Interview with Featured Poet Roald Hoffmann
Introduction of our Featured Poet
As always, it is with great pleasure to introduce our featured poets. But there is additional honor this time to introduce a fellow theoretical chemist who also shares a passion for poetry. I first learned of Roald Hoffmann when I was an undergraduate at Loyola College (Baltimore, MD) and even more so as a graduate student at Georgetown University (Washington, DC) in the mid seventies. I was fascinated with his application of quantum chemistry to understand chemical reactions. Apparently, so was the rest of the scientific world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1981). I never thought our paths would cross, but I had recently learned that Roald and I share pages in Thirty Three, the anniversary issue of Negative Capability Press (edited by the Alabama State Poet Laureate Emeritus, Sue Brannon Walker), so I invited him to grace our pages at Silver Blade. Contrary to popular belief, we scientists have creative minds and desires. I learned from reading his biography and interviews that Roald Hoffmann was so enamored with the arts that he almost majored in art history. Such passions cannot be be contained nor thwarted by a pursuit of science. In fact, I submit that science would enable inevitable discovery of one’s creativity.
Cited from his website (http://www.roaldhoffmann.com/), here is a short biography:
Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Zloczow, Poland. Having survived the war, he came to the U. S. in 1949, and studied chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (Ph.D. 1962). Since 1965 he is at Cornell University, now as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus. He has received many of the honors of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui).
“Applied theoretical chemistry” is the way Roald Hoffmann likes to characterize the particular blend of computations stimulated by experiment and the construction of generalized models, of frameworks for understanding, that is his contribution to chemistry. The pedagogical perspective is very strong in his work.
Notable at the same time is his reaching out to the general public; he participated, for example, in the production of a television course in introductory chemistry titled “The World of Chemistry,” shown widely since 1990. And, as a writer, Hoffmann has carved out a land between science, poetry, and philosophy, through many essays and three books, “Chemistry Imagined” with artist Vivian Torrence, “The Same and Not the Same and Old Wine” (translated into six languages), “New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition,” with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.
Hoffmann is also an accomplished poet and playwright. He began writing poetry in the mid-1970s, eventually publishing the first of a number of collections, “The Metamict State,” in 1987, followed three years later by “Gaps and Verges,” then “Memory Effects” (1999), “Soliton” (2002). A bilingual selection of his poems has appeared in Spanish. He has also co-written a play with fellow chemist Carl Djerassi, entitled “Oxygen,” which has been performed worldwide, translated into ten languages. A second play by Roald Hoffmann, “Should’ve,” has had several workshop productions since 2006; a new play, “We Have Something That Belongs to You,” had its first workshop production in 2009.
Unadvertised, a monthly cabaret Roald runs at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Vilage, “Entertaining Science,” has become the hot cheap ticket in NYC.
Interview of Professor Roald Hoffmann
Roald Hoffmann (RH)
John C. Mannone (JCM)
JCM: I often hear that science and engineering majors are not interested in liberal arts, so how did your interest in poetry develop? And how do you balance a career in chemistry and poetry? Perhaps you can include your writing process.
RH: Like so many things in this world, it began in college. Columbia has a core curriculum, and after I took that (with some poetry in it), I took a poetry course with a great teacher, Mark Van Doren. He could not teach the writing of poetry, but he taught us to read a poem. I still remember the breakthrough point to this wonderful world – it was Wallace Stevens “Sunday Morning”.
JCM: I have seen the stereotyping the scientist-poet: their poems are often funny, limericks, silly rhyme, cute, clever, entertaining, but often fall short of literary expectations. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all of us; your poetry is certainly a serious work. What advice would you give your colleagues, science students, and scientific friends who might be encouraged to read and/or write poetry?
RH: First of all, put pen to paper, as they used to say. Sit down at the keyboard, start writing. Second rework it – I know of no poet who doesn’t need some drafts. Third, find a group of people to read poems together, criticize them.
JCM: In left-brain dominated disciplines, like the sciences, what do you do to energize the right-brain—the creative center of the mind?
RH: Nothing works better for me than to go out into nature, a long walk along a trail, around a pond.
JCM: Chemists and physicists have a plethora of new metaphors to tap into when we create poetry. And when it comes to revision, our discipline might enable the logical apparatus to kick in and assist in the evaluation of the different crafting elements of our poems, often simultaneously. Let’s consider a related question. In what ways could poetry help us be better scientists, better teachers? If you have any specific examples of this synergism from your experience, that would be great.
RH: I think poetry teaches us how to communicate emotion in words. Just a few words that establish an emotional tie between the author/lecturer and the reader/student are enough. If the reader knows that you are speaking to them, and that you care they listen/learn/experience you have their attention.
Poetry also taught me that a turn of word, an interesting way to say something, can have a tremendous effect. I used “Solid Memory” in the title of a scientific paper, for how extended structures have features similar to their component building blocks, and that worked very well.
JCM: Sometimes we see a quote from Dirac, a physicist I admire, taken out of context. But when we know the story, we might understand why Dirac might make a condemning statement about science and poetry. He was talking about Oppenheimer’s (apparently unaccessable) poetry (commenting to him about the poetry J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote):
I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say … something that everyone knows already in words that nobody can understand.
—Paul A. M. Dirac (Quoted in Steven George Krantz, Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians (2005), 169)
RH: Well, Dr. Dirac was a wonderful scientist, but he never tried to read a poem. Or no one took him by the hand through a poem the way Mark Van Doren took me. And his statement can be reversed – look at the unscalable walls of jargon surrounding much of science.
JCM: (cont.) And After I read one randomly selected Openheimer piece, I must concur with Dirac. (http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/pauling/bond/notes/safe3.018.193-sea-01-large.html) Can you comment on the importance of accessibility in poetry?
RH: Well, John, you are sentenced to find other Oppenheimer poems. There are only around five. Here is one:
It was evening when we came to the river
with a low moon over the desert
that we had lost in the mountains, forgotten,
what with the cold and the sweating
and the ranges barring the sky.
And when we found it again,
in the dry hills down by the river,
half withered, we had
the hot winds against us.
There were two palms by the landing;
the yuccas were flowering; there was
a light on the far shore, and tamarisks.
We waited a long time in silence.
Then we heard the oars creaking
and afterwards, I remember,
the boatman called to us.
We did not look back at the mountains.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer
Do you see that as obscure? He was, in his time, a brilliant kid, influenced by Ezra Pound, TS Eliot. Look for the poem that he marked, as he sent it to his high school teacher, as “my first love poem.”
JCM: My gut feeling is that poetry might bridge physics (and chemistry) and metaphysics. I can’t help but think of things that transcend equations describing the beauty of nature when I see an electron microscope’s image of a layer of atoms, or, in a telescope, see a cluster of galaxies enshrouded in what might be dark matter. What do you think about this, about the questions science raise that cannot possibly be answered by science? Poetry might indeed be the language to “express the inexpressible.”
RH: Yes, it could be that way. As science fiction does. Though to be honest, poetry has not led me to any specific new idea I can point to in my science.
JCM: I have often heard to keep away from scientific language in poetry. The usual indictment is that scientific terms are sterile, and that Latinate words are not poetic. What say you?
There are problems, with people not allowing us/themselves to float on the sound of the words when meaning escapes us, at least for a while. I think Archie Ammons was a master of using complex words, even scientific ones, in poems. I would recommend a reading of his Hymn; here’s a piece of it:
“And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth
inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes
trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest
and praying for a nerve cell
with all the soul of my chemical reactions
and going right on down where the eye sees only traces”
JCM: One of the fascinations with chemistry I’ve had is the luxuriant sensory stimuli in the laboratory—the exotic glassware, complex smells, an infinity of colors. Have any of these types of things stimulated poems for you?
RH: Occasionally, but not often enough. I’m more likely to be inspired by some chemical words, as words, or as ideas.
JCM: What about chirality*? It’s inescapable in any science fiction poem or story that promotes some kind of genesis not to address it. Poetic license can only buy so much. And while we’re on the topic of life, what about life forms based on some other element than carbon? I know some have suggested silicon, nitrogen and phosphorous based life, but these elements don’t have the chemical diversity of carbon. There are no yet-to-be-discovered elements (except from the islands of stability, which would not likely offer a stable model for life).
* For the benefit of our readers, chirality is a word chemists use to discuss identical molecules configured differently, in particular, their mirror images. Just like your left hand is a mirror image of your right, they are quite different (try to comfortably put your left hand in a right-handed glove). The building blocks of life (amino acids) in humans are left-handed. If I understand it correctly, we could not have evolved from some primordial soup containing a mixture of left- and right-handed molecules.
RH: Oh yes, chirality, handedness has intrigued me. Here is one section of a long poem entitled “Specula”
Tetrahedra, screws, bolts on car
wheels always tightened the wrong
way; in silver mirrors, in molecules
growing on handed clay surfaces, or
seeded, panspermia, into cauldron
atmospheres, chains growing, left
clasping left, sculpting double
helices, to be nicked in mutations,
building, building, to Alice’s
passage, in cyclones and anti-,
born from nonconservation of parity,
the four-pronged, chiral universe
marches to an asymmetric tune: left,
right, left, left…Remember, o
explorers, to bring along a hand
when you rocket to the far stars.
JCM: I am fascinated by your poems (“Voliton,” “Crossing the Mekong,” and “A Different Kind of Motion”). Can you give us back story to them?
RH: “Volition” was an attempt to write a poem like a collage by Vivian Torrence, an artist with whom I collaborated on a book “Chemistry Imagined.” Take a look on her website, http://www.viviantorrence.com/ for her work. “Crossing the Mekong” came out of reading in one place on the Hmong people, and elsewhere about the evolving cultural practices of apes. “A Different Kind of Motion” was a tribute to a Dutch choreographer, Katelijne Vanduffel, the way she brought up emotions in her dancers. I tried a word dance for her.
JCM: I was moved by the end of the poem by Charles Tomlinson (“Farewell to Van Gogh”) quoted in your Banquet Speech when you were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1981). (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1981/hoffmann-speech.html#not) Do you still use poetry in your speeches, lectures and in your introductory chemistry classes?
RH: I do, in just the settings you mention. Sadly, in straight science settings, that is the only place one can use a poem. Not in my papers, the gatekeepers won’t let it by.
JCM: The scientific language of some of the great scientists of the Renaissance was poetic. I visualize Newton’s Principia, Bailey’s description of a solar eclipse, and many others. Perhaps this is a rhetorical question, but why not write scientific papers today with a creative non fiction flare (at least a little)? If nothing else, the metaphors could help someone new to the field understand better.
RH: I think nothing in the structure of science would be damaged if we did allow metaphorical language, narrative, a personal involvement. But it is not a battle that I will win…
JCM: Who are some of your favorite poets? Besides yourself, I found several chemists who also are/were poets & writers: Isaac Asimov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov), Carl Djerassi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Djerassi), Primo Levi (http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/primo-levi-181.php) Are there other scientist-poets you admire and/or those that should be on this list?
RH: You have named some great ones. One of Israel’s leading poets of the past century was an inorganic chemist, Avner Treinin. Unfortunately not much of his poetry is translated into English. More accessible to people is the work of Czech immunologist Miroslav Holub. And David Jou, a first class physicist in Barcelona, is a leading Catalan poet.
JCM: Are there any literary projects you’d like to tell us about?
RH: Well, I’m desultorily working on a book on narrative in science, called “Not Just So: The Importance of Storytelling in Science.”
JCM: How can we find your work? Website?
RH: I think two of my four English poetry books are still in press: “Soliton” and “Gaps and Verges.” Leads to many published poems, and other nonfiction books, and essays are on website roaldhoffmann.com.