Essays

Andrew Rome

Physics in Poetry

The greatest problem with writing a piece that crosses the traditional and sacred boundaries separating physics and poetry is the introduction, and the question that has been plaguing my mind for some time now is, "Do I start with an invocation to the muse or to Newton?" Problems like this one are major hurdles to overcome, and are, I believe, what keeps most writers and all physicists away from it. I, however, have chosen to ignore these finer points in hopes of addressing some of the larger issues, and focus on the innumerable connections between these two seemingly different fields.

First, I must acknowledge the immeasurable help that Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp have given me, through their outstanding book on poetry "Sound and Sense." Without this book's delightful and spurious analogies, this paper would not be possible. I would just like to thank Mr. Perrine and Mr. Arp from the very top of my heart.

The connections between these fields are many, with more emerging everyday, as the study of chaos and complexity expands our mind's horizons, changing our epistemology with repercussions throughout literature. But to start off, we will focus on the basic correlation between physics and poetry. Perrine writes, "[Poetry] is language whose individual lines, either because of their own brilliance or because they focus so powerfully what has gone before, have a higher voltage than most language" (9). What can be immediately seen and derived from this expression is that the voltage of poetry, or Vp, is greater than the voltage of ordinary language, Vo. This can be represented mathematically as Vp > Vo. Now we can apply our physics knowledge, as we know that the voltage is equal to the current multiplied by the resistance, or V = I R, where I equals the current. This can explain several phenomenon. As anyone who has suffered the equivilent of Mrs. Schmaltz's 11th grade English class, high school students do not enjoy poetry. But this can be explained easily using our discovery of poetry's higher voltage and the equation V = I R, for if "I" is held constant, there is a direct linear relationship between "V" and "R". Thus, as poetry has a higher voltage than ordinary language, the resistance to it is also extremely high. This result has been verified experimentally, as any English professor can tell of their students' resistance to poetry.

The second expression that can be derived from Perrine, comes from the same quote, "they focus so powerfully what has gone before" (9). Here we are told of the greater power of poetry, based on the past. The equation for power is the current squared multiplied by the resistance, or P = I^2 R. Although we know that the resistance is great, the term that really affects the magnitude of the power is the current squared, as it will increase at a much greater rate, or (I^2) dx > (R) dx. This means that the more current a poem is the greater the power, which is stated by Perrine for there will be more of "what has gone before" the more current, or more recent, a poem is. This can be used to explain why many students are drawn to more recent poetry, rather than the older, now irrelevant, verse.

Introduced, as we now are, to the world of pophysicsetry, or physics in poetry, we can look into some of the more interesting aspects of it. Perrine wrote, "Poetry achieves its extra dimensions - its greater pressure per word and its greater tension per poem - by drawing more fully and more consistently than does ordinary language on a number of language resources, non of which is peculiar to poetry" (10). These lines are veritably crying out for a physics interpretation, and once applied, the results are amazing.

The two phrases "pressure per word" and "tension per poem" can be represented mathematically by the expressions P = N / (m w) and T = N / p. The variables are defined as P equals pressure, N equals newtons, m equals meters, w equals words, T equals tension, and p equals poems. The equations come from pressure being equal to newtons divided by meters, and tension being a force measured in Newtons. As both pressure and tension are forces, if we use them for the same poem, we can set them equal to each other. Thus, N / (m w) = N / p, and, lucky us, we can divide out the Newtons, reciprocate, and get the equation p = m w. This means a poem is equal to a meter word.

While at first this may sound useless, once we realize that this is a method to find the worth and quality of a poem, we can see its significance. If a poem is equal to the number of meters, or the number of metrical feet, multiplied by the number of words, we now have a way to quantitize poetry. This would give each poem a numerical value denoting if it was a good poem or a bad poem. As absurd and outrageous as this may seem to some diehard English teachers, it is fully supported by Perrine, in his Chapter Fifteen: Bad Poetry and Good, when he writes, "Just as the area of a rectangle is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, breadth and height, so the greatness of a poem is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales" (232). Clearly the quantification of poetry should not be considered a challenge to conventional studies, but rather should be used as a new tool to objectify poetry, thus making it more accessible and more enjoyable to a greater number of people.

We can apply our newfound equation to several poems of approximate known worth, to define our scale. Scale is, of course, of the utmost importance, and great care must be taken in defining it, to prevent misuse of these powerful equations. From the nature of our equation, p = m w, we know that our scale can be confined to the horizontal, and by the domain [0, infinity). To first find the low end of the scale, we shall us the poem "Jack and Jill," for it is a poem of almost universally agreed upon worthlessness.

(Jack and) (Jill went) (up a) (hill
To) (fetch a) (pail of) (water);
(Jack fell) (down - and) (broke his) (crown
And) (Jill came) (tumbling) (after).
(MacCauly 167)

I have separated out the words by the appropriate and conventional spacing, and separated the metrical feet by adding parentheses. By counting, I found the number of words to be 25 words, and the number of feet to be 14 feet. (Some might find it interesting to see meter measured in feet.) If we plug these numbers into the equation, we find the numerical worth of the poem to be 350. While this may seem like a large number, keep in mind that that is the very reason it is important to define scale. We now can extend our scale to include poems of more accepted value. When "The Eagle" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is analyzed we find it's value to be 858. This shows us that the greater the number assigned to the poem the greater the value. To define the upper edges of the scale, we can use John Milton's masterpiece "Paradise Lost," an epic poem of undisputed greatness, and inestimable value. It is, however, excessively long, and I will thus not count out all the words, but can estimate it's value to be in the hundred thousands.

As our scale becomes clear, several trends tend to show through. For example, the length of the poems is often a determining factor as to their worth, with the longer poems receiving the highest scores. This seems, at first unfair and discriminatory to the shorter and more concise poems, but before we start to doubt our system, Mr. Perrine comes, once more, to our rescue. In his chapter Good Poetry and Great, he assures us, "Greatness in literature, in fact, cannot be entirely dissociated from size. In literature, as in basketball and football, a good big player is better than a good little player" (248).

Proving once again the validity of the pophysicsetry equations, is their inherent rejection of non-poetic works. As size has been shown to increase the value of a piece, one might try to apply the rules to a novel or even a dictionary, thinking that they could produce a falsely high score, and then discredit this new system with it. But, fortunately for our heroes, a dictionary lacks one essential quality: metrical feet. If the m = 0, then the equation would be p = (0) w, which would always equal 0.

This paper is only an introduction into what the exciting new field of pophysicsetry can contain. Many other topics still have to be investigated, such as the pace (velocity) of the poem, the sound (frequency, intensity, amplitude) of the poem, and many others. This paper will, I hope, serve to pique the interest of many students, and this field will receive the development that it deserves.

Works Cited
MacCauly, Steven. "Jack's Life: A Compilation of Poems for the King." New York Review of Books. 36.19 (December 7, 1989): 3-4. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Mahtuz. Vol. 59. Detroit: Gale, 1990. 167-168.

Perrine, Laurence. "Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry." Eighth Edition. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Andrew Rome 1999
About the Author
Andrew Rome is a student at Case Western Reserve University, a recently-declared English Major, and the co-designer of this lovely website. He somehow enjoys academic writing, but does do the odd creative bit now and again. Andrew is very interested in the malleability of language and its seemingly infinite interpretability. And he is never, ever, sarcastic.

 


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