I.T. Over the course of a long career, his apparently bucolic Southern scenes—whether in lyric poems or epic novels—were buttressed by an increasingly uneasy relationship with modernity and modern science. As Bill Moyers noted in a 1976 interview, Warren had become "increasingly intrigued by the fate of democracy in a world of technology" (qtd. in Grimshaw 268).
Warren addressed these concerns most explicitly in his 1974 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Democracy and Poetry, where he suggested that over time "our 'poetry' will be found more subversive of the status quo, more alienated from the 'specious good' which modern technological society has delivered to man as the ultimate good" (Democracy 68). Yet, for Warren, unlike Snow, this widening chasm between the two cultures was a salutary development. "If," Warren speculated, "as seems probable, the divergence between the arts and the technological society increases, the effect of this special elitism of the arts on social, financial, and technological elitisms will become more marked — and more significant, one is tempted to say, by reason, paradoxically, of its very alienation, for the survival of democracy" (Democracy 78).
Was it from alienation or from trepidation that many of the younger poets who appeared at M.I.T. glossed over the fact that they were reading at an institute of technology? Even in—or perhaps because of—the context of the two cultures debate, most of the poets under forty featured in this reading series completely ignored the institutional context in which they appeared. Whether from confusion, or fear, or merely indifference, such omissions prove striking in their silences, particularly in the case of Denise Levertov, the only woman in this series. By 1961 Levertov had been named poetry editor of The Nation, and in the later 1960s and 1970s she would become an active and vocal participant in the antiwar movement. Yet in her engagement at M.I.T. she offered no explicitly political commentary, and seemed little concerned to acknowledge, much less confront, the scientific establishment that she addressed.
Similarly, David Ferry and Theodore Weiss scarcely noted the occasion of their respective readings, and Richard Wilbur offered little more than glancing allusions in "Altitudes" and "A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra," two poems concerned with "architectural comparisons" linking the built environments and spiritual experiences of Europe and the United States. In fact, the only younger poet in the series to confront the question concerning technology was X.J. Kennedy, who concluded his reading with a performance of his long poem "The Man in the Manmade Moon: A Ballad." Offering an equivocal framing of the poem, he explained that while he had "nothing against space travel," and thought "it would be a fine idea if we could get off this cluttered overpopulated planet," he also saw "certain dangers in some attitudes toward space travel that we hear expressed these days."
While Kennedy satirically skirted these dangers in the poem itself, he took a more candid position on poetry and technology in his prefatory note "To the Student," included in the first edition of his textbook An Introduction to Poetry (1966). "In this age," he posited,
when we pride ourselves that a computer may solve the riddle of all creation as soon as it is programmed, magic seems to some people of small importance and so too does poetry. It is dangerous, however, to dismiss what we do not logically understand. To read a poem at all, we have to be willing to offer it responses besides a logical understanding. Whether we attribute the effect of a poem to a divine spirit or to the reactions of our glands and cortexes, we have to take the reading of poetry seriously (not solemnly), if only because ... few other efforts can repay us so generously, both in wisdom and in joy. (xv)
As Kennedy's anthology amply demonstrated, poems repay not only in joy, but also across a plenitude of emotions, from hope and faith to grief and sorrow.
Of all the poets to appear in the Poetry from M.I.T. series, John Ciardi struck the most nervous figure, with a performance drawing equally on autobiography, critical commentary, and poetry, and ranging in tone from the farcical to the derisive to the bathetic. While his skittishness may have been off-putting to some, he also offered the most candid assessment on the encounter between poet and technologist. Thus he contrasted his audience, busy "doing all the learned intelligent sane terribly bright things that will blow us all to hell," with the poets who "just hang around rhythms and words and metaphors and forms, doing these frivolous things."
As a way of explaining his buffoonish pose, Ciardi, who had recently resigned an English professorship at Rutgers University, concluded: "I can’t really come before you seriously. "I’m too much afraid of you, so I have to duck a bit." And yet, having dismissed poetry as an irresponsible enterprise, he proceeded to mount a defense of poetry, as "a kind of intelligence," namely, "an intelligence by indirection" that took "a long way round," since "the business of writing a poem doesn’t go in a rational way." Allowing that the knowledge produced by poetry was "hard to define but not too hard to exemplify," he finally confessed that his argument for poetry was one that "I can't explain," urging his audience to "let it go as a kind of mysticism from across the street."
Unlike the younger generation of poets, Ciardi had already reflected on the relationship between poetry and science in several publications. For example, in How Does a Poem Mean? (1960), he had lampooned the Dickens character Mr. Gradgrind and his "School of Hard Facts" as "a school of fixed answers," foolishly echoed by "a recent anthologist who wrote that the inspection of a poem should be as certain as a chemical analysis," and furthered by the tendentious belief "that the methods of measurement evolved by the physical sciences can be applied to all human processes" (665). To Ciardi, such notions were folly, since "the language of experience is not the language of classification," and when it came to questions of experience, "not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense" (666).
Ciardi's skepticism toward measurement found an even more forceful doubter in Mark Van Doren, a professor of English at Columbia University, who took a particularly deliberate approach to meeting the occasion of an appearance at M.I.T. In planning his reading, upon asking a campus emissary "whether the poems should ... have any particular subject that might be relevant at M.I.T.," he was met with the reply that "there wouldn’t be any poems relevant to M.I.T." Refusing to accept this answer, "perhaps perversely," Van Doren "decided to look for some among the poems that I have written," settling on "a number that have to do with number."
Rationalizing this decision, he addressed his audience directly. "You are preoccupied with number here," he told them. "You are numbering the world, you are numbering the parts of the world, and I have always been interested in the phenomena of numbering too."
Reading a sardonic poem titled "Segments," and elaborating on questions of number from M.I.T.'s pivotal Building 10, Van Doren confessed that he tended toward "thinking that we’ve got too many numbers, we do too much numbering," and contemplated “the idea that nature, existence, the world, might be uncomfortable as it observes us numbering it." For "nature," Van Doren concluded, "doesn’t think of itself as having parts ... nature is one thing." As the eldest of the poets in this reading series, then nearing seventy years of age, Van Doren seems to have felt more confident than most in speaking authoritatively at M.I.T. about the divergent missions of the poet and the scientist.
But perhaps the most enthusiastic gadfly of the lot was the inimitable Robert Graves, then in the midst of his term as Oxford Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Graves did not read his own poems, but instead appeared at M.I.T. as the ninth Arthur Dehon Little Lecturer, and the first and only poet to be so recognized. Established at M.I.T. in 1946, the Little Lectureship was intended "to promote interest in and stimulate discussion of the social implications inherent in the development of science, through lectures delivered upon invitation by distinguished contributors to the advancement of science and the arts." Previous lecturers had included Americans such as Detlev W. Bronk, president of Johns Hopkins University, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as British subjects such as Sir Edward V. Appleton, Secretary to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and Sir Henry Tizard, Chairman of the British Advisory Council on Scientific Policy.
During his fortnight at M.I.T., Graves graciously lunched with mechanical engineers, took tea with chemical engineers, and talked with biologists, linguists, mathematicians, and physicians about how computers might transform the English language. He had come to campus at the invitation of M.I.T. president Julius Adams Stratton, who operated from a "deep conviction that in the higher education of scientists and engineers, the humanities must be brought into full partnership" (Stratton 128). Upon introducing Graves on the occasion of his Little Lecture, Stratton recalled that he had initially written Graves on the hunch that "poets might have something to say to science," and in the hope "that in any community of thinking men, the similarities among the men were greater than the presumed differences of their two or of their twenty cultures."
In this hope Stratton would be profoundly disappointed, for over the course of his lecture Graves outlined several fundamental distinctions between poets and scientists. To Graves, such differences prevailed as a matter of nature, even in cases of closely converging experience and upbringing. "Sometimes," Graves allowed of poet and scientist, "they are born in the same bed, eat at the same table, attend the same school, sing in the same choir ... But soon they grow mentally alienated; never later, in my experience, than the age of twelve" (Speculations 110). Boiling the difference down to its essence, Graves posited that
the scientist concentrates on analysis and classification of external fact even if fact be beautifully disguised as mathematic relation; whereas the poet concentrates on discovery of internal truth. To a poet, analysis and factual classification are ... reputable pursuit[s] only so long as they serve a natural human need ... To a scientist, 'internal truth' makes no sense because it defies analysis: that is to say, no factual question on the subject of internal truth, requiring a factual answer, or even a hypothetical question requiring a hypothetical answer, can be fed even to an electronic computer (Speculations 111).
To an even greater degree than Kennedy or Warren, Graves revealed a powerful animus toward computers, ridiculing the notion that "electronic computers have passed the limits of the brain's imaginative grasp," and insisting that "vast tracts of human thought remain to be explored, which the computer knows nothing of and which call for no complex apparatus" (Speculations 113). Presenting an elaborate detour through mythology and scripture, Graves contrasted goddesses of arts and crafts like the Greek Athene and the Irish Brigid with "the upstart God Apollo," who usurped their position by standing as "the first to patronize unnatural science—science as an intellectual perversion, science for the sake of science" (Speculations 123). Finally, turning to the Book of Judges, Graves recounted the story of Deborah, an oracular priestess who ordered Barak to rebuff Sisera's nine hundred iron chariots. Graves implicitly equated these chariots with the "cosmical nonsense-region of electronic computers" (Speculations 123); in an aside excised from the lecture's official transcript, Graves wryly numbered "nine hundred of them here at M.I.T."
Swerving from politesse to confrontation and back again, Graves held, in another aside suppressed from the official transcript, that "we're getting along alright here in M.I.T.: nothing bad is happening, things are being built, students are coming in, the work is going on. But this is only really paddling, because eventually, this whole business will have to come to a head." Setting himself against the uncontested reign of the scientific revolution, Graves argued for the value of irrationality, enjoining society to give "full weight to the scientifically imponderable" (Speculations 123). From there, Graves sewed up the loose ends in his mythological discourse, and brought his lecture to a swift conclusion.
But once again, the recording offers additional evidence not fully reprinted in the transcript. "Forgive me if I have offended," Graves begged of his audience, in one final flourish: "I am only a poet." If the apology seems pro forma, it offered a further goad by virtue of its conditionality. In the end, Graves's "forgive me if..." could only strike an ironic note of contrition, for in thinking to apologize he provided further grounds for offense—whether deliberately or not. By archly and partially seeking forgiveness in the midst of an ostensibly egalitarian community, Graves in effect questioned the sincerity of those that had invited him to their campus in order to demonstrate their very openness to the free exchange of ideas.
Why offend? According to Hazard Adams, that's what poets do. As he explained in his recent study, The Offense of Poetry (2011), "traditionally poetry, in the larger sense of imaginative writing, has been offensive and ... its offense is the ground for its cultural value" (ix). Thus, if "poetry's potentially ethical nature is part and parcel of its offensiveness" (3), its "'antithetical' politics" (ix) also tend to give offense, whether confronting conservative pieties or scientistic shibboleths. For Lionel Trilling, the two cultures controversy sprang from "the critical function of literature" (413) that troubled Snow and other partisans of science. Trilling's sense was met by a more general truth that Warren underscored when he asserted that "literature is at center critical" and essentially "arises from the problematical—in the writer and in society" ("Veins" 20).
In Adams's framing, insofar as "great poetry is itself offensive," its "readers must confront and pass through the offense, which is a moment of challenge, crisis, and decision" (7). When these nine poets walked into M.I.T. in the early 1960s, some of them offered remarks that sometimes gave offense, but did their forms of challenge rise to meet the crisis at hand with sufficient gravity? And what of those who made apologetic gestures toward the role of provocateur, or abandoned the role entirely? On balance, what does this strange combination of compliance, defiance, and silence demonstrate about poetry's relationship to science in this period, and how has this relationship changed in the present moment? While a handful of contemporary poets—from Christian Bök and Forrest Gander to Jorie Graham and Pattiann Rogers—have taken up more direct and explicit forms of engagement with science in recent years, the more predominant trend in American poetry has come with a shift of attention toward considered examinations of political revolution, sexual revolution, social revolution—seemingly toward any revolution but the scientific revolution.
As Alison Hawthorne Deming has observed, in recent years the pace of technological change has approached a pace whose "dizzying changes ... can send the amateur science- watcher into a state of permanent vertigo." While Deming has been "surprised at how few contemporary artists, and in particular poets, have captured that sense of reeling" (203), the reason for this aversion may not be so far to seek. Following Warren's example, however subconsciously, many contemporary American poets may be haunted by a similarly uncanny sense of trepidation in an age marked by digital means and biopolitical ends, stopping short of an engagement with twenty-first century science in their own work as a result. Readers puzzled by this lack might learn something about how slippery the encounter between poetry and science can be in returning to the legacy of the Poetry from M.I.T. series. Poets like Ciardi, Graves, Van Doren, and Warren confronted the technologists in distinct fashions, and the relevance of their interventions remains palpable, even if undervalued, continuing to instruct those of us who think to revisit the poetry of the past in the midst of our increasingly futuristic present.
Adams, Hazard. The Offense of Poetry. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.
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Deming, Alison Hawthorne. The Edges of the Civilized World. New York: Picador USA, 1998.
Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. Ed. Edward Connery Latham. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1979.
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Smith, Dave. Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
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Warren, Robert Penn. The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Ed. John Burt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
---. Democracy and Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
---. "The Veins of Irony." Princeton Alumni Weekly 64 (September 24, 1963): 18-20.