I Am No Expert

What does Whitman know?

Pinpricks of light slip through the mesh screen of the window,
but they aggregate to appear as a strong, steady beam.

I can describe the human understanding of photons–
how those packets of energy are influenced by our observation of them,
and there is beauty and poetry in that,
but I am no expert, and though it is an important role,
it is not mine.

My role is to experience the universe
as the sun continues to beam through the window
and as it goes down
and is replaced in the sky
by things that offer less light to our planet.

Stars appear as pinpricks of light,
staying separate in their celestial appearance
unless drowned out by the overwhelming sun.

I could tell you all about the redshift of starlight–
how it lets us know that the universe is expanding–,
and there is a beauty and a poetry in that,
but I am no expert, and though it is an important role,
it is not mine.

My role is to transform my experiences
into written words
and to release those words with the world
so that others can share in my perception
of the mysteries of light.

There is an undeniable beauty
in perceiving
and in showing others what is perceived,
in understanding
and in making others understand.

The astronomer is doing no different
from me as a poet
or you as an observer;
we take in everything around us
and everything we already know
and make beauty from it,
whether in our own minds
or in the minds of others.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

I adore Walt Whitman, and I really like “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”for its repetition, imagery, and even its call to enjoy the stars, but I disagree with some of its implications. Learning about something in a lecture or reading about something in a book can be beautiful and wonderful, just as much as experiencing that thing first-hand can be.

Growing up, I felt very much like an outsider to both the analytical and creative worlds, dipping my toes into both but never fully belonging in either. It seemed like those things were often presented as a dichotomy–that the scientific and the fanciful were depicted almost as a binary with the hard sciences existing on one side and fictitious writings existing on the other. I was very much a right-brained kid raised in a left-brained bubble (a concept that has itself been debunked by science, but can be helpful in describing the world nonetheless), and I had no concept for how to express what felt like an inherent trait of mine while honoring my upbringing.

I don’t know enough about a lot of things to integrate my scientific and poetic understandings of them, but I have now seen examples where it is done beautifully. This poem by Prasanta called “Love is Chaos,” comes to mind in particular. The poem makes a love language out of scientific jargon. It makes mystery out of the discovered. There is still so much enigma and artistry within scientific fields, just waiting to be poeticized. That was not my role for this poem, but that doesn’t mean it will never be my role.

And who knows, maybe my role will one day change to solely be a relayer of scientific facts, and if that does happen, there will be a beauty and a poetry in that.


6 thoughts on “I Am No Expert”

  1. It is a interesting topic, one which also occupied me many years ago. Having had both an analytic and poetic bent even in childhood (but not really understanding the poetic side), and talking my parents into a telescope at age 8, and memorizing all the 1st ad 2nd magnitude star facts, I was confused, put off, yet intrigued by the Whitman poem. I think I had something like your stance. But by midlife I was solidly in the poet’s camp and knew what he meant. It is not that Whitman becomes sickened because there exists an analytic appreciation of the cosmos in the lecturing of the learned astronomer, in contrast to his own direct wonder-filled one. Rather it is that the ‘learned’ mindset eradicates and considers naive and childish the direct appreciation, and therefore cannot see what they are deleting from human awareness anymore. They abstract it. And in the mid 19th century when Whitman was active, this mood was overtaking all of Western culture, plunging it into a drier and drier intellectuality, foreshadowing what was to come. I wrote my reaction some years ago, inspired by a similar conflict. See here, if you wish: https://skirmisheswithreality.net/2018/03/09/tanka-18-at-the-tech-conference/

    Good post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. He was writing about the way things are, where higher level concepts are delivered dryly and often divorced from the sensory experiences of the world. It took me a long time to stop seeing things that way, and most scientists and academics don’t actually see things that way. There is clearly a disconnect between the way that science is viewed by the scientists and the way that they portray it to the general public.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can write a lengthy essay about my feelings on the matter, and maybe I would someday, but suffice is to say that Whitman is not wrong. I just wish we had more examples of intellectualism being poetic rather than dry.

        Liked by 1 person

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